“What are the difficulties of learning English in Iraq?”
“What are EFL books like in Iraq?”
As EFL teachers, we probably know a lot about teaching situations in various parts of the world – obviously in the USA and Europe, but probably also in Japan, Korea, China, and Latin America and South America. Much less is known about the Middle East, particularly countries like Armenia, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Adrian Wallwork spoke to Sura Dhiaa Ibraheem, an Iraqi researcher and professor with a Masters in English Language and Linguistics. She works at Al- Farahidi University, which is a private university in Baghdad. Sura and her colleagues are organising a conference entitled “New Trends in English Language Teaching” to be held in April 2024. She would very much appreciate teachers outside Iraq becoming involved in the conference. Note: The illustrations (apologies for the poor quality) all come from a book called English in Iraq. The book is totally England-centered – students in Iraq find it very difficult to relate to.
Sura: The first thing you need to know is that all the textbooks were developed by UK publishers on the basis of the Iraqi government’s requirements.
Do the teachers and students find the books effective?
No. To give the publishers some credit, they were designed to be communicative. But our teacher survey suggested that studying grammar, reading aloud, and doing vocabulary exercises were the primary activities. In most cases teachers and learners do not actually not speak English often, and when they do this will often be limited to repeating what the teacher says.
So there is a gap between the intended ‘communicative’ curriculum and the enacted (very traditional) curriculum. But why?
Limitations in teacher quality, due to lack of teacher training. Teachers often don’t have the competence – linguistic and pedagogical – to teach English communicatively. As a result, after 12 years of learning English, students graduate from secondary school with low levels of English proficiency. Their speaking skills and motivation to speak English are insufficiently developed. This is one of the main themes of the conference which we are organizing: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/7439515).
And how big are the classes? Are boys and men educated separately from girls and women?
Often more than 40 students. At school, boys and girls are taught in separate classes, but together in universities. There is a lack of resources and equipment, particularly new technologies. Often there is not even an internet connection.
So how do you become an English teacher in Iraq?
You follow a four-year lecture-based curriculum at a college of education, but there’s no English admission test, you are not required to have a particular level of English proficiency. The way English is taught on the programme is not communicative, and does not emphasize the development of student teachers’ spoken English. And many of the subject courses that students follow in English departments are not taught in English and are not related to the teaching of English. There is little done in the way of assessment (it’s all written, and doing well basically means remembering a lot of information), little or no practise within real classrooms.
How are students tested?
Again it’s essentially written grammar and memorizing. No oral skills.
How do Iraqis feel about English?
It is true that Iraq has been through a lot of disturbing events since the invasion in 2003, but this has nothing to do with our willingness to learn English. We all know and believe that we should not judge any one because of ‘bad’ decisions made by their superiors. English is not just for Americans or British people – it is for all people since it’s considered as a universal and global language. Besides, it is really interesting to learn about other cultures and societies all over the world. In addition, Iraqi people believe that English is very important and it’s a survival skill and gaining a good level of English would increase the opportunity to get a good job in the private sector. There are no anti-English feelings as a result of the ex-imperial ambitions of the UK and the USA. This might have been true in the 1950s or 1960s, but not now!
Do you think there is a market for teachers outside Iraq to teach online to students in Iraq?
Yes, absolutely. There are no private language schools run by native speakers in Iraq, there are no native teachers, and there is no online teaching by native speakers.
If you are an online teacher, there is an opportunity out there!
If you would like to contact Sura, either to take part in her conference or ask her other questions related to teaching Iraqi students, then here is the link to her LinkedIn.
Sura Dhiaa Ibraheem is an experienced linguistics professor with over 7 years of experience teaching undergraduate courses in pragmatics, syntax, conversation and grammar. She is an Assistant Instructor at Al-Farahidi University/ full time (2022-2023), has lectured at Al- Turath Private collage in the English Language Department, at the Al- Nahrain University/ College of Information Engineering. She was previously a member of the editorial board/ Linguistic and Electronic Supervision (2020-2021) at the Deanship of Al- Nahrain University/ College of Information Engineering, departments of Networks, information and System Engineering.