Zayed University Faculty member conducts a research project of great value


April 15, 2015

A Zayed University faculty member successfully pursued a creative research project that aimed to elevate the low levels of literacy that are widespread in the UAE, and which could result in significant scholarly contributions of value to the research community in Zayed University and the nation.

Following 14 months of hard work and extensive research, “Brains, Language, and Literacy in the UAE: Setting the Standard for Scientific Research into Arabic Reading Ability”, was the fruitful outcome of continued efforts made by Tim Jordan, Professor of Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience at the College of Sustainability and Humanities in Zayed University.

How does the human brain process language and make sense of what is written on a page? What makes people good or bad readers? How do people read Arabic text?

“Working in an area that is brimming with Arabic speakers and readers helped me in my research project. Unfortunately, almost all of the world’s research into the brain processes responsible for reading ability has been conducted using European languages, predominantly English, and the processes that are specific to reading Arabic are largely unknown,” Prof. Jordan, who won the 2015 Provost’s Research Fellowship Award in Zayed University, said.

The Provost’s Research Fellowship Award enables faculty members to complete major research or a scholarly, creative project that will result in important scholarly contributions. The award provides a full or partial teaching reassignment for the full semester to faculty members with established research or scholarly project agendas.

“The purpose of the fellowship is to enable the first body of research into the brain bases of reading ability to be completed in the UAE, with a focus on identifying the visual properties present in Arabic and English that are crucial for good reading ability but which are difficult for poor readers to process,” he added.

Experiments were implemented in the newly founded Cognition and Neuroscience Laboratory at Zayed University, which is equipped with several machines such as electroencephalography (EEG) and eye-tracking systems that have been prepared specifically for this vital research.

“Hardware and software techniques available in the laboratory manipulate the appearance of Arabic text (and, for comparison, English text) so that the physical properties that are used for reading each language, and particularly those that have special importance, can be revealed, and their role in reading ability identified using the laboratory’s sophisticated EEG and eye-tracking systems to monitor reading behavior,” Prof. Jordan explained.

He also emphasized that it is important to note that although Arabic and English words might be considered to be composed only of letters, words in both languages are actually complex visual images comprising a broad range of visual cues, from coarse-scale cues describing the overall length and shape, and location of words, to fine-scale cues associated with individual letters and letter features.

“Reduced sensitivity to coarse-scale cues has previously been linked with dyslexia and poor reading ability in English. However, little is known about the effects of these cues on reading Arabic or on the different levels of reading ability that exist for Arabic and English within the UAE,” Prof. Jordan added.

The finding from this research will be of considerable interest to government bodies concerned with the educational needs of UAE nationals.

“A crucial component of this work is to provide the foundations for the new PhD research and internship opportunities that the Cognition and Neuroscience Laboratory will be offering Zayed University students. By having the additional time for research provided by the Provost Fellowship Award, students will be able to work in the laboratory and learn how experiments are designed and constructed, and how articles and conference presentations in psychology and neuroscience are produced,” he added.

It is worth mentioning that Zayed University is cooperating with many other universities, including the University of Leicester in the UK, where Prof Jordan and his UK colleagues have conducted several studies that linked specific brain processes with the ability to read Arabic.