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Dilemma of teaching English in the Kingdom
Dr. Ali Mohammad Al-Asmari & M Shamsur Rabb Khan

Mofreh, member of the Shoura Council's Education Committee, and other, in response, from Abdullah Al-Muqbil, the former secretary general of the higher committee for education policy at the Ministry of Education – on teaching English at primary level might be more confusing than surprise for many. While Al-Mofreh sees teaching of English at primary level a waste of money and human resources, Al-Muqbil advocates for greater motivation to schools and teachers, in addition to revising the curriculum to improve the performance of English teachers. Rather English is to be taught, as Al-Mofreh envisions it, intensively at high school where it can be compensated. However, he cites an unattractive learning environment, less time for English teaching and lack of specialist English teachers as the reasons for poor performance of elementary and intermediate students. In response, Al-Muqbil strongly supports the same yardstick for other subjects since no one can say that teaching other subjects is a waste of time.
The arguments of both sides have opened up an academic debate on teaching of English at primary level in the Kingdom. Al-Muqbil's views seem more pragmatic in the sense that not only it will help create jobs for Saudi youths, and which will be an addition in the ongoing Saudization program, but also prepare the Saudi students for taking subject like science, computer, and engineering at university level.
One big question as to how English can be compensated at high school level where both teachers and students have to start from ABC is a difficult question. And where and how can the school find more classes for English to teach them intensively? The problem is not that schools will start devoting more time and classes for English learner at high school level, but giving less time and classes at elementary level.
Al-Mofreh's comparison of achievement level when he sees “no big difference between students at public schools and private school students who study English at a very early stage” is entirely based on personal experience, not on research studies and real time scenario prevalent in countries where English is taught as second language. As teachers, when we compare our students in the college with those of private schools at high level, we find the latter more proficient and responsive. And a large number of Saudi students at the college level often complain of lack of good teachers at the high school level. Equally, a great number of expatriate teachers at university level find it difficult to create a fitting teaching strategy when they compare the curricula to the students' proficiency level. How can, if we go by Al-Mofreh's opinion of teaching English intensively at high school, compensate it when teachers are not qualified, trained and motivated? Al-Muqbil provides half of the answer: he asks for employing female teachers at the elementary level, as is the norm in India, China, and Pakistan, for better results. The other half answer is to create qualified and trained teachers for elementary as well as high school levels, in addition to motivating them for teaching English with equal enthusiasm and attention.
We see high interest among college-going Saudi students for learning English, and the number of students enrolled for English programs, for example, in King Khalid University is much higher than that in other subjects. What the students lack is general proficiency in English that they must have acquired at the high school level where they met with lack of a stimulating environment that could help enhance their motivation level. The same is the story at elementary level. Now when university teachers try to teach them “everything” that have not been taught at both elementary and high school levels, they face even a bigger problem. Many a new university teachers try to speak English fast, using vocabulary unfamiliar to students due to which required level of learning that is supposed to be accomplished is unfortunately not done. As a result, the students who even passed out BA lack the required proficiency and expertise level in English, and these are the same students, who are employed to teach students at high school level who possess the least proficiency and motivation level.
What we experience among students in classes at university level includes: they have short attention spans; they are easily distracted from tasks; they are less responsive; they show no interest and willingness for self-paced learning; and they are always dependent on teachers' assistance for completion of tasks. There emerges a clear mismatch between the interest and enthusiasm that new students who get enrolled to learn English program carry when they enter the university premises and the shrinking interest and enthusiasm that they exhibit after a few months of learning. Barring a few exceptions, a great majority of Saudi students at college or university level happen to learn via only one evaluation test, i.e., achievement test out of four fundamental tests. The rest three, ie, proficiency test, diagnostic test and placement test, they learn when they either opt for TOEFL, or going for a job. Teachers, both at high school level and college or university level, carry the onus of creating unfriendly learning envrionment
Employment of trained female English teachers at elementary level and appointment, training and evaluation of both male and female English teachers at high school level are the prerequisites for better results. An environment of competition can be inculcated through employing a few expatriate teachers at elementary and high school levels in all schools as well. Finally, Saudi students at elementary and high school levels need to be exposed to learners of English as a second language from sub-continent through education exchange programs.
The authors are vice-dean and assistant professor, respectively, at the College of Science and Arts, Muhayel, King Khalid University, Abha. __

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