Group Publishes Nation’s First Arabic Standards

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 17, 2006 3 min read

The teaching of Arabic has received a boost with the first-ever publication of standards for teaching the language in U.S. schools.

The Alexandria, Va.,-based American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages released July 17 a tome of standards for teaching 11 foreign languages that includes what students from kindergarten through college should know and be able to do in Modern Standard Arabic, the language used for formal interactions in the Arab world.

Antoin Mefleh, an Arabic-language teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, writes a welcome message to students.

“When you are a new teacher or teacher with no real guidelines, you feel as if you fell into a tub of molasses,” said Dora Johnson, a program associate for the Center for Applied Linguistics, in Washington, who was born in Lebanon and is a native speaker of Arabic. Ms. Johnson coordinated the writing of the Arabic standards.

“The standards are like guideposts—this is what I should expect from someone at the level of a 4th grader and here are some guides you can use in creating your lesson plans—or when looking at materials, you can decide if they fit or not,” she said.

The Arabic standards are organized around five goals: teaching students to communicate in Arabic, gaining knowledge and understanding of the cultures of the Arab world, using the language to connect with other disciplines, making comparisons between Arabic and Arab culture and their own language and culture, and participating in multilingual communities.

The standards spell out what students should know and be able to do in Arabic for grades 4, 8, 12, and the senior year in college. In 4th grade, for example, students should be able to talk about their “likes and dislikes,” and by the senior year in college, they should be able to “exchange and support their opinions and individual perspectives with peers and other Arabic speakers on a variety of contemporary and historical issues,” the standards say.

Further information on ordering a copy of Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century is available from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

The standards were written by a diverse group of educators, including Arab Christians and Muslims, people who trace their heritage back to 10 different countries, and educators ranging from kindergarten teachers to college professors, said Catherine Keatley, the associate director of the National Capital Language Resource Center in Washington, who also helped to coordinate the project.

Language Guidelines Grow

Only 96 schools in the United States teach Arabic as a foreign language, according to the National Capital Language Resource Center. Of those schools, 21 are public schools and the rest are private.

In the Dearborn, Mich., public schools, for one, nearly 900 of its 17,700 students take Arabic. That’s the highest number for any public school district in the country. (“‘Heritage Speakers’: Loss of a Treasure?,” April 5, 2006.)

The Arabic standards are only the latest to be published as part of a growing movement to spell out standards for various foreign languages. In 1996, with funding from the U.S. government, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL, published K-12 standards for the three most commonly taught foreign languages in the United States—French, German, and Spanish—according to Helene Zimmer-Lowe, the executive director of the American Association of Teachers of German, in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Ms. Zimmer-Lowe said that with proceeds from the sale of those standards, foreign-language educators were able to establish standards for some less-commonly taught languages through a new organization called the National Standards in Foreign Language Education Collaborative. Thus in 1999, ACTFL released teaching standards for modern Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. The volume also contained standards for the classical languages of Latin and ancient Greek. Proceeds from sales of that volume helped finance the creation of the Arabic standards.

The new book, “Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century,” is 518 pages and includes updates for all of the sets of foreign-language standards previously published by ACTFL in addition to the Arabic standards.

A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Group Publishes Nation’s First Arabic Standards

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