Reading Activities for Arabic as a Second Language

Reading in a foreign language has many benefits. Most notably, it provides important language input that boosts your fluency. Many learners also focus on building vocabulary while reading. But there are also other skills and knowledge that you can acquire using texts in Arabic depending on how you approach and use them.
 
Lingualism’s Arabic readers have not only the main texts but also English translations, audio, and second versions of the main texts without tashkeel (diacritics). These are provided for learners to use as wanted. Everyone has their learning style, preferences, and goals. But it is worth considering which components to use in which order (or in tandem) and the benefits and value of each approach. Below, I’ll share with you some of my favorite reading activities. Maybe there are some ways to use the reading materials that you haven’t considered and would like to incorporate into your studies.

Extensive Reading

Most learners tend to approach a text with a goal to understand 100% of it. They want to analyze it, look up every new word they encounter, take notes, make flashcards, and so on. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this, but studying a text is one thing and just reading it–more or less as you would a text in your native language–is another. This is known as extensive reading and helps build fluency (both in reading and speaking) in ways that studying a text intensively does not. Consider taking a casual approach and just reading a text for pleasure, being content with how much ever you can understand of it at your level.
 
Tip: Read along silently while listening to the audio. Not only does this have the benefit of letting you hear the correct pronunciation of words, but it also forces you to read along at the pace of the audio. If the audio is 20 minutes, you also will have read the story in 20 minutes. It also discourages you from stopping too long to think about vocabulary and grammatical structures. It’s the best way to simply enjoy the story!

Extensive Listening

You can approach listening in the same way as extensive reading. Just listen (without looking at the text) and enjoy how much you can understand. If you want to test yourself to see how much you can understand, do this activity before reading the text and translation. Otherwise, when you listen, what you understand isn’t an indicator of your current listening skills but rather recall of what you’ve read.
 
But listening to a text without knowing anything about it is very challenging. Even with your native language, if you walk into a conversation, you can listen for quite some time and not know what the speakers are talking about because you’re missing context. Likewise, if you listen without having a clue about the topic and what to expect, it’s easy to feel lost and understand very little. At the very least, use some clues to give you a basis: Consider the title, look at the cover art, read the blurb. For extra help, read the text and/or translation of the first page or two before you begin listening. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to follow the audio now.

Using the English Translation

The parallel translations are there as a reference to consult when needed. You can glance over to check your understanding of what you just read, to make sense of sentences that baffle you, and to find the meanings of unfamiliar lexical items.
 
If the text is a bit challenging for your level, you may opt to read the English version first, then read the Arabic text. Knowing the story first will greatly help you to guess new vocabulary and increase your comprehension.
 
Try reading an entire page of the Arabic text without looking at the English translation. (If you have the print version, cover the right side with a piece of paper, so your eyes don’t wander.) Then read the parallel translation and see if any of the information is new to you. If so, that means you missed something in the original. What was it? What did you not understand or misunderstand when you read the original Arabic? Go back and find those sections and read them again while comparing them to the English.

Noting New Vocabulary

Using a Notebook

When studying a text (that is, reading it intensively), the most traditional and common method of noting new vocabulary that learners use is writing them in a notebook. As a teacher, I’ve seen that most of my students simply write the new word followed by the translation: بيت – house side by side. I recommend against doing this. The point of recording new vocabulary is to review it later, but when you can’t help but see the translation next to it each time, you cannot test yourself. Memorization best occurs when you force yourself to recall a word or its translation. My advice, then, is to always draw a line down the middle of the page and keep the Arabic on one side and the translations on the other side. This way, you can cover the translations and test yourself to see if you can remember the meanings, or you can also cover the Arabic to see if you can recall the new words.

Use Anki

Taking note-taking to the 21st century, consider using the Anki app instead of a notebook to record vocabulary. Enter an Arabic word or phrase and its translation into their respective fields in a new Anki card, then review your new cards. Anki will show you either the Arabic or English to test understanding and recall.

Marking Up the Text

I’m personally a big fan of marking up texts with highlights and notes rather than recording notes in a notebook. This is more easily done in physical books (or print-outs of PDFs), but most PDF readers have tools for highlighting and note-taking, as well.
 
Use a variety of colors to underline or highlight words. You can come up with a system that makes sense and works best for you. Here are three I recommend:
 
  • Highlight both an Arabic word (or phrase) and its translation on the following page with the same color. Let’s say blue. Then the next lexical item in pink, then yellow, then green, or whatever. That way, it’s easy to match up pairs of Arabic-English.
  • Use one color for the first reading. Don’t try to learn every unknown word if there are several per page. Choose one or two to highlight and learn. When you read the text a second time, you can choose another couple of words, highlight in a different color, and so on.
  • Color-code words by part of speech. Yellow for nouns; pink for verbs; green for adjectives; blue for adverbs, or whatever. Alternatively, yellow for new words; pink for (adverbial) phrases like ‘the next day’ or ‘in the beginning’ that consist of words you know but are used together in set expressions; blue for structures to make a note of grammatical structures of interest.
When you’ve marked up a next and the translation, you can test yourself by covering the page for one language while looking at marked items in the other and try to recall the translation, much as you would in your notebook. You highlighted ‘cat’ in English. Now, what was the Arabic word for ‘cat’? Can you remember? Then check the Arabic to see.

Shadowing

Shadowing is a technique whereby you repeat aloud what you’re hearing with as little delay as possible. That is, you mimic the native speaker in the audio, trying as best you can to copy the intonation, accent, and pronunciation. This is helpful in developing a more natural pronunciation and accent. Of course, it’s hard to pay attention to what’s actually being said, to follow the story, when you’re shadowing and focusing on the sounds over the meaning, so I recommend you do this as a later exercise with a text you’ve already studied.

Summarizing

A useful post-reading activity is summarizing in your own words. You can summarize in Arabic while speaking to yourself and even record yourself to listen back to. You can also tell your friend or tutor/teacher about the story in your own words. You could write a paragraph in Arabic summarizing the story. You can summarize, in your head, in English as a check of what you understood.

Repetition

Whichever techniques and approaches you use to study a text and its audio, be sure to read (and listen) more than once. Don’t just read a story once and be done with it as you would in your native language. Repeated exposure in second-language reading has many benefits.
 
  • You will notice new things each time.
  • It will feel easier with subsequent readings/listenings.
  • You can re-use the texts for different goals and approach them in different ways. (Extensive reading, intensive reading, listening, shadowing, reading for speed, reading aloud, etc.)
Please let us know in the comments if you’ve tried any of the approaches from this article and what you think of them, or if you have other techniques and tips you’d like to share with fellow learners.

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