How to choose an Arabic school

How to choose an Arabic School

By Zaynab Hamdi and Fatima Khaled

I wrote about why I’m not a fan of Arabic schools and I said I would write a follow up on the issues with some solutions on how parents could make better decisions on where to enrol their children. I spoke to Fatima Khaled, the headteacher of award winning Peace School about how to choose a good Arabic school. She is someone I know personally who is incredibly passionate about teaching Arabic effectively.

Fatima Khaled (PGCE) is a qualified Arabic and French language teacher with 19 years of teaching experience who sits on numerous exam boards for Arabic. Fatima works with Goldsmiths University of London in delivering certified Arabic programs and in professional development with Arabic teachers to expand creativity in their teaching and student learning. 

There can be benefits to Arabic supplementary schools if you find the right one but there are some key things to look for in a supplementary school that are crucial for parents to know.

1. Find out the headteacher's qualifications and their approach to learning

There are two types of supplementary school headteachers that look similar but are very distinct. Both of them, with all good intentions, will decide to set up an Arabic School maybe for sadaqa jariya or because they want to do something for the Muslim community, and teaching Arabic/Qur’an is an incredibly noble thing to do. However one person will be under the assumption that they know exactly how to teach Arabic without needing any extra professional development (mostly because they’re Arab), and the other person will be under the assumption that education is constantly evolving and so they need to keep up to date with the latest training and development. For one, education is a pursuit that they themselves need to constantly be engaged in and for the other, it’s an easy side hobby.

There are several things you can look at when choosing an Arabic school such as parents involvement, quality of teachers and students participation. However you should also ask about the headteachers involvement within the field of education. You can gauge this through whether the headteacher attends courses and conferences on education, or how often the educational curriculum is updated. Are they using the exact same books from when the school was first opened?  You can also ask what provisions are there for advanced students and ask for examples of educational success. Have there been projects that students have worked on that can be showcased? Can the educational results of the school be demonstrated?

2. Ask about how the school ensures parents are involved

One of the most difficult things to work with are parents who assume that 90 minutes of Arabic a week is enough on it’s own without any consolidation throughout the week. Parents need to be involved in their child’s learning otherwise it’s like they’re looking for cheap, guilt free babysitting. Parents need to ensure that any homework is completed and that they are keeping up to date with their child’s progress otherwise your child will be in a class of students who aren’t really progressing.

At Peace School teachers have Whatsapp groups with parents from the classes to ensure regular communication, and that parents are helping their children with their learning. If you as a parent are unwilling to commit time to your child’s Islamic/Arabic learning then the question to ask yourself is what are you hoping for out of sending your child to Arabic school?

3. Pay the fees on time

This is something that many supplementary schools struggle with. Parents who want their children to learn about Islam but yet they don’t want to pay their fees on time.

There are some parents who when they get called up on late fees will argue that their child hasn’t learnt anything. School fees are not dependent on a child’s progress. If there is a contract that has been signed and you have paid for a service for someone to take care of your child for a couple of hours, they need to be paid for their time.

A child’s progress is affected by what happens at home and as a parent you cannot offload the entire responsibility of teaching your child onto a teacher.

4. Ask about the hiring process for teachers

How are teachers hired at the school? Is it based on qualifications or experience? What training do teachers receive. Ask what the hiring process is for the teachers and how often are there teacher training sessions? How much support are teachers given? How many students are assigned to one teacher and are there any assistants?

If you are a non Arab then it’s important that the teacher can speak English for both you and your child. If the class is for native Arab speakers then speaking English won’t be as necessary however even then it’s important to check how clean that teacher’s Arabic is. Being a native Arab speaker doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes in using clean non dialect Arabic.

Check the quality of the teachers before choosing a school.

5. Look at how classes are set up

What kind of technology is available for teaching? Most Arabic schools rent out public schools on the weekend to teach and so the facilities depend on their contract with the school. Some schools are more generous than others. Are there interactive whiteboards/projector screens or is it a simple whiteboard and pen available? Are there resources to deliver creative lessons? As great as old school learning can be, being able to deliver power points and interactive sessions makes a big difference when it comes to teaching children.

Ask how the school accommodates different age groups as well as native and non native Arab speakers. Are the classes entirely in Arabic? Are the timings for the sessions reasonable for the age groups? Or are 5 year olds being made to do a straight 90 minutes of quran?

6. How effective is the curriculum?

As of yet I haven’t come across an established foolproof widely used curriculum for teaching Arabic to under 16s. The majority of schools design their own curricula with their own exams. In the UK we do have the Arabic GCSE however it’s considered too easy for Arab speakers but too difficult for non Arabs because of the speaking exam.

With this I would say to people to manage their expectations on what students can gain from supplementary schools. Speaking Arabic is considered to be difficult especially because there is no environment where people by default speak modern standard Arabic, and so realistically Arabic schools can give your child a good level of proficiency in understanding and writing Arabic based on the curriculum that they’re taught.

Curricula are designed to reflect the needs of the students environment and should be revised and updated every few years by evaluating what students got out of it and what they didn’t. When considering a school to enroll your child ask for clarity on where your child can expect to be (provided the effort is put in) and ask if this has been demonstrated in older students.

The reason I spoke to Fatima Khaled specifically for this post is because for as long as I’ve known her she is constantly trying to improve as a teacher through training and research. She has never relied on being a native Arabic speaker as a qualification for what she does and within her teaching there has always been an underlying emphasis of genuine care for her students. Everyone has that one teacher that they never forgot. The teacher who inspired a love of learning, who taught them confidence and independence as well as academic knowledge. When it comes to Arabic which is so directly linked to a young Muslims relationship with Allah, it is so important that you consciously choose the best Arabic school for them.

Eid Burnout

ILM Projects Blog

Eid Burnout

With Eid coming up, I’ve spoken to mothers who feel pressure to make Muslim events elaborate celebrations. And the intention behind this is great. I feel like this generation of parents is a lot more conscious of making Eid special and memorable for kids. Making it as exciting than Christmas if not more. However, is there an increasing pressure on mothers to keep up with exciting Eid displays? I spoke to Ikram, a mother of twin boys and a daughter about what Eid/Ramadan celebrations look like for her.

Zaynab: Is there such a thing as going overboard and can it feel draining and expensive? In some aspects do mothers feel pressure to keep up with these exciting decorative displays?

Ikram: I personally haven’t found it draining compared to what other kids have. Christmas, birthdays, Easter etc. Ramadan only comes once a year and we do make it special but we don’t do something huge. It’s not a big hoo ha, we don’t have a party vibe. We do make Eid a big deal. The kids decorate the house and we do a countdown.

I think I don’t find it draining because I reuse decorations and I also get my kids to make decorations themselves. Stars and chains etc. It is important to invest in craft materials and not let the fear of mess put you off getting your children involved. Kids will be kids for a short time.

Zaynab: There’s this phrase of Eid being a welcome back party for Shaytan in that sometimes it’s celebrated in a way that forgets the religious part of it. How do you incorporate the spiritual/religious aspect of these celebrations with your children?

Ikram: In some ways you can end up forgetting the purpose of eid and making it purely a celebration in the party sense. But Eid naturally has a deen aspect to it incorporated into it through Eid salah, bathing, doing dhikr and keeping up with the sunnah. In the run up to eid I go through stories with my children to incorporate the spiritual element and remember why we’re celebrating. We also don’t celebrate in a way that’s unislamic. We play anasheed, not haram music, we make sure our Eid clothing is in line with the teaching of Islam and we enjoy ourselves.

Zaynab: One part of Eid is family, outside of Eid, what advice would you give to mothers about building or cultivating relationships with their families and their in-laws to create that wider community for their children? (In the sense that some people have poor relations with extended family and so they don’t have that network).

Ikram: Have regular contact with your immediate and extended family and go to see them when you can. Make sure that they’re part of your kids’ lives. Create a family whatsapp group so kids can build a relationship with their extended family. One of the things that you want is that if one day, if kids can’t turn to their parents for something, they can turn to their extended family. In an ideal world I would want my kids to come to me but realistically, I was a child once and I know that there were certain things that I didn’t want to talk to my parents about. I don’t necessarily promote that as an option to my children; I make sure our channels of communication are open and my kids know that they can come to me about anything, but I also know that they have extended family who they can turn to for support.

If you have family who are bad influences or they’re not good for your wellbeing then keep your distance from them. Do your fardh and say salam but you don’t need to keep close bonds. If being around them will create situations that will irritate you then avoid that and see them less.

Zaynab: As an individual yourself, what makes Eid a celebration for you? Do mothers get caught up in making Eid about their children that they forget to celebrate it for themselves?

Ikram: I don’t treat myself all. I don’t celebrate anything to be fair. We do need to do something as mothers for Eid. Celebrating with the kids is fun for me. We’ve started doing a secret Eid gift thing in the family. Otherwise no, not particularly. As a mother you care more about Eid being fun for the kids, and I work with other mothers to organise that. We have a whatsapp group chat where we organise a Eid party and delegate who’s doing what.

What role do you think fathers play, or even just men when it comes to Eid celebrations with children?

Ikram: They’re good for taking family photos. My husband doesn’t participate in the decorating stuff, but if you’re raising sons, fathers should set an example. My husband always takes the day off work for Eid. Sometimes even the next day and go out and do something. For us, Eid is about seeing family, and having a party in the house. We hire a bouncy castle or we allow the children to choose what they want to do.

Zaynab: What do you say to people who may feel burnt out at having to keep up with what they see on social media?

Ikram: Don’t showcase your life on social media. You feel pressure to create a certain type of Ramadan/Eid display forgetting that children are easily pleased. You end up losing the purpose of what you’re doing. Instagram is a virtual tool to show off the good parts of your life. I’m not on social media to care what other people do, and I don’t have to share my Ramadan and Eid celebrations with the world.

Building Character in Young Muslims

Building Character in young muslims

By Hanisah Saleh

There is no foolproof formula for raising ideal Muslim children nor is there a fixed idea of what an ideal Muslim child looks like. Every child is affected by their community, ethnicity, country, social class and more to create a unique situation. No two siblings are alike even with the same upbringing. Raising children is hard and it gets more and more challenging with each day. 

I spoke to Hanisah Saleh about what meaningful parenting means to her and how to build character and instill a love of Islam in children. Hanisah majored in biology and was a human biologist before moving to Oman and becoming a stay at home mum.

Here are the things that I learnt from her about raising children.

Children’s Free time ≠ Unparenting

There’s often this opinion that the ideal Muslim Mother to aspire to be is one who is committed to constant meaningful learning for her children, and if you aren’t doing this then you’re not as good of a mother as others. The ideal mother has structured activities throughout the day, everyday and enjoys supervising her children until it’s time for them to sleep, but this isn’t practical.

Hanisah believes in children led learning and letting children explore for themselves. Extra homework and learning does not determine how good of a parent you are. Children know how to entertain themselves on their own, and you can support that by giving them that freedom of expression. If they find entertainment in trying to fit into a cardbox box, let your child explore that. If they want to build a fort, that’s also cool. If they seem bored, give them time and space to figure out a way to entertain themselves rather than feeling like the burden is always on you to keep your children busy.

Reduce Dependency on Technology

Hanisah’s children were raised with the concept of no screen days where screens can only be used during certain days of the week. As a result of this her sons don’t have a dependency on technology because they’re used to the rules.

But if you want an alternative to tech that actually appeals to your kids then you need to invest in sturdy, open ended toys. Sturdy meaning good quality even if it’s more expensive and open ended meaning it serves more than one purpose. You have to make some level of financial investment because their younger years are so formative.

Sometimes parents think that Islamic activities are an easy alternative to technology that kids should always be willing and enthusiastic about, whether that’s learning Quran, or watching Islamic shows but that’s not the case.  Hanisah also mentioned that truth is, unfortunately, it is difficult to find material that is suitable and appealing for children. She chooses Islamic material in Malay because she finds that they’re of much better quality. If you’re method of children engaing in “meaningful tech time” is making them watch an Islamic video, or Quran, knowing that they’re uninterested, it may end up fueling resentment and causing them to associate Islam with being boring or a chore.

Think about the Character you Want to Build in Your Kids

And then think about the best way to do that.
For Hanisah the key things are  good adab (manners) and trying to make her sons proud of themselves and their uniqueness. These are things that many adults themselves are still working on.

Doing this with children can be as simple as narrating one hadith and discussing it, praying together, doing dhikr together or decorating the house during Ramadan. Having the children’s father take them to the masjid and building solid habits with the Quran with your kids. You can’t talk good character into someone, you have to provide opportunities for self-exploration to allow certain character traits to grow.

Hanisah noted to me that Islamic knowledge does not necessarily result in personal growth or emotional resilience. Parents shouldn’t fall into a false sense of security that their child’s Islamic knowledge will directly correlate with their character. Even as adults, we struggle daily with our own development. No matter how much knowledge we have, we still have to ask Allah at least 17 times a day to guide us to the path that pleases Him.

Teach your Children how to Find their Way Back to Allah

We should encourage our children to make tawbah to Allah immediately after doing something that they know would displease Allah. Children need to hear from you that the doors of tawbah are always open because society will teach them otherwise. In order to build spiritual resilience in your children, they need to have an unwavering belief that their sin isn’t greater than Allah’s mercy. Hanisah told me that she reminds her children that Jannah is also for Muslims who make mistakes as long as they make tawbah. Allah doesn’t define us by our mistakes but rather what we choose to do after it.

Islam and Discipline

Every child is different and experiences are anecdotal, but Hanisah told me that when it comes to discipline, she quotes hadiths about what a good Muslim does. She never forces anything on her kids and gently reminds them about inviting the pleasure of Allah otherwise they’ll miss out on an amazing opportunity. Threatening with hell is off putting and at that age it is not appropriate, especially when people give children the graphic version of hell. 

Another gem that Hanisah gave me was not to take it personally if your kids don’t do something. It’s not an attack on your parenting, and more often than not, their behaviour isn’t about you, it’s about them. Taking it personally will just undermine your relationship with them and allow Shaytan to fuel resentment and anger.

Explaining Haram

Hanisah reminded me that there is a natural fitra in children to want to follow what is halal. When it comes to what is haram, it should be age appropriate and explained articulately and respectfully. Whenever Hanisah explains that something is haram, she always gives a halal alternative. 

However when it comes to haram don’t use it as a means of control. Don’t use it as a way of making up rules to scare your children. It’s very demeaning and disconcerting to subject your child to spiritual blackmail and not consider how it can traumatize a child’s perception of Allah.

Keep Learning

It’s vital that you’re involved in some sort of learning because your kids grow and you have to keep up with that and you need to cater to different aspects of their deen. We don’t have village communities like we used to in the past so don’t assume that everyone around you will take up the role that would ideally have been assigned to them, whether that’s your spouse, parents, siblings etc. Teaching kids about Islam is ultimately the parents responsibility and to do that effectively, you need to keep learning.

Look at Your Home Dynamic

Build a healthy dynamic at home especially with your partner. Make your home a source of love and friendliness and learn to let go of things that are beyond your control. Kids are perceptive. They pick up the negative vibes and negative energy.

It might be that you wish other members of your family were more invested in islamic learning, or that they would take the lead on certain activities. You can’t force that, and provided that they don’t derail or discourage you shouldn’t pick a fight to force them to take responsibility. It is difficult, but cultivating an emotionally healthy environment at home is so crucial. If it means that you take on most of the teaching role, then work with that.

Children need to see your relationship with Islam, and how that manifests in the different areas of your life, especially with people. They need to see the balance. 

I hope this was useful. May Allah protect all our Muslim children and keep them steadfast on His deen. May He fill their homes with love and peace.

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Investing in Islamic Education

ILM Projects Blog

Investing in your Child's Islamic Education

Part of my journey in creating Letter Connector has allowed to meet amazing people who are working hard to make Islamic/ Arabic education fun. One person in particular is Hafsa from Mama Teaches Me who not only home schools her daughters but she goes out of her way to design and create awesome resources for teaching children Islam.

Supplementary teaching can only do so much for a child’s Islamic education. Ultimately parents play the biggest role in cultivating their child’s relationship with Allah. In my personal experiences I have seen parents who take iman for granted and assume that children loving Allah is a natural consequence of being raised in a Muslim home. 

No one can offload the responsibility of giving their child an upbringing that inspires a love of Allah and getting close to Him.

Having said that, I know it’s difficult. So I spoke to Hafsa about what parents could do to invest effectively in their child’s Islamic learning.

Hafsa's Story

Hafsa always wanted to home-school even before having children. After completing her degree and becoming a primary school teacher, she got married and had two daughters before moving to Saudi Arabia.  When she was in Saudi she started homeschooling and for a while, she had set up a private group for mothers to home-school their children together, before finally settling into homeschooling her 2 daughters alone. Prior to this Hafsa completed a 2 year Arabic intensive program and taught as a tajweed teacher.

Although Hafsa home-schools full time, her tips are applicable for everyone on how to give their children a healthy and loving Islamic upbringing.

1. Understand that your child is going to love Islam through you

You need to have a really good relationship with your kids because they’re going to see you as their main role model and they’re going to love Islam through you. Part of doing this is understanding your child’s needs. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to teaching. As a mother of two kids, Hafsa knows which child is more sensitive and which one is more extroverted and she adapts her teaching styles accordingly. 

Sometimes in an attempt to want children to love Islam parents will unknowingly impose it on children unaware of the negative consequences. This could be making your 3 year old stand in salah when he just wants to jump on your back in sujud, or making your 6 year old wear hijab when she’s excited to show off her new hair clips. Although the intentions may be sincere, instilling that love and motivation can be done indirectly. For example :

When it comes to prayer Hafsa prefers to say “mummy’s going to pray now” and let her daughters volunteer to join.

However that desire to volunteer is as a result of how Hafsa has taught her daughters about who Allah is. One way she has done this is by using the names of Allah to demonstrate How He loves and cares for His creation, especially children. Consequently,  Salah has been explained as an act of love to thank Allah for all the amazing things that He has done for them, and an opportunity to get blessings.

If children are grounded and consciously aware of what it means for Allah to be Al Rahman and Al Rahim, it will do so much for their character and resilience and build a natural love and appreciation for Islam. Love can’t be forced.

Exposure to an islamic environment is also important. Take your children to the masjid when you can, and expose them to Islam whether that’s playing Quran in the home, doing morning athkar together etc. Celebrate Islamic achievements in fun ways such as parties for Qur’an accomplishments.

2. Consider what is age appropriate

It’s important to limit the Islamic knowledge taught based on the child’s age. It’s not appropriate to teach a 5 year old that Ibrahim AS had to slaughter his son as a sacrifice to Allah. Not only is it scary but they can’t understand the concept of sacrifice. I cannot emphasize how crucial it is that your child loves Allah rather than fears Him when they are young. This isn’t to say that you must teach a pacified version of Islam. There needs to be a balance.

From a young age children are taught about the Romans and wars and create armor and swords. You can teach children about significant battles in Islam that took place. However, the more graphic details should be reserved for when they’re older when they have the emotional capacity and mental ability to appreciate the lessons.

3. Invest in creative resources

A printer is a must in every home. Invest in a printer with colour ink that is affordable. Some parents want the ease of a simple workbook which is fine. But sometimes, there are parents who avoid creative activities because they don’t see themselves as naturally creative. One of the great things about creativity is that there is no right and wrong. There is no fixed definition of what is good art and what is bad art. It doesn’t have to be pretty and patterned. Ultimately it’s about expression and the skills gained from the experience.

Creativity is very important because it allows children to express themselves in loads of different ways. Education doesn’t start with abc and just doing worksheets. Learning comes with doing things together, like sharing or holding scissors to develop fine motor skills like hand eye coordination.

Having said this, not every day needs to be an elaborate activity creating life sized cardboard animals. Having a balance of craft activities that can stimulate excitement is important.

The mess 

One thing that stops parents investing in creativity is the mess. Everyone hates it but it’s something you need to get used to. If the result of the mess is a priceless memory and learning experience for your child, then it’s worth it.

4. Invest financially

Hafsa has some free resources available on her website, however most of the resources are paid ones. And this sometimes causes debates where people believe that all Islamic knowledge should be free. The knowledge is free however the time and labour that went into creating a well designed resource that has saved you hours of work is not free.

Sometimes we need to reevaluate our priorities and what we are and aren’t willing to spend money on. For any non Islamic subjects we can spend money on tuition, for languages that aren’t Arabic we can spend money on books and tools etc but when it comes to Islam for some reason we expect to people to volunteer their lives to creating top quality resources without being recompensed. Investing financially and strategically is important for a child’s upbringing.

When someone designs tools and then charges for them, it’s not because they’re money hungry or heartless. It’s because they have bills to pay, or they want to save money to reinvest to create better resources. In Hafsa’s case the money she earns is used for either charity or its reinvested in more resources. 

On this note, I’d like to add something about intellectual property and theft. Taking someone’s work or distributing it without permission is theft. It is something you will be held accountable for. To take away someone’s right to be paid for their labour is inexcusable. If you generally believe that the paid resources are of no monetary value then why not create your own?

5. Understand that you will improve

Comparison is the thief of joy. 

Every child learns at a different pace and their learning is dependent on so many factors. Sometimes it’s easy to compare how “Islamic” your kids are to other kids and how much they know. Don’t do that. Focus on their learning and achieving the objectives that you set for them. With social media as well, it can sometimes feel like you’re not doing enough as a parent, and that someone else is a super parent who is getting everything done. There is no one fixed way to give your child the best Islamic learning. Everyone is a product of their upbringing and environment and will have different things to offer.

When Hafsa first started home-schooling, despite being a qualified primary teacher she was still flustered. It was with practice that her confidence started building. Only through experience do you learn what works and what doesn’t and how to build on it. Your only aim is to keep progressing and improving.

6. Focus on meaningful learning rather than filling up time

Children require a lot of attention and it’s so easy to give activities that are time consuming that don’t require active supervision. But time spent does not equate to effective learning. You are better off doing half an hour of focused learning rather with your child rather than making them do one hour of coloring to pass the time.

Plan the lessons and what you’re going to teach and the activities included. Especially as children get older more planning is required.

Given that Hafsa homeschools, her planning is structured around brainstorming a month in advance, and then from there breaking it down into the objectives and activities. She also plans certain activities according to the weather. So before the academic year starts she has an idea of what  she wants to do in each season to take into account outdoor opportunities.

When it comes to your child’s Islamic education, what milestones can you identify that you want them to have reached by a certain age? When do you want them to know how to do wuthu? How to pray? Memorise the short surah? How much Islamic history do you want them to know? Plan these in advance and schedule in activities to teach your children the things that a parent needs to teach their child.

7. Have a community

For Hafsa, the main support that she needs comes from the physical energy aspect. Sometimes having someone who can take care of practical needs goes a really long way, whether that’s babysitting or having a cleaner for the housework, or someone to help cook meals.

As well as that you need a circle of friends who are pursuing a similar thing to you. Create your own village of like minded people who are also active in investing in their child’s Islamic learning. 

And lastly, make time for social activities and arrange meetups. Cultivate friendships with people who can become a healthy support network. If you feel that your social network is draining or that there is an imbalance in the energy that you put in, then change up the dynamic or take a step back.

8. Never underestimate the long term impact of your efforts

The protection that a loving and healthy upbringing gives a Muslim child can’t be understated. Growing up as Muslims in a multicultural world where Islam is often on the defense, means that at one point or another many Muslims experience an identity crisis.

If you have taught your child how to take pride in their faith and how to harness Islam as a source of resilience and self confidence, the impact of that will last well into their adult life. The time you spend on their childhood is an investment in their future.

9. Focus on your own personal learning

The more knowledge you have on Islam, the more you can support your child. Before you get married, try to take up as much knowledge as possible be it in the realm of seerah, memorising Quran, tajweed or anything else. And don’t let this pursuit stop because of marriage or children. This is not dependent on whether or not you intend to home school. This is for your own spiritual growth.

Even beyond Islamic knowledge, just your pursuit of hobbies and learning should continue. I first met Hafsa at a calligraphy class that she taught herself after completing an online course because she thought it looked cool. Do something for yourself that inspires you to grow.

At the end of all of this, there is one thing that sticks out to me amongst everything Hafsa said. She loves learning. She always has and still does to this day and she credits it to her teachers and her mother because of how inspiring they were. In a world of information overload it is so easy to get burnt out overwhelmed with a lack of time. It is so easy to settle into stagnation when it comes to our own personal and spiritual growth but parents have such great power to shape their children into confident and wise young Muslims. 

I hope you found this post beneficial :). 

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Why I’m Not a Fan of Arabic Schools

ILM Projects blog

Why I'm not a fan of Arabic schools

Disclaimer: This article is based on my own personal experiences teaching young children and not intended to generalise all Arabic schools across the world. Also, I will do a part 2 offering suggestions, but if I did that here, it would end up being way too long and you’d never read it.

A few years ago, I found some language experts and put together an Arabic teacher training session. As someone who hated learning Arabic but was also teaching in an Arabic school I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring shared ideas together. The training day was all about creative methods of teaching Arabic. When lunchtime arrived we had just finished a session on digital storytelling; Getting non native students to plan and create and edit a video entirely in Arabic. Then we had a Q&A and one man stood up to ask a question:

“Personally I don’t see the need for this creativity in teaching. I have been teaching for many years, I even have a phD, and our curriculum has been working just fine for many years. This new creativity is just a waste of time.”    


Like most other Muslims kids, I went to Arabic school growing up. I went to at least three. I went to Mosque everyday after school to learn to read Arabic, and then I went to school every Saturday to learn to actually speak Arabic. I hated it. And for all the years and money that went into my Arabic learning, I honestly didn’t come out with much.

Firstly I should clarify what is meant by an Arabic school. For this post, I’m referring specifically to schools on the weekend where children were made to do classes in Arabic and/or Islamic studies and Quran.

I went to Arabic school, I taught in Arabic schools, and I’ve tutored privately, and even though I don’t have children, if I did, I highly doubt that I would send them to an Arabic school. I think there are positive aspects to it, and I think that today, the effort and importance given to making sure children enjoy learning Arabic and Islam is amazing. We’ve come a long way from the days where discipline and repetition were the established teaching methods. Within the homeschooling community especially, there is an amazing amount of work being done to create engaging and interactive tools for learning Arabic.

However, having said that,there is still a problem in Arabic schools and Arabic learning in general. I’ve met people who will have gone to Arabic school for years, even more than a decade, and they won’t know much beyond the basics.

If Arabic learning was as effective as people say it is, then why do we have an incredibly large population of Muslims who don’t have access to the Qur’an in its original language? Obviously this is something that has many factors to it, and isn’t simply down to Arabic schools. The reason I’m talking about Arabic schools in particular is because for all the time and money invested in it, the results are disproportionate (unless they’re already Arab with a parent who speaks to them in Arabic). 

One of the key things that I felt was missing in my Arabic learning was inspiring an appreciation and love for it. When I was growing up the two key methods for teaching were repetition and discipline with no afterthought or regard for the knock on consequence that it had on my relationship with Islam. I think there was a lack of understanding as to how detrimental compromising on the quality of Arabic/Islamic education can be for a young Muslim’s faith. 

If the only consequence of Arabic schools was that young Muslims weren’t learning much Arabic then it wouldn’t be as big of a big deal. But on top of this, Arabic students are developing a negative outlook on Islam at the same time. (Not everyone, but enough people)

I think Arabic schools have benefits to them, however here are the reasons why I personally am not a big fan of them.

1. Classes are organized by numbers instead of ability

Because Arabic/Islamic education is secondary to primary school education and usually around 2-3 hours a week, a lot of it is affected by how much effort parents put in. So just because 2 kids are the same age, one could be a lot more advanced than the other and yet they’re put in the same class. I remember teaching Qur’an, and one child would be on Surah Al Qariah, and another would barely have memorized Surah Al Fatiha. That same child would come in week after week, never learning past Surah Al Fatiha, but the other child would keep going.

And even where there was an effort made to group children by ability, it was undermining for some.

I remember teaching a nursery class which had students between the ages of 3-5, but one day a 9 year old kid was put in my class because he didn’t know the short surahs. To be in a class with the “babies” was undermining for him, but it was seen as the most appropriate solution.

Different people pick things up at different speeds, but when they’re all stuck in a class together learning teachers have 2 options. Leave children behind, or allow the advanced children to become bored. But often Arabic schools don’t have the resources to be able to accommodate different learning speeds, especially where the fees are cheap. 

2. Parents have different motivations

Some parents are completely invested in their children learning Arabic/Qur’an. Other parents want cheap babysitting. And some parents want to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their child’s learning. 

The assumption that one hour a week of Arabic or Quran on a Saturday is sufficient for a child with no revision in between is so wrong. A lot of these children learn fast, but then they forget even faster. It didn’t matter how many holiday packs I prepared or how many times I spoke to parents, some literally did absolutely nothing outside of school to help their children.

I once prepared an entire holiday pack that gave parents everything they needed to help their children with their learning. I didn’t want any of the kids to forget what they had learnt. The pack included laminated flashcards, play dough, a progress chart, stickers, and clear instructions on what children needed to do. Out of a class of 14, 4 students actually did their homework.

With this diverse mix of parents, it means that some children make little or no progress, whilst others excel, and when they’re all in the same class, teaching becomes difficult.

Some schools try to offset this by separating classes into groups, or by having teaching assistants take certain students out to teach them independently, but this is not always possible. I think schools do need to hold parents more accountable for being invested in their children’s learning, but that’s easier said than done.

3. Teachers Aren't Qualified

I once did a survey to get people’s experiences of learning Arabic and one guy in particular said that Arabic schools needed to “Stop hiring any and every Umm Ahmed to be a teacher.” No offence to all the Umm Ahmeds out there.

Most teachers that I have seen fall into one of four categories:

1. The teacher who cannot speak English but was hired because she’s Arab. The assumption is that of course if you speak a language then you obviously know how to teach it regardless of whether or not you’re qualified.
2. The college/university student who can be hired cheaply to be a teaching assistant. They’re usually there for the extra cash, but also because they do like children. (This was me)
3. The well intentioned teacher who speaks both Arabic and English well, but isn’t necessarily a good teacher, or creative in how they teach.
4. The qualified teacher who knows what they’re doing.

We’ve come a long long way from the days where teachers thought it was acceptable to hit students (although this still does happen) but I’ve found that there’s a lot more creativity in the homeschooling community than in Arabic schools. There seems to be a much more conscious effort in creating a meaningful learning experience. Teaching should inspire a desire to learn. It should be inspire curiosity, thinking, exploring and independence. However sometimes Arabic schools have long hours, and limited resources and so the focus is how to fill up that time instead of delivering effective teaching.

When I first started teaching at Arabic school, I struggled a lot. I fell into the category of university student who wanted to make some extra money and I found myself trying to fill time instead of focusing on actually teaching. One of the reasons for this however was because the timetable in the school I was at was just very unrealistic.

I remember at one particular school, the timetable prescribed 70 minutes of Qur’an in the morning and just thinking about it would stress me out. Have you ever tried to make 4 year olds sit still for 70 minutes repeating Qur’an? 

I will be the first to say that entertaining children is hard. Keeping them occupied is hard. It is incredibly easy to just keep a child satisfied with endless videos. Part of effective teaching is taking into account how long a student can realistically focus before they become bored and restless and building lessons around that.

4. There is no standard curriculum

In many Arabic schools, there is a teacher who decides to create an entire curriculum and then designs their individual textbooks. I’ve met a lot of individuals who proudly showed me their books and materials and told me they designed it themselves. I’m not sure how many of these people have studied linguistics, or how diverse their experiences are in teaching, but their curriculum isnn’t questioned. 

No one asks whether or not they’re effective. No one assesses the progress that students make as a result of the curriculum that they’re using. No one checks how often it is updated. It’s often a person’s well intentioned idea of the necessary building blocks to understand Arabic, however with no standardized curriculum across supplementary schools beyond Arabic GCSE, it is difficult to actually determine how effective a curriculum is. 

Non Arabs won’t question it since they don’t speak Arabic and assume by default that this curriculum must be effective, and Arabs take comfort in knowing that they can teach their own child Arabic at home, and that the school is just supplementary.

How do we as a community assess competence in the Arabic language?

5. Religiosity trumps age appropriateness

I taught a nursery class that had children aged 3-6. I was asked to talk to them about the story of Ibrahim AS and to this day, I cringe a little. Have you ever tried to explain to a 4 year old that Ibrahim AS was asked by Allah to sacrifice his son, and then when he was getting ready to slaughter him, Allah revealed that it was test and so Ibrahim AS sacrificed a sheep instead?

I’m not saying that children don’t need to learn the stories of the prophets but if a child is too young to appreciate the significance of the lessons behind a story then there are other things to talk about. 

Islamic studies should be taught in a way that teaches good akhlaq and inspires pride in the faith, but this should be according to what is age appropriate. 

Things are changing, and progress is being made every day. This article was just to highlight some of the issues within Arabic learning in supplementary schools and things to be aware if you choose to enrol your child in a supplementary school. Inshallah in my next post I will talk about how you can determine if a supplementary school is good for your child. Thanks for reading 🙂