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Another revolution in Iran

Matt Salusbury assesses the impact of an innovative coursebook series

The recent British Council publication English language teaching in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Innovations, trends and challenges (http://tinyurl.com/BCenglishiranreport) notes that ‘there is currently a thirst for English’ in the country, with learning English becoming a ‘fashionable trend’.

Several of its contributors comment on the ambivalence of the state towards English in the Islamic Republic. It’s seen as ‘the language of enemies … on the one hand and as a tool for progress on the other’. 

The publication is not a report, but is introduced as a ‘volume’ by its editor Chris Kennedy, who then hands over to numerous co-authors who are big names in Iranian ELT. It’s a bit of a mixed bag – I found myself skipping over the part about ‘learning journeys’ and the ‘metaphors for teachers’ diagram with arrows pointing to the words ‘light, sun, moon, star, candle, fire, lantern’.

The publication is particularly frank about how ‘the changing situation in Iranian society is transforming English’. As of 2011 an estimated one in four Iranian graduates was leaving the country to join the worldwide Iranian diaspora, ‘resulting in an estimated loss of $50 billion to the nation’. This makes it all the more urgent for Iran to provide ‘rich educational opportunities’ to keep its graduates in the country.

The big news in Iranian ELT is the Prospect ‘communicative language teaching’-based English language coursebook series for Iranian state secondary schools, still in its early stages. English is compulsory from the age of thirteen. The coursebook series emphasises encouraging teachers to promote students’ communicative skills and minimising mother-tongue use. It’s still too early to tell how much impact the first two levels of six have had – Prospect 1 for the first year of secondary school was released in 2013, with Prospect 2 launched the following year.

In the main pirated US textbooks are in use in Iran’s thriving private-school sector, where English is taught from primary or even pre-primary, with the reputation of the English programme being a big draw.

But while in the state-school sector the textbooks that came before Prospect tended to include government-approved phrases such as, ‘You can break your fast as soon as the sun sets,’ or ‘The 15th of Sha’ban is a religious celebration,’ Prospect is revolutionary. It is a full-colour publication with photos, while its monochrome state-school textbook predecessors had cartoons instead of photos. Teachers have also become accustomed to teaching dialogue line by line rather than playing the whole audio clip of the conversation from the beginning.

Even the ‘focus on the personal domain’ – the frequent use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ in Prospect – was an innovation. Teachers at a workshop on Prospect in Tehran commented that they liked the way this new focus on the individual showed ‘respect for the students’.

Prospect 2’s units include ‘My nationality’, ‘My abilities’, ‘My city’, ‘My village’ and ‘My hobbies’. Another novelty is the lack of an explicit grammar section; ‘Grammar teaching’ won’t feature until the forthcoming Prospect 3.

There is already concern that Prospect may not achieve much without accompanying reform of traditional national university entrance exam resources and personnel – Iran’s English teachers need an upgrade of their methodology skills and English proficiency for Prospect to work. Some commentators have already pointed out the ‘impossibility’ of a culture shift from the grammar translation method used since time immemorial to Prospect’s communicative language teaching. Surprisingly though, it was English teachers from the poorest-resourced rural schools and from the low-income neighbourhoods of Tehran who initially responded most positively to the new national state school coursebook.

As we go to press, the UN has just lifted sanctions on Iran. Payments to and from Iran via the global Swift banking system are now possible again, which means among other things that the Gazette can finally pay its Iran correspondent for articles written in October 2010. The door is now open for foreign investment in Iran’s English language teaching sector. Watch this space.