Tuesday, March 8, 2011

English Teaching and Learning in the Middle East

The first morning after I landed in Doha, Qatar, I was awakened at 4:30 in the morning to the sound of a Muslim call to prayer over a loud speaker. I awoke a little disoriented, but then was reminded quickly where I was. I was in the Middle East, where I was going to be spending the next two weeks meeting with students, teachers, and administrators to discuss their English needs. I would also be presenting the Reading Horizons program, a phonics-based approach to learning English. I was looking forward to the people I would meet and the opportunity I would have to share these exciting strategies that I have grown to appreciate.

My first day in Qatar, I met with some teachers (English department heads and English teachers) and introduced the program to them. They were fascinated by this approach as these were strategies they had never heard of before. I met with a member of the Supreme Education Council, who then referred me to an individual in the curriculum department. I enjoyed seeing the reactions of these individuals as they felt enlightened by something new. I was also able to visit a few of the local cultural sites, which helped me gain a greater appreciation for the rich culture here.

My trip to Oman was canceled, so I flew directly to Dubai from Doha where I would spend the rest of my time in the United Arab Emirates. My first day here, I met with students in eleventh and twelfth grades in Sharjah. I also met with a class of fourth-graders to get the perspectives of elementary-aged students. I visited their classrooms and discussed their perceptions of learning English. I learned some interesting things about why they want to learn English, their ideas of how they may use English in the future, and specific areas of English that they find difficult, namely pronunciation, vocabulary, and spelling. They said that they want to learn English to be able to communicate with people in the world who don’t speak Arabic. They said that they prefer using Facebook in English rather than in Arabic because it’s easier to use English versus Arabic. They admitted that they use English when they text because it’s much easier to text in English. They said some words are easier to say in English than in Arabic, so they opt to use an English word within an Arabic sentence to better express their thoughts and feelings. Most of them plan to go to college, but for many of them, their long-term plans include working for their family businesses. The majority of the students don’t plan to go away to college, either because they want to stay close to their families by choice, or because their families want them to stay close. It was really an eye-opening experience for me. I taught them a spelling skill, and their interest was peaked. They wanted to learn more! The fourth graders' responses were also very interesting. They were very anxious to answer my questions, with hands shooting up in the air as quickly as the questions began to roll off my tongue. They asked if I could come back and teach them.

I’ve met with principals. One principal said he only had 15 minutes to meet with him, but if he liked what I had to share, he’d give me 45 minutes—which he did. Another principal offered to let me walk around his school and pop into classrooms. I’ve met with several groups of English teachers and discussed their students' specific difficulties with learning English. I presented the method, and they were very intrigued by this new approach to teaching English. I also visited a member of the Ministry of Education. She really enjoyed the presentation and recommended I meet with her administrator.

There definitely is interest in phonics instruction generated here in the Middle East. The big question is who is going to be the first to implement it, and how will they do it? I'm optimistic.

(See my other blog post about my experiences in the Middle East here.)


  1. Don't get me wrong. I love my life and the things I do. But, I am quite envious of your cool job and the cool opportunities you get to have! I love reading your blogs and your tweets!

  2. Hope you get to see the Burj Dubai. =)

  3. Good to hear from you, Ben! Thanks for your contributions in your neck of the woods. :)

  4. Hi, Jon! I did get to see the Burj Khalifa when I was passing through Dubai on my way home from India last month. By the way, thanks for all your help with the Reading Horizons library passages, including the passage on the Burj Khalifa!

  5. Hello Heidi. hope you are well. Your experience within the Gulf seems very interesting. I will undertaking the Cambridge Celta TEFL course in November 2011 for 4 weeks, and I am very keen to work in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. I was wondering whether there have been any developments within ESL since your visit and if there is anyway in which I could support your work? I currently live in the UK. If so, I will pass you my email address. Thank you. Saira

  6. Thanks for your note, Saira. Feel free to contact me offline at heidi@readinghorizons.com.