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Subject-Verb Agreement Errors in Saudi EFL Students Writing Research Paper



The purpose of the study was to study the subject-verb agreement errors in Saudi Arabian EFL students’ writing. The study recognized that students faced various challenges and difficulties in their process of learning English as a foreign language. The challenges were evident in the various kinds of errors that they make in their writings. The study involved a sample of 47 students in the 12th grade from the King Saud Education Complex in Riyadh.

The students’ end of second-term exams in English were studied with a view of identifying the subject-verb agreement errors that were common in their writings. The findings of the research revealed that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students in the sampled population had subject-verb agreement errors, which were attributed to various factors. For instance, lack of adequate instruction materials, outdated curriculum, poor training of teachers, and low motivation among other factors were linked to the poor grasp of subject-verb agreement among the students. This research makes significant recommendations that will guide future research on the topic.


In the highly connected and globalized world of today, the ability to communicate effectively in English through speech and in writing has become highly essential as communication across cultures and languages becomes fundamental. In the process of learning any new language, four key skills are important. They include paying attention, verbal communication, comprehension, and writing. The last skill, namely writing, comes last after the mastery of the other skills. Writing is not a natural or inborn skill. Instead, it must be learned and practiced in a formal educational or instructional setting. However, while there is no doubt that English language writing competence is important, a general agreement has been held that learning how to master written English for EFL students and people who learn the language as a foreign language is very difficult. According to Tang (2012), writing is a complex process, since it involves thinking through ideas and transferring such thoughts and ideas into readable texts that others can understand with ease.

In the process of learning English as a foreign language, knowledge of grammar occurs through various stages in a person’s language development process. The ability to perform various language tasks requires the knowledge of relevant and appropriate grammatical structures, which a beginner must master. In this process, one needs to only master some English grammar rules such as the subject-verb agreement and learn to apply such rules in forming sentences. A study carried out by Stapa and Izahar (2010) found that, indeed, most EFL learners have problems with subject-verb agreement. Indeed, subject-verb agreement is a widespread problem even among the Saudi EFL learners. However, despite the existing knowledge on the challenges that many EFL students face concerning a subject-verb agreement, very few studies have focused on these issues among EFL students in Saudi Arabia.

Statement of the Problem

The introduction has mentioned that, indeed, subject-verb agreement is a major problem that faces many EFL students. Saudi EFL learners also face the same problem. Most of their written works have evident mistakes in subject-verb agreement, as noted by the researchers who have been quoted above. Very few studies covering this problem among Saudi Arabian EFL learners exist. The field of English writing has attracted interest since it has been recognized as a key area that EFL students face difficulties in their learning process. EFL students make various errors in written English, and this is an important part of English writing learning. According to Barzegar (2013), error analysis has become an essential part of language learning and teaching. Several studies have focused on error analysis and have revealed important findings. For instance, a study by Alhaysony (2012) sought to examine the categories of faults that were witnessed in Saudi female EFL learners in their application of articles, especially in the Surface Structure Taxonomies (SST) of mistakes. The study confirmed that while learners committed a substantial amount of mistakes in their application of articles regarding the SST, oversight mistakes were the most recurrent while swapping faults were the least common. Another study by McMullen (2009) examined the application of verbal communication learning tactics (LLSs) by Saudi EFL learners within the KSA. The goal is to find out whether gender and university majors demonstrate any impact on the learning tactics. The research confirms the probable advantages for Saudi learners in the field of strategy education.

In the context of learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL), knowledge of grammar is an intense topic of community interest, as evident in media discussion, especially among those who are concerned and interested in the standard of English language learning and teaching. Previously, teachers of English Language used what was referred to as the Audio Lingual Approach (ALM), where there was non-tolerance of errors in speech or in writing for English learners (Stapa & Izahar, 2010). However, this approach had major shortcomings since students were required to learn the language perfectly from the start, which was impossible. Such an approach did not consider native language and cultural influences on EFL students and was therefore faulty. The introduction of the communicative language teaching approach has, however, changed the perception of learner’s errors in the language learning process, and, instead, such errors are now considered as part of the foreign language learning process. According to Nezami and Najafi (2012), errors in language learning are important as they indicate the level of proficiency of a learner in the language they are learning at a particular point in time.

Purpose of the Study

The main aim of this study is to study the subject-verb agreement errors in EFL Saudi students’ writing. In addressing this issue, the study will seek to fulfill three main goals, that is:

  1. Identify the main challenges facing students in subject-verb agreement
  2. Identify the reasons that lead students to make mistakes in subject-verb agreement
  3. Propose ways of reducing subject-verb agreement errors among EFL Saudi students

Significance of the Study

This study is of great importance as it helps identify subject-verb agreement errors among students of the English language in Saudi Arabia. The knowledge that will be obtained from the research will be very important in determining the actions that need to be taken in order to make teaching and learning of EFL grammar more effective. Further, the findings of the study can be used to guide teachers in determining the best course of action in addressing various challenges students face in subject-verb agreement. Lastly, the findings of the study can be used to help teachers and instructional designers in devising new and more suitable instructional materials and approaches, which can make teaching and learning of grammar among Saudi EFL students more effective.

Definition of Terms

The following terms and phrases are of great significance in the paper:

  1. Subject-verb agreement-This phrase means that the subject and the verb in a sentence must agree in number. In other words, if the subject is singular, the verb should be singular, while if the subject is plural, the verb should also be plural.
  2. English as a Second Language (ESL)-This phrase refers to the process of learning English among students whose first language is not English.
  3. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) – Refers to students who are learning English as a second language while living in their own country.
  4. Language Learning-The process learning a language and its related rules of grammar, speech, writing, spelling among other areas that can allow one to achieve competency in the language.
  5. Curriculum-Refers to the wholeness of instruction approaches to teaching and learning, as well as materials for instruction, that allow the best outcomes for students in a given subject of their education.

Questions of the Study

The following are the research questions for this study:

  1. What are the challenges facing students in subject-verb agreement?
  2. Why do students make mistakes in subject-verb agreement?
  3. How can the students reduce their errors?

Literature Review

The literature review will form an important part of this study because it is investigating and revealing important knowledge from previous studies that have been carried on the subject of related areas of English as a Second Language (ESL). The studies will be important in ensuring that this study identifies existing gaps in the literature and consequently ensuring that such gaps are filled appropriately by the study.

The Process of Language Learning

The field of learning a foreign language has attracted a lot of research and interest from various researchers and linguistics. The difference between the process of acquiring the second language and the first is also a major area of interest among scholars. Since the first publication of Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language, in 1974 by Fries, there have been various advancements in the field (Alhaysony, 2012). Indeed, there have been numerous publications focusing on studying the process of foreign language acquisition in many languages across the world. According to Alhaysony (2012), contrastive analysis (CA) is based on behaviorism and structuralism. Barzegar (2013) considers the contrastive analysis a type of linguistic research that views the main challenge in foreign language learning as emanating from the interference from the source language or the first language of the learners. However, the use of CA in analyzing the challenges faced by foreign language learners has not been adopted widely due to various shortcomings in its conceptualization. For instance, since it is based on contrasting the source language and the foreign language that students are learning, the method fails to recognize the importance of the first language in the process of foreign language learning. It is for the above reason that Error Analysis (EA) approach has become the most popular method of analyzing the foreign language learning process. The error analysis method views the errors students make in their foreign learning process as an important indicator of the level of proficiency of the students in the new language. In other words, by viewing the learner and the language being learned, EA recognizes that indeed foreign language learning process is in phases or inter-languages and the errors are positive indicators of the student’s learning process and experimentation with linguistic rules in order to proceed from one level of inter-language to the next.

According to Alfallaj, Al-Ahdal, Al-Awaied, and Al-Hattami (2014), the process of learning a foreign language differs significantly from the process involved in learning the first language. In first language learning, the process involves a systematic path where a child passes through several stages, which include babbling, single, double, and multiple word pronunciation. However, unlike in the first language learning where the process is natural, in foreign learning, it is a deliberate effort towards learning such language. Further, while in the first language learning, the process does not involve writing as an important skill until later when someone joins a school, in foreign language learning, speech and writing skills are taught simultaneously.

Stapa and Izahar (2010) assert that words and phrases are the building blocks of a sentence and meaning that allow communication to occur. If these are not correctly constructed when writing, then it becomes difficult or sometimes impossible for individuals to pass their thoughts to others. Stapa and Izahar (2010) further reveal that the major errors that are made by EFL students are mainly associated with verbs. Since a subject-verb agreement is an important area of expressing ideas coherently, especially in writing where verbal communication is lacking, students have to master this skill to write effectively. A study by Yasin, Al Noori, and Al Shamary (2015) examined the occurrence of subject-verb harmony mistakes using a sample of thirty Iraqi high school learners. The research realized many subject-verb mistakes in the sampled learners. Hence, if the students can master the skills of subject-verb agreement, they can pass their intended messages clearly and effectively. The importance of subject-verb agreement has been recognized, and it is for this reason that the rule is introduced very early to EFL students in their learning process. However, many students still face challenges in mastering the correct form of structure. Indeed, according to Celce-Murcia and Freeman (1983), despite the early introduction of subject-verb agreement, they pose problems to EFL learners at all levels of proficiency.

The above studies reveal that, indeed, the foreign language learning process is a difficult process, which requires a systematic approach that allows students to move from one state of proficiency to the next where making errors is part of the learning process.

Errors Made by EFL Learners

As previously discussed, the field of error analysis for students learning English as a foreign language has attracted a lot of attention among scholars and linguistic. Error analysis is an important process of identifying and studying errors made by second-language students. Such error analysis allows educationists and linguistics to understand the common errors that students make, which further guides them in designing curriculum and language teaching approaches that can help the students avoid the typical language learning errors to move faster along the proficiency ladder in their learning process.

Firstly, the studies that have focused on the analysis of English as Foreign Language learners have been able to allow major strides towards easing the language learning process for students across the world. Alfallaj, Al-Ahdal, Al-Awaied, and Al-Hattami (2014) assert that such studies have allowed educationists and curriculum designers to understand the errors that are made by students, which are linked to the level of proficiency in a student’s learning process. For example, a study carried by Alhasony (2012) analyzed errors made by students in Saudi Arabia in their written English essays. Alhasony used the Surface Structure Taxonomies (SST) to count the number of errors identified in the Essays of 100 female students at Ha’il University. In the study, the author found that students made omission errors, especially by omitting articles. Further, the students made substitution errors where they used wrong articles in sentences. However, the results of the study could not be generalized since they focused on one type of error and hence the need for a more comprehensive study to help understand other errors that students make in their learning process in English as a foreign language.

Another more detailed study that was carried by Al-Khairy (2013) investigated the academic writing challenges faced by the Saudi EFL students in tertiary institutions. In the study, the results indicate a high number of errors in students’ writing. Further, the study revealed that students have very limited English writing skills and could not produce different types of essays in English. Many of the errors that were reported by the students and teachers in the study included a subject-verb agreement, inappropriate selection of vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. The major shortcoming of the study was that it was interview-based and hence did not reveal errors made by students as would have been revealed by a study on their own written papers.

Many studies have focused on the type of errors that non-native students make in their writings. However, such studies have not reached a consensus on the type of error that is most common, especially among native Arab speaking students. For instance, a study by Sawalmeh (2013) examined the errors that 32 Saudi learners of English made in their writings. The students wrote an essay, and the researcher then analyzed to identify the major errors in the essays. After the analysis of the essays, the study revealed ten common errors, which are verb tense, subject-verb agreement, word order, pronouns, capitalization, spelling, prepositions, double negatives, sentence fragments, and articles. The study further pointed out that first language interference was also a major cause of errors that were recorded.

A study by Tan (2008) on 95-second year EFL learners in Kun Shan University, Taiwan, found that the top four errors that were made by the students were word choice, missing subject, verb tense, and verb form. Tan concluded that subject-verb agreement, limited vocabulary size, poor grammar knowledge, and interference from the first language were the major errors.

A study carried by Kambal (1980) on first-year university students of Sudanese University revealed that the students had three major errors in their English verb phrases. These errors were verb formation, tense, and subject-verb agreement. Another study by Faruk (2014) investigated the errors made by Arab speaking learners of English. The study involved 128 students from Yarmouk University in Jordan. The researcher found 691 lexical errors. According to the researcher, while most of the troubles could be foreseen using the disparity examination, the fault investigation technique was much practical since not all the mistakes determined by CA arise as revealed by the study. Further, the study revealed that most mistakes included a lack of cohesion and coherence and tense errors. Further, the study revealed that most learners committed analogous mistakes since they depended on their relocation to judge the suitable handling of prepositions.

Another study by Chan (2004) sought to investigate the writing errors among 710 Hong Kong Chinese ESL learners across different levels of proficiency. The study focuses on five error types, which include a lack of control of the copula, incorrect placement of adverbs, inability to use the there be structure when expressing the existential or presentative function, the failure to use the relative clause, and confusion in verb transitivity. The researcher found evidence for the transfer of syntax from Chinese to English. Further, the findings revealed that the extent of transfer of syntax was greater for complex English structures and among students of lower proficiency levels.

In his comprehensive study on Arabic presenters, Abu Riash (2011) identified many types of mistakes that were made by Saudi Arabian English students. These faults included consonant groups, queries and downbeats, statement arrangement, auxiliaries, subject-verb conformity, and objects, among others. Alyousef (2006) carried another study for students on students in grade 11. In the study, the author grouped the writing errors into three categories, that is, grammatical, semantic, and lexical. The findings demonstrated that many of the students’ faults were because of first language influence. In this case, the students’ errors evident in their script were linked with their relocation of the national tongue, where most of the mistakes were evident in their semantics and terminology application.

Sarfraz (2011) conducted a research to examine the mistakes made by Pakistani learners concerning the use of prepositions and objects in their writing. The study revealed significant mistakes that the learners made in their application of articles. Close to 155 learners were victims of these mistakes. Among the faults, 83.56% were errors related to indefinite articles, while the remaining 16.44% were indefinite errors. About 52.63% were omission errors, roughly 20% constituted insertion mistakes, while close to 30% were puzzlement faults. The researchers deduced that Pakistani learners experienced more troubles concerning indefinite articles.

In the recent past, the investigation of the root of the mistakes has been considered a central feature in the study of student subject-verb mistakes. Many scholars suppose that an apparent appreciation of the root of the mistakes committed by a distant tongue student is an important aspect that can guide him or her to have better results. According to Lai and Waltman (2008), the mistakes that EFL students commit in their writing appear in three classes, which include obstruction, intralingual, and exclusive faults. The research confirmed that only 5% of the mistakes among EFL students resulted from obstruction, while close to 90% of the faults were intralingual. The remaining 8% were unique errors. The study suggested that students’ primary speech was not important in the course of learning a fresh tongue.

Learning of English in Saudi Arabia

The globalization of the world and the increasing popularity of English as a global language mean that many countries cannot ignore its importance in not only opening up their economies to the world but also in promoting their people’s participation in the globe. Saudi Arabia has consequently undertaken important steps in promoting the learning of the English language through the school curriculum (Khan, 2011). The English curriculum has created important objectives that students in their English learning process must meet at different levels of learning. For instance, students in high school up to the 12th grade must achieve specific objectives in their learning to ensure that they achieve a level of proficiency required for their stage.

Firstly, the students are expected to gain an advanced understanding of the English language that is important in ensuring the use of the English language proficiently. In this case, the students are required to acquire important knowledge relating to English rules such as the use of articles, verbs, prepositions, subject-verb agreement, among other rules.

The second important objective in the English curriculum in Saudi Arabia for high school students is the ability to listen and understand simple and advanced English proficiently. In this objective, the government understands that learning high school is an important part of the education system as it sets the path for higher education learning where students study both locally and international and hence the need have a high proficiency of English language by the end of the high school (Khan, 2011).

The third most important objective that the Saudi Arabia English curriculum provides for high school students with the opportunity to have a wider view of the world. In this objective, the education sector recognizes that English is a global language that students who learn can use to understand the world better and interact with people of diverse backgrounds to the learner’s advantage.

In Saudi Arabia, the English curriculum also emphasizes the importance of English in promoting a reading culture where the learners are exposed to arts and science from a different perspective the incorporates a worldwide view (Faruk, 2014). As the most spoken language, English has been used and applied as the favorite language by many scientists and artists, and hence by learning the language, students are open to a world of numerous writings and art.

Across the world, English is an important language used in higher education learning and research across the world. It is for this reason that the ministry of education in Saudi Arabia has placed an important emphasis on learning English to provide adequate knowledge that will help students who intend to join the University in their learning process (Alyousef, 2006). University education opens students to a world of research, and it is important for them to understand the language that many researchers in the world use in their writing. It is for this reason that the ministry of higher education places high emphasis on English, especially for those willing to proceed to tertiary education.

The English curriculum for high school education also advocates for the learning of English with the main aim of ensuring that high school students have sufficient knowledge and skills that can assist them in their careers. With Saudi Arabia becoming an increasingly multi-nationality economy where there are many expatriates in the country as well as many multinational companies establishing the presence in the thriving economy, it is without a doubt that English is an important language that high school students must learn and understand proficiently (Lai & Waltman, 2008). Such an achievement will allow the students to participate in the economy well as well as have higher chances of landing opportunities within the increasingly globalized economy of Saudi Arabia.

The importance of religion in Saudi Arabia is of great significance, and for that matter, it is important for young people and scholars to be equipped with the right language and skills to enable them to defend Islam against adverse criticism and participate in its dissemination (Faruk, 2014). As Islam becomes increasingly widespread across the world, it is important to ensure that those who are followers of the religion participate in spreading and defending its teaching and prophet Mohammed (peace be with him).

According to Alfallaj et al. (2014), despite the importance placed in the teaching of English, especially as far as the English curriculum is concerned, there seems to have a significant mismatch between some of the goals and objectives of teaching the subject and the methods applied. One of the most important methods that are utilized in the country is the Audio-Lingual Method (ALM). In the country, the use of ALM teaches grammar, but the most important aim of the method is to ensure that students are able to speak English so that they may be able to preach Islam. Audio-Lingual Method is an important part of teaching people a new language and allows them to be able to speak fluently in the language (Abu Riash, 2011). In this case, with more focus on audio competency, many Saudi Arabian students are not taught well on how to write good English. It is for this reason that many of the students in the country have major issues in English writing because they are not well taught how to write good English.

However, while the above objectives of Saudi Arabia’s English curriculum for high school students are very clear and detailed, there exists many problems and shortcoming that have led to poor outcomes for English as a foreign language learning. Firstly, according to Karim, Fathema, and Hakim (2015), the curriculum for English as Foreign Language learning fails to focus on the cultural aspects of the society and hence leads to many problems and challenges related to the usage of the language outside the classroom environment. The other problems that the researchers noted were related to the type of topic and length of the content. The researchers argue that the curriculum lacks interesting topics and lengths of content to ensure that students are interested in the subject and able to learning important English rules and concepts to achieve proficiency. Further, the researchers noted that the curriculum does not promote student self-learning, and, consequently, the learners are highly dependent on the classroom environment for their learning. Lastly, there is an inadequacy of modern teaching aids that can encourage effective learning among EFL students in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the study by Nayan and Jusoff (2009) found that teachers lacked the necessary skills to enable them to produce and use teaching aids. The lack of teaching aids meant that the students did not have access to the right instruction and hence explaining their poor outcomes in their English writings.

The teaching of English in Saudi Arabia

The process of teaching English as a foreign language is an important part of ensuring that students gain the skills and knowledge to use the language both in speech and in writing. In order to ensure that students are receiving the right instruction in their learning process, the teacher plays an important role. However, teachers must be qualified and competent enough to ensure that the kind of teaching that they offer to students is above board.

In Saudi Arabia, language teacher education has overly become fragmented, and in this process, teacher education efforts have focused more on theoretical areas of applied linguistics, language acquisition, or methodology, with little emphasis on practical teaching. While the emphasis on this area is important in the laying of the pedagogical foundation among teachers, Elyas and Al Grigri (2014) assert that it has become a great drawback of the language teacher education by not providing the necessary skills in practical teaching. Further, the researchers note that indeed many of the English language teachers do not have the necessary qualification to instruct students for the best language learning outcomes. Another important problem in teacher education in Saudi Arabia relates to a dire shortage of English teachers in the country. As a foreign language, English has only acquired significance in the country recently. Indeed up to now, having access to jobs and other services is not a basic requirement for students in the country need to. For this reason, few teachers are in a position to offer language training. Without adequate teachers, the curriculum has set only five 1 hour an English lesson in a week, which is way below what is recommended internationally.

Another important aspect in language teacher education and consequently teaching process is the lack of teacher supervision. Supervision is an important process in ensuring that teachers are following the required curriculum and providing the right teaching to the students. According to Ellis (2009), three approaches to teacher supervision have been established. They include the supervisory approach, the alternatives approach, and the non-directive approach. In the supervisory approach, the teacher supervisor acts as an arbitrator while commenting and the evaluation of the teacher’s performance using both implicit and explicit terms of fixed criteria. In the alternatives approach, the observer or the supervisor offers various alternatives to observed activities, which allows the teachers to shape their own teaching criteria. Lastly, the non-directive approach, the teacher supervisor, provides an approach that allows reflection and integration of the teacher’s own goals and performance. In the areas of teacher supervision, Abu Riash (2011) finds that, indeed, the Saudi Arabian education system does not offer adequate language teacher education, and this is a course for worry since teachers often use teaching approaches that may be below the required quality standards. Supervision allows teachers to have feedback on their weaknesses and strengths, which consequently helps them to improve their teaching skills and hence good outcomes for their education.

In the teaching process of a foreign language, motivation is an important factor for the success of the teaching as well as learning. In this case, motivation is required to influence the rate and success of foreign language learning. According to Lai and Waltman (2008), motivation is the initial factor that leads to the initiation of foreign language learning and later becomes the driving force that can provide the drive for students to sustain their learning process in the end. A study conducted by Ellis (2009) confirmed less motivation in Saudi Arabia among English language learners. The study concluded that many students were willing to drop the English subject since they viewed it as difficult and hence the low motivation. Further, the teachers also had less motivation. Consequently, this problem must be addressed to ensure that learners gain the necessary skills that can allow them to achieve proficiency and hence reducing or the elimination of many errors in their English writing.

The learning environment is a critical factor that determines the student’s achievement levels in schools as well as in teacher performance. It is for this reason that several studies have been undertaken to ensure that institutions of learners can put in place the right approaches towards a good learning environment that can lead to better outcomes for both learners and teachers. In the process of EFL learning, the learning environment is of significance as it allows students to be in the right frame of mind and hence able to grasp more in their learning process (Nayan & Jusoff, 2009). In a good learning environment, instructors are expected to avoid issues that may bring conflict of interest and consequently allowing the students to experience a healthy learning environment for the best outcomes in their EFL learning process. In the Saudi Arabian context, creating a good learning environment requires culturally sensitive teachers, hence ensuring that they are in a position to provide the best training that considers the students’ cultural upbringing in the process of teaching (Tang, 2012). Teachers are also required to treat all learners equally and fairly. Such an approach will ensure the students and teachers are exposed to a good learning environment where they are likely to have the best outcomes in their learning process.

The techniques that teachers apply in the teaching process, are also very important in determining the students learning outcomes for their English language learning process, as well as in other subjects. The influence of teaching techniques on the performance of EFL teachers was also reviewed. To undertake this evaluation, the study examined the technique’s effectiveness in the teaching process. Further, the study sought to understand the effectiveness of the implementation process of such techniques. The study found that indeed teaching techniques were important indicators and determiners of performance of English-as-a-Foreign-Language teachers, yet it was not highly emphasized in the teacher training process (Khudhayer, 2010). It is for this reason that the study emphasized the importance of teaching techniques in guiding the process of teaching English as a foreign language.

The instruction effectiveness in teacher education plays an important role in determining to ensure the best outcomes for EFL students. According to Nayan and Jusoff (2009), the relationship between the learner, the teachers, and the instructional materials in foreign language teaching is of great significance. The study used the communicative approach. The teacher is the single most important element of instructional effectiveness. Other instructional elements, such as learning materials and learner-centered learning, cannot be achieved without the teacher (Tang, 2012). In this case, thus, there is a need for an emphasis on instructional effectiveness to ensure that teachers have the necessary skills to facilitate learning for EFL students in Saudi Arabia and across the world.

There are basic principles that guide teachers in their teaching process to ensure the best outcomes for EFL learners (Nayan & Jusoff, 2009). For instance, teachers should act as facilitators as opposed to leading the class. They are also should ensure that the kind of topics that they select in the teaching process a geared towards specific grammar that they are able to highlight. It is also important to ensure the teaching process is built around practical and authentic culturally sensitive examples and situations that allow students to relate their learning with (Ellis, 2009). Another important approach and principle of English as a Foreign Language teaching is a focus on communication and meaning rather than accuracy. It is also important to ensure that learners are exposed to the useful and authentic language as opposed to repetitive phrases or grammar patterns.


It is evident that indeed the process of learning English as a foreign language is a complex process, which combines different approaches and concepts. The EFL learning aims at ensuring different proficiencies in the English language both in speech and in writing. As observed in the detailed review of literature, it is evident that very few studies have focused on issues of subject-verb agreement in Saudi Arabia EFL students, yet there is overwhelming literature the same targeting other regions of the world. Despite such a gap in the literature, the few studies that have been highlighted in the paper have shown that indeed subject-verb agreement is a major problem that learners face in their process of learning English in Saudi Arabia. Other studies have suggested important approaches that can help reduce the challenges that students of EFL face in the process of their learning. In a nutshell, regardless of the problem that the students face, it is important to note that the ability to write proficiently in the English language is a great boost to student’s ability to play an important role in the modern world.


Methodology refers to the approaches that are used in the data collection during research. Clear identification of the methods used in the collection of data is important since the findings of the research may have a significant influence on future researches in the given field. In this section, therefore, the research methods that have been used will be discussed.


The sample population of the research was 47 students of 12th grades from the King Saudi High School, which is located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The participants are high school students pursuing English as a foreign language. In this study, the students are studying the language as part of their curriculum requirement. The students have different levels of proficiency in English and hence are an important sample that will highlight the differences in these proficiencies. Further, the participant’s varying levels of competency will help in the study by allowing the identification of specific errors related to subject-verb agreement and consequently leading to important findings that will help in filling the gaps in the literature that have been identified.

Instruments of Data Collection

In this study, the researcher sought to analyze the results of 12th-grade students in their second-semester final exam. In other words, the researcher did not have specially prepared data collected but instead sought to investigate the various errors related to a subject-verb agreement, among other errors that the students had committed in their exam. In the exam, the students were exposed to different types of questions, both open and close-ended questions that they were supposed to respond accordingly. They were also exposed to composition writing, where they were supposed to write a short essay from a selection of three different types of topics. In total, the exam features 12 questions that tested students on different areas of proficiency in English.

The first question in the exam required students to write a composition where they were supposed to write a short essay on a subject of their choice from three options that they were provided. The composition is very important as it provides an important avenue through which teachers can gauge the student’s competency in terms of writing good English sentences and general and passing on ideas coherently. In the second question, the students were required to choose an alternative between two words that would be able to complete a sentence correctly as relates to the context of the idea presented. The third question in the exam required students to match words to their definition that was provided. This was important that would help teachers to know whether students understood the meanings of various words in English.

The next question in the exam required students to complete sentences with the appropriate word to ensure that it makes sense. In this question, various sentences with blank spaces for the missing word tested different rules of English as well as determining whether the students could recognize the correct word in the context of what the sentences depicted. The fifth section of the exam required students to rewrite sentences from active to passive voice. Further, the exam tested the student’s knowledge of the usage of adjectives. In this area, the students were required to complete sentences with the right adjectives.

Other areas that the exam tested were related to the usage of pronouns, direct speech, correct usage of prepositions, as well as comprehension skills. In a nutshell, the usage of the exam in this study was based on the fact the tests provided comprehensive coverage of various areas of English learning, while the response of the students was an important indicator of the levels of proficiency of students in different areas of English language learning.

Data Collection

In this study, the students were not aware that they were participating in a study since they were doing an exam as per their English Language learning curriculum. The number of students who sat for the exam was forty-seven (47), and, consequently, a total of 47 examination answer booklets or sheets were returned. These exam booklets were later sought from the school for the purpose of this research.

Limitations of the Research

Several limitations were encountered in the research. Firstly, the use of the exam as a source of data for the exam limited the research to only a small population. Such a limitation means that although the findings of the research indicated the challenges faced by students in subject-verb agreement, it is difficult to generalize the findings. Secondly, the duration of the research was also short and hence a shortcoming to the research.


The students were required to respond to the exam questions to the best of their ability to achieve the highest marks possible in the subject.


The research and analysis of data will be based on quantitative research design, which will help to analyze and interpret key findings so of the research.

Data Analysis

Data analysis is an important part of any research as it helps researchers to process raw data into meaningful forms that can be interpreted to create information and knowledge. In this study, the main aim was to investigate the major challenges students face in subject-verb agreement during the learning process of English as a Foreign Language. As such, the use of an exam was an important approach as it allowed the students to be tested in different areas of their English competency. Since a subject-verb agreement is a major concept identifiable in written English, the exam was an important approach to obtaining written information as students answered the various questions presented in their test. In an English class setting for foreign language learners in Saudi Arabia, students are taught different concepts that relate to the correct usage of English both in written and spoken language. It is for this reason that the exam paper provided different questions, which did focus not only on a subject-verb agreement but also on other areas of English testing. The exam constituted 12 questions that tested the students on different areas of English learning and proficiency, and out of the responses that were provided, this research sought to identify the subject-verb agreement errors that were made.

Descriptive Statistics

The first segment of the descriptive statistics will represent the various demographics of the students that took part in the exam. The table below summarizes the important demographics of the students:

Number of Students Gender of Students
47 Male

Table 1: The Number and Gender of Students.

From the above table, it is evident that the number of students was represented in the sample population was 47. All the students were of the Male gender, representing 100% of the students since the King Saud Educational Complex is a boys-only school.

In terms of performance in the exam, students achieved different scores, which were indicative of their levels of proficiency in the English language. The maximum score for the exam was set at 40 marks the table below represents the various scores achieved by the students:

Scores Achieved by Students
No. 1 to 10 11 to 20 21-30 31-40
1 12.5 21.5 31
2 4 12.5 22.5 32
3 4.5 12.5 22.5 32
4 5.5 13.5 24 34
5 8 13.5 26 34
6 8.5 14 26.5 35
7 9.5 14.5 27.5 36
8 10 15 28.5 36.5
9 10 15 29.5 37
10 15.5 30 37
11 17 37.5
12 17.5 38.5
13 19 38.5
14 40
15 40
Total (Students) 9 13 10 15

Table 2: Scores achieved by students.

The above table shows that the various scores that were achieved by students at the end of second semester English paper. The results show that the lowest score achieved was four out of 40, while the highest score was 40, which was attained by two students. For purposes of this study, the scores were divided into four groups of 10 from 1-10 to 31-40. In each category, the following pie chart represents the percentage of the students in each group of scores:

Scores Achieved by students.
Chart 1: Scores Achieved by students.

The chart above further expounds on the scores achieved by students in their English exam. Firstly, it is evident that roughly 32% of the students attained a score of between 31 and 40 out of 40. Such a score can be viewed as an excellent score, especially in the class where English is a foreign language. Secondly, students who attained a score of 21-30 were 21% of the total number of students. In the collected data, 28% of the students attained a score of between 11 and 20. The remaining 19% of the students achieved a score of below 10.

Answers to Research Questions

The responses to the research can be derived from an analysis of the various responses that students provided in their exam. The following is an analysis of each research question using the data that was obtained from the exam. The exam was used as a sample to investigate subject-verb agreement errors among students.

First Question: What are the challenges facing students in subject-verb agreement?

Subject-verb agreement is an important rule in the English language and, most importantly, in written English. In order to understand the various challenges that students faced in the subject-verb agreement, it is important to analyze the specific errors that were found in the exam that was analyzed for this study.

In the exam, the first question required students to write a short composition based on one of three topics provided in the paper. The topics provided for the composition were Wishes, Friendship, and Sports. Through the analysis of the student’s writings, it was possible to identify the errors that learners made in relation to their subject-verb agreement. For example, a student began a paragraph with the following phrase:

“The sports it is more…”

The above phrase shows a typical subject-verb agreement error that was made by many students in this exam. The above correct form of the above phrase would have been:

“The sports are more…”

From the above analysis, it is evident that the student, in this case, did not apply the correct subject-verb agreement rules. The student failed to recognize that the subject “sports” was already in the plural and consequently required a plural verb. In this case, the use of the verb “is” was wrong and led to a subject-verb agreement error in the sentence. In the right format, the plural subject “sports” required a plural verb “are” to eliminate the subject-verb agreement error. Another error that was evident in the paper was the use of a pronoun after in the same sentence as the noun that the pronoun was representing. For instance, the student wrote, “The sports it is more…” In this case, the usage of the pronoun “it” was not required since this was the beginning of the composition when he was introducing the concept of sports. However, if such an error occurred when sports had already been mentioned, it would have been correct to remove the words “sports” to eliminate repetition.

Another student composition wrote the following in his composition:

Everyone have many wishes…”

In the sentence above, it is evident that the student does not have the correct grasp of the subject-verb agreement. In this case, the student has used an indefinite pronoun then a plural verb, and this is not how it should. It is important to note that all indefinite pronouns such as everyone, no one, nobody, everything among are singular and hence should be followed by a singular verb. In this case, the student should have used “has” instead of “have.” The correct format of the sentence would have been the following:

“Everyone has a wish…”

In this study, there were forty-seven students exam submission examined, and hence it is important to provide more examples that highlight mistakes that were made by students in subject-verb agreement. In another example, a student wrote the following:

“In Saudi Arabia we think sport it’s just football.”

In the sentence above, it is evident that the student has an idea of what he wants to write, yet the subject-verb agreement errors clearly show that he has a problem in the area of English rules.

The above analysis reveals that students face many problems that relate to the subject verb-agreement. However, the exam does not expose the main reasons why Saudi Arabia EFL students experience challenges in the process of learning the subject-verb agreement rule in English as foreign language learning. It is for this reason that the research has also used existing literature to relate the problems identified in the analysis of the exam that students undertook.

Firstly, existing research shows that there is evidence that there is a low motivation for English as Foreign Language learning in Saudi Arabia. In this case, it is worth noting that most of the students who undertook the exam began learning English as far as in sixth grade of elementary school, yet most of them have revealed very low levels of English proficiency in the grade 12 exam. In the study, 212 subject-verb agreement errors were identified, among other errors of Basic English proficiency. The variance in the performance of students is an indicator of varying levels of motivation among students. While 32%% of the students scored more than 30 out of 40, the remaining students (68%) show that the English learning process was not bringing the best outcomes. Among many other challenges, low motivation can be attributed to this failure.

The table below shows the errors of a subject-verb agreement made by students as they correspond to the various groups identified previously:

Range of scores Number of subject-verb agreement errors
0-10 79
11-20 63
21-30 42
31-40 28
Total 212

Table 3: Number of subject-verb agreement errors.

The graph below shows the subject-verb agreement:

Number of subject-verb agreement.
Chart 2: Number of subject-verb agreement.

Another important challenge that has been identified to be dominant in the EFL learning process for students in Saudi Arabia is the poor training of teachers. In this challenge, many instructors of English are Saudi Arabian natives, and research has shown that they lack the necessary English language competencies that can allow them to be good teachers of English to students. For instance, the low level of English competency is evident in the way the exam has been marked, with many students getting marks for sentences and answers that are outright incorrect. In this case, it is evident that the teachers also lack the necessary skills of English to teach the students well.

For instance, the following are examples of sentences from the student’s exam answers that the teacher has marked as correct:

“Don’t near the sea.”

“I have got anything to wear.”

In the above two sentences, the teacher gave the student full marks, yet they were incorrectly formed. For instance, in the first sentence, the correct version would have been “don’t go near the sea,” while in the second sentence, the correct version would have been “I have got nothing to wear.” There are other errors evident, yet the teacher has marked them as correct. Such revelation puts into question the competency of teachers in the nation. It further raises more questions on whether students are receiving the right instruction and whether such poor instructions can be to blame for the poor status of English as Foreign Language learning outcomes among Saudi students.

The other challenge that students face in the process of learning subject-verb agreement is the lack of adequate and relevant materials for learning English. In the country, the predominant language is Arabic, and English is not an essential language for students to learn. In this case, English is not highly prioritized like other subjects, and this means that all areas of curriculum research relating to English, as well as the provision of adequate and relevant materials, are not adequately funded. In this case, since the instruction of English language as a subject, very few changes to the initial curriculum have been made to ensure that its inadequacies are eliminated, and hence students are exposed to old and ineffective curriculum and approach to learning whose outcomes is below the par standard of learning for the students.

Second Question: Why do students make mistakes in a subject–verb agreement?

The second research question seeks to identify the reason that leads to subject-verb agreement errors among students of English as a Foreign Language in Saudi Arabia. Firstly, from the analysis of the data that was provided, it is evident that the influence of the mother tongue is a very important factor that explains why students make subject-verb agreement errors. For example, in one of the phrases already provided in the paper, a student wrote the following:

“Don’t near the sea.”

In this statement, it is evident that the students omitted an important verb that would have allowed a reader to understand the kind of information the student wanted to pass. Such mistakes of omission are very common across many of the students who took part in the research, and this is an indicator of first language interference.

In the second phrase, the students also committed an error that was clearly an indicator of the native language interference. In the phrase, the student wrote the following:

“In Saudi Arabia we think sport it’s just football.”

In the statement above, the student used a pronoun when it was not supposed to be used since the main noun was already there. Such mistakes are very common among students of English as a foreign language of Saudi Arabian origin.

The second main reason why students make a subject-verb agreement is due to confusion between indefinite pronouns and singular verbs. As a rule, all indefinite pronouns such as everyone, everybody, no one, everything, and others in this category are indefinite pronouns and are supposed to be followed by a singular verb. However, in the analysis of the data that has been provided, students have made this subject-verb agreement error by using a plural verb in their writing. The students made an error of confusing the subject as plural because such indefinite verbs refer to the inclusion of a group of people, which the phrase seeks to refer to.

The third reason that explains why students make mistakes is poor teaching. The teacher of English is a very crucial individual in the process of learning English, yet as evident in the paper, the teacher does not have the required proficiency in providing the necessary knowledge to students in their process of learning the English language. The teacher in the paper has committed various errors that are evident in the marking where marks have been awarded where there are mistakes by the students in their exam paper. It is for this reason that the teacher of English as a Foreign Language may be to blame for the subject-verb agreement mistakes that students have in their paper.

The fourth reason can be attributed to the lack of good and adequate instructional materials that students can access in their reading to ensure that they are above to understand the basic rules of grammar and style in English. In this case, very little progress towards making the English curriculum more effective has been made, and this means that students do not have access to the correct and relevant instruction and hence mistakes in their writing.

Poor motivation among the students is also a big reason that explains why students are making mistakes in their English writing despite learning the language for more than three years. Accordingly, many students do not have the right motivation to study the language since it is not an essential language in the country. The official language is Arabic, and as such, English is not a requirement to access many services in the country. In most cases, only those students with the hope of studying abroad study English.

Lastly, the insufficient number of weekly classes can explain why many students take a long time to grasp basic English rules. In the Saudi Arabia curriculum, English is allocated only five weekly 1 hour sessions. Such a short duration as compared to other subjects is a key indicator that the subject is not a priority even in the whole education system. The five sessions allocated for the subject do not provide the teacher and the students enough time to interact and learn and hence leading to the prolonged time taken before students can grasp the subject-verb agreement rule.

Third Question: How to reduce errors?

Reducing the mistakes that students make in the subject-verb agreement is a gradual process that requires an input of all the stakeholders in the sector. Neither the teachers nor the students can do it alone.

One major step towards reducing the errors that students make in the subject-verb agreement is a complete overhaul of the country’s English curriculum, which is not well placed to provide adequate and relevant guidelines for students to succeed in their English learning. Introducing new and proved approaches to teaching English as a foreign language will be an important step towards reducing the errors that students make in the English writing. The overhaul of the curriculum also means that teachers will have an opportunity to be trained on new approaches to teaching, and this will enhance their output in their teaching and hence better outcomes for the students.

The second step towards eliminating errors among the students is through the introduction of language laboratories. In this case, language laboratories will provide important audio and visual materials that can allow students to hear native speakers of English talking. The laboratories allow students to have a reference point against which they can measure their levels of proficiency outside the class environment. Such laboratories are lacking in Saudi Arabia. Hence, they should be introduced in the schools to improve student outcomes in EFL learning.

There is a need for more time to be allocated to the study of English from the current five lessons that have proved too inadequate. More time for students dedicated to the teaching of English will ensure that they have enough time to learn English and hence reducing the number of mistakes that they commit in their written papers.


The above analysis of the data has revealed important information relating to the research on subject-verb agreement errors in Saudi EFL students writing. From the analysis of the data provided, it is evident that indeed writing is an important skill that English as Foreign language learners learn correctly to attain proficiency. However, it is evident that students in the study have major problems in subject-verb agreement, which need to be addressed in order to ensure that they attain higher proficiency in written English. The answers to the research questions have also been well analyzed in the section to ensure that the research meets its main objectives. The use of charts and tables was a part of representing the data in a manner that is more understandable and applicable in a quantitative research paper. In a nutshell, the analysis is an important part of the paper, which allows data to be converted into actionable and relevant information that can be interpreted to respond to the research questions.

Conclusions And Recommendations

This chapter provides important recommendations and conclusions on the research paper. Firstly, the paper’s main aim was to investigate subject-verb agreement errors in EFL Saudi students’ writing. The paper recognizes the importance of good written English in the modern world of today. In this case, it is important to investigate how levels of proficiency expressed in student’s writing and thus allowing improvements to be made in the future learning and teaching of English as a foreign language among Saudi students.


The paper has presented a clear discussion of a subject-verb agreement issue among Saudi Arabian EFL students. Specifically, it has confirmed that indeed these students have trouble when learning English as a foreign language. The analysis of the exam that the students undertook in English for their end for the second term was the focus of the research. The analysis has revealed that indeed students face many problems related to subject-verb agreement, and this can be attributed to many factors. Firstly, the analysis has revealed that student’s problems relating to a subject-verb agreement are caused by several factors. In this case, the study has revealed that first language influence is a major challenge that students face in their process of learning English as a foreign language. Another major challenge that has been revealed in the paper is that the students have low motivation towards learning English. With reference to existing research, it is evident that knowledge of English is not compulsory, and consequently, many students do not see its importance since it is not a requirement to access basic services or jobs in the country. The main language is Arabic, and hence without the necessary support from the government and the education sector, there is little incentive for students to learn the language. Low motivation means that students do not have the will to commit more effort towards learning the language.

Another major challenge that the research has revealed is the lack of training among teachers. It is almost tragic that the teachers who are required to provide instruction in English learning are not competent. For instance, the research has revealed various mistakes that the teachers have made in the marking of the exam where students have been wrongly awarded marks where they have made obvious English mistakes. When teachers do not have the right skills to train well, students are exposed to poor teaching, and hence since they view the teachers as experts in the field, they acquire faulty knowledge in English. Such a scenario can explain why indeed, the level of proficiency in English of the 12th-grade students is very low. Lastly, there is a need for the incorporation of culturally sensitive content that will ensure that students are motivated to used English in communicating inside and outside the classroom environment. In the current situation, English is found in the confines of the classroom, and rarely do students try to communicate outside the classroom using English. Communicating outside the classroom can be important in promoting practice, which will increase student’s proficiency in both speech and writing.


From the findings of the research, the following suggestions are important in helping to guide future improvement in the education sector, especially towards improvements in EFL learning and teaching:

  1. There is a need for an overhaul of the English curriculum to incorporate more effective approaches and techniques of teaching and learning to ensure better outcomes for students
  2. It is important to increase the number of lessons that are allocated to English learning
  3. Establishment of English language laboratory where students can listen to audio and visual content in English is also a major aspect that should be considered
  4. There are inadequate relevant instructional materials that students have access to in their learning, and this is a major reason for the low levels of proficiency. As such, there is a need to introduce new, relevant and adequate materials that will allow students to obtain the right instruction


The following are recommendations that will guide future research on the topic of subject-verb agreement errors in EFL Saudi students writing.

  1. The study involved 47 students from a single school, and consequently, it was not possible to generalize the findings of the research to a wider population. In this case, there is need for a larger sample population to be involved in the research to allow generalization
  2. The study was carried in Riyadh. Hence, it was not representative of the whole country. There is a need for more studies to be carried involving a more diverse sample population to allow generalization
  3. The study did not include the female gender, as all students were male. There is a need for more studies to be undertaken involving both genders
  4. Lastly, future students should involve the use of both exams and additional questionnaires that will be targeted at both learners and other stakeholders in the education sector, such as teachers and education officials, among other experts.

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