Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Futility of Teaching Reading

Where I work, there always seems to be this line separating the native and non-native English speakers, at least amongst the English faculty, mostly because the non-native speakers are constantly required to provide their English bona-fides by taking the IELTS Academic exam. Non-native speakers are not required to take this exam, which creates an inequality that immediately separates the native and non-native speakers, and, in effect, creates two separate classes of English teacher.

From time to time I come across a bulletin board post, or step into a discussion between English teachers when this subject arises, and the discussions always seem to form the same pattern. From the perspective of the non-native speaker, requirements like the IELTS exam should be universal, if only for reasons of equity. From the perspective of the non-native speaker, such assessments are pointless since they are directed towards non-native speakers. Unspoken, amongst the native speakers, is the notion that such a requirement is beneath them, that their ability to use English is far and above that of any non-native speaker. On bulletin boards, the unspoken is more often than not spoken, or at least written, in the safety of anonymity. The notion put forward is that the teaching of English by a non-native speaker is somehow illegitimate, that simply by being non-native speakers, they can only offer inferior English instruction.

As a fluent, native English speaker, I've come to realize a few things about this situation, mostly that the attitude of the native speaker is quite often overly hubristic. Through my experience teaching and working in an IELTS environment, I have come to realize that most native speakers I know, friends and family members back home, would probably not do very well on the IELTS exam, especially the academic IELTS exam. Native speaker or not, the ability to use a language well, even your own, is not a common thing. Another thing I have come to learn is that by being a native speaker, I have no idea, no clue whatsoever, as to how hard it is for others to actually learn and master this language. But a non-native speaker, especially one who teaches English, knows all those difficulties and problems intimately.

All this came to me as I was sitting the other day, and truly coming to realize the futility of trying to teach the skill of reading. A directive had just come down that in order to qualify for the new, massive pay in crease being offered, all staff had to take the academic IELTS exam, with the exception of the native English speaking staff. Leaving aside the equity of the situation, the fact remains that all teachers, not just those teaching English, will have to take this exam, and reach a specific benchmark, which has caused no little consternation in many, and even panic in some. So it falls on teachers like myself, to step outside of my native English speaking cocoon, and help train my colleagues, help them reach their necessary goal. And this is where the problem lay.

I was asked to teach reading, a task which I accepted, but also a task I do not relish. As I mentioned before, I have no idea how hard it is to learn English, because it is my mother tongue. I also have no idea how hard it is to learn how to read, for in terms of reading, I was an autodidact. I taught myself how to read. I started learning to read before kindergarten, and I went into grade 1 already reading books, when other children around me could barely read a sentence. From what I remember, and my own parents' recollections, I learned the alphabet in pre-school, but after that, I went off on my own. I had a room full of books, and being a stubborn and obstreperous kid, when my father forbid me to read any of them at night, my response, of course, was to do the exact opposite, and treat reading like a forbidden treasure.

That's how I came to love reading, and the amount I spent reading from then until now is almost incalculable. The number would be in the many tens of thousands of hours. And it was over the course of that lifetime of reading, of constant, daily, sustained reading, that I learned all of my reading skills. I never had to struggle to learn a new way of reading like Arabic speakers do, or to come to grips with an alien syntax and structure like any non-native speaker has to do. So I have none of the insights that the struggle to master a new language would offer. Which means that all I can say to others who need help with reading is to simply read. Read non-stop. Read every day. Read until the eyes bleed.

Not very useful advice at all. Especially since most of those I am giving this advice to have limited free time. They can't take the time to just read and read, and it is frustratingly hard for me to get across the idea that I can't really teach them to read, that it is something they have to learn to do on their own. I can teach writing. That's easy. I can teach speaking as well. That's also easy. I can even teach listening, using techniques like phonics, to teach the recognition of sounds, tones, and cadences. But reading? I can't teach that, at least not to a roomful of people, a roomful of adult professionals.

Or could I? This, I think, is where the non-native speaker is far better for the teaching of language, because they might at least have a few insights where all I have to offer is a shrug of the shoulders and a half-hearted "good luck."

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