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Difficulties that Arab Students Face in Learning English 

AuthorHayat Al-Khatib (Project Leader)
            Mirna Abdel Malak,
            Ralph Sleiman,
            Helen Zadorian

Abstract:  The study documents the Arab Open University (AOU) Lebanon branch research project on English second language challenges that students using ESL/EAL face in studying OUUK courses at AOU. The local context of the study is the Arab Open University Lebanon branch. The main focus is to identify the main difficulties that second language learners from Arabic background face, and propose effective methods and strategies for developing English language acquisition. The study is organized into five sections. Section One identifies the rationale, scope and aims of the study through overviewing background and participants. Section Two outlines the data collection methods adopted. Section Three provides theoretical interpretation on the findings. Section Four provides an account of some of the causes of the participant students’ difficulties and Section Five proposes the way forward.

Section One: Rationale, scope and aims

A number of studies argue that many ESL students face difficulties in learning English at various levels and with different skills (e.g. McCardle and Hoff, 2006; Hoffman, 2001). Most material looked at the commonwealth experience, without much attention to the Arab region (Seargeant, and Swann, 2011; Mayor, and Allington, 2012; Tagg and Hewings , 2012).

Recently and with the spread of global English as an essential tool for communication, trade and worldwide exchange, more interest has been centred on the concerns, problems and needs of Arab learners studying English. The British Council seminar (Beirut, 2012) emphasized the need to study the specific linguistic and cultural requirements of learners in different regions in order to devise an appropriate curriculum that would cater for the specific needs of the learners.

Several initiatives are underway to identify and understand the difficulties associated with studying English in the Arabic context and to propose teaching and learning support that can provide remedial intervention. The research project summarized in the special edition of CALR Linguistic Journal is one attempt devoted to this endeavour.

At AOU-Lebanon, the English faculty members participating in the pilot study (October 2008 – March 2009) noted that ESL students in first level English communication skills courses face difficulties in some aspects of listening comprehension, communicative ability in asking and responding to questions, using fluent English in class participation and producing academic English texts.

1.1. Phase One: October 2008 – March 2009

The English faculty members at the Lebanon branch formed a research team that initiated a six month pilot study (Oct 2008 – March 2009). The study focused on identifying areas of difficulty in ESL learning within the general outlined frame.

The setting was the Arab Open University Lebanon branch context and the participants in the pilot study were 169 students from the first general requirement English communication course EL111. The 169 students were identified through various methods of continuous assessment, classroom interaction and diagnostic essays, as needing additional support to develop English language and literacy skills for academic, social and personal purposes. The participants were referred to additional English support and language lab hours in Fall2008/2009 with individual study plans and set exercises, specifying tasks and time line.

Constant monitoring and follow up were maintained through individual records of achievement. Methods of follow up were two types: logistic and academic. These were coordinated between the research team and staff members at the Learning Resource Centre and Language Lab at the university. Lab visit records were kept for each participant in terms of frequency, activities, duration, tasks completed and attained levels. The assigned tasks involved exercises on reading comprehension, grammar and paragraph writing, set at various levels of difficulty.

Learners from second language background face fundamental challenges in developing English language to grade level ability. Competence in the English language is required to discuss course content, through the use of academic language associated with subject material.

Difficulties in using English were identified in interpersonal communication skills in the tutorial sessions. Systematic difficulties accompanied the linguistic performance of students in general; these included difficulties in pronunciation and using sociolinguistic conventions appropriately, e.g. formality in language expressions.

Learners need to plan their production to create acceptable forms in a writing task. In conversation where learners have almost no planning time at all, they needed additional support.

The effectiveness of explicit teaching was open for dialogic debate in department meetings with the overall concern of providing language teaching that can have a constructive effect beyond providing learners with enhanced input and models        

Tutors were consistently engaged in assessing the conceptual and cultural knowledge that learners possess and identify and explain the linguistic and cultural connotations through appropriate lessons and activities.

Figure 1: Phase One (October 2008 – March 2009)



Course level

English Communication Skills – EL111

Diagnostic methods

Continuous assessment (quizzes and assignments) and guided interaction


Unable to use correct and appropriate English language skills to communicate on academic, social and personal issues


Additional support in the form of English for Specific purposes instruction and language lab assigned hours. Assigned tasks involved exercises on reading comprehension, grammar and paragraph writing


6 months ( 5 months of study and data collection + 1 month of data analysis)

Project team

English faculty members at the Arab Open University Lebanon branch

Research based Frames

Theoretical and research frames in studies on second language identify a specific number of years required to claim competence in academic aspects of the second language. Collier (1987), Klesmer (1994) and Cummins (2000) propose the interval of “at least 5 years of continued practice” to achieve a good level of appropriate academic proficiency in the second language. Academic proficiency is understood to cover writing skills, reading comprehension, knowledge of a range of vocabulary items including specific lexis and technical terms, and a developed syntactic repertoire.

Corder (1981) argues that the range of writing skills required need to reflect agreement of content with context and the subject matter discussed. Halliday (1985) proposes functional categorization of text components into the lexical field, comprising processes, participants and circumstance that relate to the subject matter. The interpersonal component comprising lexical and grammar items that refer to the author and audience relations, within the specified genre. The textual component includes syntactic, cohesive and language specific characteristics of the specific adopted spoken or written mode of communication. Weakness in the lexical field identifies limited vocabulary and may feature in over extensions of lexical categories, use of super ordinates, repetition, etc. Weakness in the interpersonal component identifies limited writing skills, basic process writing application and inability to produce effective communication. Weakness in the textual component relates to general inability to use correct grammar rules to produce a coherent text.

Ellis (1999) argues that proficiency in reading comprehension is a pre-requisite to writing competency. Conversational ability, obtained through reading and speaking a second language, is needed to prepare learners to express themselves in the written mode. Gardner (1985) proposed a socio-educational model that combines four aspects of EFL learning: the social and cultural context, the learner’s motivation, the setting (formal or informal learning), and the learning outcomes. The social and cultural contexts relate to specific social and cultural patterns of communication, as well as how the foreign language is perceived in the context of the learner. This has bearing on the second motivation aspect, and the perceived value that learning the foreign language would bring to the learner. The setting is concerned with both opportunities of teaching and learning and opportunities for using the learned language in formal and informal situations.  The learning outcomes relate to measureable ability resulting from EFL learning.

Kern (2000) explains that culture specific schemata influence mental representation of abstract concepts that are related to things, events and situations, and this leads to difficulties when learners write texts using the second language.

Odlin (1989) explains that the transfer model is causing difficulties in the second language and relates it to cognitive issues resulting in word-by-word translation from L1 to L2. Odlin proposed that learner should be trained to translate “the idea” as a whole.

Shaugnessy (1977) refers to the concept of “derailment” in the learner’s performance, when the learner ignores the characteristics of any of the two languages and produce texts that draw on a mix of both.

According to Swain and Lapkin (1995), cognition is very important. Learners should understand the subject of discussion, produce an outline to help them focus, then brainstorm to add appropriate material for their discussion or writing task. Understanding of the task and its requirement help the learner focus on relevant material and use appropriate sequencing to secure a logical and coherent presentation.

Cummins (2000) identifies two types of language competency. The first type is: the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) that includes the surface skills of listening and speaking that are relatively acquired quickly. The second type of language competency takes a longer time to develop because it relates to the learner’s ability to cope with academic demands. This is termed as the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).

In second or foreign language contexts, the learner, as argued by Cummins, draws on a set of skills and metalinguistic knowledge from his first language when working on the second. Cummins (2000) perceives that learners develop a Common Underlying Proficiency (CUP) basis for their languages that they may draw on to help them understand features in either of the two languages.

Cummins (2000) confirm that, the conceptual knowledge developed in one language helps to make input comprehensible in the other language.

Krashen (1984) explains that there are two independent systems of second language performance, the acquired system and the learned system. The acquired system is responsible for producing sub conscious processes without paying attention to the form. Acquisition results from extensive exposure to meaningful interactions. The learned system is responsible for producing conscious processes that attends to the form. Learning results from the formal instruction of language rules.

Krashen also proposes the existence of the monitor, which is the result of the learned grammar. The monitor applies the learned system to the language output and corrects the items that do not correspond to the learned rule. Some learners, according to Krashen, overuse the monitor; others are underusers who do not use their learned systems effectively. Optimal users use the monitor appropriately.

Another premise targeted by Krashen is the input hypothesis. The input hypothesis proposes that learners acquire the second language through comprehensible input that is, input appropriate for their current stage of linguistic competence. Krashen suggests that natural communicative input is the key to designing a successful syllabus. The learner improves and progresses when he or she receives second language input that is one step beyond his or her current stage of linguistic competence.

1.3. The Pilot Study

Data were compiled from the records of achievement and field notes that document oral and written performance of 169 participants completing tasks in comprehending or producing texts.

In categorizing writing tasks, data were divided into two main sets:

  • Data manifesting global errors

In this category the overall meaning is difficult to understand, owing to weak language. This category comprised 15 submitted written assignment administered on the tested group, which is about 9%.  This category was not targeted in our analysis, in the pilot study.

  • Data manifesting local errors

This category constituted the main bulk of 154 written records that were further scrutinized to identify systematic errors as well as mistakes. Systematic errors were generally of four basic types: omissive, additive, substitutive or related to word order. Data manifesting local errors were subdivided according to the language category: vocabulary or lexical errors; syntactic or grammar errors, etc.

Records on oral discussion were added to identify phonological errors. Field notes from face-to-face interaction also document avoidance strategies, used by the learner when feeling uncomfortable with a specific form.

There was another feature worthy of documentation; target like variants, which appear in one context, and is reproduced in the same work in non-target like aspect.

Figure 2: Preliminary identified difficulties

1. Aspects of listening comprehension

2. Communicative ability in asking and responding to questions

3. Fluency in class participation

4. Producing academic English texts

1.4. Interpretive Frames

Assessment and results of Stage One (April 2009 – January 2011)

Assessment and analysis of Stage One identified the following results:

  1. Cummins models can account for the fairly consistent patterns of correct application that were found to relate to salient features that characterize the English language, e.g. the regular markers of plural and past tense. In addition, the use of the copula and –ing suffix to indicate the progressive aspect also featured. Krashen’s monitor, in addition to the limited competency in the language may account for this difficulty.
  2. The articles, auxiliary and third person singular were variably and inconsistently used. This may be related to learners making faulty inferences about the rules of the second language. This difficulty area may relate to language interference from the first language.
  3. As for phonological features, field notes identify challenges in the pronunciation of a difficult phoneme, toned by the phonemic patterns of the first language as well as the position of the phoneme whether at the beginning or end of the syllable.

Remedial measures for the identified areas of difficulty included:

  1. Direct and explicit instruction that targeted language specific characteristics, specifically for lower scorers, through additional language support sessions
  2. Making resources available and encouraging learners’ involvement to support correct hypothesizing on language rules
  3. Audio immersion was assigned in language lab hours to model correct phonologic segmentation in order to overcome first language phonologic transfer for learners

Quantitative evidence on pre and post assessment results of the participating students in experiment and control groups taking OU-based level One courses at the branch confirmed that the remedial intervention contributed to a stable improvement in the scores of OU-based level one course grades, e.g. the core course B120 (business course), compared with the control group that was not offered the intervention. However, in matching achievement scores of the experiment group, the following correlations were identified.

  • Overt errors comprising of phonological difficulties, grammar difficulties and lexical difficulties. These relate to lower score performers in the achievement continuum.
  • Covert errors relating to syntax difficulties and improper idiomatic usage. These characterized the middle scores in the achievement continuum.

The dissemination of Phase One results was presented for discussion and feedback to a host of national and international academics during a two day conference on Multiple Perceptual Frames in English Language Teaching and Research at the Lebanon branch on 22-23 March 2011.

1.5. Phase Two: April 2011 – March 2012

Phase Two focused on a larger sample of students who were identified as having difficulties in using English. Verification of initial mapping was required through sampling a larger section at a more advanced level than the initial experiment group at Phase One, to furnish continuity to the next phase of intervention and offer explanation of the relationship between the variables that are empirically tested and extend existing knowledge with sufficient evidence.

These were selected within set criteria that ensured completing level one communication skills course EL111. The criteria mandated proportional representation from the offered programmes of Business, Computer, Education and English. Variables relating to gender and educational background were controlled. Equal gender selections were sampled. Participants came from similar public schooling background.

Figure 3 

Figure 4: Sorting By Faculty and Semester

• Spring 2010 – 2011 ( 249 Students)

  • Fall 2011 – 2012 (762 Students)

Section Two: Data Collection Methods

The participants were assessed on the basis of essay writing where they were required to write on a specified topic that related to their academic programme of study. The duration of the assessment was 60 minutes. The conditions of controlling the setting matched regular assessment exams, with invigilators, halls, distribution of students, etc. Academic staff from the English department were commissioned to correct, review and monitor the assessment. The results were quantified and analyzed with a view of probing deeper into areas of difficult that students face in comprehending and producing English texts. The group of informants in the second phase involved 1011 students who were identified as weak in English based on their grade attainment at level one Communication Skills Course (EL111). Intervention took place during the semesters of Spring 2010-2011 and Fall 2011-2012. 

2.1. Instrumentalities

The second phase involved the following instrumentalities:

  1. Identifying targeted groups of students and rationale
  2. Preparing and administering English assessment exam including logistics of allocating halls, advertising the exam and securing reservation of sessions, proctoring staff, distributing and collecting copies ( 7 sessions in two halls – duration 1 hour)
  3. Commissioning academic staff to correct, review and monitor 1011 exam papers (1011 required 200 hours of correcting).
  4. Monitoring the outcome, quantification and treatment of data, analyzing and comparing findings to Phase One results
  5. Assessing the obtained results and allowing a period for analysis of the remedial intervention on experiment and control groups, to allow for probing into sub-areas of the encountered difficulties.

In order to involve a wider interpretation from academics and experts in the field, the English language faculty members participating in the study at the branch collaborated with the British Council in Lebanon in IELTS training and a series of workshops and seminars to exchange information, try out application and gain more knowledge on variable assessment modes in language testing, to improve the reliability of data interpretation through the triangulation of comparative modules.

2.2. Intervention

The following methods of intervention were applied to the experiment group in the two uptakes; in Spring 2010 – 2011 for a group of 249 students, and in Fall 2011 – 2012 for a group of 762 students:

  • English for Specific Purposes (ESP):  English support targeting the accuracy of grammar form, meaningfulness of language application and pragmatic knowledge at discourse level, in addition to visual support in the form of session slides prepared by participating tutors
  • English Extra (EL100ex) offering support through oral communicative sessions
  • Language lab: these varied in relation to the needs of students as evident from their assessment scores in areas of writing, grammar, reading and listening comprehension. Three student group categories were identified; Group A comprising weaker students who require 40 language lab hours per semester in addition to 24 ESP tutorial hours; Group B comprising students who require 30 language lab hours per semester in addition to 24 ESP tutorial hours, and Group C comprising students who require 20 language lab hours per semester in addition to 24 ESP tutorial hours.

Methods of follow up were two types: logistic and academic. These were coordinated between the research team and staff members at the Learning Resource Centre and Language Lab at the university. Records were kept for participantson language lab visits, frequency, activities, duration, tasks completed and attained levels. The assigned tasks involved exercises on reading comprehension, grammar and paragraph writing, categorized through specific levels of varying difficulty. Constant monitoring and follow up were maintained through individual records of achievement.

2.3. Assessment and results of Stage Two (April 2011 – March 2012)

At the end of the second phase results indicated that most common areas of difficulties that AOU students faced were errors of syntax and pronunciation as a result of the influence from their first language.  Grammar and phonologic patterns of the first language patterns were mapped inappropriately onto the second language, leading to awkward syntactic structures and incorrect pronunciation of certain words. For more competent learners, the language difficulties that were identified related to cognitive and cultural loads. The inferences, interpretation and analysis that bring about errors in this group's performance related to resorting to the first language semantics and patterns of use because of unfamiliarity with the theme or task.

Students have different cultural perceptions, communication styles and preference that are transferred sometimes inappropriately, from their first language to the second. Learning a second language involves more than learning the sounds and words of a language. Cultural assumptions regarding age, forms of address, polite forms, eye contact, salutations and punctuality may lead to inappropriate performance or even communication breakdown.

The following areas of difficulty were identified

In Lexis

  • Size of lexicon: the large vocabulary with words streaming from Old English and Norman Latin-based origins, in addition to the newly acquired words associated with the specific terminology and technical use.
  • Collocations: there are specific patterns for words that co occur regularly with others. Learners using collocations may end up with awkward structures in speaking or writing.
  • Idiomatic usage: English has a high degree of idioms. For example, the use of different main verb forms in apparently parallel constructions like “try to learn”, “help learn”, and “avoid learning” pose difficulty for learners. Another example is the idiomatic distinction between “make” and “do”, “make a mistake” not  “do a mistake” and “do a favour”, not “make a favour”.

In phonology

Learners may pronounce English words with transference from the first language patterns or even mis learn the pronunciation in an ESL context.

  • Phonemics: The sounds written with th - the interdentals – which are more specific to English than other languages are sometimes substituted by learners with [d] sound. [s] sounds are substituted with [z], [f] for [v] or even [ts] or [dz].
  • Vowel Phonemes: inReceived Pronunciation there are twelve monothongs (single or pure vowels), eight diphthongs (double vowels) and two triph thongs (triple vowels). Arabic has fewer vowels, pure vowels so many ESL learners may have problems both with hearing and with pronouncing these distinctions.

Prosody and Intonation

  • Syllable structure: English allows for a cluster of up to three consonants before the vowel and four after it. This syllable structure causes problems for speakers of other languages. Arabic alternates consonants and vowel sounds, so Arabic learners of English often try to force vowels in between the consonants. Moreover, native speakers can distinguish an ableenable and unable in context, while inexperienced English learners have difficulty in such differentiation. In addition, when listening to native speakers’ recordings, some consonants are dropped in complex blends, e.g. [MANS] for months.
  • Mixing phones: In some varieties, the syllables an, en, in, on, and un are pronounced as homophones. Stress patterns in English more strongly identify semantic qualities. Learners tend to over pronounce unstressed vowels, giving their speech an unnatural rhythm. In the same context, English is a stress timed language. This means that stressed syllables are roughly equidistant in time, regardless of the number of syllables involved. Arabic is syllable timed, with each syllable coming at an equal time after the previous one. This affects rhythm when using English.
  • Stress for emphasis, contrast and emphatic apologies: Stressing the right word or expression pause difficulty for the second language learner, in addition to instances when the normally unstressed auxiliary is stressed, e.g. I really am sorry.
  • Connected speech: Phonological processes such as assimilation, elision and epenthesis together with indistinct word boundaries confuse learners when listening to drills with listening comprehension from native English speakers’ interaction, assigned in language lab.

In Grammar

  • Tenses: English has a relatively large number of tenses with subtle differences, such as the difference between the simple past “I ate” and the present perfect “I have eaten”. The progressive and perfect progressive forms add cognitively demanding complexity that needs direct instruction and drills.
  • Auxiliaries: learners of English find it difficult to manipulate the various ways in which English uses the auxiliary verb of a tense. These include negation (He hasn’t been attending his classes), inversion with the subject to form a question (Has he been attending?), short answers (Yes, he has), and tag questions (has he?). A further complication is that the dummy auxiliary verb do/does/did is added to fulfill these functions in the simple present and simple past, but not for the verb to be.
  • Modal verbs: English has a significant number of modal auxiliary  verbs which each has a number of uses, e.g. obligation, conviction. The opposite of “You must be here at 8” (obligation) is “You don’t have to be here at 8” (lack of obligation, choice). While must in “You must not drink the water” (prohibition) has a different meaning from “must” in “You must not be a native speaker” (deduction). This complexity takes a longer time to master and relate to cognitively demanding complexity.
  • Articles: zero articles pause a major area of difficulty to English second language learners. As exception to rules of definite and indefinite articles, English nouns can or indeed must be used without an article. Some of the differences between definite, indefinite and are fairly easy to learn, but others are not, particularly if the learner’s first language use them in different ways than English.
  • Phrasal verbs: can cause difficulties in English because they have several meanings and different syntactic patterns.

In Morphology

  • Word derivation: word derivation in English requires a lot of rote learning (in-appropriate, dis-honest, a-moral.)

In Spelling

  • Spelling: many changes in pronunciation have resulted in idiosyncrasies in spelling, and a large influx of foreign words with different and overlapping spelling patterns that generally rely on memorization, in addition to the variance between American and British English. The spelling system causes problems in both directions; learners may know a word by sound but not be able to write it correctly; or they may spell it phonetically but produce an incorrect orthographic spelling because of the mismatch in English alphabet.

Section Three: Findings

  1. Category A

In Category A corresponding to lower score banding: students required 40 hours per semester of language lab support and 24 hours of ESP to pass the ESP final assessment. The following difficulties were identified:

  • Lexis

Lexis used by this group manifested limited vocabulary and inappropriate extension of words, substitution or replacement.

  • Phonologic errors

Silent letters: Silent letters lead to confusion in sound and letter correspondence

Homographs: Inappropriate application of homographs, e.g.there and their

Consonant clusters: in several cases, English requires the use of more than two successive consonants before and after the vowel, which is not familiar in other languages, e.g. “straw”, glimpsed”.

  • Prosodic stress

Stressed and unstressed vowels

In appropriate segmentation of rhythms and intonation

  • Grammar

English tenses:

Confusion in the use of simple past instead of present perfect and simple past instead of past perfect.

Overextending the use of simple present to present continuous conditions

The use of simple past to talk about ideas that are no longer true

Irregular tense forms

Theseremain a source of confusion with the application of regular tense marker instead of the irregular form,e.g. “swimmed”, eated”.

Irregular plural forms and singular-plural mismatch

Transformations that require more changes in letters including dropping and adding some features rather than the simple addition of plural “s” are identified as areas of confusion for ESL students,e.g. thiefs/thieves andchieves/chiefs as well as heros/ heroes

Absence of subject- verb agreement

specially in the applications of “have” and “has” and the confusion in using third person present tense marker “s” in interrogative addressee structures.

Auxiliary verbs are another source of confusion, specifically in negation, question form, short answers and tag questions. They are also sometimes added to verb to be or omitted altogether.

In addition to this, writing featured reliance on simple sentences and absence of complex structures as well as appropriate punctuation and capitalization.

Learners in Group A had to complete language lab assigned tasks in the following ratios, based on their individual reference log and the guiding learning hypothesis of matching syllabus design to the needs of the learner. More exposure through reading and listening comprehension, in addition to supporting grammar drills was deemed more essential than requiring output drills

                        37.5 % of reading comprehension and listening drill

                        37.5% of grammar drill

                        25%     of writing drill 

  1. Category B

In Category B, corresponding to more competent performers: students required 30 hours per semester of language lab support and 24 hours of ESP to pass the ESP final assessment.

The following challenges were identified, mostly in the grammar component:

  •  Modal verbs

Modal verbs are used indiscriminate of function. The use of “must” for example, in prohibition, e.g. “you must not drink water” is confused with “must” in deduction, e.g. “you must be a native speaker”.

  • Definite and Indefinite articles

Definite and indefinite articles confuse English language learners, specifically at instants involving a switch in the initial indefinite article to  become a definite in referral beyond first mention e.g. I bought a book. The book was written by a famous writer.

  • Count and non count nouns

Persistent application of Arabic based distinctions in assigning count and non count noun categories, notwithstanding the difference between languages, e.g. information/معلومةis treated as a count noun based on Arabic assignment of categories.

  • Prepositions

Use of indiscriminate prepositions isEnglish regardless of restrictions and semantic function. English has more prepositions that most languages, and each prepositions has multiple meanings, thus creating areas of confusion for ESL students.

  • Prefixing

Indiscriminate use of opposites in prefixing e.g “dis” and “un”

Learners in Group B had to complete language lab assigned tasks in the following ratios, based on their individual reference log

               23%                 of reading and listening comprehension drill

                        45 %                of grammar drill

                        32%                 of writing drill

3.3. Category C

In Categorycorresponding to more competent performers, students required 20 hours per semester of language lab support and 24 hours of ESP to pass the ESP final assessment.

The following challenges were identified

  • Idioms and proverbs

Applying literary interpretation e.g. To learn from birth to grave.

  • Collocation

First language influence in expressions

  • Phrasal verbs

Confusion in the use phrasal verbs of location, position, direction and time

  • Demonstrative pronouns

Indiscriminate use of pronouns, e.g. reversal in near/far articles and in singular/plural references: “that” used for plural and close, and “these” for far and singular!

Learners in Group C had to complete language lab assigned tasks in the following ratios, based on their individual reference log

                    44%                 of reading and listening comprehension

                    21%                 of grammar drill

                    35%                 of writing drill


3.4. Discussion

The results indicated that linguistic difficulties that AOU students encountered in learning English mainly relate to the level of competence of the ESL learner, whether at early, intermediate or more progressive level.

  • Phonological difficulties involving vowel phonemes, appropriate segmentation, prosodic features of stress and intonation, mark the performance of learners at beginners’ levels.
  • Lexical difficulties that relate to essential vocabulary, and the use of inappropriate extension of a word, substitution or replacement, also identified the performance of learners at beginners’ level.
  • Grammatical difficulties included: articles and determiners, prepositions, count and non count words, auxiliaries and modal verbs as well as syntax errors. It is worth mentioning that, for Group B, the major problem was inconsistency in correct grammar application. At times, the records reflect correct applications in one context and incorrect applications in another context. The interpretation provided was more related to the activation or inactivation of the monitor, as applications reflected knowledge of the grammar rule, however inconsistency in application.
  • Cognitive difficulties that relate to improper idiomatic usage and phrasal verbs, specifically in the performance of Group C.

Provisions were made that targeted the needs of the three identified student groups

Section Four: Learning Hypothesis

4.1. Groups and Difficulties

The language difficulties that AOU students encountered in learning English, according to this case study related to three main categories:

For low achievers, the language barrier related to limited lexical resources, limited grammar competence, and vague understanding of the functional application of the taught linguistic principles.
A handful of phrases are used to accomplish basic purposes. This often shows few departures from second language morpho-syntax. It eventually gives way to a more experimental phase of
acquisition, in which the semantics and grammar of the target language are simplified and the learners begin to construct the rules of the new language. The transition between formulaic and simplified
speech has been identified as abrupt by Krashen, with no cognitive basis; recent theories of the lexicon see it as gradual and process based; others relate it to the learning styles of individual learners
where no unified path is predicted. For this group, limited exposure and opportunities of using English in addition to the absence of a conducive learning environment outside the classroom constitute
major barriers to developing the English language. When input is comprehensible, students understood most aspects of what is required for learning. Context or visual cues enhanced the learning
experience and pushed learners to greater understanding. For this group, the focus was primarily on accuracy of content in formal instruction, not on compliance with the rigid requirements associated
with language form. The study has shown that learners benefited from practice and repetition in formal setting.

For the intermediate group, Group B, the difficulties encountered mainly related to the uncertainty in maintaining the grammar application. Inconsistent patterns of use of specific grammar categories
were related to the language specific rule, especially in relation to the count and uncount nouns and the use of definite articles. At other instances, the data indicated the under use of the monitor.

As for fore competent performers, students in Group C, improper idiomatic use can only identify increased confidence that is bringing this pushed output. More exposure to native exchanges was
provided to offer more contextualized second language applications.

4.2. Evaluation

The experiment group had to complete the assigned tasks in the language lab and to undergo the remedial intervention of additional support in the form of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) course for
one whole academic semester. The experiment group had to complete a series of continuous and end of semester assessment and attain the passing course grade set at 60%. Paired sample test was
 administeredto trace changes in the GPA of students in the experiment group after completing the ESP module. The following results were attained:

4.4 Reflection

The effects of corrective feedback in assisting learners have been shown to vary depending on the level of achievement of the learner and the intervention required.  For the preliminary stages, focus on content is required. For successive stages, a focus on form and grammar rules is needed. For more competent learners, native exposure is required.

4.5. Findings

The project findings confirm the following:

  1. At the beginners’ level, students should be able to understand the essence of what is being said or presented to them.
  2. The input presented in the syllabus should be appropriate to the learner’s stage of linguistic competence.
  3. Conditions for acquisition are specially good when learners are involved in negotiating meaning in two way interactions.
  4. According to skill-building theory, subconscious language knowledge is vital for fluency.
  5. Output appears to play an important role and can help provide learners with feedback, make them concentrate on the form of what they are saying and help them sort out their language competence.
  6. Interaction is important for acquisition.
  7. Additional support through virtual environments can help learners practice language in native contexts at their own pace. Language lab provisions appeared to improve the level of English for the learners.
  8. Follow up is a crucial matter that helps the learners identify improvement and discuss language progression and obstacles with a professional.

4.6. Recommendation

The following recommendations are offered:

  1. Traditional areas of explicit teaching, such as phonology, grammar and vocabulary should be revisited as they have had decidedly mixed results.
  2. Pedagogy restricted to teaching grammar rules and vocabulary lists should be avoided as it does not give students the ability to use the second language with accuracy and fluency.
  3. Traditional language–teaching techniques need to be changed as they are outdated and inefficient.
  4. To become proficient in the second language, the learner must be given opportunities to use the second language for communicative purposes; learning to attend to both meaning and formal accuracy.
  5. The techniques used to make the correction, the overall focus of the classroom, whether on formal accuracy or on communication of meaningful content require a degree of perceptive approach from the tutor with the aim of keeping the learner motivated and encouraged.
  6. In cases of corrective feedback that focuses on grammar features without relating them to variation in meaning, learner's attention and ability were low.
  7. At the social and cultural level, the research team recommends conducting a campaign to raise awareness for parents and students on the importance of English in gaining access to employment. Active commitment to learning the global language can bring better effort and performance, on the part of the learners and more support on the part or parents of families, and may result in the expansion of the context of use. errors are made because the non-native learners hypothesize about the second language and simplify or generalize rules of application, analogous to their first language.

4.7. Conclusions that were found to contribute to successful second language learning

In summary, the conditions that were found to contribute to successful second language learning were:

  • Comprehensible input : selections were made from the support material that were based on the learner’s level of competence but stretched the learners’ abilities one step beyond existing level were found to be necessary but insufficient on their own.
  • Contextualized learning: the study established a correlation between comprehension and acquisition. In cognitively demanding tasks direct intervention was provided for learners in their early stage of receiving support, with a range of virtual and oral cues, to ensure understanding of what is required, and hence retain the motivation of the learners. At later stages, context reduced and cognitively demanding tasks were assigned that were compatible with the level of progression of the learner (Appendix one – for language lab follow up). 
  • Negotiated interaction where the tutor facilitates the group negotiation for meaning and comprehension.
  • Pushed output, with the tutor’s guidance and encouragement. Second language production may push and force the learner to pay attention to the means of expression needed to convey intended meaning.
  • Attention to the language code through feedback that allows the learner to discover through attention and noticing act the new forms of the English language code and edit their work accordingly.

Section Five: The Way Forward

There is considerable interest in supplementing research with approaches that engage learners and call language teachers to refine their pedagogical intervention to maximize language development in learners. In the conference organized by the Arab Open University in Lebanon, on Multiple Perceptual Frames on English Language Teaching and Research, co-sponsored by the British Council, on 22-23 March 2011, it was concluded that traditional approaches to English Language teaching have not resulted in sufficient preparation for the learner. More experimentation with anthropological, sociocultural, pragmatic and interactional frames may advance new perceptions and methodologies that can improve learners' experience in the English Language.

The feedback collected from the audience of practitioners and field experts noted that, on the part of tutors, more tolerance to bilingual mixing in learners' performance in the classroom was perceived to result in fine-tuning of ESL, if applied systematically. The participants agreed that explaining linguistic dissimilarity and different language characteristics from phonology to lexico-grammar, orthography and information sequence was a sound pedagogic practice that could fill conceptual gaps and relate new information to students' early linguistic experiences, in their first language.

More immersion in the English language was recommended, through offering varied resources, e.g. reading club, language lab, group discussion, etc. would expand the lexical resources of the learner, and provide opportunities for listening comprehension, vocabulary building and conversational skills. Support sessions can focus on language-dependant subjects and themes that may relate to the learners’ selected major for practice, e.g. English for IT students; English for Business, etc.

The project has attempted to study areas of difficulty that learners from an Arabic language background face in learning English. This area is proving to be both interesting and challenging for policy makers and curriculum designers especially in the Arab world and the Gulf region, as English is becoming a necessary tool for communicating globally and as the Arab world is investing more in teaching English at beginner and intermediate stages.

It is hoped that the findings and recommendations of the project can support educationists in their bid to find optimal conditions that can support their learners. Although conducted at a local context, as a case study, the project can be extended to other contexts and situations in the Arab world as well as situations of second language learning to compare experiences and findings to help curriculum design and teacher training methods.


The project leader would like to thank Professor Constant Leung, Kings College, University of London for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this project. The project team would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of AOU- Lebanon administrative support staff; Mrs Zeina Abou Mrad, Mrs Marie Zahra, Ms Sahar Youssef, Mr Pierre Salim, Mr Mohammad Abyad and Mr Johnny Zaiter for help in sorting data and documentation.


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