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Dr. Muhammad Muhammad Mahmoud Abdel Latif (December 2010)

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TIRF’s first Shiekh Nahayan Fellow, Dr. Muhammad Abdel Latif, explains how the findings from his doctoral dissertation affect English language teaching and learning in the Arab world, and the importance of the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship.

Editor’s Note: In this interview, Dr. Muhammad Abdel-Latif (Cairo University, Giza, Egypt) notes that through collaboration with donors and local researchers, TIRF can play a positive role as an international foundation with a focus on regional issues.

Dr. Muhammad Muhammad Mahmoud Abdel Latif

TIRF: You were the first person to complete your doctoral degree with the support of the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship. What was the topic of your study and what were the main findings?

Dr. Abdel Latif: Briefly my study investigated the relationship among types of linguistic knowledge (grammar knowledge and vocabulary knowledge) and two affective traits (writing apprehension and writing self-efficacy) with respect to Egyptian EFL student-teachers’ writing processes and products. I drew the data of the study from the participants’ think-aloud protocols and their retrospective and background interviews along with their scores on argumentative writing tasks, three linguistic tests, and two affective scales. The participants’ scores on the linguistic and affective measures were compared to their composing processes and behaviours, switching to L1, time spent writing, and writing fluency, and to the analytic quality and length features of their written products. In addition, writing background interview protocols were analyzed to identify the factors accounting for the differences in writing affect levels.

The results of my study indicate that the different levels of EFL students’ writing affect are shaped by the differences in their linguistic knowledge and writing skills levels and their beliefs about these factors. Other instructional and social factors seemed to have influenced students’ writing affect too. The writing product results generally suggest that EFL writers’ linguistic knowledge has a more influential role in shaping their text quality and text length aspects than does their affect. Accordingly, it can be argued that the relationship of writers’ affect with their text quality and text length is likely to be influenced by the relationship patterns of these product variables with their linguistic knowledge. That is, the way writers’ affect correlates with these product features seems to be contingent upon how they correlate with the writers’ linguistic knowledge. Similarly, written fluency as measured by the mean length of writers’ translating episodes correlates more highly with linguistic knowledge and the language-related aspects in their texts than with their affect. On the other hand, EFL writers’ affect seems to exert lower influence than does their linguistic knowledge on their composing processes, but it has stronger correlations with the time they spend on the whole writing process and on the writing stage.

One main contribution of my study is the process-based indicator it proposes for assessing writing fluency. Another important contribution is the refined cognitive model of writing it has developed and its clear-cut conceptualization of the six composing process components (planning, monitoring, retrieving, transcribing, reviewing, and text-changing). Compared to earlier models, the new conceptualization of the composing process better describes the interaction among composing components, i.e., how the allocation of efforts to one component influences the efforts allocated to another.

TIRF: One of the main purposes of the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowships was to promote effective teaching and learning of English in the Arab world? How did your study contribute to that goal?

Dr. Abdel Latif: Well, involving a sample of Egyptian student-teachers in my study simply means that it is particularly related to English language education in the most populated Arab country, since Egypt has nearly a quarter of the population of the Arab world. The way my study contributes to promoting effective teaching and learning of English in the Arab world can be summarized as follows:

  • It provides a comprehensive picture about the explanatory variables of Arab/Egyptian EFL university students’ writing processes and products.
  • It presents a detailed description of the composing behaviours and processes Arab learners may use while composing in English.
  • It draws teachers’ attention to how to help Arab EFL students’ overcome their writing problems at both the process and product levels.

My study suggests some techniques for dealing with Arab students’ English writing problems. In the last three years, I have published three articles in Perspectives (The ELT Journal of TESOL Arabia) and a book chapter published by TESOL ARABIA as well. All four publications are derived from my doctoral research. I hope all these publications can promote writing research and pedagogy in the Arab world.

TIRF: How do (or how can) your research findings contribute to the teaching of English as a foreign language in Egypt?

Dr. Abdel Latif: I can say my study has very important implications for the optimal teaching of EFL writing to Egyptian students, particularly university students. It indicates what types of composing processes are used by students with different linguistic knowledge and writing affect levels and what aspects of texts they produce. The study also shows the factors accounting for the different levels in EFL writing affect.

Pedagogically speaking, my study presents some recommendations for dealing with the difficulties these students encounter in their writing at both the process and product levels. In writing classes, teachers can help such students develop their linguistic knowledge by using reading-to-write tasks and by providing them with language use, lexical and modeling activities that may enrich their grammar and vocabulary knowledge. I recommend that the way EFL writing teachers focus on using the linguistic activities in their classes needs to be dependent on their students’ proficiency levels. In addition to dealing with students’ linguistic difficulties, the results of my study emphasize the need for addressing the factors accounting for negative writers’ affect. Teachers can help students overcome their negative English writing affect by adopting a comprehensive approach to teaching writing that could meet the learners’ strategic, linguistic and psychological needs. More positive writing affect levels can be fostered by using an integrated mode of the process and product approaches to teaching writing. While the former will help students overcome the problem of communication apprehension and become more motivated in their writing via teacher-student and student-student interactional patterns, the latter could enhance their language skills.

TIRF: How do (or how can) your research findings contribute to teacher training in Egypt?

Dr. Abdel Latif: As I have said earlier, the participants who took part in my study were prospective EFL teachers undergoing pre-service English language teacher education. The sample represents a wide population of EFL student-teachers attending the faculties of education in Egypt. Though my study was mainly concerned with these students’ writing performance and how to improve it, the students’ scores on the linguistic tests used suggest that their linguistic knowledge levels are not satisfactory. The study highlights the weaknesses of the language program provided to EFL student-teachers in Egypt, suggesting a need to reshape the whole English language teacher education program by including more language courses, and by offering the educational courses in English rather than in Arabic. This suggested reform in English language education programs for pre-service teachers in Egypt is likely to result in improving their linguistic knowledge, and may help in turn to improve their writing performance. The higher level of linguistic competency EFL writers have, the more likely they will be able to find and retrieve syntactic and lexical alternatives easily, and allocate more efforts to planning their ideas, organizing their composing processes, and reviewing the text produced. In turn, they will be able to produce good English texts. In contrast, EFL writers with lower linguistic knowledge levels are likely to produce poor texts because their composing processes will be constrained by their linguistic deficiencies. As a result, under such linguistic constraints they will not be able to plan the ideational content of their texts or organize their composing processes. To summarize, my study suggests the importance of reforming the language program of EFL teacher education in Egypt.

TIRF: What advice do you have for young scholars trying to carry out research in EFL contexts?

I would say that every researcher should read as much as they can about their target research areas before identifying research questions and data collection sources. Reading more literature means that researchers will be well-informed about how to properly implement every stage in their studies. They need also to think about their ability to carry out their studies and how feasible these studies will be. Some novice researchers may have problems in identifying what to read. If I were one of them, I would start by reviewing and reading relevant articles published in outstanding international journals, including those linked on TIRF’s website.

TIRF: You received both the 2009 Canadian Modern Language Review Best Graduate Student Paper and the 2009 ACTFL-MLJ Emma Marie Birkmaier Award for Doctoral Dissertation Research in Foreign Language Education. What role did winning the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship play in your ability to compete for these awards?

Dr. Abdel Latif: That is a good question.  Actually, I used to work very hard during my PhD candidature. At the very beginning of my PhD journey, I didn’t have much confidence in my ability as a researcher, but later on in the middle of this journey and after having some confidence in my work I began to question myself: How does the quality of my doctoral study compare to the quality of those of my Arab and international peers worldwide? When I received the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship, I began to feel I was doing a very good study because this award means it is one of the doctoral projects contributing significantly to the teaching and learning of English in the Arab world. What made my confidence in my ability as researcher grow more and more is that this prestigious fellowship was granted to me based on the adjudication of a committee comprised of TIRF Board members and other internationally recognized English language education researchers. Therefore, while the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship helped me to have more confidence in the quality of the research project I was doing, it also motivated me to work harder so as to show that I deserved this important award. My increased confidence after winning the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship encouraged me to compete for these two awards. And to be honest, receiving the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship from an important international organization such as TIRF made me optimistic about winning these other two awards.

TIRF: Other than winning these two prestigious awards, how did receiving the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowship influence your own career?

Dr. Abdel Latif: Of course, it has greatly influenced my career, and will continue to do so. As I have said, winning this award from TIRF in particular meant to me a lot in terms of the quality of my PhD study and my confidence in my ability as a researcher. The Fellowship positioned me well among ELT researchers in the Arab world and I expect that it will help me in my future applications for any post or research project fund.

TIRF: How important is English language learning for young people in the Arab world?

Dr. Abdel Latif: As in many other parts of today’s world, English is the most widely taught foreign language in Arab countries. Both children and adults are interested in learning English to be  part of the globalized world and its culture. English is used as the medium of communication in many Arab business corporations, as well as in media channels. Three decades ago, there were a few schools in Egypt and the Arab world in which English was used as the medium of instruction –language schools as they are called. At present, I think they account for about 25-30% of schools in the Arab world. Likewise, English is the medium of instruction in many universities in the Arab world. Generally speaking, Arab parents are interested in helping their children enter these schools and universities, or even in sending them to study in English-speaking countries, because they want them to have excellent spoken and written English. With this increasing interest in learning English, more English language education research is needed in the region.

TIRF: What role(s) do you think TIRF could play in promoting English language learning and teaching in the Middle East?

Dr. Abdel Latif: I think TIRF has some important roles to play in this respect. TIRF can focus on promoting English language education research in the Arab world and help members of TESOL Arabia address important issues in English language teaching to speakers of Arabic. Such efforts might include sponsoring large-scale English language education research projects in the Arab world, sponsoring an Arab journal of ELT research, and helping create networks among English language education researchers in the Arab world.

TIRF: What words of encouragement would you offer to someone who was considering providing scholarship funding similar to that of the Sheikh Nahayan Doctoral Dissertation Fellowships?

Dr. Abdel Latif: I would say that English language education is the key to enhancing mutual interaction between Arab students and their international peers. Research can play an important role in promoting English language education in the Arab world. While English language education research is funded by different organizations in some parts of the world, such as Western Europe and North America, it receives little financial and organizational support in our Arab world. That is why substantial donations to TIRF, like the Sheikh Nahayan Fellowships, have the potential to assist local researchers in identifying effective English language education practices in Arab countries.