Two recent projects I have worked on had the common goal of trying to understand at a national level the status of English learning and the factors that influence it. The two countries involved were Iraq and India – very different contexts but both characterised by what are seen to be modest levels of English proficiency amongst school leavers.
In Iraq, one important issue to emerge from the study was that a typical strategy adopted by educational authorities to boost the quality of English teaching and learning was to change the curriculum. It was assumed that by providing a more communicative curriculum and introducing it to teachers through intensive training, the quality of teaching and learning would improve. While a new curriculum can stimulate pedagogical change, the difficulty with this approach is that it does not address gaps in teacher competence – if teachers lack the knowledge, skills and English proficiency to teach communicatively, providing a new curriculum will not lead to the desired improvements. This has in fact been the case in Iraq and a key contributing factor highlighted by the project was the quality of pre-service education for teachers of English: graduates lacked the English proficiency and pedagogical knowledge and skills needed to deliver a communicative curriculum effectively.
The work in India was recently published here (along with similar studies in four other South Asian countries). The education system in India is incredibly complex and, while the value of English is widely acknowledged, the quality of English teaching and learning in primary education is modest. No single factor explains this but two interesting points were highlighted. One is that while India invests heavily in developing educational policies
National- and state-level educational policies operate simultaneously but may not always be wholly consistent given the autonomy that states have. Policies provide a good basis for reform but are often not supported by mechanisms that lead to effective implementation. (p.12)
The second issue is that
Limitations in pre-service teacher education mean that graduates become primary school teachers of English with insufficient subject-specific pedagogical competence and modest levels of English proficiency. (p.12)
This second point echoes conclusions from the work in Iraq. What both studies suggest, then, is that improving the quality of pre-service teacher education is essential to longer-term progress in the quality of English language teaching and learning. Reform of this kind, of course, takes time, and its benefits will not be immediate either, so it is also important for effective systems of in-service training to be available. However, the provision of high quality graduates is critical to efforts to improve national levels of English. Graduate quality is perhaps even more important than a new curriculum – a competent cook can make an good meal with modest ingredients and equipment, but the best ingredients and equipment are of limited value in hands of someone who is unskilled.
If we accept this argument about the central role of pre-service teacher education in improving the learning outcomes of school children, it is, then, important to identify some characteristics of an effective pre-service programme for teachers of English. This will be the focus of my next blog.