Learning to read Urdu and Arabic

I’m very fortunate to have grown up in a household where different languages are spoken. I’ve grown up listening to Urdu, Punjabi and English. My father also speaks a bit of Farsi and my mother’s early education was in Sindhi. Being Muslims we all read the Quran which is in Classical Arabic.

I was taught to read Urdu and Arabic phonetically. The Urdu books which I was taught from had pictures as well as words. The Arabic ones didn’t. Do pictures help? I don’t think they do. Consider this picture

What would you say if I asked you, “What is this picture of?” You’d say orange. You may think that looking at the picture and the whole word, “orange” will help the child to “read” the word orange. This doesn’t work in Urdu. This picture may be of سنگترا or نارنجی or مالٹا depending upon the variety. So, unless you can “read” the word, the picture won’t help you. Fruits aren’t the only things which have more than one name in Urdu. Another example is names for relatives.

In English you would say this was a grandmother and grandfather playing with their granddaughter and grandson. In Urdu, however, it could be نانا and نانی playing with نواسا and نواسی or it could be دادا and دادی playing with پوتا and پوتی as there are different names for paternal and maternal grandparents and different names for the grandchildren too.

The other reason why it’s important to know the sounds of letters is that letters may look slightly different depending upon their position in the word. naureen written in Urdu looks like this نورین  As you can see the “n” at the beginning looks slightly different from the one at the end.

We then come to Arabic. The Quran has no pictures so one needs to be able to read the words without the aid of pictures. Muslims all over the world learn to phonetically “read” the Quran in Arabic but not all can comprehend what they read without the aid of a translation.

Some of the debate on Twitter on phonics and reading seems to suggest that looking at pictures and knowing what’s happening is “reading”. In my opinion, it isn’t. Picture books and picturebooks have a place but they cannot replace teaching children to read using phonics. Once the phonics knowledge is sound (no pun intended!) comprehension is aided too as it reduces cognitive load when reading, especially when new words are encountered.

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4 Responses to Learning to read Urdu and Arabic

  1. Marc says:

    It was really interesting to read about the different word forms in different languages. Thank you for a thought-provoking blog. As a primary teacher, I have no issue with phonics and agree whole-heartedly that it is generally a good approach to teaching decoding (as in it works well for most children). Surely though, using picture books to teach interpretation is important too. Picture books can be, and should be, much more than pictorial representations of the words in the narrative. Interpretation and understanding of texts (be that through written or visual media) is just as integral to reading as decoding is. I think it’s wrong to suggest picture books are less important than phonics instruction as they serve different purposes. Just as pictures do not always support decoding, neither does decoding always support understanding.

    Perhaps it could be said that phonics is the scaffold to decoding, whilst picture books scaffold understanding and an awareness of theme, “things going on behind the scenes” and generating all manner of inferences. I would argue that whilst phonic knowledge mainly becomes redundant as pupils mature and use a more hybrid syllabic or morphological approach to decoding, the pleasure and meaning making from reading picture books would continue.


  2. Pingback: “Reading” | sputniksteve

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