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The role of verbal patterns in Arabic reading acquisition: insights from cross-modal priming


The role of morphology in learning to read can vary widely across languages and is related to the extent to which the morphological system is a dominant feature of the specific language. The present study focuses on Arabic, a Semitic language written in an abjad (consonantal writing system) and characterized by rich morphological structures based on non-concatenative word-building procedures. This study is the first to address the issue of verbal pattern priming among young developing Arabic speakers. Second and fifth graders performed a lexical decision task using cross-modal priming in which target words primed by the same verbal pattern as the target (/tanaffasa/- /tamahhala/ 'breathed-slowed') were compared to words primed with a different verbal pattern than the target while preserving phonological similarity (e.g., /tana:qaʃa/ - /tamahhala/'discussed-slowed'). The findings showed facilitation for target words on accuracy rates among fifth graders only. No facilitation in lexical decisions was observed in reaction times in either grade. These findings show that the verbal pattern acts as a binding agent at a more advanced stage of reading acquisition enhancing representation quality in terms of accuracy. With regard to speed, more reading experience, linguistic knowledge, and exposure to the written language are apparently required.

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Fig. 1


  1. The letter C represents the position of a root consonant.

  2. The phonological unity of the root is disrupted in cases of weak roots (i.e., roots that involve the glides و /w/or ي /y/or both, as part of their component consonants; these undergo allomorphy and appear with only two of their three consonants in some derivations).

  3. The extra lineal diacritic-like signs also include two marks: one that maps vowel nullification (/ʔassuku:nu/ (ْ, and one that denotes consonant gemination (/ʔʃʃaddatu/ ّ (N.B. the broken circle represents any consonant letter). They also include less frequent signs (i.e., /madda/ ~)), /hamzatu-l-waṣli/ٱ)) which only appears on the alif, and the “dagger” alif or superscript alif /ʔal-ʔalifu-l- xanjariyyatu/, ٰ)) (see, for details, Saiegh-Haddad & Henkin-Roitfarb, 2014).

  4. CAPITAL LATIN LETTERS is used together with their Arabic counterparts, to transcribe the Arabic orthography.

  5. The verbal patterns usually referred to in the orientalist tradition by Roman numerals (Holes, 1995).

  6. C stands for radical consonants.

  7. The examples in this study are in their 3rd person masc. past form and are free of inflectional suffixes.

  8. There are different methods of transcribing the verbal patterns (see for example, Holes 1995). The glottal stop consonants was not included in some patterns. However, selecting one mode of presentation or another does not have any implications for the results of the study and I adhere to one mode for the purposing of maintaining consistency.

  9. Diglossia: The most conspicuous hallmark of the Arabic language (Maamouri, 1998).

    in which two varieties, the spoken Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, exist and are used side-by-side by the same speakers (Ferguson, 1959; Maamouri, 1998; Myhill, 2014). Spoken Arabic is the variety that is used in daily conversation and everyday communication. Standard Arabic, in contrast, a modern descendant of Classical Arabic and Literary Arabic, is highly uniform across the entire Arabic world and is the only language variety that has a conventional written form. It is typically not acquired as a first spoken language.

  10. Saiegh-Haddad (2013) classified the words in her spelling task into two categories according to whether the letter < t > in these words was regular—mapping the default voiceless dental-alveolar stop /t/, or irregular—mapping its velarised counterpart [tˁ].

  11. The Bayes factor of the priming effects in the related condition relative to the control condition in second grade was 8.986 (null versus alternative hypothesis).


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The author thanks Prof. Mark Leikin for his assistance in preparing this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Yasmin Shalhoub-Awwad.

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Shalhoub-Awwad, Y. The role of verbal patterns in Arabic reading acquisition: insights from cross-modal priming. Read Writ (2022).

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  • Arabic language
  • Morphology
  • Verbal pattern
  • Development
  • Mental lexicon
  • Cross-modal priming