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Transforming English language teaching in Bangladesh

OU researchers have harnessed the power of innovative technology-enabled teaching methods to transform English language education in Bangladesh, improve children’s life prospects and support the country’s economic development and sustainable growth.

Rapidly becoming the global language of business, the Government of Bangladesh views English as critical to economic development and sustainable growth.

In a country where close to 70 million people survive on less than a dollar a day, English proficiency creates significant employment and social opportunities and offers a route out of poverty. However, people skilled in communicating in the language are still in short supply.

Education lies at the root of this challenge. For many years, English language was the most failed subject in schools in Bangladesh. Teachers themselves had limited English skills and did not know how to teach in the interactive way necessary to build communication skills. Which meant students had very few opportunities to communicate in English during lessons.

Since 2008, as part of the UK Government Department for International Development-funded English in Action (EIA) programme, together with colleagues Malcolm Griffiths, Dr Prithvi Shrestha, Clare Woodward and Dr M. Mahruf C. Shohel, we’ve used our research to enhance the classroom practices of more than 53,000 teachers in Bangladesh. As a result, we have improved over seven million primary and secondary school pupils’ English language competence throughout the country.

Communication is critical

Our research demonstrates Communicative Language Teaching, through which students learn through authentic and participative speaking, listening, reading and writing activities, is significantly more effective than traditional methods such as simply studying grammar and vocabulary. Yet, when we first visited Bangladesh, we found most Schools’ English language classes involved pupils listening silently while their teachers spoke from textbooks.

After trialling our Communicative Language Teaching approach in a small sample of schools, we established a three-pronged programme to enhance English language learning in Bangladesh.

  1. Technology-enabled: We harnessed the rapid growth of mobile devices in the country to give English language teachers a low-cost mobile phone pre-loaded with resources, such as locally produced videos of real teachers using Communicative Language Teaching methods. These resources, which also included audio listening exercises teachers could play to students, were saved on a memory card and were not reliant on internet connections so that teachers could use them in even the most remote locations.

  2. School-based: We gave teachers materials to develop their English competence and encouraged them to explore and experiment with new fun and interactive teaching-learning methods and reflect on their practice.

  3. Networked: We gave teachers ongoing support and peer-based professional development by pairing them with other teachers in their school with whom they could compare and share their approaches. Every six weeks, we also gathered teachers in each district for structured professional development workshops delivered by EIA teacher facilitators.

Fundamental changes in classroom practices

Our work has improved Bangladeshi teachers’ confidence to speak and teach English and fundamentally changed their classroom practices. More than 95 per cent of teachers taking part in the project have said that it had improved their own English, and over 90 per cent have incorporated the materials into their teaching.

Before EIA, I never used body language, acting and dancing in the classroom. I thought this was only for male teachers [...] that it was not for me. Now I use songs, rhymes, miming, acting, dancing. I feel very efficient in my work. My student teams are standing out in the crowd at education and digital fairs. This is thanks to EIA. I changed myself and my sub-district.

Teacher from the metropolitan area of Rajshahi

By 2014, Bangladeshi Government Education Officers observing more than 4,000 classrooms found primary teachers were spending less time presenting to students (29% of lesson time) and more time organising student activities (33%), asking students questions (18%) and giving feedback 19%. These and similar figures from secondary schools show a significant change from the 2009 baseline study, which found teachers spent most lessons presenting from the textbook and rarely involved students in activities.

Improving learners’ English language competence

An independent assessment of more than 1,000 primary and secondary school pupils carried out by Trinity College London demonstrated that the rate of primary school pupils achieving the pass rate for English language competence doubled from 35% in 2010 to 70% in 2014. For secondary school pupils, the pass rate also rose from 75% to 83%.

I visited 2-3 classes in EIA schools in Manikgonj district. EIA is very fine; secondary students were spontaneously talking to us; students spoke English very fluently. In Bangladesh, children’s attitude towards English has changed. They have a courage for English and think that they can answer all questions. EIA has contributed to this. Students’ English results have also improved in the recent years. EIA has contributed to this.

Secondary at Department of Schools and Higher Education

Shaping the English language curriculum and teacher development in Bangladesh and beyond

We’ve drawn on our experience through EIA and our broader research to help the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) in Bangladesh revise the English language textbooks and accompanying teacher guides used by every primary school across the country. These updated textbooks now feature Communicative Language Teaching materials and are distributed with EIA-produced audios.

Outside of EIA, the Bangladeshi Government has incorporated our methods in development programmes for more than 100,000 teachers since 2014. Beyond Bangladesh, the leaders of global projects such as the Teacher Development Programme (TDP) in Nigeria have adopted the EIA approach to teacher development.

In November 2017, the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) recognised the power of our work on the EIA project with the Award for International Impact.

EIA at THE Awards

[EIA was a] clear winner for its global impact on English communication abilities in difficult-to-access regions [we commend OU researchers’] innovative and pragmatic solution as well as their collaborative approach, working with intergovernmental agencies and in-country partners. The OU’s development of teaching materials specifically designed for use on low-cost mobile phones has had a transformative impact on the regions in which they have been deployed.

THES Award Judges

We now plan to take this work further through new collaborative teacher development programmes. For example, we are using low-cost Raspberry Pi computers to make teacher development available to whole schools in Zambia. We are also providing continuity of learning during the pandemic in Zimbabwe through WhatsApp teacher development programmes and student learning activities.

Written by: Tom Power, Senior Lecturer in Teacher Education and International Development and Programme Director for English in Action and Claire Hedges, Senior Programme Manager, English in Action