Comment: How can expat teachers meet local students’ learning needs?September 21, 2017, 12:15 pm GMT
As an expat teacher in the Gulf, I bet you have local students in your classes. Depending on your location, they may be Emirati, Saudi Arabian, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, or Omani. Do you teach at one of the 1,616 English-medium international schools in the Middle East and Africa? Perhaps you work at a government/public school whose curriculum is taught through English, like the Abu Dhabi Educational Council (ADEC) public schools, Dubai's Ministry of Education (MOE) public schools, or similar ones in the wider GCC? In this region, English proficiency is essential, not only to act as a "lingua franca" (a common language) between expats and locals in daily interactions, but often to secure a good job and study at third level.
Despite the obligation of local pupils to study English, we must remember that the official language of the region is Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is used in formal situations. However, in everyday interactions with family and friends, our pupils use a regional dialect of spoken Arabic, known as colloquial Arabic, which differs greatly from MSA. This unique linguistic situation in the Gulf leads our local students having to learn what could be considered three languages; MSA, their spoken Arabic dialect (from home), and English. Some local students even study French and Spanish at school as well.
It is important to realise that as expat educators, we are not only subject specialists, but we are often English language teachers too. In fact, if we are teaching mainly local or other English as a second/additional language (ESL/ EAL) pupils, we could be considered first and foremost language teachers in the classroom.
Here are five things that we can do in our planning and teaching to lighten the huge language learning burden of our local students...
Predicting possible language issues
While English is one of the West Germanic languages, Arabic is from the Semitic language family. By knowing the differences between the two, we can predict potential issues that our students may have, so we can provide extra help with these aspects. Unlike English, Arabic:
- Is written and read from right
- Does not distinguish between lower and upper case letters.
- Does not have strict punctuation rules.
- Does not use the verb "to be" in the present tense.
- Uses the single present tense in place of English's simple and continuous forms, e.g. "I go/ I am going."
- Does not have present perfect, so we may hear students say, "I read" rather than "I have read."
- Can have a sentence without
- Uses "presentation" persuasion, which includes repetition, ambiguity, exaggeration and imagery, when presenting written or spoken arguments or debates. However, in English, this style would be considered poor, as English
argument involves structuring ideas and building up to an argument in a (Western) logical pattern.
In order to plan to best meet the needs of local ESL learners, it needs to be a cross-curricular whole-school initiative. During staff training at the start of the year, each department could spend 10% of their planning time working out the language the students will need to successfully access their subject. It could be a verb tense, examination question words, tricky spellings of keywords, longer sentences, how to write a coherent paragraph, etc. Pick one aspect and focus on spending time explicitly teaching it. By deciding on a termly language aspect and noting it on a school-shared Google document, each department can see any overlap and opportunities for language cross-curricular opportunities, which can lessen our pupils' language learning load.
According to Skehan (1989), motivation is the second strongest predictor of success in language learning. As teachers, we have a significant impact on student motivation, including attitudes towards English and expectancy of success.
From the beginning of the year, it is vital to set high expectations for students to live up to. This can be achieved by establishing firm behavioural boundaries from the beginning of the year. Like all young people, Middle Eastern pupils have a strong sense of fairness and may feel demotivated if they feel a teacher has unfairly treated them. I recommend setting clear rules in simple language that students paste in their books at the beginning of the year. Be consistent with them and offer a "three warnings and a serious consequence" policy.
Once you have set your boundaries, it is important to work on creating a good relationship with a class. This can take months, so don't despair if it doesn't seem to be happening until the last term. At the beginning of lessons, ask students how their family is, how school is going for them, etc. Allow them to spend five minutes each lesson sharing some information about their culture or themselves. If you feel happy to do so, tell them how it is in your culture. Show that different doesn't mean better or worse. A "West is best" attitude is not conducive to creating a meaningful relationship with local students anywhere in the world.
In Arabic culture, the notion of "face" (family reputation) is very important, so it is highly embarrassing for a student to be seen to "lose face" in public, i.e. to be scolded or lose an argument in public. Therefore, to reduce the incidence of confrontation in the classroom to "save face", we might want to reprimand a student outside the classroom or quietly one-to-one, rather than do it loudly in front of the whole class. Obviously, this cannot work in every situation, but it is something to bear in mind.
Avoid using taboo topics (mainly linked to what is forbidden and accepted in Islam) in lessons. Ask students first if they feel comfortable talking about a topic, e.g. some local male students won't talk about their sisters in front of their classmates out of respect.
EXPANDING STUDENTS' VOCABULARY
Choose seven to 10 keywords for a particular topic and pre-teach them to pupils. We can do this explicitly by creating a task that requires students to match the keyword to the image, a description, a similar word, or to the correct space in a gap-fill activity. The keywords can also be taught indirectly by putting them in sentences on the board, so students use the context to "discover" the meaning of the words. There are wonderful free ESL/ EAL subject worksheets on theISL Collective website and by Googling "Subject/topic name + EAL or ESL worksheets." These keywords and vocabulary can then be used for short weekly spelling tests.
Before students start writing, always allow talking/discussion time with a classmate. It is important for them to share ideas, get their thoughts in order, and it allows for peer learning. In addition, always provide sentence starters, writing scaffolds (that show the student what to include in each paragraph or have questions to aid their writing), language checklists (e.g. Have you included a capital letter, a full stop, connectives, etc.?), and the task success criteria for them, so they know what they must do to progress.
About the author: This is Sorcha Coyle's sixth year teaching in the Middle East. During this time, 99% of her students have been GCC nationals. For more information on teaching in the Middle East, visit www.sorchacoyle.com or join the Empowering Expat Teachers community on Facebook.
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