Notes on Saudi ESL Students and Writing

I attended a presentation by Maggie Saba from Virginia Tech on Saudi Students learning academic writing.  It was so helpful in understanding why Saudi Arabian students have such difficulty with writing.  According to Saba, Saudi Arabian education does not teach writing or critical thinking, it is primarily memorization.  When they come to the US they are not used to voicing their opinions at all, let alone through writing.  I’ve organized my notes here in hopes that they can be helpful to others as well.

  • General characteristics of Saudi education
    • Religion centered
    • Memorization of religious texts
    • Absence of typing skills
      • They don’t even have good Arabic typing skills.  They don’t get training.  They use pen and paper.
    • Teachers are authority figures
    • Educators have no influence over textbooks
  • Segregation
    • Boys and girls on separate campus
    • Male teachers do not teach female students and vice versa.
    • Male teachers may teach boys in one room, and girls are in another room, listening.  If girls have a question, they have to use a telephone.
    • The way women dress and the makeup of the classroom is very different for them
    • In the US, women are very careful about what they say in class because traditionally, non male family members are not supposed to hear their voices.  They also do not want to expose their ideas and be harshly judged
    • Up until 2006 they had separate curriculum
    • Girls are better prepared to write because they are more strictly monitored.  Boys are more free to come and go as they please at school.  They just don’t spend as much time in the classroom.
  • Difficulty with argumentative essays
    • Teacher and books are the authority.  They are used to memorizing, not creating new knowledge or challenging ideas
  • First and last week of school, students do not participate
    • They don’t think they are doing anything important the first week
    • The last week, they are preparing to go back home
  • English is the only foreign language taught in schools
    • Limited to Vocab and grammar
    • Not taught planning, composing and revising
      • They struggle with writing in English because they are not taught how to write in Arabic
    • They learn to memorize
      • Try memorize 3-4 short paragraphs and write the one that shows up on test day
  • There is no technique in Arabic writing
    • They have ideas, but they don’t know how to formulate them.  They struggle with this even in Arabic
  • Arabic ideas/perspectives on writing
    • Writing is an innate ability that cannot be learned
    • No leisure reading or writing in Arabic or English
    • Writing should always be beautiful
    • Not a tool for documenting thoughts
  • Be sure to explain the function of each handout
  • Many students have never even said these words in Arabic, because they don’t do them
    • Argument, assignment description, course description, journal, draft, details, essay, general, posters, peer editing, structure, support, thesis, topic sentence, reflect, etc.
  • They memorize how to get from point a to point b.  we try to teach them the concepts, and let them figure out how to get from a to b.  example analogy.  In SA, they learn how to drive from home to school, home to the mall, and home to a friends house.  In the US, we learn how to drive, how to operate the car, how to read directions and a map.  Then we tell them to drive from Virginia to NY and they can do it.  You tell an SA student to do that, and they can’t.
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