The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Saturday, August 30, 2014


It's not every day that I go to work in an abaya and hijab, but last week I spent 4 days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia giving professional development workshops to English teachers on the female campus at King Saud University. I have to admit to a little trepidation before the trip and I didn't know quite what to expect, but in the end, apart from the heat, the early starts and the Riyadh traffic, it turned out to be a really rewarding experience.

Students at the university spend a year studying English as part of a preparatory programme, so it's a large department with more than 200 English teachers on the female campus alone; an amazing mix of nationalities, some from the region, others from further afield. Many of them are very well qualified and all are keen to develop their professional skills further. So the workshops were fun and lively with lots of great ideas coming from the teachers. I was there with a colleague (on behalf of OUP) as part of the start-of-year teacher induction, giving orientation sessions to the books they'd be using through the year (New Headway Plus, Headway Academic Skills and Q Skills).

As we chatted to the teachers and the PD team, it was really interesting to build up a picture of what English teaching at university level is like in Saudi Arabia. It soon became clear that whilst very well resourced in terms of staff, training opportunities and facilities, the teachers still face quite a challenge matching expectations to reality.

The intake of students seems to be very varied, from the high-achieving, highly-motivated girls with almost native-speaker levels of English who are going on to study Medicine, largely through the medium of English, to those who arrive with little or no English (despite supposedly 7 years of English at school) who are going onto courses where they are unlikely to use much English and who have, perhaps unsurprisingly, very low levels of motivation. Yet the expectation is that by the end of the year all students will have reached a good B2 level and be ready for academic study in English.

It's a situation that I've heard about in several countries - and one that is apparently becoming more common as institutions across the world switch to English-medium instruction - but this was the first time I'd come across it first hand. It's clearly a challenge not just for teachers, managers and curriculum development teams on the ground, but for the ELT industry as a whole, including materials writers like myself. So all in all, it was not just a fascinating experience, meeting lots of lovely people, but also provided plenty of food for thought as I head into the autumn back at my desk.

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