2020 Innovation in Language Program Direction Award: Online teaching
Programmatic Intervention: We Can Learn Arabic Website, wecanlearnarabic.com
Emma Trentman, University of New Mexico
The We Can Learn Arabic website is an open-access resource for lower division Arabic classes launched in Fall 2020. It is the culmination of the curriculum development projects I have led at the University of New Mexico since 2012 where my colleagues Heather Sweetser, Abdullah Serag, and I moved from using a textbook, to adapting the textbook, to using a mix of textbook and supplemental materials, to only supplemental materials, to the We Can Learn Arabic website. Throughout this process, my goal has been to integrate research and theories in Applied Linguistics, specifically genre-based and multilingual approaches, with the everyday classroom practice of lower division language teaching.
The website is organized according to thematic units, then can-do statements, then example texts. The thematic units (e.g. introductions, daily routines, food) are designed such that programs can mix and match them to create their own curricula. Within each thematic unit, the learning objectives are specific language functions, realized as can-do statements, such as “I can meet a new person”, “I can describe my daily routine on a school day”, or “I can order food”. Each can-do statement is accompanied by example texts, or video and written texts curated from the internet that provide examples of Arabic speakers “doing” these can-do statements. The curated texts include those created by various Arabic programs and shared on the internet as well as videos with a wider audience than Arabic students. We have partnered with Playaling, https://playaling.com/, a group that captions Arabic YouTube videos, to curate their videos and add new ones we find to their collection.
Each example text is accompanied by a list of relevant vocabulary and grammar, as well as a set of linked activities (understanding, analyzing, applying) inspired by genre-based approaches to language teaching. These activities help students to understand and analyze the stages and phrases that allow a particular text to achieve its goal (the can-do statement), apply this knowledge when they do it themselves, and then reflect upon their performance to improve for the next time. There are also periodic assessments, for both the can-do statements and the thematic units that allow students to evaluate their abilities in a functional way.
The overall goal of this website is to provide a flexible, research-based resource for Arabic teachers and students. It can be used in place of a textbook (as we do at the University of New Mexico) or alongside a textbook, and provides both structure (for teachers or programs who want a more traditional structure to follow) as well as flexibility (for teachers or programs who want to adapt the materials to their own contexts). For example, programs can choose the order of the units, and the texts within the units based on their own context, and also copy the activities and edit them within Google Drive. The flexibility of the website format also allows us to adapt the resource immediately based on teacher and learner feedback, and we have made several modifications already in the three months since it has launched. Although the website is a volunteer effort, the fact that the University of New Mexico Arabic program uses it in our classes, and our coordination with Arabic teachers across the nation and world, ensures that it can be continually maintained and improved with program, teacher, and student feedback.
This program is highly relevant to language program direction and L2 education because it provides an open access resource comprised of curated online materials, which is especially useful in the current environment of virtual and remote teaching. It also provides the materials in a less commonly taught language and in a format that provides enough structure to serve as a textbook, yet also enough flexibility for programs to adapt to their own contexts.
This project is innovative in that it connects theories in Applied Linguistics (specifically genre-based and multilingual approaches) with classroom practice in ways that can be applied by teachers and learners without a background in these theoretical approaches. Drawing from genre-based approaches, the understand, analyze, apply framework asks learners to understand the difference stages of a text as it achieves its goal, and provides the opportunity for drawing attention to culturally specific stages. It also encourages learners to understand the linguistic elements, or phrases, that help the text achieve its goal, and to understand how they can repurpose these stages and phrases to achieve the goal in their own specific contexts. At the same time, this approach is accessible to teachers and learners who are unfamiliar with genre-based approaches.
Similarly, the website draws from multilingual approaches to Arabic learning by including videos from a variety of Arabic dialects, including multilingual and multidialectal texts that represent the ways Arabic speakers use language. The understanding and analyzing activities help draw learners’ attention to this variation in Arabic, with two main goals. The first is to develop learners’ knowledge of linguistic variation in Arabic, including the social meanings indexed by this variation. Second, the texts and activities help learners develop their receptive abilities across a wide variety of dialects while also providing them with the agency to choose which variants represent the social identities they wish to portray. In this way, this project connects modern theories in Applied Linguistics with the lower division language classroom in ways that can be applied by teachers and learners without an academic background in these theories.
This website could be replicated for other languages, as it provides a straightforward framework to follow when curating texts. More importantly, this website, and thus the connections between research and practice it creates, can be adopted in Arabic programs worldwide, whether through using the website as a substitute for a textbook or supplemental material. In fact, although this website was launched in Fall 2020, I have heard from several teachers across the United States and even in the United Kingdom about how they are using it in their classes. Some of these teachers appreciate the structure, as they can follow it like a textbook, while others enjoy the flexibility of choosing the units and texts that fit into their existing curricula. Several of these teachers have also shared relevant texts in a variety of Arabic dialects that we can incorporate into the site, strengthening it as a resource.
The We Can Learn Arabic has the potential to impact a large number of program, teachers, and students worldwide, as it is open access and can be adapted into existing Arabic programs in a variety of ways. It could also be used for self-study, as a graduating student has already told me he plans to do. Through collaboration with Arabic teachers at other institutions, who submit resources and feedback, this website can adapt to the needs of diverse Arabic programs while also maintaining connections between research and theories in Applied Linguistics and classroom practice.