Jordan, like so many other Arab nations, has high youth unemployment and there is a realisation among young adults that proficiency in English can offer an escape from years of idling away one's time on street corners. However, this does not translate to high success rates in mastering the language at school. Too often, English is taught as a subject that can be learnt by heart from the prescribed textbooks. The closer the answer in an exam is to the relevant passage in the book, the higher the marks the student will get. It's a story that is typical of the way English is taught in schools and even universities around the world and the Middle East is no exception.
In this uninspiring educational climate, an extensive reading project was born a few years ago. It had several objectives:
You can read more about the history of how the project was set up in Nina Prentice's article in 'Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom' (OUP, 2011), but we would like to concentrate on some of the activities that teachers used to achieve an average of 17% improvement in grammar and vocabulary gap fills in just three months in 2006, as well as a 14% increase in writing performance.
Some of their ideas included:
Prentice gives many more examples, some as simple as making relative clauses by writing the names of characters on the board and then adding a relative pronoun (like 'where', 'when', 'who' and so on), for example: Pip Pirrip was the boy who met a criminal in a graveyard.
Of course, not all teachers felt that they had the time available to depart from the syllabus and there were worries that students would not score as well in the all-important termly tests. But, as I have noted, the opposite proved true ... and in only three months.
Perhaps the most important elements in this brave experiment, though, were that the language came alive and assumed some importance outside the classroom and that teachers and students inspired each other with their newfound enthusiasm.
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