The use of authentic material in the ESL classroom is a well recognized best practice founded on the idea that students will be more interested and learn more when presented with texts that are more relevant to their daily lives, more current in the treatment of the subject matter, and more closely aligned to the students’ interests and ambitions.
Novice teachers are frequently admonished to subject whatever texts they intend to use through a careful selection process. Teachers often apply the Fry Readability Graph to potential texts to determine if the content may be too difficult for younger or less able readers to handle. Other considerations may be the appropriateness of the text for the students’ age, gender, cultural, religious, and ethnic background. When teaching English in the United Arab Emirates, these matters become especially important. What is appropriate in one area of their age and gender may not also be appropriate in others like their culture or level of proficiency.
In one of the most conservative regions in the world, the failure to exercise sound professional judgment when selecting classroom resources may find you in a difficult inter-cultural tangle, and potentially lose your job. This OnTESOL graduate blog will address some of the considerations that English teachers in Gulf countries should be mindful of when presenting authentic English texts to their ESL students.
Greg Askew completed the 250-hour TESOL Diploma with OnTESOL
Cultural Considerations for Using Authentic Material in the United Arab Emirates
Many teachers in the UAE can relate to an anecdote about some colleague showing a video or some other form of visual text that got them into hot water with management. A friend related the story of a Western elementary school teacher who often used the popular Mr. Bean videos in his class of fourth-grade boys. I have met many teachers and advisors who sing the praises of Mr. Bean as a great visual-learning tool in the ESL classroom. However, what may be relatively tame in American or British culture may be seen as offensive in Arab and Muslim culture.
This particular teacher had used an animated episode of Mr. Bean in which he briefly ogles a busty, ample cleavage nurse. Apparently one of the students described the scene to his mother, who then promptly took the matter to the school’s principal. At the time of the telling, that teacher’s fate had not yet been decided; however, if part of a series of concerns, he could well have been fired. And for what? An otherwise harmless vehicle for visual learning that would hardly raise an eyebrow in a typical American or British fourth-grade classroom. I imagine that most aspects of the video lesson were appropriate to the students’ proficiency and learning needs, yet it was that fleeting scene in an otherwise tame video that summoned the storm.
Prior to arriving in the UAE, we advised not to feature those animals deem offensive or unclean in Arab Muslim culture, such as pigs and dogs, in our lesson materials, especially with younger students. Secondary teachers of English in the UAE, on the other hand, may not need to be as concerned about taboo animals (or a cheeky Mr. Bean for that matter) in their resources. However, anything bearing on the core principles of belief in Islam should be avoided. As well as most political topics, especially those directly bearing on the host country.
Depending on the class, discussions about religion and politics may be possible, but you should be very careful of causing offense. Just where that line is, though, is often difficult to anticipate. While I may discuss differences of belief between say, Christianity and Islam. I avoid expressing any judgments about or questioning the underlying notions behind those differences. During my first year, I observed an incident that taught me to avoid religious themes altogether. Even oblique unless specifically and unequivocally referring to Islam when deciding what resources to use in my lessons.
One day on my way back to my office I encountered a group of boys in the courtyard heatedly pressing one of my Arab colleagues, also an English teacher, on a matter. Turns out they were upset because of a poem he had given them to read. In the poem, which had been provided to this teacher by a British curriculum advisor and reflected a more Western sensibility, there were several figurative references to God, and one, in particular, had sparked the hullabaloo among the boys—“God’s tears”.
I was less surprised by the students’ reaction than I was by the teacher’s apparent lapse of judgment. I had read up on Islam the core principles of the faith before I arrived, and I knew that anthropomorphizing Allah is considered a form of blasphemy. Sure enough, those particular students zeroed in on the offending metaphor with the keenness of a falcon and were raking this teacher (a devout Muslim himself and otherwise well-respected educator from Jordan) over the hot coals of their censure. Once I ascertained the nature of the upset, standing to the outside of the circle of students, I retreated to my office, afraid that I might be drawn into it, falsely associated with this English poem.
I don’t believe anything more came of the students’ uproar. The matter probably never left the courtyard. However, I can’t help but wonder how things might have developed differently had I, a non-Muslim Westerner, been the one to cause offense. The moral here is that when deciding what resources to use in class, especially resources provided by other people. We must properly vet them for their socio-cultural as well as their pedagogical appropriateness.
Using Authentic Material for the Appropriate Level of Students
In my three years of teaching English in the UAE. I have witnessed countless instances of teachers using culturally inappropriate authentic texts. Yet truly the biggest problem, especially in terms of effective teaching and learning, is the wide use of authentic materials that are not appropriate for the average level of proficiency in a typical class.
Secondary male students in the UAE, for the most part, are interested in much the same things as similar students in the English-speaking world. They would ideally benefit from exposure to the same sorts of texts (the obvious cultural considerations aside). However, their level of proficiency may demand a textual sophistication on a level with perhaps early elementary readers.
Incorporating authentic English texts effectively requires a serious outlay of time. There are websites where ESL/EFL teachers can find fine examples of authentic texts that manage to strike something close to a balance among all the considerations. But often most of these resources are best suited for students around the high-beginner level or higher. It may require too much time from teachers already stretched thin to find just the right texts to use with their low-beginner students.
What I now do for such students is rework an authentic text according to the differentiated ability levels in my class. If there is a poem I wish to use but I am afraid it’s too complex for my weakest students, I copy and paste the original text and modify the language. Replacing difficult or obscure words and expressions with easier, more common ones to make it more accessible to those students and reinforce prior lessons.
Arguably, resource selection and the rigors it often entails is one of the most important aspects of our work as ESL teachers. There are many benefits of using authentic texts over standardized textbooks. For example, students find them more interesting. But the success or failure of your lesson can depend greatly on how well you evaluated the suitability of the resource you have chosen.
The exact nature of the considerations up to which you will hold your resources will not always be the same depending on where you are teaching. In religiously and socially conservative countries like the UAE, ESL teachers should cautious with materials provided by advisors and colleagues because they may not have subjected the material to the same scrutiny as you. Furthermore, you alone know your students’ needs as English-language learners. If resources are provided, it is your duty to modify them for your classroom needs.
Resource selection is one of the many challenges to teaching English in the United Arab Emirates. The more times you successfully negotiate that tightrope, the more thrilling and rewarding your experiences will become.