The English in our classrooms

Why are the markers of a good education so closely tied with proficiency in English?

Updated May 15, 2020 10:21am

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?


Author Image

Komal Waqar is an educator based in Karachi. She has worked in the public education sector for the past five years in different capacities, all towards the goal of helping children read. Currently, she is a member of the visiting faculty at a private university in Karachi. She can be contacted at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

Reality Bites
May 14, 2020 09:13am
That's what you will get from schools that have commercialized education. The owners of these school chains don't know any better. To the speaking good English equals good education, the reality couldn't be more wrong. These education shops have missed the boat completely. They have distorted the very meaning of acquiring education. They are mass-producing humanoids who are void of proper education. Education is not a business, it's our country's future. They have turned teachers into cheaters. Their greed doesn't seem to end. They keep on opening new campuses without providing any quality. I wonder, what is the ministry of education doing?
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M. Emad
May 14, 2020 09:16am
Pakistani children in primary schools should be taught in their mother tongue.
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May 14, 2020 09:27am
English is the only language connecting people in all continents, not Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi or Urdu or any other language. All the advanced education is in English; starting English at lowest possible grade in Pakistani schools is must to have understanding of this important language, more important in this internet age. Not knowing English as second language will be major loss for that group of students, will restrict their future progress.
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Zain Abidin
May 14, 2020 11:15am
Thank you for an in depth analysis of the importance of English language in Pakistan's very confusing and complicated educational system. I have experienced Pakistan's Urdu Medium schooling system before immigrating to U.S. at a very young age. To my surprise, I did very well in U.S. starting from 8th Grade in U.S. after finishing 7th Class in an Urdu Medium Federal Government Boys Secondary High School in Islamabad, Pakistan. I was placed in the main stream regular English language class in the United States, after assessment of English reading and comprehension skills during the admission process. All thanks to Pakistan's Federal Government Urdu Medium school, and just barely started to learn English Alphabets, Grammar, and mainstream English classes at the 6th and 7th class in Pakistan. I was an average student in Pakistan as well but in U.S. I was ranked in top ranks, Honor Roll, with mostly A grades. So, all is not bad in Pakistan.
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May 14, 2020 12:52pm
Excellent read. Wish the message permeates to our education managers.
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May 14, 2020 12:55pm
About topic and "Search for My Tongue" I say go through "Genocidal Organ" novel. As far myth about good education can lift you from low-income, then based on my experience in HRM to working with different clients, it's a big "No" in most cases, as the first question for new graduates from HR is "What your father does ?" which is an indirect way of asking about which income group you belongs to, as in every firm/company/enterprise there is a thing called "lobbing", no matter what GPA you got, how talented you are, they reject, yes you can say people on scholarship can learn to get along with different segment of society during their time at university, but how ? As the activities of people from high income group is not affordable for those whom on scholarship, so they can't what HR in big names call "jell" with rest of the "team". So there is much need to be done to create harmony in our society, but first thing is to focus on linguistics to break basic communication barrier.
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Khawar Khan
May 14, 2020 01:24pm
It is not just with 5the grade student that she can't read I have observed that 90 percent students at college level can't read correct English in remote areas. Even more than 60 percent can't read Urdu.
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May 14, 2020 03:11pm
What is even more disturbing is the inability of children to read fluently in their mother tongue. I feel with the spread of education, we now have in the classroom children from deprived backgrounds where issues of malnutrition and mental health abound. The conditions in which these kids grow up and the violence that they see around them is bound to impact their ability to comprehend and communicate.
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May 14, 2020 03:29pm
Western education is the reason for all of Pakistan's problems. It should be banned. Pakistanis are very fortunate to have the "Book", which is complete education a human needs. Everyone should be made to study the "Book" at madrasahs and that should provide complete education to all Pakistanis.
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Rashda Tanweer
May 14, 2020 04:35pm
Komal Waqar ,excellent article , being a teacher in an underprivileged school as a visiting faculty I have been facing same situation in my classes teaching English as a third language l need some sort of solution will appreciate . Thank you
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May 14, 2020 04:41pm
@Ahmad, English language from childhood that is the going forward People should forget Hindi Arabic Urdu Chinese Spanish French German -- only one language and that is English if Pakistan want their people to be knowledgeable in science and other fields.
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M. Saeed
May 14, 2020 05:35pm
Present day high achievers in Pakistan mostly fail to count in their native language correctly up to 100, not to talk of reading their national language text. Look at Bilawal reading from Roman text in vernacular and that too often wrong.
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Syed A. Mateen
May 14, 2020 06:47pm
English language is the second spoken language in the world, after the French language. Pakistan is lacking behind in giving education in English language, as majority of people neither can speak nor can write in English language with proper grammar and punctuation. What else one can expect when in government run schools the alphabets of English language starting from A,B,C,D is taught from class VI onwards. Such students even after earning a bachelor's degree cannot write a simple application in English language. I am not against learning in Urdu language being the national language, or any other regional language, which the students learn gradually from their parents and in the schools. It is a wrong concept given by the political leaders of the country that English language is the language of elite class. The true fact is that if some one can speak, read and write proper English language, the chances of his employment in the country and also abroad are raised by mani-folds.
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May 14, 2020 06:52pm
Language is merely a tool. Russians, Israelis, Germans or French are developed all technologies in their own language.
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M. Siddique
May 14, 2020 07:32pm
It is good learn in your own language but let us not forget that most of the advanced learning is in English. Scientific papers from every language have been translated in English.
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Syed A. Mateen
May 14, 2020 08:16pm
English is one of the world's highest spoken language and therefore people speaking any language would also like to learn English language as a secondary language. In Pakistan people prefer to speak regional languages as it is easy to communicate with each other. However, the importance of English language cannot be ignored when people are travelling to western countries for the purpose of visit or immigration. In government run schools, English language is not given any priority, as teachers mostly communicate in regional languages, though the need of hour is that English language should be taught as a subject right from the nursery class. Well to do parents spent a lot of money on their children by admitting them in private schools where English language is taught from the very beginning. In my personal opinion, English is a language which every citizen must learn as a secondary language so that there should not be any communication gap while communicating in English language.
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May 14, 2020 10:12pm
@Zain Abidin, you got the opportunity and exposure brother.
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May 14, 2020 10:21pm
An eye-opening article. I would say some of our TV anchors cannot enunciate some of the English words.
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May 14, 2020 11:16pm
@Himmat, technologies are not developed in language.
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May 15, 2020 12:05am
After reading all comments, there are diverse views, favour and against of English language in our education system. Most understand that without English student can’t get job or our country can’t be development. This issue should be debated more in our society. Historically, state has promoted English and Urdu language in our education system. In my opinion, after understanding our socio-economic conditions, I am in favour of our national or local languages as medium of instruction from primary to university level. English may be taught as language not as subject and all other subjects in English. High level officials and those who want to go western countries can learn English language. Btw, in coming years, western societies will give jobs to their people and are changing policies to stop other nationals.
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May 15, 2020 12:15am
To me, poverty prevents learners from staying focused. Once poverty is addressed, learning becomes easier, in English as well as in Urdu.
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May 15, 2020 02:03am
Some of the Pakistani schools have shaken the lives of students but we have to agree with the fact that all schools don't lie on the same level. But the major issue which is least likely to be addressed is government schools are not being polished. They have introduced the English-medium system but some students are still not able to understand their subject concept in the second language.
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Asad Abbas
May 15, 2020 11:08am
Very nicely said. Might I add, sounds like the author has had an epiphany.
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