Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.4, 248-253
Published Online April 2013 in SciRes ( DOI:10.4236/ce.2013.44036
Reading in Arabic: New Evidence for
the Role of Vowel Signs
Raphiq Ibrahim
The Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities and Department of Learning
Disabilities, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
Received December 18th, 2012; revised January 19th, 2013; accepted February 2nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Raphiq Ibrahim. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The aim of this study was to examine the effect of vowelization on reading Arabic orthography. Native
children speakers of Arabic were asked to read aloud words (vowelized and unvowelized) and pseu-
dowords. The results showed that unvowelized words were read aloud more quickly and more accurately
than the shallow fully vowelized Arabic words. The disadvantage of vowelized words in both speed and
accuracy was therefore unexpected, and, furthermore, inconsistent with findings from several other rele-
vant studies. The results suggested that Arab children used a different perceptual and coding strategy
when the stimuli differ in their lexical feature (word vs pseudoword) and visual/orthographic feature
(vowelized vs unvowelized).
Keywords: Arabic; Words; Pseudoword; Orthography; Transparency; Reading
The ability to decode letters into sounds as a predictor of
variability in literacy acquisition was studied for great extent in
English (Snowling, 2000). The consistency between letters and
sounds called transparency of the orthography and it could
determine the ease of word decoding (Ziegler & Goswami,
2005). Indeed, the transparency of the script has been found to
be an important factor when learning to read (Katz & Frost,
1992; Leong & Joshi, 1997). In that regard, orthographies can
be seen as a continuum of varying degree of consistency be-
tween sounds and symbols. In regard to Arabic language, the
orthographic transparency theory (Saiegh-Haddad & Geva,
2008) maintains that the relevance to reading of orthographic
mechanisms as against phonological processes is dependent on
orthographic transparency. Hence, phonological processes would
be used more in reading orthographically shallow vowelized
Arabic and Hebrew (as Semetic languages) because the map-
ping of graphemes to phonemes is consistent unlike unvowel-
ized Arabic and Hebrew which is considered a deep orthogra-
phy. In deep orthographies, such as unvowelized Arabic and
Hebrew script, word decoding necessitates the use of large-unit
orthographic units (such as morphemes) for the retrieval of
word pronunciation (Aro & Wimmer, 2003; Saiegh-Haddad &
Geva, 2008).
In 1987, Frost, Katz and Bentin directly tested the Ortho-
graphic Depth Hypothesis in a three-way comparison between,
Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and English testing a study of naming
and lexical decision times for words versus nonwords. Their
study adopted the rational that in shallow orthographies the
lexicon plays a minor role in naming process compared to its
role in the lexical decision process, hence the greatest differ-
ence between naming and lexical decision reaction times should
be in Serbo-Coratian, which has the shallowest orthography
while deep (unvowelized ) Hebrew should show the greatest
similarity. The results show that naming times were considera-
bly faster than lexical decision times in Serbo-Coratian but, in
Hebrew, lexical decision and naming looked quite similar. Thus,
the results support the hypothesis that the shallower the orthog-
raphy, the greater the amount of phonological recoding that is
carried out for naming versus lexical decision. In addition, con-
sistent with the idea that non-oral reading involves less exhaus-
tive phonological processing than oral reading; oral reading
rates are relatively slow and lag behind silent reading rates
(Barker, Torgesen, & Wangner, 1992; Frost, 1998). Frost’s
“large units” are called by Ziegler and Goswami (2005) a large
grain sizes. In their Psycholinguistic Grain Size theory, Ziegler
and Goswami assume that for a successful phonological re-
coding, children need to find grain sizes between the orthogra-
phy and phonology of their languages that allow the most
straightforward and least ambiguous mapping between the two
domains. Therefore, readers of relatively consistent orthogra-
phies can use an exclusively small unit strategy (i.e., graph-
eme-phoneme correspondences) without making many reading
errors. However, while reading less orthographically consistent
languages, the reader cannot use smaller grain sizes as easily
because inconsistency is much higher for smaller grapheme
units than for larger units. So the reader tends to learn addi-
tional correspondences for larger orthographic units, such as
syllables, rimes or whole words (Treiman, Mullemix, Bijeljac-
Babic, & Richmond-Welty, 1995).
Ziegler and Goswami (2005) concluded that inconsistent or-
thographies push readers into developing both small and large
units recoding strategies in parallel, supplementing grapheme-
phoneme conversion strategies with the recognition of letter
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
patterns for rimes and attempts at whole word recognition,
which is also termed the flexible-unit-size hypothesis (Brown &
Deavers, 1999). In the study of Goswami, Ziegler, Dalton and
Schneider (2001), their English subjects show much stronger
influences from whole-word phonology when reading pseudo-
homophones. They also showed stronger switching costs when
words cannot be decoded using one grain size only (Goswami
et al., 2003) and evidence for the adaptive use of large unit and
small unit strategies in response to task demands (Brown &
Deavers, 1999).
Based on the above consideration, it can be assumed that the
reader needs a well-specified phonological representation for
accurate word naming (Frost, 1998; Stanovich & Stanovich,
1999; Wagner, Torgesen, & Rashotte, 1994). If readers are hav-
ing difficulty in decoding words, then their short-term memory
may become overloaded and their ability to comprehend sen-
tences could be affected (Shankweiler, 1989). However, if oral
word reading and comprehension skills are based on different
underlying skills and abilities, then the ability of oral word
reading may not predict reading comprehension. Share (2008)
claimed that phonology has a reduced role in lexical decision
tasks or silent reading compared to oral reading. In their study
among third graders, Barker, Torgesen and Wanger (1992)
found that phoneme deletion and pseudoword repetition corre-
lated more strongly with oral text reading rate than silent text
reading rate. Moreover, Corcos and Willows (1993) concluded
that oral naming involves more attention to phonological analy-
sis than orthographic units or meaning relative to silent reading.
Traditionally, oral reading accuracy and fluency are assessed
by reading aloud a graded list of words (or pseudowords).
These lists are typically graded for length and “difficulty”, usu-
ally started with short and high-frequency words that become
progressively longer and less-frequent words (Fuchs et al., 2001;
Share, 2008). When reading aloud, correct pronunciation de-
pends on exhaustively specified phonological representations,
and does not necessarily involve access to meaning (Coltheart,
1978). However, there is a need here, to clarify the differences
between reading vowelized and unvowelized lists of words.
Based on the Orthographic Depth Hypothesis (Frost, 2005), the
phonological structure of the printed word in a shallow orthog-
raphy can be easily recovered from print by applying a simple
process of phonological computation. In contrast, in deep or-
thographies like unvowelized Arabic and Hebrew, readers are
encouraged to process printed words by making use of larger
units or word morphology via visual-orthographic structure.
Although measures of accuracy seem to be good predictors of
variability in literacy acquisition of a less transparent script,
measures of speed may be better predictors of variability in
more transparent scripts (e.g., Landerl et al., 1997). In that re-
gard, previous studies of Ibrahim and colleagues that the
graphic characters of the Arabic script constitute a specific
challenge to Arabic readers and, in particular, to their ability to
distinguish between letters. Two studies by Ibrahim et al. (2002)
and Eviatar et al. (2004) found Arabic-Israeli participants
slower in processing Arabic letters than Hebrew letters, despite
Arabic being reported as the participants’ first language. These
researchers concluded that this difference was due to the vis-
ual/graphic complexity of Arabic script. On the other hand,
other studies have concluded that decoding of both Arabic and
Hebrew demands more visuo-spatial awareness or visual atten-
tion than decoding in English (Share & Levin, 1999; Shatil &
Share, 2003), and Geva & Siegel (2000) found that Eng-
lish-Hebrew bilingual children made more visual letter recogni-
tion errors in Hebrew than in English.
Orthographic Complexity in Arabic
In Arabic, all verbs and most nouns are written primarily as
consonantal roots that are differently affixed and vowelled to
form the words of the lexicon (Berman, 1978). Most written
materials in both languages do not include vowels. When vow-
els do appear (in poetry, children’s books and liturgical texts),
they are signified by diacritical marks above, below or within
the body of the word. Inclusion of these marks completely speci-
fies the phonological form of the orthographic string, making it
transparent in terms of orthography/phonology relations. The
effects of the omission of vowels on skilled reading in Hebrew
has been shown in an interesting study by Shimron and Sivan
(1994), who showed that adult Hebrew-English bilinguals read
text more quickly in English than in unvowelled Hebrew, but
not more quickly than Hebrew text that includes the vowel
diacritics. Thus, in Hebrew, even though addition of vowels
results in a somewhat more complex visual form of the text, it
facilitates both the speed and the comprehension of reading.
In Arabic, there are three diacritics signifying short vowels:
two are positioned above the letter: fatHa (
) = a, damme (
u, and one is positioned below: kasra (
) = i. Although these
vowels are not letters, their combinations with consonants form
CV syllables. In addition, there are double fatHa (
) = “an”;
double damme (
) = “on”; and double kasra (
) = “in”. These
vowel signs also have a syntactic role as they are used to mark
indefinite subjects (e.g., subjects that in English would not be
preceded by “the”). For example: fatHa or double fatHa on the
last letter of a word signifies it as the object of the sentence,
while damme or double damme signifies it as the subject of the
sentence. In addition to the diacritics for short vowels, there are
four other reading signs: the skoon (
) which signals absence of
a vowel, shada (
) which signals doubling of a consonant,
maddah (~) which signals doubling of the letter alif and hamzeh
() which signals the glottal-stop sound.
There are three letters in Arabic (, , ) which in addition
to signifying specific consonants, also specify long vowels.
Thus it can be difficult for the reader to determine whether
these dual-function letters represent a vowel or a consonant.
Two additional factors add to the complexity in Arabic.
The first has to do with the role of dots. The dots positioned
around basic symbols are used to distinguish different letters,
and the inclusion of diacritical marks to represent short vowels
and additional features such as letter doubling are used to de-
termine syntactic function. Abu-Rabia (1997, 1998) investi-
gated the role of vowelization and its influence on the reading
accuracy of poor and normal Arabic readers. The results of
these studies indicated that vowelization led to significantly
increased accuracy in word reading in both poor and skilled/
normal readers, and similar results were obtained with skilled
adult readers (Abu-Rabia, 2001). Shimron (1999) found similar
results in. Hebrew where the inclusion of vowel signs in written
Hebrew facilitated naming speed. In the Arab world, pupils
start to read without diacritical marks from grade 6 onwards
and, as such, studies focusing on earlier grades rather than on
older children and adults may be more informative of the ac-
quisition of literacy skills under vowelized and non-vowelized
conditions. Therefore the current work can be considered unique
and more sensitive to the specific linguistic nature of written
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 249
Arabic in that it focuses on early grades of Arabic literacy
learning amongst Arabic speakers.
The hypothesis tested in this study is that one of the reasons
for slowness in reading acquisition in Arabic in normal readers
is due in part to the large perceptual load in vowelized stimuli.
Specifically, the study explored whether fully vowelized scripts
in word and non-word help or hinder reading. It was hypothe-
sized that reading aloud vowelized isolated words in Arabic
would be more accurate than reading unvowelized words due to
the simple, consistent and fairly complete connections between
graphemes phonemes.
The words used in this experiment were divided to two
groups: vowelized and non-vowelized words and non-words.
Specifically, it was hypothesized that reading aloud vowelized
isolated words in Arabic would be more accurate than reading
non-vowelized words due to the simple, consistent and fairly
complete connections between graphemes phonemes. Secondly,
reading vowelized isolated words in Arabic would be slower
than reading non-vowelized words because of the incomplete
correspondence between graphemes and phonemes and because
of the homographic phenomenon. Thus, the participants’ per-
formance in this study could be compared with performance in
other languages like Hebrew in which naming has been inves-
tigated. On the basis of previous studies of with detecting vow-
elized Arabic words compared with Hebrew words (Abdelhadi,
Ibrahim, & Eviatar, 2011) and naming performance with vow-
elized and non-vowelized Hebrew words (Bentin & Frost, 1987;
Frost, 1994), we predicted that naming would be faster for
words and would be slowest for pseudowords.
In our recent study (Abdulhadi, Ibrahim, & Eviatar, 2011),
we hypothesized that voweled text may result in perceptual
overload, making simple detection of letters and vowels more
difficult. We asked children in 3rd and 6th grade, who were
identified by their teachers as good readers, to detect a vowel in
a three-letter stimulus in Hebrew and in Arabic. In both lan-
guages, the target was the diacritic for the vowel “a”, which is a
small horizontal line that appears above the letter in Arabic and
below the letter in Hebrew. The stimuli were: words, nonsense
trigrams, and nonletter stimuli. The main and important result
was that detection of a vowel target was faster in Hebrew (a
language the children are learning, but in which they are not
fluent) than in Arabic. We believe that this is because visually,
the Hebrew stimuli are less complex then the Arabic stimuli.
Seventy five 8th graders (42 females and 33 males), recruited
from two regular schools in north of Israel. None of the par-
ticipants suffered from neurological, emotional, or learning
disorders. These data was obtained by homeroom teachers,
school counselors and psychologists. Students diagnosed as
suffering from learning disabilities, ADHD, ADD or other
neurological disorders, were excluded from the sample. All the
children in the study verbally expressed willingness to partici-
Reading measures were constructed to examine the ability to
read isolated Arabic words and non-words. Three tests provided
measures of decoding accuracy and reading time for vowelized
words, unvowelized words and pseudowords. Subjects were
asked to read as quickly and accurately as possible. Scores for
reading rate (or fluency) were based on the number of words or
pseudowords read correctly. In order to obtain a composite
decoding score, Z-scores were calculated for each of the three
tasks (i.e., vowelized, unvowelized words and pseudowords)
then averaged.
A list of 50 words was arranged in order of increasing length
(3 - 6 syllables) and decreasing frequency for fully vowelized
word naming. A list of 50 different words arranged in order of
increasing length (3 - 6 syllables) and decreasing frequency for
unvowelized word naming. The frequency of the two lists were
equalized by language teachers from the same schools. A list of
50 pseudowords was arranged in order of increasing length (3 -
6 syllables) for pseudoword naming. See examples of stimuli in
Table 1.
For the assessment of word reading , participants were tested
individually in a quiet room in school. The three isolated word
lists were administered in the following order: vowelized words,
pseudowords and unvowelized words. Total reading time and
accuracy rate were measured for each list.
The data were initially analyzed with repeated measures
analysis used to test differences in reading time and reading
accuracy between the three reading tasks.
Repeated measures analyses were conducted to determine
whether reading speed and accuracy differed among the three
word types (pseudowords, unvowelized and vowelized words).
A significant overall effect for “word type” was obtained on
measures of speed (F(2,15) = 305.57, p < 0.001). Follow-up
pair-wise comparisons revealed significant differences between
the three types; between pseudowords and fully vowelized
word naming speed, (F(1,74) = 209.02, p < 0.001, and between
pseudowords and unvowelized word naming speed, (F(1,74)
= 413.2, p < 0.001), and between vowelized and unvowelized
word naming (F(1,74) = 191.45, p < 0.001). These results indi-
cate that the Arabic-speaking students were slowest in reading
pseudowords, and fastest in reading unvowelized words, with
vowelized word naming speed in between.
Reading accuracy for these same three lists revealed a similar
pattern. The overall analysis was again found to be significant,
F(2,15) = 115.83, p < 0.001. Significant differences were found
between pseudowords and fully vowelized word naming accu-
racy, F(1,74) = 44.13, p < 0.001; pseudowords and unvowel-
ized word naming accuracy, F(1,74) = 162.8, p < 0.001, and
between vowelized and unvowelized word accuracy, F(1,74) =
134.44, p < 0.001. These results indicate that the Arabic-
speaking students made the highest mean number of errors in
Table 1.
Examples of vowelized and unvowelized Arabic words.
Type of stimuli Unvowelized Vowelized
Three letters /ˆare/ 
/sebakˆun/ Four letters /wefakˆ/
Five letters /fareda/ 
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
reading pseudowords, the smallest mean number of errors in
reading unvowelized words, with, once again, vowelized word
errors in between.
The aim of this study was to examine the effect of voweliza-
tion on reading Arabic orthography. The relationships between
oral word (vowelized and unvowelized) and pseudoword read-
ing were examined. The results showed that among Arabic
readers, pseudoword reading was the slowest and least accurate,
reading unvowelized words was the fastest and the most accu-
rate, while reading vowelized word naming speed and accuracy
in between. In contrary to the finding mentioned above, the
finding that pseudowords are named more slowly and less ac-
curately than real words confirm in the “word-superiority” ef-
fect by assuming that words may access the lexicon “directly”
by using whole-word orthographic codes, thereby permitting
direct access to whole-word phonological information (Coltheart,
1978; Bentin & Ibrahim, 1996). However, when reading pseu-
dowords, the reader must rely extensively on letter-sound con-
version rules (Taouk & Coltheart, 2004, Simon, Bernard,
Lalonde & Rebai, 2004). This process of pre-lexical phono-
logical assembly is slower and less efficient (e.g., Coltheart,
Besner, Jonasson, & Davelaar, 1979; Seidenberg & Zevin,
2006). Surprisingly, unvowelized words were read aloud more
quickly and more accurately than the shallow fully vowelized
Arabic words. It was expected that readers would be able to
achieve greater pronunciation accuracy through exclusive reli-
ance on the phonological information offered by diacritics that
disambiguate Arabic homographs (Azzam, 1989; Abu-Rabia &
Siegel, 1995; Abu-Rabia, 1996, 1998; Abu-Rabia et al., 2003;
Frost, 1994, 1995; Saiegh-Haddad, 2003; Saiegh-Haddad &
Geva, 2008), which are often phonologically and semantically
ambiguous. Furthermore, in reading unvowelized words the
reader must activate his or her knowledge of literary Arabic
such as vocabulary, morphology, and exposure to print (Abu-
Rabia, 1996, 1998; Abu-Rabia et al., 2003; Frost, 1994; Shim-
ron, 1999). This is especially true in reading a list of isolated
words without short vowels because the reader is deprived of
contextual information that is known to facilitate word identifi-
cation (Perfetti, 1985; Rumelhart, 1977). In fully vowelized
Arabic, vowels supply a regular and consistent representation
that renders any additional linguistic information redundant,
especially when readers are not timed (Saiegh-Haddad & Geva,
2008). In unvowelized Arabic, however, all diacritical marks
are absent and vowel identity has to be restored by the reader as
an integral part of the word identification process. The disad-
vantage of vowelized words in both speed and accuracy was
therefore unexpected, and, furthermore, inconsistent with find-
ings from several other relevant studies. For example, Abu-
Rabia reported a series of studies examining reading accuracy
as a function of vowels and context (Abu-Rabia & Siegel, 1995;
Abu-Rabia, 1996, 1998). The results consistently indicated that
vowels improved the reading accuracy in both poor and skilled
readers, in young Arabic speakers (8th grade), as well as for
highly proficient adult readers (university students). There are
several possible explanations for this mismatch between the
present finding and Abu-Rabia’s results. First, all of the pre-
ceding studies tested only reading accuracy but not reading
speed. The tests in Abu-Rabia’s studies were not timed, while
in the present study, the participants were asked to read as
quickly and accurately as they could. This raises the possibility
of a speed-accuracy trade-off such that accuracy was sacrificed
for speed. However, this account can be readily dismissed be-
cause the present results showed a significant positive correla-
tion between reading time and accuracy in each task. Second, as
mentioned above, comprehensive phonological information is
required for accurate pronunciation. However, the acquisition
of this information demands that the reader recognize all the
different short-vowel diacritics that are located above, and/or in,
and/or below the letters. The participants in this study typically
have had no contact with vowelized Arabic script for several
years because by the 4th grade vowelized texts are gradually
phased out. Consistently, almost all the participants in the pre-
sent study reported difficulties reading the vowelized Arabic
lists employed here, explicitly stating that the vowel signs con-
stituted a hindrance to them. Similarly, when Abu-Rabia and
Siegel (2003) tested oral word read ability using vowelized
words, their 8th grade participants had the same complaint. In
this line, Roman and Pavard (1987) conducted eye movement
studies on two Arabic texts, vowelized and unvowelized. Find-
ings showed that the text reading processes seem to be impaired
when vowels are introduced. Vowels significantly reduced
reading speed and significantly increased the number of fixa-
tions as well as fixation duration. In a follow-up experiment,
Roman and Pavard (1987) investigated the issue of lexical ac-
cess in Arabic again using vowelized and unvowelized words
among skilled readers. Results showed that the presence of
vowels significantly increased lexical decision latency, delay-
ing responses by 300 msec. The researchers concluded that the
addition of phonologically disambiguating vowel points inhib-
its rather than facilitates lexical decision, and that readers need
to use more contextual information in order to access Arabic
Third, word recognition abilities rest on phonological and
orthographic skills (Frith, 1985), and as readers become more
proficient they rely more on the use of visual orthographic in-
formation (i.e., spelling representations or orthographic codes)
than phonological decoding processes and word recognition
(Fender, 2008). Therefore, skilled 8th grade readers of Arabic
may be shifting away from phonological recoding (which is
helped by vowelized script) toward an orthographic phase in
which unvowelized words that do not contain a complete rep-
resentation of the individual sounds, can be recognized directly
in their visual form, rather than indirectly in terms of their pro-
nunciations (Taouk & Coltheart, 2004). The subjects in this
study were skilled readers, used to reading unvowelized but not
vowelized script. Their presumably extensive orthographic
knowledge predisposes their reading strategy to be primarily
visual-orthographic rather than phonological (Abu-Rabia et al.,
2003). Consistent with this hypothesis, Azzam (1993) exam-
ined the reading and spelling errors committed by 150 Arabic
primary-school children (6 - 11 years old). Azzam’s results
provided evidence for a transition from phonological-recoding
phase, to an orthographic phase mainly reliant on a direct
whole-word encoding strategy. In addition, Taouk and Coltheart
(2004), set out to determine the degree to which children and
adults differentially use phonological recoding and whole-word
encoding strategies in reading. They suggest that if skilled adult
readers rely on a direct whole-word encoding procedure for
reading aloud, and less skilled children readers rely on an indi-
rect recoding procedure that makes use of letter-sound conver-
sion rules, then it would be expected that adults would have
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 251
greater difficulty reading real words consisting of letters written
in their incorrect positions (
) than children with adequate
knowledge of letter-sound rules. The results indicated that
adults were much more disadvantaged than children by the
illegal positioning of letters that are foreign to the standard
orthographic form of the word.
In addition, since skilled readers of Arabic normally read
words without short vowels, they recognize ambiguous words
by relying on other resources, such as morphological and con-
textual knowledge. In the present study, however, the words
were presented without sentence context depriving the reader of
morpho-syntactic information and forcing the reader to rely on
the phonological information supplied in the no-longer-familiar
vowels. If we assume that skilled readers favor reading words
through visual-orthographic information then the unvowelized
forms they typically read will be read faster and more accu-
rately than the vowelized words.
Reading in the Arabic language is found to be uniquely chal-
lenging due to linguistic and visual factors. The results reported
above suggest that 8th graders used a different perceptual and
coding strategy when the stimuli differ in their lexical feature
(word vs pseudoword) and visual/orthographic feature (vowel-
ized vs unvowelized). The present research adds to the accu-
mulating body of evidence affirming the cognitive complexity
of written Arabic.
The main findings of the present study have general implica-
tions for teaching reading in Arabic, both for native Arabic
speakers and for learners who are not Arabic native speakers. In
that regard, Arab schools have the responsibility to consider
encouraging reading in every possible way, such as designing a
library in every classroom, giving reading homework, holding
reading contests, and holding discussions with students on
books they have read. Second, it is recommended to increase
the hours of teaching Arabic language, especially as the Arab
pupils begin to study a second language (Hebrew) in second
grade and third language (English) in third grade, often at the
expense of the hours allocated to teaching the Arabic language.
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