English Language Teaching in Iran: Curriculum and Textbooks

(2006 - 2009)

This is a study to investigate English Language Teaching (ELT) in Iran as well as the extent of its compatibility with communicative pedagogy.

It has been accepted that language is more than simple a system of rules. Language is now generally seen as a dynamic resource for the creation of meaning. According to the advocates of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), it is generally accepted that there is a need to distinguish between learning that and knowing how. In other words, there must be a distinction between knowing various grammatical rules and being able to use the rules effectively and appropriately when communicating.

In 2007, the first Iranian national curriculum for teaching foreign languages was being developed by a team who was working under the supervision of the Ministry of Education based on CLT. Considering the extent of compatibility of the curriculum with CLT was felt to be important in evaluating the degree of success in achieving the goals of CLT. There were also efforts taken into consideration in order to consider the ELT in Iran from other perspectives. To do so, since the current programme and textbooks had been designed prior to introducing the new curriculum; therefore, it was felt necessary to consider them as well.

In order to investigate the situation, varieties of research instruments were applied in order to collect valid and reliable data. These instruments were mainly composed of a review of literature, a desk based analysis of the curriculum, administering questionnaires as well as conducting interview sessions. The questionnaires were mainly distributed among English language teachers and the interviews were conducted with some authors of the curriculum, textbooks and English language teachers.

The analysis and interpretation of the collected data suggested that while the newly designed curriculum document is to a great extent compatible with communicative pedagogy but the other materials as well as the current ELT programme are mainly structure based and they are far a way to be considered as communicative.

The research goes on to discuss some of the implications of these findings both for ELT in Iran and for future research.

1. Acknowledgements

I would like to express my dearest gratitude to all those people who have contributed towards the completion of this research.

Many thanks are extended towards the Iranian English language teachers, the authors of the Iranian national curriculum for teaching foreign languages, the authors of English language textbooks for secondary schools in Iran and schools' principals who very willingly and promptly answered my questionnaire as well as those who cooperated during the interview sessions.

I would also like to thank my friends and colleagues in both Great Britain and Iran who helped me to conduct the piloting stage and provided me with their feedback which was indeed helpful.

2. Context and Rationale

Being a researcher is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in a snowstorm at night … you don’t have all the pieces… and you don’t have the picture that you are trying to create. Thanks to technology and the Internet, the globe is getting smaller and smaller and people’s need to communicate is increasing so fast. As a result, a need for having one common language is so vital. Fortunately, this common language does exist and now it is our responsibility as researchers and language teachers to fulfil the aim of facilitating the process of teaching and learning a foreign or a second language.

In English Language Teaching (ELT), there has long been a debate about the appropriateness of many of the methods used by language teachers and scholars and pervasive changes to teaching practice over the last twenty years have resulted from an approach generally known as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). An important stimulus for changing the way we teach language came during the 1970s when linguists and language educators began a reappraisal of language itself.

The English language is a compulsory subject in the Iranian curriculum but because of the lack of attention that has been given to research within this subject, it could be argued that English has been neglected within Iranian educational system (Dahmardeh, 2009). Dornyei’s work (2001, p.63) suggested that “most curricular topics are selected primarily on the basis of what society believes students need to learn, rather than on the basis of students’ actual need”. According to Dahmardeh (2009), it is also the case in countries like Iran which there is an especial emphasis on achievement standards in school; as a result there is an increased pressure on teachers to prepare their pupils to take language exams as fast as possible. He (2006) continued by arguing that many teachers respond to this pressure by narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test. Given that the vast majority of language exams and tests in Iran fail to assess real communicative language content, teaching communicative skills becomes or remains a neglected component in many foreign language classrooms. This, according to Dahmardeh’s findings (2009), is the way that English is taught in Iran. Consequently, students’ lack of success in communicating in English after studying it for seven years (three years in middle school and four years in secondary school) is the result.

3. Research Design

“The purposes of the research determine the methodology and design of the research”
(Cohen et al., 2007, p.78).

This study examines the extent of communicative pedagogy within Iranian National Curriculum for Teaching Foreign Languages (INCTFL), the ELT programme and to some extent English language course books for secondary schools. The main research question as well as broken sub questions that this study is aiming to address are:

It has been decided to focus on the above questions for several reasons. Firstly, as students’ lack of success in communicating in English in different parts of Iran has been considered in Dahmardeh (2009), it has been realised that textbooks alone are not the entire issue and there are other factors like the national curriculum that needs to be analysed as well. Secondly, as a person who has lived in Great Britain for some time now the researcher can distinguish between what he used to study in Iran and what the real English language is. Furthermore, according to the literature that has been touched upon, it is believed that in a setting where English is taught as a foreign language, if the emphasis is on the communicative aspect of language learning, or in other words on the pupils’ ability to use the target language for communicative purposes, then planners would be likely to design a utilitarian-oriented curriculum, one that encourages the development of communicative teaching materials and that is what this study is going to figure out.

3.1 English Language Teaching in Iran

Schools in Iran are composed of three levels. The first level which is called the primary school includes five years of studying. The students start their school at this level when they are 6-7 years old. This is followed by middle school which is composed of three years of education. Having finished the middle school students will be then qualified to enter into secondary school which involves four years of studying. Basically, the students should study twelve years to be entitled to attend national university entrance exam in order to go to university. Concerning ELT, the English language is a foreign language in Iran and students are taught this subject from the first year of the middle school.
Furthermore, it has to be indicated that in Iran, girls and boys have separate schools and there are two types of schools, Private and State schools. Private schools are those that are administered privately and students are required to pay tuition fee and have better facilities and equipment than state schools. On the other hand, state schools run by the Ministry of Education and are totally free. It needs to be borne in mind that both state and private schools have to follow the same regulations.

With respect to textbooks, all the textbooks for schools in Iran are produced by the Ministry of Education and there are no alternatives available except the ones that are prepared by the ministry. These course books are taught in both private and state schools and all the schools are required to follow the same syllabus.

3.2 Research Methodology

According to Cohen et. al. (2007), methods mean range of approaches used in educational research to gather data which are to be used as a basis for inference and interpretation, for explanation and prediction. Similarly, “if methods refer to techniques and procedures used in the process of data-gathering, the aim of methodology then is to describe approaches to, kinds and paradigms of research” (Cohen et. al., 2007, p.47). There is no single blueprint for planning research. Research design is governed by the notion of “fitness for purpose”. Cohen and his colleagues (2007, p.78) further clarified that “the purposes of the research determine the methodology and design of the research” and this research is mainly based on what they have presented as the elements of research design.

Varieties of research instruments were applied in order to collect the required data for the purpose of this research. Since the main research question was designed to address the degree of communicative pedagogy within the national curriculum, the very first thing that had to be considered was the curriculum document. In order that one can analyse a national curriculum; different procedures may require to be followed. The first phase can be regarded as (a) an analysis of the curriculum by the researcher. Having performed the analysis stage, the researcher may then approach (b) authors of the curriculum in order to inquire further about the case. Presumably, (c) comparing textbooks with the curriculum, (d) enquiring authors of the textbooks, (e) teachers and (f) students about their opinions as well as (g) observing the actual field, classrooms, could be viewed as other strategies to collect the required data in order to find out about the degree of communicative pedagogy of the national curriculum.
Having specified the main aims of this research and the procedures that had to be followed in order to address the research questions, this section will be continued by clarifying the research instruments that were applied for the purpose of the study.
Having spent the first year of the study on literature review, the analysis of the curriculum was started in the subsequent year. This phase was followed by considering appropriate methodology in order to collect the required data to fulfil the aims of phase b – g presented earlier.
Curriculum analysis had a vital role and it was a very important process in this research. One aspect of the curriculum was the published document. For this reason, careful analysis of the official curriculum was a good sharing point. Furthermore, it was very important because most of the subsequent data collection processes were interrelated with this process. It was also important to be able to compare the key features of this document with the understanding of those delivering it. So, any faults at any stages of the project and curriculum analysis in particular would have jeopardised the whole research.
In order to analyse the degree of communicative content of the curriculum document the checklist below, which is a list of principles, composed of CLT principles was prepared. This checklist is based on the literature (Please refer to the bibliography section) that was touched upon by the researcher as well as most recent findings of scholars (Linguists, language teachers and those who are involved in ELT).

  • It is assumed that the goal of language teaching is learner ability to communicate in the target language and the primary function of language is for interaction and communication. So, purposeful communication between learners is encouraged. (Principle 1)

  • It is assumed that the content of a language course will include semantic notions and social functions, not just linguistic structure. Learning a language involves more than simply learning grammatical patterns and rules. One also needs to be able to put one’s knowledge to communicative effect. (Principle 2)

  • Students regularly work in groups or pairs to transfer (and, if necessary, negotiate) meaning in situations in which one person has information that the others lack (Information Gap). (Principle 3)

  • Students often engage in role play or dramatization to adjust their use of the target language to different social context. (Principle 4)

  • Classroom materials and activities are often authentic to reflect real life situations and demands. (Principle 5)

  • Listening, speaking, reading and writing are all active language components, interrelated skills in the process of oral and written communication. Moreover, skills are integrated from the beginning; a given activity might involve reading, speaking, listening, and also writing (This assumes the learners are educated and literate). (Principle 6)

  • Comprehension is an active process where students interact with the text, using background knowledge that they bring to the comprehension process as well as the linguistic and rhetorical features of the text itself. (Principle 7)

  • Learner centredness: Information by and from learners is used in planning, implementing and evaluating language programmes. Any activities which encourage learners to think about the nature of language and ways of learning imply a more critical and reflective learner role than those in which the learner is memorizing or manipulating language. (Principle 8)

  • Learners’ needs in relation to the target language:
    g. Language-skill emphasis (Speaking, Reading, Writing, Reading)
    h. Context and situation of use, which may require different levels of formality or different registers.
    i. Language system (grammar, vocabulary, phonology) emphasis
    j. Language forms (e.g. structures, vocabulary items, features of stress or intonation)
    k. Whether language systems will be used productively, receptively or both.
    l. Attention given to mechanics (handwriting, spelling, punctuation)
    (Principle 9)

  • The teacher’s role is primarily to facilitate communication and only secondarily to correct errors. So, he/she needs to act as a facilitator of the communicative process; act as a participant and act as an observer and learner. (Principle 10)

  • Teachers’ Factors:
    a. Language competence (as target language users and analysts but also as speakers of the learners’ first language)
    b. Familiarity with the target language culture
    c. Methodological competence and awareness (including ability to adapt course book, and preparing supplementary material)
    d. Experience of teaching the kind of learner for whom the materials are being selected.
    e. Time available for preparation
    (Principle 11)

  • A list of the intermediate goals (that is, the desired outcome at the end of each learning level in terms of the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing – and cultural appreciation) should be presented. (Principle 12)

  • A list of items (within phonology, grammar, and vocabulary) and of the language operations or transformations to be taught at each level should be prepared. (Principle 13)

  • Culture is recognised as instrumental in shaping speaker’s communicative competence, in both their first and subsequent languages. A list of the cultural concepts to be emphasised needs to be presented. (Principle 14)

  • Motivation is Central to Foreign/Second language proficiency. (Principle 15)

  • Diversity is recognised and accepted as part of language development and use in second language learners and users, as it is with first language users. (Principle 16)

  • More than one variety of a language is recognised as a viable model for learning and teaching. No single methodology or fixed set of techniques is prescribed. (Principle 17)

  • It is essential that learners be engaged in doing things with language- that is, they use language for a variety of purposes in all phases of learning. (Principle 18)

Curriculum analysis in this research is a content analysis in which the researcher analysed the curriculum document for CLT principles provided in the checklist.

Having conducted the analysis stage of the curriculum document, the researcher then looked for appropriate methods in order to collect the required data to fulfil the aims of the rest of the phases.

There were two methods that could be applied in order to find out about comments of the authors of the curriculum document, questionnaire and interviews. While each instrument has its own advantages, in this phase, it was decided to choose interview over the questionnaire as the first research instrument. One of the major advantages of interviews over questionnaires is that interviews in most cases ensure that all the participants respond to all the questions and that the interviewer understands the participant’s responses (Phillips and Stawarski, 2008). However, it must be emphasised that this is not always the case. For instance, the researcher can still be puzzled by what an interviewee says. But the point is that interviewer can ask the question again in a different way until the interviewee is clear what they mean. As things always happen, it was decided to prepare particular questionnaires for the authors as a contingency plan.

Supposedly, teachers and students play an important role within each educational system and this research is not an exception. In order to find out about teachers’ perspective regarding the case, it was decided to apply two methods. Questionnaire was regarded as the first research instrument. Bearing in mind time constraints, it was planned to distribute the questionnaires among 100 teachers. Conducting interview sessions was the second strategy that was chosen for the purpose of the study. Basically, it was planned to interview 12 teachers. Obviously there might be some points that had not been included within the questionnaires or might come up later when the researcher got into the field. So, it was worth considering this option as an alternative to get more information.

Furthermore, classroom observation was another method that was being considered to be deployed in order to collect further data for the purpose of this research. Basically, it was planned that the researcher should attend 12 classes where the English language was taught. This would have given him a chance to understand how the English language was really taught within classrooms; as a result it would have definitely helped him to gain a better understanding of the situation as well as the points that would be mentioned by teachers. Also, it would have helped him to see if the English is presented as it is required by the curriculum. According to the type of schools and classes, since girls are separated from boys within Iranian schools, it was planned to have 6 classroom observations at boys’ schools and 6 classroom observations at girls’. Some of these were supposed to be private schools and the rest would be the state ones. Also, there were especial schools in Iran which have been established for very talented students (school for geniuses) and it was hoped to have some observations at these schools too.

3.3 The Field Work

Due to circumstances, the data collection took place in Tehran. The researcher started to visit Iran at the beginning of 2008 since it was when the second term was started in the Iranian secondary schools. Furthermore, it was anticipated that receiving permission from the authorities would be a very time consuming process and would involve a lot of paper works; therefore, it was decided that he had to stay in Iran for nearly three months (January, February and March 2008).

Prior to going to Iran, due to circumstances, I was not sure whether I could interview even one of the authors of the curriculum but luckily I managed to interview 3 of them. Having interviewed one of the authors, I was then provided with the contact details of two others who did agree to be interviewed as well. As discussed earlier, it was planned to interview 12 teachers in Iran as well. However, the situation turned out to be worth and no permission was granted in order to conduct interview sessions with the teachers. However, 3 teachers kindly offered me a chance to be interviewed. I also had a chance to interview one of the authors of English language course books designed by Iranian Ministry of Education for the secondary schools.

Having designed both types of questionnaires as well as executing the piloting stage, it was time to distribute the questionnaires. It was agreed that in order to have a valid and reliable data there had to be 100 questionnaires distributed in order to get at least 50 responses back. Therefore, I had to visit 100 schools in Tehran. One of the main constraints that the researcher had was getting into schools in order to observe classrooms, as one of the methods of data collection, as well as distributing his questionnaires among English language teachers. In order to distribute questionnaires in schools it was necessary to get a formal permission, something like an ethical approval, from the Iranian Ministry of Education. Having introduced myself to the Ministry of Education, I then realised that since I was conducting the study in Great Britain and due to political chaos that has been existed between the two countries, I would never be granted a permission to carry out my research within Iranian schools. Having explained to the authorities in Iran about the benefits of the research to the Iranian educational system and how fruitful this could be, I was only allowed to administer my questionnaires in boys secondary schools. I had to ask a colleague then to get a permission so that I can administer the questionnaires in girls' too.

Classroom observation was considered as another research method to collect data. Unfortunately, due to the regulations that existed within the Iranian educational system, the researcher was not allowed to do this on a systematic basis. However, 2 teachers, through friendship, offered him an opportunity to observe and videotape their classrooms.

4. Findings & Data Analysis

“Analysis means the separation of something into its component parts” (Denscombe, 2007, p.331). Denscombe (2007) further argued that, to do this the researcher first needs to identify what those parts might be, and this links with further meaning of analysis, which is to trace things back to their underlying sources. Analysis, then, involves probing beneath the surface appearance of something to discover the component elements which have come together to produce it. By tracing things back in fashion, the researcher aims to expose some general principles that can be used to explain the nature of the thing being studied and can be applied elsewhere to other situations.

5. Discussion and Implications

6. Concluding Remarks

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