By Raheb Zohrehfard
[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]
As an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher, reading and writing constitute an essential part of my daily professional life. Yet it is baffling how I first acquired these skills. In an attempt to write this narrative essay, I intend to review and delve more closely into my literacy practices and educational endeavor as a learner of English. Doing so also gives me an opportunity to describe the obstacles I have conquered and the successes I have accomplished throughout the years. My current status as a graduate student in a university in Canada as well as my position as an EAL teacher in a language school requires me to engage in learning about current theories about Second Language Acqusition (SLA), reading and writing academic papers, giving presentations and teaching EAL to adult speakers of other languages who come to Canada for all kinds of reasons. As such, my present reading and writing activities gravitate more toward English than Farsi and more toward academic than non-academic texts. Currently, I have little time to read for pleasure and except for texting telegraphic messages, I do not write to friends and family. Although the predominant language that I use now is English, I am more adept at and more comfortable with reading and writing in my first language in general. This is perhaps thanks to the fact that all my reading and writing activities from elementary school to high school were in my first language. However, interestingly enough, when it comes to reading science or literature books, I am a more fluent reader and writer in English. This is perhaps because I majored in English language and literature, and I read and analyzed many demanding works of literature as part of my course assignments as a bachelor’s student back in my home country, Iran.
I received my primary, secondary, and tertiary education in Iran. My educational background may not be largely different from what most other peers of mine experienced in the 1980s. In fact, there is a large population of people my own age who are still sharing some nostalgic memories of the past- the kinds of stationery we used, the storybooks we used to enjoy reading, and our favorite characters we used to talk a lot about at school. Not only did I engage in various reading and writing activities at school, but I was also surrounded by a very rich environment for literacy at home. I began to study EFL when I was in the seventh grade (the second grade of junior high school) and I continued to take English courses until I graduated from a four-year program at a university in Iran. However, it was not until four years ago, when I had a chance to take the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and more recently September 2014 when I immersed myself in an English-speaking environment, that I continued to develop advanced oral and written skills in English. Although this was a late start to develop advanced second language (L2) proficiency, I believe that the first language (L1) literacy at home and in school served as a foundation for my acquisition of L2 literacy.
My L1 Literacy Development
My experience in reading and writing began as I entered a public elementary school in my city Shiraz in 1986. When I was a child, my mother and my older sisters used to read to me children’s books with colorful illustrations. My sisters read bedtime stories of which “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “The Rolling Pumpkin,” as far as my dim and distant memory serves, were my favorites. There was no formal instruction in reading and writing when I was in kindergarten for a year, but I do remember my teachers reading stories to us. My formal education in reading and writing is still very vivid in my mind. It all began by introducing the Farsi alphabet in very short contextualized stories, followed up by much writing practice. As we proceeded to the following chapters, the stories became longer, and we were also introduced to contemporary Persian poems along with new vocabulary and word family exercises after each lesson. The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq broke out when I was three months old, and by the time I was in grade 2, my education was interrupted. During this time, the education I received was mainly through television programs. Farsi language learning in elementary school included mechanical exercises. Writing reports on scientific observations in elementary school and science labs in middle school and high school were also another part of the education I received where the scientific and linguistic accuracy of the reports were tested. Writing was an important part of my education in both essay exams on a number of subject matters such as social sciences, history, biology, geology, as well as Farsi dictation.
My Experiences of learning English as L2
The English language instruction that I received from the seventh grade in a public school through to my undergraduate program was probably no different from what most other students experienced during the 1990s. As a seventh grader, I had already developed a significant level of L1 literacy and metalinguistic awareness, which I think facilitated my learning of L2. However, since the instructional emphasis in English classes tended to be on grammar and vocabulary and there were only a few opportunities to use English for real purposes, my English proficiency developed very slowly during the middle school and high school years.
My level of motivation kept oscillating. On the one hand, I was very motivated to learn English and become a fluent speaker, and on the other hand I did not feel I was making progress. My excessive desire to learn English pushed me to work twice as hard as other students as I always imagined myself to be a professional English speaker living in North America. I now realize how notions of investment, agency, and imagined identity (Norton, 1995; 2011) played significant roles in my learning experience. I started using the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and in less than six months I learned how to use the dictionary, grasped the phonetic rules, and was able to use vocabulary definitions in English. Reading, grammar, and vocabulary were the primary focus, and writing was mostly practised through translating isolated sentences from Farsi to English or vise versa. Having entered university, I was fortunate to work as an English teacher for a local private language institute. This was the time I started to develop a passion for teaching English. Drawing on my past experience as a learner and meanwhile reading Larsen Freeman’s (1986) Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching as part of the bachelor’s program at my university helped me delve into issues of teaching and learning and served as a basis for determining my future identity and community, of which I am still an active member.
By the time I completed my first degree in English language and literature, I already had four years of teaching experience in an EFL context. However, whereas I was enjoying teaching English, I was still grappling with theories formulated around teaching while I was acquiring quite a taste in understanding how theories can be put into practice as well as how practice can be theorized (Kumaravadivelu, 2005). My interest in and gradual predilection toward theory made me decide to take a fast-track training course called CELTA in Chiang Mai, a northern city in Thailand, hoping I could face more challenges in both evaluating my English in a native-English speaking environment and simultaneously deepening my insight into the practical side of theory. Surrounded by English speakers from England, the U.S., Australia and Scotland, I learned the principles of effective teaching (Scrivener, 2011), gained a range of practical skills for teaching English to adults as well as young learners, and got valuable hands-on teaching experience for different teaching contexts. I also realized that teaching EAL would be more rewarding for me and beneficial to others.
Conclusions and Implications
As a child who grew up in Iran during the 1980s and 1990s, I had a rich experience in L1 literacy, both at home and in school. I was always surrounded by books and was given ample opportunities to express myself in writing for both academic and social purposes. A foundation for academic literacy skills was built through language activities in elementary, middle, and high school, such as extensive reading, report writing, and copying from text books, which might have helped me develop metalinguistic awareness for analyzing structures of written language and discourse.
In theory, I would have been able to transfer my L1 literacy skills to L2 while I was growing up. However, I did not develop my advanced literacy skills in English until later in my life because of a lack of immediate needs for using English. What helped me develop L2 literacy in reading and writing were immersion experiences in the target language where immediate needs were present. Arranging get-togethers in coffee shops and in places before and after classes definitely helped me enhance my fluency in both speaking and writing. Reading literary works such as novels, short stories, and literary criticism, and writing comments and analysis as group activities and course assignments paved the way for the development of my academic reading and writing skills. I believe that learning is a long-haul journey, and I believe that my proficiency and fluency hinges very much on the degree to which I manage to socialize myself into academia (Duff, 2010; Kim & Duff, 2012), and the feedback I receive in terms of style and mechanics of my written production. Reflecting on my own experience as both a learner and a teacher, I learn much better from my mistakes and repetition of the correct forms.
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From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: Raheb Zohrehfard is an MEd (TESL) graduate from the University of British Columbia. Having come to Canada as an international student, he completed his Master’s degree while working as an EAL teacher in the International Language Academy of Canada. His sphere of interest lies at the confluence of sociolinguistics and immigrant language learning and integration.
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Original reference information:
Zohrehfard, R. (2016, Winter). My experience of learning to read and write Farsi as L1 and English as L2: A long-haul journey to bilingualism. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf