A sentence in English

The government’s ‘Taleem Ghar’ initiative for students has brought to the forefront the issues of English as the medium of instruction and the teaching of English as a subject

A race to English-medium schools. — Photo by Rahat Dar

On March 16, schools were shut down in Pakistan as a precaution against the spread of Covid-19. This was obviously the right thing to do. The re-opening is currently planned for July 15. However, it remains to be seen whether the virus is contained by then sufficiently to allow for schools to reopen.

To compensate for the abrupt pause in learning, the federal government started televising daily lessons on a dedicated TV channel as a part of its Taleem Ghar project. In addition to televising 10 hours of content by grade-level, six days a week, Taleem Ghar has developed a dedicated smartphone application for students and educators.

The efforts by the government and its partners to provide learning opportunities during school closure are commendable. However, Taleem Ghar has raised many questions regarding the quality and quantity of content being delivered. It has also brought to the forefront of the education dialogue, yet again, the issues of English as the medium of instruction and the teaching of English as a subject.

A listen-in to any of the English lessons makes quickly evident the case for not mandating English as the medium of instruction and for not teaching English the way we do now, strongly suggesting that we redirect our efforts instead to teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL).

It is hard to keep track of the number of times the pendulum has swung on the language of instruction in Pakistan. Schools and teachers are continuously kept in a state of confusion by the ever-changing policies. The introduction of the 18th Amendment did not make matters easier with some provinces opting to switch to Urdu, thereby contributing to variation in student learning opportunities and outcomes.

The experience of working with public schools has shown that teachers’ input was not sought to inform policy changes on language of instruction.

A majority of students — both in public and private schools (with the exception of ‘elite’ schools) — continue to have limited-to-no access to English. English language teachers in these schools are neither fluent, nor equipped with the pedagogical skills or the right curriculum to teach English as a foreign language.

Most English lessons, as made evident by Taleem Ghar’s daily televised programmes, are taught in Urdu. A majority of these lessons are dedicated to teaching grammar; defining technical terms with the aim of having students memorise their meanings.

Unsurprisingly, most students graduate without the ability to read, speak or write English at their grade levels, if at all. In 2019, ASER found that only 55 percent of students in Grade 5 were able to read a sentence in English at the Grade 2 level.

A decade ago, ASER had reported that only 42 percent of students in Grade 5 were able to read a sentence in English at the Grade 2 level. As we can see, the story has not changed and there is ample data to support the need for change.

Outside of schools, the situation across low- and middle-income households in Pakistan is not very different in terms of exposure to English. Families speak one of more than 75 languages/dialects. English is not one of them. Even if students pick up on a few concepts at school, they rarely have an opportunity to practice at home.

Parents, who purposefully decide to enrol their children in schools to learn English, are unable to help their child learn as they themselves do not speak the language. English Television channels, radio shows and smartphones do offer a small window of opportunity to interact with English, where there’s access to digital devices and internet is available. However, without a strong grasp on the foundations of English language, it is difficult to sustain interaction.

This begs two questions: first, why does English continue to be the medium of instruction? And second, what is a feasible alternative solution?

With labour market access directly linked to a person’s ability to speak English, parents of various socio-economic backgrounds across the country want their children to learn English. In Pakistan, Bourdieu’s theory of language as “symbolic capital” enabling upward social mobility reverberates powerfully.

A thorough review of content and purposeful drafting of English as a foreign language content for TV will better serve the needs of the majority. If we continue to televise English lessons the way we are doing, it is safe to assume minimal literacy development.

Whether this translates into actual language acquisition, or simply the comfort of knowing that at least their child is attending a school that uses English as the medium of instruction, the enrolment rates in schools advertised as ‘English medium’ are consistently on the rise.

According to a report by the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences in Islamabad, ‘English Medium’ private schools have seen a 105 percent increase in enrolment over the past 20 years. What is an English Medium school in this context? It’s a school that promises to help a child learn the English language but is without English Language Teachers and in environments where English is not actually spoken.

As a result, English continues to be prioritised in schools, and taught in the only way schools know how: as a subject. The fact that teachers themselves cannot speak the language fluently results in use of local languages to deliver English lessons further reducing the child’s exposure to the language.

Despite the grim reality, there is a plausible way forward that rids the idea of mandating English as the medium of instruction and strikes a clear distinction between English taught as a subject and a foreign language. A quick point for clarity: In Pakistan, English cannot be taught as a ‘second language’ as that requires the designated second language to be used extensively in one’s home country. Legally declaring English as the official language is sadly not enough, as we have seen to date. English can, therefore, be considered a foreign language in Pakistan and must be taught as such.

To reflect the Pakistani context, delaying the introduction of English until the start of Grade 5 might be helpful and meet the needs of teaching it as a foreign language. This means, early childhood education programmes and the bulk of primary-level schooling must focus on teaching in, and developing the child’s mother tongue, which is found to be imperative in supporting literacy development.

Delaying the introduction of English as a foreign language to Grade 5 will allow students to have developed basic vocabulary in their mother tongue and this can be used to teach English as a foreign language. Without existing vocabulary and concepts in one’s own language, learning an additional language becomes next to impossible, particularly in an environment such as that of students hailing from low-income backgrounds.

Importantly, English language teachers responsible for Grade 5 and above must be equipped with the technical and practical knowledge and skills to teach English as a foreign language. The significance of teacher preparation cannot be undermined. This preparation can be offered as part of a pre-teaching course, and must be followed up with practice and refreshers throughout their teaching career.

In fact, a degree course can be devised offering aspiring teachers the opportunity to become sufficiently trained in delivering English as a foreign language lessons. In fact, this is standard practice in many countries around the world. For example, in neighbouring China, it is very common for students to enrol in EFL-specific degrees.

In light of this, a thorough review of content and purposeful drafting of English as a foreign language content for TV will better serve the needs of the majority of Pakistani learners. If we continue to televise English lessons the way we are, it is safe to assume minimal literacy development. Instead, slowing down the release of content to make time to ensure its relevance and effectiveness holds better promise.

Last but not least, the importance of transitioning our ways of teaching English alongside re-assessing our national perception of the English language cannot be undermined. In embracing English as a lingua franca of our increasingly global world, if we are to successfully embed the teaching of English as a foreign language, concerted guidance needs to be made available to comfort school leaders, teachers and parents that deeming it a ‘foreign’ language will not undermine the value-add of learning English, in fact, it will help make it a possibility.

Aanya Niaz is an education researcher and advisor, currently based in London. Marvi Soomro is the Founder of Innovate. Educate & Inspire Pakistan, working with public schools in remote northern valleys of Pakistan

Challenges of tele-education amidst Covid-19