The English in our classrooms

Why are the markers of a good education so closely tied with proficiency in English?
Published May 14, 2020

The first time I heard Nadia* read, it broke my heart. I had been prepared for this. As a newly-initiated Teach for Pakistan Fellow, I knew about the achievement gap. I knew that our public schooling system was producing students who couldn’t read simple sentences in English or Urdu. I knew this and yet, the sight of a fifth grader pausing at every word was nothing I’d ever been prepared for. As I listened to Nadia struggle, I thought of the glossy hard-bound reader my school had assigned in the fifth grade and the ability to read complex stories fluently and confidently that I had so far been taking for granted, like the ability to breathe.

I’d started my Fellowship believing reading to be a skill and a pathway for further learning. All you need is the right sort of instruction, the right sort of texts and you’ll be able to read. That’s what I was there for. I was obsessed with empowering my students to read — and to love it as much as I did; it was my Big Goal for my Fellowship.

Towards the end of my Fellowship, as Nadia and her classmates showed academic improvement, I had stopped believing that mastering reading was all that mattered. Poverty was vicious, encroaching every aspect of my students’ lives from the healthcare they were able to access to the difficulties they faced in commuting to school. When I was writing this article, the Kemari gas leak happened. The fumes were reported to have reached Shirin Jinnah Colony — where their school is. Every headline reminded me of them; they were disproportionately affected, did they have access to doctors? Did they know how to protect themselves? Could they protect themselves? I thought of Samira, whose mother had once fallen sick because there was a gas leak in her house. Now as the country grapples with Covid-19, these questions still remain.

Also read | Bilingualism: access & equity

Was a 'good education' really enough for them to exorcise poverty out of their lives? Why are the markers of a good education so closely tied with proficiency in English? Out of the 120 girls I taught, how many would make it to college, to university? How many would find a job that would allow for social mobility? Could a good education — good English — be enough to grant them access into elite spaces?

Still looking for answers, still thinking literacy could be neatly arranged into a series of steps, I enrolled in grad school for an MPhil in Education. I dove into theory, believing it to hold the answers. I came across Bourdieu's theory of language as "symbolic capital". Proficiency in a language allows you to move through social spaces and accords you prestige. Additionally, the ethnographic understanding of literacy as a social practice helped recast reading as a cultural and social practice rather than just a technical set of skills such as word recognition and phonics.

Theorists like Brian Street have consistently argued for language and literacy to be understood in the wider context of the societies they exist in. For us, this means remembering how English was formally introduced into the subcontinent by the British. This means acknowledging the implications of Urdu becoming the national language of Pakistan, at the expense of other languages.

I remembered when I first introduced the Oxford Reading Tree to my students. They had been unable to discern that Biff, Chip, and Kipper were names. They were unable to see their own lives reflected in these stories. One particular example surfaced when I taught At the Beach. My students eagerly told me about their last visit to Seaview but were blank as to why the characters were burying their father in the sand. A few suggested it might be a grave.

More on this: In hopes of providing an education beyond textbooks, I discovered the power of questioning

It took me time to acknowledge how constructing my syllabus was a loaded act; one that would sometimes enact the same power dynamics I was attempting to mitigate. Merely changing the 'foreign' names in grammar exercises to Pakistani ones, wasn’t enough. Most of my students were learning two languages in school: English and Urdu. For most, their mother tongue was Pashto, a language spoken by many of their teachers but never a part of the formal curriculum. Urdu was still a language they encountered in their homes or in their communities but English was largely absent, limited to the 30-40 minutes of English period every day. Giving homework was futile, some of them did not have siblings or parents who could help them. Teaching English as a foreign language is different from teaching English as a second language — something I massively struggled with.

Power and inequality are often tied in with teaching English in Pakistan. As a student, the quality of instruction you receive is often dependent on your socio-economic circumstances. As a teacher, you can reinforce the same inequality. This inequality isn't limited to the subject; if you perceive your students to be deficient in English, your behaviour is affected.

Correcting a student’s pronunciation or harping on about their grammar are perhaps necessary evils but the onus of their lack of proficiency is not on them. As English teachers, it’s all too easy to forget how our target language is intertwined with privilege and inequality; how exposure to English is often determined by class but this understanding is vital to guiding our instruction.

We make so many assumptions about a person based on the accent they speak English with, the grammar they have or haven’t mastered. We believe we can gauge the worth of a person's academic qualifications on their mastery of English. Equally important, we think we can determine someone's class by the kind of English they speak, the entertainment they consume.

English can wield considerable influence on one's academic trajectory, even after we think students have made it. I realised this when I started teaching English at a private university in Karachi. I was so excited. No longer would I need to worry about scaffolding and designing elaborate activities to go along with the text. As a Fellow, my primary concern while choosing texts, was always "Would my students be able to understand?" Now, as I drew up my syllabus for a freshman writing course, my primary concern was "Will my students be able to relate to this?"

As a teacher of English, I have always wanted to share the pieces that have brought me joy, that have helped me reclaim wonder in my day-to-day life, but how much of that joy is intertwined with the privilege of having an academic background in literature, one that perhaps might not have been accessible to me had I been from a different socio-economic background.

Read further: If students fail to achieve good grades, it's the failure of the education system

Before assigning readings, I had to interrogate every piece and put it on trial. Was it a piece that would help my students become better writers or was it a piece that I thought was 'important literature'? Keeping aside the matter of who assigns these labels, who deems these works important, none of my readings could be completely stripped of the cultural capital they carried. And it was important for me to be aware of the references the readings had, to know how the writers were politically situated. It mattered that students read about experiences and people who looked like them and led lives similar to theirs. The readings were to hold up a mirror to Pakistan and the world outside, to use them to start conversations about issues that may not have been thought of as "literary", as belonging to an English writing classroom. We do our students a disservice when we attempt to de-politicise literature as a way of maintaining neutrality. We do our students a disservice when we assign pieces solely on their imagined merit rather than their relevance to our student's lives.

I saw this when I began the semester by assigning Sujata Bhatt's Search for My Tongue. "Which language has not been the oppressor’s tongue / which language truly meant to murder someone?" My students readily denounced English — while speaking in English. It was important that we began talking and thinking about how using English is a multi-layered act: it is an institutional necessity, a marker of privilege, and a legacy of colonisation, but also, a language.

There were failures too. An essay by Joan Didion proved to be largely unpopular; students had difficulty unpacking the many US-specific cultural references in her essay. Meanwhile, many of my female students told me how much they appreciated an excerpt from A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. They were reminded of their own experiences in persuading their parents to study further. Reading was a political act, seeped with cultural implications. I saw this as students shared that they too had grown up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton. Despite being a generation apart, my students too had grown up without seeing positive literary representation of their country or their ethnicity. This made it all the more difficult to imagine people like us as protagonists of stories — something that manifested when students would write stories with Anglophone names without really knowing why they chose to do so. After our class on speculative fiction in South Asia, students reflected that they still struggled to visualise speculative fiction set in South Asia.

As I got to know my students better, I began to question the idea of the 'default' student at my university. Was the default student someone who spoke exclusively in English and had a stellar academic background? But what about their classmate who often self-deprecated her command over English but was a budding entrepreneur, resilient, and street-smart? And what about the student whose grammar was poor but who used every assignment to explore a genre that they were deeply passionate about? Out of all three, who should be the default? All of them were integral to my classroom.

The myth that a good education can lift you out of poverty is put to test at our universities. There are scholarships, recruitment drives, all designed to make university admissions more accessible for students from low-income backgrounds. However, these initiatives still require more introspection.

I spoke to Amal Hamid who works at a college for students from low-income backgrounds. Sometimes, it’s the smallest of things, the ones you take for granted. Amal shared how scholarships often ask for salary slips as proof. Salary slips are dependent on the assumption that your parents have always had a stable source of income. This isn’t always the case for some of the students who study at the college . Often the college administration has issued affidavits to aid students who could not provide the requisite legal documentation. A deeper understanding of how poverty shapes access, shapes attitudes, deprives one of cultural capital, needs to be reflected in the recruitment process.

Some aspects of cultural capital are more tangible, more easily overcome. Amal shared how the college curriculum integrates preparation for different kinds of admission tests so that students are suitably prepared. But some aspects of cultural capital are less apparent. The first cohort of the college alumni struggled with the smallest of things that were inextricably tied with class. For example, course registration, in many universities, is done online but many of the alumni would not have a computer with a stable internet connection at home. Some of the alumni did not know how to navigate their university, to visit the Registrar's office, to reach out to their instructors if they needed help. For the second cohort, the college team revised the curriculum to include such components. Yet there were still hurdles. Some professors would be openly hostile; one told a student that they shouldn’t have joined the university when their English wasn’t up to the mark. Nevermind the contributions that that student was making in other courses, it was their English that apparently defined their worth.

Explore | The Analytical Angle: Why haven’t past education reforms had more effect?

I was reminded of how much we use pop-culture in our teaching and while it’s a hip way to teach, it’s also a way of enforcing class solidarities, of telling some of our students here’s one more thing you don’t know about.

As my first semester teaching English approached the end, I began to wonder if cultural capital can be hacked, broken down into a series of components, much like I once believed reading could be whittled down to. If I allot 'the basics' some space in my syllabus, if I teach punctuation, if I emphasise on pronunciation, will I have cracked the code? The line between assimilation and accommodation is a slippery one, how will I know if I’ve crossed it? As a teacher, it is not my job to produce students who have the same cultural capital, but it is to ensure that my students succeed regardless of what their cultural capital is. This is easier said than done: teaching a language course means that at any given time, I am either grading or preparing to grade along with my usual teaching responsibilities.

Mechanisms for providing additional support to such students need to be created. The responsibility to accommodate our students goes beyond an individual level, it is a structural responsibility. To truly level the playing field for all students, it is important to extend them additional support beyond the classroom. It may even require re-envisioning what level of proficiency in English is needed in a multi-lingual, highly stratified society such as ours.

The end of my Fellowship was bittersweet. There was so much I still wanted to do with my students. I promised them that I would continue trying to make the world a better place for them and other children. Over the years, I remembered my promise as I worked with English teachers at an adopted government school. As I started teaching, remembering became more specific. Often, while hurrying to and from classes on campus, I wonder how Nadia and her peers would inhabit this university. Would they make friends, learn new things in their classes? Would new opportunities open up for them? Who would help them as they navigate this new, unfamiliar world? Who would help them with their English? Who would help them with their education?

  • Name changed to protect privacy