Those who can’t do, shouldn’t teach: learning English in Saudi schools

The teaching of English in Saudi schools is done in a basic and rudimentary manner

Khaled Almaeena
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The government’s education department in the Riyadh region has pointed out several deficiencies in the teaching of English language in the Saudi Arabia’s schools.

To me this is a good sign. To admit that there is a problem is a sign that solutions are possible; if there is a will to find and implement these solutions, there is a way.

Among the negative aspects in the teaching of English outlined by the education department were poor and incorrect pronunciation, the use of Arabic in teaching English, no homework, carelessness in writing and no practical use of English writing skills.

There was also little or no utilization of books that assist in teaching the English language to those whose mother tongue is not English and no stress on elocution, dialogue or conversation.

In fact the teaching of English in our schools is done in a basic and rudimentary manner. Added to that is the weakness and the inability of Saudi English language teachers to improvise.

However, I am not at all surprised at these findings. First of all I believe that teachers should be taught how to teach. They have to attend teacher training institutes where those who instruct them are themselves familiar with the latest English language teaching methodology. Those who teach English in our schools must be able to communicate. To do that they must be strong in the English language – unfortunately, many are not.

Failing to teach

I once met someone I knew and asked him what was he doing. He said he was an English language teacher in a secondary school in al-Ola. “But you are a chemistry graduate,” I remarked. He smiled and said that teaching English was the only position available and the Directorate of Education had sent him there to teach it. His English was atrocious. I truly felt sorry for his students.


English is not being taught effectively in our schools. We cannot afford to be complacent, and there is no time to waste

Khaled Almaeena

On another occasion, I ran into a group of Saudi English language teachers at Jeddah airport. I spoke to them in English. I received garbled answers in Pidgin English which did not make any sense. I asked them if they read any English language newspapers. None of them had ever bought or read one. It was very disturbing. Once again I thought about the outcome for our education system. How will the students of such teachers fare in their college education abroad? It will put a big burden on them. This is why many of our students fail to achieve scholastic excellence at foreign universities.

The failure to teach English properly also causes problems for our own universities. English is taught throughout secondary schools in Saudi Arabia, and some students receive high scores in the subject in their school leaving exams. But when these same students enter our universities, they are found to have an inadequate level of ability in the language. As a result, the Kingdom's universities, at great expense, are forced to operate large English language institutes and foundation programs to try to upgrade the language skills of students who studied English for four years in our secondary schools.
Lack of interest

However, it is not just our secondary school teachers' lack of skill in the English language which is the problem. It is also their lack of interest in teaching the language that filters through to students. This affects our students not only in education but in the work they will do later in their life. They are deprived of a good education and thus they become ignorant. They cannot access books or other reading material in English, and this adds to the frustration of many when they go abroad.

The argument by many that the teaching of English affects our language, Arabic, is also false. Studies have shown that knowing a foreign language helps develop the native language.

Moving forward

So what should we do with these findings?

First of all, the top priority in selecting teachers is to put stress on those who have graduated with a degree in English. Identify, train and retain them. Check their aptitudes and determine their interest in teaching.

Secondly, the Ministry of Education must be made aware that no one can “Saudize” the mind. Bring native speakers to the kingdom to teach English as was done in the 1960s and 1970s. This was also helpful in cultural dissemination. We will be broadening the horizons of our students which will result in a paradigm shift in their mental processes.

Thirdly, language teachers should be trained in the use of all the latest skills and methodologies. Our teachers currently know little of the latest English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching methods. In many of our classrooms, Arabic is used to talk about the English language, but students rarely hear the language itself and have no opportunity to actually practice using it. There is little effective use of language labs in which students can listen to a model of the language, record their own voice and then listen to themselves. There is a lot of EFL/ESL material available on the Internet, but teachers must be trained in the use of it.

English is not being taught effectively in our schools. We cannot afford to be complacent, and there is no time to waste. China has imported thousands of English language teachers to assist them. By 2018, they want Chinese youth to be on a par with their counterparts across the globe. This is what we should do.

There is no need to be embarrassed. Since we have identified the problems, we must underline them and make an effort to erase past mistakes.

The time to do it is now!

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on April 13, 2014.


Khaled Almaeena is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator, businessman and the editor-at-large of the Saudi Gazette. Almaeena has held a broad range of positions in Saudi media for over thirty years, including CEO of a PR firm, Saudi Television news anchor, talk show host, radio announcer, lecturer and journalist. As a journalist, Almaeena has represented Saudi media at Arab summits in Baghdad, Morocco and elsewhere. In 1990, he was one of four journalists to cover the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia. He also traveled to China as part of this diplomatic mission. Almaeena's political and social columns appear regularly in Gulf News, Asharq al-Aswat, al-Eqtisadiah, Arab News, Times of Oman, Asian Age and The China Post. He can be reached at kalmae[email protected] and followed on Twitter: @KhaledAlmaeena

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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