Learning English in
Saudi Arabia: An Overview

language learning became part of the education system in Saudi Arabia in late 1937
 (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014). At that time,
learning English was not a priority for Saudi citizens. In fact, during that
period, Saudi citizens believed that foreign languages posed a serious danger
to their mother tongue and a threat to their identity, religion and customs (Alshahrani,
According to some religious scholars at that time, learning a foreign language was
forbidden. For example, one of the most famous Saudi scholars.1  of Islam, Ibin Othaimain, said that
‘teaching English for children is a real danger to their identity’ (Ibin
Othaimain, 2001). He believed that when children learned English at a young age,
it would negatively affect their relationship with their mother tongue, which was
the language of the Quran. Therefore, in the early twentieth century, learning
English was given little importance in Saudi society..2 

The discovery of oil has been the biggest
motivator for English language education in Saudi Arabia. .3 After the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the early 1930s, the English
language gradually grew in importance as the world became more interested and
involved in Saudi Arabia .4  (Zuhur, 2011). Frauk (2013) points out that the USA became more involved in Saudi
Arabia as a result of the oil industry, making English more important both economically
socially. .5 .6 

There was a
shift in attitudes towards learning English as workers in the oil industry were
encouraged to acquire better English language skills to become more effective
in their jobs (Looney, 2004). In many ways,
English became necessary for job placement, as English was the language of the
oil business (Al-Johani, 2009). After the discovery
of oil in the region, an Arabian-American oil company called Aramco was founded
in Saudi Arabia. In its initial years, the company had only American managers,
so Saudi citizens could only work for this company if they had good English
skills (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014). The company dominates
the Saudi economy, giving it company significant influence in Saudi society (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014). This has resulted a
radical societal change towards using and teaching English. 

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some Saudi citizens’ attitude that English is a dangerous language, this was
not reflected in official policy. The government of Saudi Arabia saw English as
economically valuable (Al-Braik, 2007), and
therefore established the first secondary school for Saudi citizens .7 in 1937 in Makka to prepare students to study abroad and earn
scholarships. .8 This school taught English for the
first time (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014)..9  The school taught English for the students. All the
subjects was based on Egyptian curriculum. All subjects was under the Egyptian
curriculum except the religious subjects which is controlled and managed by
Saudi government. Egyptian teachers were hired to teach English. The main
reason behind this school is to travel abroad and adapted western education
system in order to apply this system in Saudi Arabia. It is clear that this
school is the bases of the modern school today (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014)


In the 1950s,
Saudi Arabia became a rich country.10  because of discover of Oil. This wealth was largely invested in
education. For example, in 1957 a conference was held by the Ministry of Education
to find solutions to education problems.11 . That
same year, the Saudi government established the first university in the kingdom,
King Saud University.12  (Alqarni, 2015

In 1958 the
Saudi government started to implemented foreign language education for a
new language (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014). Foreign language
education began with teaching English at the middle level (grade 7 to grade 9).
.13 did not last long in the Saudi educational system in middle school , being
removed from the middle level in 1969 and remaining only at the secondary level
of grades 10 through 12 (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014). From that time,
English gained more importance, resulting in the spread of English education to
more schools. English became important for job opportunities at the biggest
companies in Saudi Arabia such as Saudi Arabia Telecom and Saudi Airlines. Even
small and medium-sized companies required English-speaking employees (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014).14 . This English requirement has even spread to companies that do not
primarily conduct business in English because it has become the sign of a
qualified worker..15   



In The 1970s there were big number of workers
from abroad who work in Saudi Arabia to contribute of developing and building
Infrastructure of Saudi Arabia such as roads and hospitals, almost 90% of the
workers are foreigners and the rest 10% are workers from Arabic countries but
with high level of English proficiency. The foreigners work in different type
of woke places large and small companies as well as public workplaces such
public hospitals. In that time the goal is to teach students English to
communicate with those experts and foreigners. This has impact on teaching
English in Saudi Arabia, as it shows that there is a need to improve English as
it important for Saudi economy (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014).  

In 1970 English begins to be taught at Middle
school and Secondary school level with is from the grade 7 to the grade 12.
English has four lessons each week, and each lessen last for 45 minutes. Syllabus controlled and
centralised by Ministry of Education of Saudi Arabia. The teachers expected to
cover the textbooks within the frame time that provided in the textbooks this
remains until 2001. (Ahmar & Elyas, 2014).     


Starting in
the 1990s.16 , Saudi Arabia began to feel the pressures of globalisation. As a
result, English began to be spoken by more Saudis than ever before, as English was
the only way to communicate with people in other parts of the world. As English
increasingly became the language of global communication, it became more
important to the people of Saudi Arabia. Learning English has become the way to
get a better job in Saudi Arabia. Most companies now require workers to have
English language skills as one of their main requirements for employment.


After the crises that happened in 9/11 in the
United stated there was a huge pressured on Saudi Arabia. Because of most of
the terrorists were mostly from Saudi Arabia. The blame was mostly on Educational
system and what the teaching produce the hate of others. There were a lot of
critique of not presenting of western culture habit such as drinking alcohol
and dating. The main purpose of this change is that to see the differences with
Western as just different culture and to accept the others who are different
with Saudi.  The new decision to reform
the curriculum came from Saudi Authorities which is clearly came under the
pressure of the United States of America. The new change has to teach English
for all the level of schools (ELYAS, 2008)



Educational System

There are three
types of schools in Saudi Arabia: public schools, private schools and international
schools. Public schools are funded by the government, and most of the students
in these schools are from the middle and working classes. Private school primarily
serve students from the upper, more affluent classes. The curriculum in private
and public schools are the same, whereas international school which is the schools for
students who are foreigners but live in Saudi Arabia. The .17 curricula differ from one school to another, following diverse curricula
from the UK, the US, Germany, India, and other nations. English is used as the
instructional language in all international schools. International schools are primarily for
international students who live with their parents in Saudi Arabia and have
only recently allowed Saudi students to enrol..18 

The English
language curriculum in Saudi Arabia is part of the Saudi General Curriculum.19 , which is particularly focused on Islamic and Arabic identity. In Saudi
Arabia, education is funded by the government. Therefore, it is free for all children
to attend all levels of education.20 . Education .21 in Saudi Arabia is divided into three levels: primary, elementary and
secondary. The school year, which runs from September until June, is divided
into two semesters. School runs five days a week, from Sunday to Thursday, with
Fridays and Saturdays constituting the school weekend.

The first
level of education is the primary level, which is divided into six grades.
Primary students range in age from 6 to 12 years old, and all parents in Saudi
Arabia must enrol their children in primary school at the age of six. The
subjects taught at the primary level include Islam and religious identity, as
well as some basic subjects, such as mathematics, science and English. The
second level of education is the middle level, which is divided into three
grades. Middle level students range in age from 13 to 16 years old. At this
level, students are taught Islamic themes as well as other subjects, such as
mathematics, English, Arabic, science, national studies and computers. The third
level is the secondary level, which is divided into three grades. Secondary
students range in age from 17 to 19 years old. English is taught beginning in
grade 4. There are two English .22 lessons each week from grades 4 to 6. There are 6 levels of English divided into
one level each semester. For example, each grade has two levels of English. Middle
school has 4 lessons a week and has a sixth level as well, one level to each semester.
.23 Secondary school has 4 English lessons each week from grade 7 until
grade 9.


Classroom Environment

In Saudi
Arabian schools, classes run from about 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. This
varies by season (e.g. in summer, classes begin at 7:45 a.m., whereas in
winter, classes begin at 8:00 a.m.). In general, students are taught 7 lessons
each day, with each lesson consisting of a different subject and lasting for 45
minutes. There is a 30-minute break after the third lesson, as well as a break
for prayers after the sixth lesson.

when a teacher enters the classroom, students are expected to show respect by
being silent. Indeed, the teaching profession is very well respected in Saudi
Arabia, so students will usually show their teachers respect by not talking
while the teacher is talking. Furthermore, they are expected to remain silent
until they are given permission to talk. (This expectation stems from the Saudi
custom of showing respect by being silent.) Students must raise their hands and
be called upon to speak; otherwise, it is considered rude to speak, and students
may be punished for speaking out of turn.


in Saudi Arabia is segregated by gender. .24 Girls are always taught by female teachers, whereas boys are taught by
male teachers. Even though boys and girls are segregated in terms of their
learning environments, they have the same educational supports, funding and curricula.
Generally, they learn the same subjects, except for in a few select cases (e.g.
only boys are taught physical education, and only girls are taught home
economics). These
discrepancies could be a result of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic identity. .25 

Teaching English in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi
Ministry of Education first introduced English in the school syllabus in the 1950s
(Al-Johani, 2009). In 1958, English classes were
implemented in grades 7–9 in Saudi schools (Al-Abdulkader, 1978). Presently, the
Saudi Ministry of Education implements English language classes for children starting
in grade 4 (Alfahad, 2012).

In recent
years, the Saudi Ministry of Education has invested significantly in improving
and developing the teaching of English in school classrooms. For instance, the Saudi
Arabian government has sent supervisors and teachers abroad, to places such as
the UK, so they can attend specific courses in teaching English as a foreign
language (TEFL) and thereby acquire the best methods for teaching English.

It has long
been recognised that the quality of TEFL in Saudi Arabian schools needs to be
improved. For instance, in 2009, there was a project spearheaded by the Saudi
Arabian government that formed agreements with international companies to help develop
Saudis’ English language skills so that the Saudi workforce could better meet international
companies’ needs. This new project mainly used communicative language teaching (CLT)
techniques to provide a new and improved curriculum for learning and teaching
English in Saudi Arabian workplaces.

The new
curriculum, like all curricula based on CLT, is intended to give students a
chance to learn English mainly through the practice of communication. This new
curriculum implements CLT through activities such as group work and games. Similarly,
the Saudi Ministry of Education has recently changed its school curriculum to adapt
new methods that focus on reading, writing, listening and speaking, with some
new CLT-based ideas spread throughout the curriculum. However, in reality,
English language teachers in Saudi Arabia are still using traditional methods
for teaching English in their classrooms. However, they may have their own
reasons for doing that, which will be discussed below.

Despite the
effort and money that Saudi Arabia’s government has spent on improving English language
education, student outcomes are still below expectations. For instance, some
workplace supervisors have reported problems with students’ English language
levels. They have complained that students’ writing is very poor, and also that
students have difficulty with listening comprehension. Some have even said that
students are not able to deliver basic sentences in English. .26 

Challenges in Implementing Communicative
Language Teaching in Saudi Arabia

Although CLT
has been officially adapted by the Saudi Ministry of Education, there are still
some issues with its implementation. The first is that its pedagogy does not
match with its assessments in Saudi student settings. Incongruence between the
approach to teaching and the method of conducting student assessments can
negatively affect the results of the educational process for students. As Abahussain
(2016) states, ‘Examinations can affect three major aspects.27 : participation, process, and product’ (p. 197). Such differences
can be resolved by adjusting assessment methods to match pedagogical approaches.

However, CLT
was implemented in Saudi Arabian curricula without also including effective
assessment strategies. In fact, the English education system in Saudi Arabia is
still exam-oriented, and therefore both teachers and students are primarily concerned
with examinations. As a result, CLT has been difficult to fully implement because
(1) there is no corresponding CLT assessment mechanism for the classroom, or
else (2) the CLT assessment mechanism is not aligned with what the teacher has
focused on in class. This is a major problem, for when teachers do not use appropriate
assessment techniques to assess students’ language learning, the learners’
performance will suffer.

Notably, Saudi
culture itself might be playing a leading role in hindering effective implementation
of CLT in Saudi Arabia. For example, one of the cultural trends in Saudi Arabia
is that students are used to being told what to do and following those
instructions. Therefore, students might not know what to do or how to interact
during a CLT-based language lesson. For instance, one of my colleagues told me that
when his students interact with each other, they become less controllable, which,
in his view, is a negative effect of CLT-based interaction.

cultural consideration is that some Saudi students do not want to speak in
front of their classmates in the target language because they are afraid of making
mistakes, even though the CLT approach leaves room for making mistakes. During
my own teaching experience, I have witnessed many teachers correcting nearly
every mistake their students make, and even stopping students from trying to
communicate their ideas because they were making small mistakes along the way.
These teachers are focusing only on accuracy, which is not suitable for a communicative
teaching approach. Indeed, at its core, CLT focuses on fluency more than
accuracy. Therefore, even though some of these teachers probably assumed they were
following CLT, their classes were focused on drilling and memorising, which is
not in accordance with CLT at all.

Indeed, I
find there tends to be a gap between CLT and teachers’ actual practice in Saudi
classrooms. Teachers’ roles in the CLT language classroom is not to correct students’
errors and mistakes, but rather to provide an environment for students to use
their language skills to communicate meaningfully in English. Many Saudi
English teachers tend to lecture students frequently and spend most of the
classroom time explaining grammar; even in a curriculum based on CLT, these
teachers want to remain at the centre of the class. This teacher-centred
practice might be due to many factors (e.g. the teachers themselves, the
students, the system). However, the main idea behind CLT is not to have
teachers lecture students in proper English. Rather, it is to help them
communicate what it is they want to say. It is about helping students to use
the language meaningfully.

problem with the implementation of communicative language teaching in Saudi
Arabia is that this approach cannot be used effectively in certain class
situations. Indeed, even though the Saudi Ministry of Education recently
implemented CLT in all English language curricula, it has not addressed the
CLT-related problems that some teachers are facing. For instance, it takes a
lot of time to deliver a CLT lesson properly, especially when a large number of
students are in one class. Batawi (2011) references .28 one study, stating that ‘in one of the government school groups, members
reported that having large classes that contain around 45 students makes it
impossible to use communicative language teaching’ 49.29 . Indeed, large classroom sizes make it more challenging for students to
meaningfully interact in English and for teachers to assess students. Thus, the
CLT approach might only be beneficial for small groups of students. As
mentioned above, some teachers find it difficult to use CLT in large classrooms
in particular because they do not feel they can control the classes.

However, Ellis
(2008) that the interaction can be done not only between students-students but
also between teacher-students. For example, the teacher will be in the front of
the class and use some activity such as information gap, which is one side has
part of the information whereas the other part of the information, they need to
share and communicate to get the information, it is like the teacher will hand
out a map and aske the student with a clear instruction to draw a road. , Ellis
(2008) states that It is Also has an advantage which the teacher can involve
the input, the students will process the input to achieve the task. In other
words, it is possible to use CLT in the big number of students in the class if
the teacher is a well class manager and his instruction is clear. However, it
might be difficult to assess students individually and give the feedback for
each students.

Moreover, some
teachers feel uncomfortable with the CLT teaching approach due to lack of
teacher training in this technique. For example, they find it difficult to
handle group chat situations, in which students should be speaking in the
target language but often hold side conversations in their mother languages.
Also, many Saudi English teachers have been trained to teach using the
traditional English translation methods. Teachers may prefer the old method,
which they may feel makes student assessment easier and clearer. This .30 reinforces the above argument that one of the main issues with teaching
English in Saudi schools using the CLT approach is that teachers do not know
how to properly assess students using this method.

Thus, both
teachers and students, as well as the Ministry of Education, need to shift away
from traditional exam-oriented thinking in order to properly assess students using
effective CLT assessment techniques .31 and allow communicative-based language learning to thrive in Saudi




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