Ever Wondered What It Would Be Like to Learn to Read Again?

An Exercise to Understand Students’ Literacy Challenges

April 13, 2016


In the Classroom

For most of us, the experience of learning to read is a distant, fading memory. It’s hard to put ourselves back in the shoes of young students as they painstakingly sound out words. Whether you teach kids who are just beginning to develop literacy skills or work with English language learners who aren’t yet literate in English, the following exercise can help you relive the process of learning to read and better understand the struggles your students face!

Are you familiar with the concept the “Curse of Knowledge”? It’s a term that refers to how hard it is imagine what it’s like to not know something. It especially holds true for something as integral and commonplace in our lives as reading. Because we already have a strong base in reading, the Curse of Knowledge makes it difficult to remember the lengthy process it took to acquire our reading skills.

We’ve created the following exercise to help lift this curse. You know your ABCs and aren’t likely to forget them, but you’re probably not familiar with alif, baa, taa (unless you speak Arabic, in which case, try this exercise with Russian or another language). So let’s jump right in, shall we?

First of all, you don’t expect students to memorize the alphabet in one sitting, and neither are we going to conquer the entire alphabet all at once. Instead, let’s learn the first three letters of the Arabic alphabet. They’re pictured below, along with the letter names.

Alright, you already know that when you read, you read right to left. What? That’s not the direction you read? Let’s back up a moment then. In Arabic, you read right to left, which means that alif is the first letter of the alphabet, baa the second, and taa the third. Now, how on earth do you pronounce these letters? Lucky for you, it’s actually pretty simple.

alif = long a, as in “father”

baa = b as in “bat”

taa = t as in “ten”

So far, so good. Just one last thing before we start reading some words. Arabic letters look different depending on their position in a word. You’ve already learned their independent forms, but some letters take on initial, medial, and final forms to connect with the surrounding letters. The chart below shows you these forms.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabic_alphabet

Ready to start reading? Try sounding out the following two words:


What sounds did you get? You should have read bab for the word on the right and ab for the word on the left. (In case you’re wondering bab means “door” and ab means “father.”)

Let’s keep reading! Just two more words:


These were harder, weren’t they? And what’s up with all those funny little w’s? The answer’s pretty simple: you haven’t had the chance to learn all the letters or all the rules yet. And it’s often frustrating to struggle with something we don’t understand.

This quick exercise is intended to give you greater insight into the challenges your students face on a daily basis, whether it’s learning to read or learning long division or what caused the American Revolution. It’s easy to forget that concepts often aren’t as simple they seem, but hopefully now, you can head back to the classroom with even greater empathy.

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All Comments (1)

Maria April 18, 2016 at 9:01 am

whoa. THat’s crazy awesome!


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