Who is the Author, teacher or students?

Report on Handwriting Case: Mr. Rami Al-Sayes and a Facebook Post of 2nd Graders' Dictation Tests

Prepared by Forensic Linguistics students (PhD Programme), from the University of Jordan 
Supervised by Professor Jihad Hamdan

Under the supervision and guidance of our Professor, Jihad Hamdan, as Forensic Linguistics PhD students at The University of Jordan, we paid a visit to Mr. Rami Al-Sayes and his class of 2nd graders in Az-Zarqa District, UNRWA, on the 6th of March, 2018.

The purpose of our visit was to assess the suggestions made by a certain 'specialist' who alleged a few weeks earlier that the dictation tests Mr. Al-Sayes posted on his Facebook page of his students' beautiful handwriting were all written by the same person and not by the children themselves. This proposition indirectly implied that Mr. Al-Sayes had written the texts himself and then posted them on his Facebook page, falsely purporting that they were products of his own students.

As researchers in the field of Forensic linguistics, we conducted an investigation with the aim of assessing the facts and eventually arriving at an objective conclusion based on the skills and techniques used by forensic linguists in similar cases. Our conclusions are based on the concrete evidence which we gathered from the classroom environment, in addition to Mr. Al-Sayes's responses to a number of pre-prepared questions. The questions included the approaches Mr. Al-Sayes adopts in teaching dictation and handwriting, the methods followed in correcting dictation mistakes and his interpretation of such mistakes. We also obtained a larger sample of students’ writing and had the opportunity to meet and observe them during class time while taking seen and unseen dictation tests. We further monitored their performance levels and their interaction with Mr. Al-Sayes and compared the writing samples posted on Facebook to the sample we obtained on the day of our visit. As a result, we were able to come to a valid conclusion that can be summed up in the following eight points:

1) These students have been with Mr. Al-Sayes since first grade. During this time, he has shown them how to write letters on the board, accompanied by detailed explanations of the way each letter should be formed. This is done by showing them the movements of the hand by using colors and highlighting the different parts of the letter. The teacher also explains how the letter should be written according to the line, as well as exemplifying what constitutes an error. As we know, students often imitate teachers and this is especially the case the longer they are exposed to a certain adult. The fact then that there were similarities between Mr. Al-Sayes' handwriting and his students comes as no surprise. Mr. Al-Sayes is the one who provides the model of handwriting for students to follow; it is him, day in and day out, who writes on the board and corrects students' handwriting in their notebooks, and hence it is quite natural that their handwriting resembles that of Mr. Al-Sayes, in addition to each others’.

2) For seen copying tests, students are actually routinely given typed sentences to copy, and not a copy of Mr. Al-Sayes's own handwriting. In this sense, we observed for the majority of the time (especially in 2nd grade), that the children are in fact imitating a typed model (taken from their textbooks) which also explains why their handwriting is similar. The fact that Mr. Al-Sayes himself says he follows the model provided in the textbook is further evidence to suggest that it is plausible for the majority of the students' handwriting to look extremely similar. 

3) We observed students erasing their mistakes during an unseen dictation by Mr. Al-Sayes. This was prompted at times by an intuition on the part of the student that something was wrong and at other times by a hint from Mr. Al-Sayes that a student should revise his sentence, such as saying "I'll get angry with you". Mr. Al-Sayes in fact, not only allows erasing during dictation tests, but also promotes it, advocating that students should be given the opportunity to correct their own mistakes as they see fit. One may wonder why this is relevant. When we reexamined the original texts posted on Facebook, we also observed evidence of erasing. Hence, it would take a person to think very deeply if they wished to write numerous texts, add erasing marks (in an attempt to imitate children) and then claim students had written them, when this was in fact not the case. The latter scenario is highly unlikely.

4) We asked Mr. Al-Sayes to give the students two writing tasks in our presence; one seen and another unseen. These two dictation tests included some of the words posted on Facebook. They were of interest to us because some resembled Mr. Al-Sayes's handwriting, while some consisted of the most common misspellings. We later collated this sample with the Facebook sample and concluded that the sample we obtained is quite similar to the one online in terms of the students’ neat handwriting, their observance of the letter-line rules, the general way they drew the letters and the mistakes they commonly made. We also collated the sample with another sample of 2nd graders’ handwriting that we obtained from another school and we found that students of this level make almost the same mistakes in handwriting and spelling of difficult words. 

5) It is observable that both Mr. Al-Sayes and his students shade in the letter ع in the middle position. One may argue that this would be a cause of suspicion since it could be mistaken as an idiosyncratic trait. However, it is in fact the case that Mr. Al-Sayes insists on the ع being shaded in to distinguish it from ف, and this is a practice also encouraged in the students' textbooks, which explains why it is a common trait across all texts.

6) We asked Mr. Al-Sayes to give his own interpretation of the two common mistakes in writing the wordsالأطفال and الطعام. He stated that writing these words correctly involves mastering relatively advanced writing skills. For instance, in the word الطعامَ the Fatḥah (an Arabic diacritic) on the Mim sound can be misheard as هـ which causes confusion for the students and results in them misspelling the word as الطعامه. Furthermore, the word الأطفال needs more attention and concentration since it begins with two Hamzas and the students have to distinguish which one of them is pronounced and which is not, and as such they tend to write the word as " "الائطفالor الطفال"”. It is the relative difficulty in spelling, not that the assignments were written by a single person, which triggered the mistakes in question.

7) We observed the students while they were writing the targeted letters and we noticed that they tend to directly imitate their teacher’s writing style. Moreover, we asked them to illustrate how they write these letters and they were able to provide accurate, confident and ready answers to our questions.

8) We noticed through reading relevant Facebook posts that Mr. Al-Sayes is found to be a dedicated and hardworking teacher and that he has a very good reputation among parents and specialists. We also observed how closely he follows up his students’ performance and how proud he is of them.

Based on all of these observations and pieces of evidence, we have come to the conclusion that the ‘specialist’s’ claim has no foundation, that it is the students who actually wrote the texts, and that the acclaim Mr. Al-Sayes has obtained is well deserved.

Finally, we would like to personally thank our instructor, Professor Jihad Hamdan, for giving us the opportunity to apply what we have learned in our Forensic Linguistics course. We would also like to extend our gratitude to Az-Zarqa Education District for facilitating our visit, and to Mr. Al-Sayes and his 2nd graders for welcoming us with open arms and giving us the opportunity to witness what a great job they are all doing. Keep up the good work!