Oman: "Why are our students low in many language skills?"
by Kevin Stoda
On 10 April 2017 Jamel Eddine Al-Akremi of the Salalah College of Technology in Salalah, Oman, spoke at a symposium entitled IMPROVING TEACHING QUALITY 1 held at ROTANA RESORT, SALALAH. The English Language Center at Salalah College of Technology, under the guidance of Mr. Saeed Al-Mashikhi, Head of the ELC and the Chairman of the Steering Committee, had organized a workshop at Salalah Rotana Resort entitled "Improving Teaching Quality1".
Al-Akremi's speech was entitled: "Taking Advantage of the Pre-Reading Pctivities provided in L2 Cycle 2 Basic Education Textbooks in Oman to facilitate Learners' Comprehension."NOTE: This was the first symposium organized in the Dhofar Region of Oman on this topic, and the conference organizers aim to advance the teaching and learning process in the schools, colleges, and universities in the region, i.e. by addressing staff professional needs which are aligned with staff self -- appraisals. (One other important goal of these types of symposiums and conferences is also to provide educators, academic administrators, and academics with opportunities to share ideas, or to reflect on their day-to-day teaching practices as well as to exchange knowledge and experiences in the field in a stimulating professional environment.)
SCHEMA THEORY IN L2 PRACTICE
Al-Akremi had previously taught in Omani public schools for a number of years prior to taking on this new research concerning education, teachers, and learners in Oman. Al-Akremi noted that high school textbooks in Oman employ a methodology, which is compiled under a national rubric or guideline called the L2 Cycles of Basic Education. In this current research, he focuses on both (a) whether and (b) how teachers employthe reading suggestions and coursebook material as per the national guidelines developed, especially for the L2 Cycle 2 textbooks.
As well, during the years of his own teaching experience in secondary schools in Oman and through the ongoing research, Al-Akremi has targeted or tried to answer these related questions: (1) How can we learn about the cause of employing or not employing pre-reading activities? and (2) How can we help students succeed by employing the appropriate reading/pre-reading activities?First of all, it must be noted that one of the key early objectives in Al-Akremi's research has been to discover what exactly the various secondary teachers (who participated in the study) practice or employ within their second language (English) classes in order to help their learners acquire reading skills.
It also must be made clear that much of the theoretical background for the L2 Cycle 2 Basic Education Textbook design for English coursework across Oman is currently found within the realm of schema theory.
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SCHEMATIC THEORY IN PRACTICE
Schema theory "states that all knowledge is organized
into units. Within these units of knowledge, or schemata,is
stored information. A schema, then, is a generalized description or a conceptual
system for understanding knowledge-how knowledge is represented
and how it is used. According to this theory, schemata represent knowledge
about concepts: objects and the relationships they have
with other objects, situations, events, sequences of
events, actions, and sequences of actions." 
As per OUR field of education, a schema, or scheme, is an abstract concept proposed by J. Piaget to refer to our nearly unlimited lists of (abstract) concepts, which we all create and use on a daily basis. "Schemas(or schemata) are [defined as] units of understanding that can be hierarchically categorized as well as webbed into complex relationships with one another."A simple example could be the concept of the word: House.
For example, if you think of a house, you would probably "get an immediate mental image of something out of a kid's storybook: four windows, front door, suburban setting, chimney. However, if I were to amend the object's name slightly, your scheme would shift to a more refined version. How about: Shotgun house? One door, maybe no front windows, low income setting. Mansio n? Multiple windows, side entrance for the help, sweeping front drive.""That is a simple example, but our schemas get incredibly complex as we learn more about the world, and particularly as we become experts in a field. The more we know, the bigger and more complex our schemas become. However, the more we know, the easier it is to remember new information related to the schema -- because there is more pre-existing information in our heads that we can relate -- and thus attach -- it to."For students, their schemes prettymuch amount to what they already know about a concept. They may have learned it in other classes or through their own experiences.[However,] What they "know" may be incorrect. Our job [as instructors] is to either expand or correct their schemas about important concepts in our fields.
The main takeaway for researchers and educators, like Jamel Al-Akremi (as well as the designers of Oman's own L2 Cycle 2 textbooks), has poignantly been that "NO information will attach to their [the students'] schemas if they aren't thinking about that schema when the information comes in."
"Let's say you know a fair bit about prehistoric fossils and take a trip to the Gray Fossil Site. While the guide explains a fossil find that is new to the field (and thus to you), yet you are thinking about the design and outlay of the museum, the information will go in one ear and out the other."
In other words, the most important rule for teaching, i.e. based upon Schema or Schematic Theory, is to " Make sure students' existing schemas are up and running at a conscious level."
HOW IS THIS RELEVANT TO TEXTBOOK DESIGN?
Typically then A textbook designer ask questions like: "What can I do to make students conscious of their schemas?"Typically, answers would include the following:
1. Use advance organizers."Advance organizer" is an educational term that refers to activities done prior to introducing new material that help students organize -- and perhaps prepare to re-organize -- their thinking. These can take multiple forms:2. Find a "synonym" with which students are likely to be familiar.A similar concept to the one you are about to explain can help students recognize patterns and more quickly learn the new material. Examples:Other than those two techniques outlined above, there are a great number of other visual and brainstorming techniques which can be employed, i.e. to promote great schematic connections, which can aid students in approaching new readings on any topic.
PROCEDURE USED IN THIS RESEARCH
In his research into local Dhofar high schools in Oman, Al-Akremi set out to (1) identify both the pre-reading activities presented in the textbooks and those activities actually carried out by the instructors. Later, he set out to (2) identify specifically the common approaches already in usage by teachers, i.e. in terms of their awareness of and their employment of schema theory, as outlined in this 21st Century in the development of Oman's L2 Cycle textbooks.
Through his research, Al-Akremi learned that there are 4 types of schematic activators being practiced by some of those teachers whom he has observed and/or interviewed.Those 4 techniques were:
(a) Asking questions,
(c) Visualization, &
(d) Connecting to learners background.
Al-Akremi explained, "Once teachers understand their role in using pre-reading activities, they can [potentially] bring new concepts and new connections to students' prior knowledge. [In any case,]Prior knowledge is always there, but to get students involved schematically and motivated through [appropriate or effective schema] activation" is a key part of our jobs as teachers.
Al-Akremi's current findings include the following caveat: "Teachers should be free to add to the curriculum", especially whereby the schematic connections become broader and stronger. "Coursebooks should be for proposed action, not as fixed sources that stand alone."
For this reason, Al-Akremi employed a mixed method in his research:
(1) Material from all levels of L2 [Second language acquisition of English in this case] in/of Omani English coursebooks, Cycle 1, Cycle 2 and Cycle 4, were sampled.
(2) Classroom practices were video-taped and observed.
(3) Semi-structured interviews with instructors were carried out.
(4) Extensive--60 question--survey of instructors was undertaken.
The purpose of using this multi-dimensional approach was first-of-all an attempt to overcome the weaknesses found throughout the literature on this topic. In addition, this multi-dimensional approach was designed to broaden and deepen understanding of the Omani educational context of L2 students and teachers of today.
FINDINGS OF RESEARCH THUS FAR:
1-After sampling all of the various textbooks used and approved for Cycles 1, 2, and 3, it was judged initially that there appeared to be more than enough schematically-appropriate materials, i.e. for carrying out pre-reading and pre-schema activities in the L2 classrooms of Dhofari schools.
2-Video recordings of the class lessons revealed that teachers from at least six different nationalities were actively instructing English in the various schools in Dhofar. However, only 2 out of every 10 instructors who were videoed actually used the pre-reading activities in their lessons.
3-Based on both the interviews and on the surveys, visual aids were the most common pre-reading schema activators by the various instructors. However, it must be stated clearly that although all those instructors interviewed and surveyed appreciated or liked schema theory, many did not employ it.
In summary, although there is/was sufficient material in the L2 Cycle 1, 2, and 3 textbooks, teachers often do/did not use the material --or felt they did not have time to do so--here in the Dhofar region of Oman.
In retrospect, following a long look at the survey and interview results, one of the key findings or discoveries for Al-Akremi is related to the coursebooks of L2 used here in Oman. Al-Akremi noted that in reviewing the textbooks further, there was an ongoing difficulty present here, i.e. in helping students link their "own story" to the story in the textbooks. This was, he felt, a common flaw in the textbooks currently. Therefore instructors needed to be called in to fill any gaps and help students expand their schemas as best as they could.
Al-Akremi added, "Looking at the textbook designs, teachers certainly do need to find ways to link the stories to the students' own world [or schemas] better." In conclusion, the key finding of the study thus far is that teachers feel schema theory and pre-schema activities are important, but for a variety of reasons, the overwhelming number of teachers in L2 Classrooms across Dhofar do not employ them [especially in the pre-reading activities, which were focused on in this study]."
Al-Akremi admitted that one key flaw in his study to-date is that it has focused only on male instructors in Dhofar. (Primary and secondary schools in Oman are usually segregated by gender.) He hopes to rectify this flaw in the near future.
In the meantime, Al-Akremi recommends that that the regional educational supervisors become more active in overseeing that implementation of pre-reading and pre-schema activators become more common in the L2 classrooms in Dhofar--and across all of Oman.
Both (1) active leadership and (2) further training of instructors must come to take into account the short-fall in schema activation, which have left too many students struggling in their L2 acquisition, especially as it concerns the skill of reading.