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Though I am not one of the founder members of the Society of Pakistan English Language teachers (SPELT), my association with it goes back to the days prior even to its inception. I could discern the sparks of a new movement in English language teaching in Pakistan way back in 1962, in my interaction with its founding member Zakia Sarwar, first as a classfellow in Government College, and then as a colleague in the Education Department of Sindh.

When Zakia came back with a Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) from Sydney University in January 1983, she was brimming over with new ideas and information about how to teach English, and she wanted to share the latest methodologies and strategies in English Language Teaching (ELT) through an effective platform. Excited about the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) forthcoming National English Language Teaching (ELT) Conference, she sent in her abstract. She was very disappointed when she got a letter from UGC conference organisers, saying ‘Dear Mr Sarwar, we are sorry that we will not be able to accommodate your paper in this conference.” She discussed her paper and her objectives with a friend, Anita Ghulam Ali — whose power position worked wonders.

Zakia was invited to present her paper at the conference in true bureaucratic spirit, where a ‘pull’ is required. At the conference in Islamabad, all the provinces were represented, particularly Sindh which had sent 15 teachers out of a total of 30. This was the first ever time that ELT was recognised by the government as a field which deserved attention. Dr Anjum Riazul Haque, who initiated this move at UGC, deserves a special mention as a pioneer for ELT in Pakistan.

It was at this conference that Zakia met Abbas Hussain, Fauzia Shamim and Aneesa Mumtaz, who became her companions in establishing Spelt. The second ELT conference was organised by UGC the following year, 1984, where the same participants were invited again. Never missing an opportunity to network, Zakia said to her colleagues from Sindh, “Why wait for the government to invite us to Islamabad to meet each other once a year? Let us meet in Karachi every month and share our experiences and learn from each other.” Abbas, Fauzia and Aneesa were enthusiastic about this suggestion. So SPELT was born with its first Academic Session on July 17, 1984. At this session, which was held at the British Council, Karachi, Talat (Rafi) Raza Khan had the honour of being the first Spelt presenter and she shared her work on “Common Errors of Pakistani Learners.”

The birth of Spelt with its monthly academic sessions was significant in many ways. It demonstrated that Pakistani teachers had a desire for professional development, and it honoured local teachers’ expertise with the underlying premise that teachers can help develop each other, and they do not always have to be dependent on ‘foreign expertise’ for their professional development. It also established Pakistani teachers’ independent spirit, because Spelt was not inspired by any foreign funding agencies, looking for financial gains, rather it reflected the teachers’ own desire for development. ‘Peer learning’ is a buzz word in the modern educational scenario and Spelt got on to this path on its own initiative! Spelt gave English teachers a niche, where they blended like a family, and worked together for a common goal. The academic sessions continued to draw interested teachers to its forum. Come July 1985, it was time to celebrate Spelt’s inception. The most befitting way seemed to be to hold a conference. Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC) offered its auditorium for this laudable initiative. ELT officers from the British Council, Asia Foundation, USIA and Aga Khan University School of Nursing offered their full support. Oxford University Press (OUP), Spelt’s constant companion since its inception, printed the conference folder as its contribution. So the schedule and mechanism for an ambitious conference, with an appropriate theme “Evaluating Compulsory English Courses from class VI to BA level” was ready for delivery.

But where to get the participants from? Very few knew Spelt in 1985. Again Anita Ghulam Ali waved her magic wand and the bureaucratic wheels crunched. The Education Department of Sindh nominated 200 government school teachers to attend the first ever National ELT conference organised by teachers themselves. The enrolment fee as a token was Rs five only, but the excitement of meeting like-minded colleagues and discussing common issues and problems was unparalleled.

The conference made teachers realise that they were not alone to face their classroom challenges. The four page cyclostyled newsletter distributed at the conference with news of professional ELT events and tips for teaching also became an instant hit, attracting even those who had not attended the conference to the Spelt forum.

Spelt’s main aim since its inception has been to improve the teaching/learning standards of English in Pakistan and to find modern research but contextually appropriate materials, which would be relevant for learners in Pakistan, and practical for teachers with limited resources. That is why Spelt has always focused on training teachers to evaluate and adapt materials relevant for the contexts and needs of Pakistani learners. The certificate course devised in 1986 addressed this issue and focussed on the on-going teacher development with specialisation in English language teaching for capacity building.

By 1988, the PACC Auditorium with 200 seats was too small for the Spelt annual conference. At this juncture Aga Khan University, School of Nursing welcomed Spelt with open arms and provided its premises. The air-conditioned auditoriums and classrooms surrounded by lush greenery and lakes added a new aura to the Spelt conference and it became an educational event well worth waiting for. The first ever international conference on large classes was held there, attracting experts from Australia, UK, USA as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and other countries.

Thus Spelt put Pakistan on the ELT map of the world. Ever since then Spelt has moved from strength to strength on the international as well as the national ELT scene. Its founder member, Dr Fauzia Shamim has the honour of being a plenary speaker at the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) Conference in UK. Another founder member, Zakia Sarwar has been a Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) (USA) leader and presenter at conferences around the world at TESOL. She received an award of TESOL Policy Council in 2000 “in recognition of significant contribution to the field of ESL/EFL language acquisition and instruction.” Zakia has also been the HEC Chair of National Committee on English in the English Language Teachers Reforms (ELTR) project from 2003-2010 and has been responsible for establishing ELT as a much needed field.

The conference, like other activities of Spelt has continued to grow. The numbers of participants has swelled from 200 to 2,000 across the country. In an effort to reach out to teachers all over the country, Spelt now holds a Travelling Conference, which has been internationally hailed as a unique event for maximising resources and opportunities for professional development. Since Pakistan’s socio-economic realities make it difficult for conference participants, particularly women, to travel to other cities and stay in hotels, Spelt takes the conference to teachers in the major cities of Pakistan such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The conference presenters travel to different venues to share their expertise. Mid-week mini-conferences in smaller cities like Multan, Abbottabad and Sukkur give overseas presenters an opportunity to travel across Pakistan, which is an enriching experience for them as well. As Spelt has very limited financial resources, the Spelters offer home hospitality to overseas presenters, who often use their personal resources for travelling. Thus, in spite of limited resources, Spelt often gets presenters from as many as twenty different countries.

Spelt is also cited as a role model of teacher associations in the South Asian region. It is known for its innovative ways and independent democratic traditions. This makes teachers from neighbouring countries want to come to Pakistan for Spelt’s prestigious conferences. This year the conference will be held in mid-October, under the theme: ELT: Building Bridges. Presenters from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran and Nepal are participating, in addition to well known experts from UK and USA. In this mega-event in Karachi, Spelt expects to host over 90 sessions and reach out to at least a 1,000 teachers.

Spelt has grown from an eight member group of teachers to a national teachers’ association with international recognition. Its four cyclostyled page newsletter has developed into the only ELT refereed journal from Pakistan. Its free monthly two-hour workshops are held in many cities of Pakistan. Its Practical Teacher Training Course has given birth to the Cambridge University International Certificate for English Language Teaching (ICELT) — the only specialised ELT certificate course, not just in Pakistan, but in this region. Spelt’s annual travelling conference too is a major event in this region with participant numbers exceeding 2,000.

When I look back at the 27 years of Spelt, I am filled with a sense of pride, that despite heavy odds, the dedicated voluntary work of Spelt is helping in the capacity-building in ELT expertise in Pakistan, by improving the teaching/learning standards here. If the state joins hands with Spelt, and uses their expertise to develop language policies and training procedures, a more positive outcome would surely result. Zakia laughingly says, “We continue to work hard in the hope that one day sense will prevail, and education will move in the right direction in Pakistan. With the work Spelt has already done, at least we are in a position to immediately take the right steps regarding the teaching of the English language.”