From sentence to paragraph to essay – Teaching paragraph writing in Saudi Arabia

After having taught in Saudi Arabia for around 8 years, it is only now that some aspects of what makes Saudi students ‘tick’ is making me re-think my preconceptions of why students struggle to write.

During a recent writing course I was teaching, the best student in the class made me aware that he and the other students had never been taught how to write paragraphs at school. “We were just told to write”. So that’s what they did – write.

They were not taught to:

  • Plan
  • Write an outline
  • Brain storm
  • To write their ideas in any particular order
  • Or to write with any kind of interconnectedness
  • Or to summarise their ideas

There were told “just to write”.

This information is important, as what this brief piece of information reveals, is that students lack basic cognitive/thinking/learning skills, and that in the EFL classroom in addition to worrying about language, a great deal of time needs to be spent in just developing these more ‘lateral skills’.

If anyone knows of any traits within Arabic writing that might help us understand the Arabic writing/thinking process, then could they please share their experiences?

It’s not an Arab problem, it’s a Saudi problem. I say this, as all Arabs tend to be boxed into one category, but as experience shows, cultural and experiential factors play a significant part in how learning and language skills develop. We certainly need more research in this area.

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8 thoughts on “From sentence to paragraph to essay – Teaching paragraph writing in Saudi Arabia

  1. This is a great post! I’ve just started learning Mandarin and started appreciating the difficulties of writing in a new script. Have you had the opportunity to teach writing in English (alphabet and all) from scratch?

  2. Hi Sohaib,
    Actually, I’m experiencing the exact same problem here in Oman. We teachers often commiserate about having to take EVERYTHING down to basics. In fact, I’ve come to view my job, not as one in which I teach the English language in isolation, but as teaching critical thinking, study, and life skills through the English language. Of course, I teach grammar and all that jazz, but as you said, my students aren’t given what we would see as the basics skills of effective learning, no matter the subject.

    And when it comes to writing, my students have had the same experience as yours. Indeed, they see “writing” as memorization of a corrected piece of writing, so they can spit it back out during the next exam. We try to ensure that this doesn’t happen, so there’s secrecy around what the written exam topics will be. Of course, there’s no shortage of begging come exam time. Thankfully, teachers are usually not apprised of the exact exam question, so that responsibility doesn’t fall on our shoulders.

    As to finding out more about this problem, I once asked one of my Arabic speaking colleagues if he would be willing to take a look at some Arabic writing samples that I thought of asking my students to write, so I could determine if they knew how to write in Arabic. He told me not to bother. He has been teaching here for over 15 years and knows that they, as a group, don’t have adequate writing skills in Arabic. Still, I think it is an excellent research topic. My current classroom research is on trying to strengthen my students’ transfer of (basic) grammar to their writing. Most students here have a particular problem with using the grammar they learn, even if they can ace a grammar quiz. Sorry to ramble…you just touched on a topic close to home!

    Take care

    • Thanks for the comments. You were not rambling at all. As teachers who care about our students, we need to find ways to help them. I can see that you are doing a good job.

  3. I went to an Arabic elementary school until grade 2 ,whereby my mum pulled me out an placed me in an American International School. Basically, the kids in most of these Arabic medium schools are taught all subjects in a rote fashion and their creativity or imagination processes are not encouraged. Mind you, in this day and age some elite schools push for the usage of one’s creativity or imagination, however, it is hard to restart this innate process and it is easily crushed at a young age.( The funny bit here is that my abilities in rote memorization helped in the early years in the American/British and finally Canadian schools that I went to.)So I guess you need a mix in approaches towards education.

    P.S I know you have good lesson plans to jump start this process being an well experienced teacher. However , if any of your readers for example ,Assad ,might be interested in a good writing book, please check below and get it from a place such as Amazon for a cheaper price. It is considered one of the best books in the Homeschool arena ,despite the fact that there are others with different approaches. which are equally excellent.

    http://www.writing-strands.com/

    P.S Masha’Allah Tabarak’Allah that you live in Madinah, I will make more duas that I live there with my family as well.

    • Many thanks. I did find that my students were trying to memorise large numbers of essays. I’m sure a few managed to get through simply because of this ability. But what happens when they are teachers themselves and are teaching writing?

  4. Perhaps you can get the teachers to take a few professional courses with heavy doses of talk on relaxing and letting their creative energies flowing.
    A kind of Pro Development d(ay or days) with a twist, begin with trying to tap into their creativity and relaxation and end with a lessons on categorizing, organizing, outlining etc.
    Hope that helped. :D!

  5. I must say that the situation is quite simlar in Bahrain. I am currently teaching students who are part of the Orientation programme at the University of Bahrain. We are working on writing a paragraph using proper structure with a topic sentence,supporting sentences and a concluding sentence and many of them do not have previous knowledge of how to brainstorm or organize ideas in a logical order. It is sad that they are not taught how t o develop their writing skills over the years and yet we are expected to help them do this in 3 months. The students are willing and able to understand all this,but it is difficult and it takes time.

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