Classrooms Around the World

Classrooms Around the World

(Article for IATEFL Conference Selections 2009)

Classrooms around the world

Hornby scholars’ symposium

Convenor: Rod Bolitho (Norwich Institute for Language Education)

The Hornby Scholars: Rafael Cesar (Angola); Zonunmawia (Burma/Myanmar); Nery Alvarado (Mexico); Marjorie Desveaux (Mauritius); Ravi Chakrahodi (India); Nargiza Tadjiyeva (Uzbekistan); Kuheli Mukherjee (India); Geoffrey Nsanja (Malawi); Saba Mansur (Pakistan); Daya Gaudel (Nepal); Lyutfiya Sotivoldieva (Tajikistan); Oscar Montoya (Colombia); Amien Mohamed (Sudan); Raul Cuadrado (Cuba); Chris Lima (Brazil); Dario Banegas (Argentina); Mirany Raminoarivony (Madagascar); Georgina Venn Ma (South Africa)

In this symposium the Hornby scholars elected to present five different angles on English classrooms around the world, basing their input on findings from their own countries. In doing so they wanted to engage the audience in thinking about the conditions in which English is taught in so many contexts beyond Europe, and to focus their attention on some of the issues that teachers and learners there have to confront.

  1. Class size around the world

The number of students in a class is one of the first things that affects learning and teaching. Every context has its own norms of class size but a great variety can be found within a single context and even within a single educational institution.

Developing countries like Pakistan, India, Nepal, Malawi, and Angola can have quite a large number of students in classrooms (up to 200 in extreme cases) whereas Colombia, Tajikistan, and Mexico have comparatively lower class sizes. A difference can also be seen in the number of students per class in state educational institutions and those run privately; the former tend to have more students while the latter have fewer.

The implications of class size are further complicated by the inter-connected nature of the other variables involved in the classroom, for instance, the number of students in a class in relation to things like the physical classroom size, the student-teacher ratio, the amount and quality of teaching and learning resources present. All these things are part and parcel of any context and teachers have to face these challenges on a daily basis; in doing so they have to adapt their methods according to the givens of the situation.

The challenges teachers face because of the class sizes they encounter and the innovative ways they meet these challenges help to show the passion and dedication of teachers in contexts such as ours.

Insert Pic 1 : A language lab facility in a Mexican university

Insert Pic 2: An Indian government school classroom

  1. The status of English

The variety of English taught in classrooms in our countries was originally rooted in American and British English for two main reasons: trade and colonialism. Out of these 17 countries, one (South Africa) belongs to the inner circle, one (India) to the outer circle and the other 15 to the expanding circle following Kachru’s model as described by Jenkins (2003). The outer circle includes countries colonised by Britain where English is spoken as a second language and plays an important role in governmental settings. On the other hand, most countries in the expanding circle recognise the importance of English as a foreign language even though it has no official status.

English is used in official documents and even in parliaments in countries such as India. But it is mostly spread through classrooms where government policies promulgate it as a compulsory subject in secondary schools and as an entrance requirement at universities. In some contexts, such as Mauritius, it is even a medium of instruction from primary to tertiary education. English is also gaining ground in other domains such as business, diplomacy and, above all, tourism.

Graddol suggests that the 'centre of gravity' may shift towards L2 English speakers at the start of the 21st century so that 'those who speak English alongside other languages will outnumber first-language speakers and, increasingly, will decide the global future of the language' (1997:10). The field of ELT is likely to be confronted with new priorities coming from this expanding circle, for example in teaching English to young learners and in the development of the English teaching profession.

  1. Social Issues and Second Language Acquisition

Many researchers (Gardner, et al, 1999; Atkinson, 2002; Lantolf and Thorne, 2006) recognise that social factors play a role in language acquisition and learning. It is interaction with more capable members of society such as teachers, mentors, role models and family members that facilitates second language acquisition (SLA) and use. Hence, varying degrees of success in second language learning can be explained not only by motivational and attitudinal factors but also by a range of social, cultural and demographic variables. Here we examine how socio-cultural factors such as institutional and societal support affect classroom second language learning with particular reference to developing countries.

In these countries, state and non-governmental organisations such as the British Council, the American Embassy and other local organisations support teachers by conducting training programmes. However, not much is done to help learners coming from low socio-economic backgrounds who are studying in state schools. They are still at a disadvantage in most developing countries. The classroom seems to be teacher-dominated and the opportunities the learners get to use English in the classroom are limited to reading, writing and answering the teacher’s questions. The time available for them in school to learn English is at best 4 to 5 hours in a week. Do children enjoy learning English then? It depends on the teacher, the textbook, the methods and techniques adopted to teach English, the class size and other factors that are external and internal to the learners.

Another important factor that inhibits language learning is the limited societal support, especially family support, available to such learners. There are few teaching-learning resources and literacy and oral activities outside school to support the learning of English. Figure 1 shows some important differences in levels of societal support across some of our countries.

Insert Fig 1 here (Societal Support)

In addition, opportunities to watch television, listen to real English, read English newspapers and magazines and use English with parents and peer groups are very limited. Hence it is not surprising that children find English the most difficult language to learn, though it is the one they most want to learn in comparison to other languages.

4. Motivation and commitment

Motivation is a concern in all our classrooms and is a vital factor in the progress of all language learners. For most learners in the countries we represent, learning English is seen as a requirement for academic or employment purposes. Most countries nowadays require workers to be able to communicate in English, and it is mandatory when pursuing higher education in most universities. However, at school level, not all learners understand these reasons for learning English and this affects their motivation and their attitudes towards the language. They may also be demotivated by poor classroom conditions or by the impact of poorly trained teachers with a low standard of English. One more aspect, regarded highly by learners in many of our countries, is contact with the target language: access to real situations where they can test and add to their knowledge.

Teachers themselves also need to be motivated. Most importantly, they need to have the means to teach. The role of the teacher has a greater impact when he or she is prepared, has plentiful materials to work with, and can also use modern methods in his/her lessons.

Non-native teachers feel to be at a disadvantage since the language they teach is not their own, and even after years of study their command of it is far from perfect. Most need further training and preparation, even though it is not always readily available. Ideally, full immersion in a target language environment and participation in structured in-service programmes would make a difference, but such opportunities are available only to a minority of teachers in our contexts.

4. Methods and materials

This final section looks at Methods and Materials in public sector classrooms in our countries. In our survey we found out that a hybrid combination of Communicative Language Teaching and Grammar Translation methods seem to be the dominant trend in most countries. However, it is important to try to understand how teachers really implement this combination in their lessons. There is plenty of evidence that transmission models still hold sway in many classrooms.

Teaching methods, approaches and concepts are passed down from teacher trainers to novice teachers mainly through university degree courses, seminars, and workshops organized by government education authorities and teachers’ associations, often with the support of the British Council or the American Embassy.

Textbooks are still the most-used teaching materials available to teachers and students in state schools, but many schools still have no access to them. In our survey we found that in many classrooms there are not enough books to go round, and many teachers have to resort to writing texts and exercises on the blackboard. On the other hand, some teachers use supplementary materials, even though access to them is usually limited and often dependent on their own personal resources. At most state schools access to internet sources is restricted and digital literacy levels are still very low. In most countries, teachers’ own preferences in choosing the textbooks, materials and methodology for their lessons are not considered. In brief, we can say that in spite of all the advances in ELT around the world, in many of our countries we are still apparently struggling with some issues that have been with us for decades, such as traditional transmission models of teaching and lack of resources.


Questions and comments from those attending the symposium revealed a desire to gain an enhanced understanding of issues in English classrooms beyond Europe, and the session highlighted yet again the gulf that exists between classrooms in the developed world and those in countries in transition. In particular we were reminded of the need for agencies involved in ELT, such as the British Council, to keep on questioning their assumptions about digital delivery of ELT resources to teachers and learners around the world.


Atkinson, D. 2002. Toward a Sociocognitive Approach to Second Language Acquisition The Modern Language Journal. 86/4: 525-545.

Gardner, R. C., Masgoret, Anne-Marie and Tremblay, Paul F. 1999. Home Background Characteristics and Second Language Learning. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 18/4: 419-437.

Graddol, D.1997.The Future of English? London: The British Council

Jenkins, J. (2003) World Englishes: A Resource Book for Students. London: Routledge

Lantolf, J. P. and Thorne, S.L. 2006. Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning in VanPatten, B and Williams, J (eds) Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 201-224.