Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dyslexia in Arabic: Encouraging this Old Dog to start thinking about New Tricks





The importance of collabration for Assistive Technology for Dyslexia in Arabic



A paper with handwriting in Arabic and English characterizing Dyslexia
Dyslexia in Arabic - is it that Different?


For those of us who have spent the greater part of our careers working in one language, such as English, one of the most interesting things about working in a new culture is how we are forced to disassemble all we assume and all we think we know about Dyslexia.
I’ve just spent an unbelievably interesting day, trying to gain a greater insight as to how Dyslexia represents itself when a child or adult is reading or writing in Arabic.
When I arrived in Doha two years ago I grappled with learning Arabic.  My enthusiasm was without question; my ability however fell a lot shorter.  This was my starting point in appreciating the profound differences between not just both languages but how people learn or teach each of these languages.
For the first time, I became truly aware that how a language is learnt is guided not just by the trends and fashions of teaching but also by the language itself.  
Thinking about this in the context of finding technology to support those with Dyslexia in Arabic - for an English speaker was truly an onion worth peeling, in spite of the anticipated tears!

Dyslexia is often described as a specific learning difficulty and as such it reveals itself in many different ways. Dyslexia is not just a difficulty with words, or the ability to read and write.  As such, the use of technology that only helps with spelling and reading often disregards some underlying difficulties that may be impacting the natural development of these skills.

(Click on the link below to learn more)

Often Dyslexia is inaccurately characterized as being a diagnosis of convenience for children who are just poor at spelling, reading or handwriting which can be fixed by practice, effort, hard work and when all else fails a good old spellchecker. 

For anyone with Dyslexia however, and for those of us who have worked first hand with children and adults with this learning difficulty the reality is much more nuanced, much more complicated and requires more sophisticated solutions.  We have, over time watched the software and technology mature, and we’ve seen developments come and go, but for English Speakers with Dyslexia, there are real valuable tools out there.  Word Prediction, Text to Speech, Object Character Recognition software, Software supporting multi-sensory learning are now common tools.  Software titles such as Kurzweil 3000, Text Help, Co-Writer, Penfriend, Ginger, Claroread and a multitude of other titles have become household names, insofar as is possible in the AT community.

Moving to work in a space where Arabic is the primary language used in community life, and for the most part in Education, it forces us to challenge all that we think we know about Dyslexia.  This has been one of the times, where I have had to reflect on how I have developed my belief system about assessment for Dyslexia and how technology can best meet the needs of children and adults struggling with print literacy.

(Click on the link below for more information on Dyslexia and Arabic)

Today I spent some time in the company of a new friend and colleague, Dr Gad Elbeheri, a lecturer in the Australian University in Kuwait who has an appreciation for and understanding of Dyslexia in Arabic based on his research and investigation over the past number of years.  What was most interesting to me was how he explained how the sound of a language often dictates how it is traditionally taught.  He confirmed for me something I was beginning to suspect, i.e., the primacy of traditional literacy teaching based on auditory skills that we see in English language education is not as applicable when learning Arabic.  Of more interest to me was the fact that, although I knew that written Arabic is a morphological language, which has a transformative quality based on context etc., creates another layer of abstraction for students struggling with learning.

We spoke at length about predictors for development of good functional literacy in English and in Arabic and compared stories of experiences we had.
So what does this have to do with Assistive Technology?
In English we have a history of using technology to address Dyslexia which stretched back till at least the early 90’s if not before. 
For more information click on this link: http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/tools/software-assistive-technology .

However, as the Assistive Technology industry in the Arabic speaking world has not had as much time to mature, there is not the same range of solutions available for people.   Over the past two years, Mada has tried to address this issues by supporting the development and localization of specific software products aimed at directly supporting those with Dyslexia, including and Arabic version of Clicker 5, an Arabic Claroread and an Arabic version of the FXC Open source Utilities.
There are many challenges ahead, in particular tacking Object Character Recognition and Voice Recognition software, particularly for those requiring compensatory strategies.  With challenges, however there are opportunities.

One thing that struck me today was the value of conversation and debate, a few hours in the company of a knowledgeable and generous colleague is worth weeks of research.  Debate and discussion is healthy and productive.
Most importantly we both agreed on several points:
  • 1.       There is a real and immediate demand for technology that will support those with Dyslexia
  • 2.       The technology cannot just focus on compensation, as doing so would deny many children the significant benefits that can be gained through learning with a technology partner.
  • 3.       New technology developed must be based on research and data as to how Dyslexia manifests in those learning to read and write in Arabic.
  • 4.       Bringing academics, technologists, educators and children together will be the key to developing good solutions.


There is nothing new in this, nothing we haven’t considered before, I have however grateful for the opportunity to talk with a colleague and in partnership re-affirm a road forward in being part of the process of ensuring that technology can be used to minimize the difficulties and maximize the opportunities for people with Dyslexia.

For more information feel free to click on the links below:

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