Best Practices in ELT—in Context: Pakistan

What are best practices in ELT?  In 2016, my TESOL blog will bring different voices from the ELT world community together to share their individual contexts and experiences as teachers and learners, and demonstrate how all of the above weave together their best practices in ELT.

We start off the New Year with an interview with Zakia Sarwar. Zakia is a renowned educationalist and social activist, and one of the founders of SPELT (Society of Pakistani English Language Teachers). For nearly three decades, she has also served the TESOL community—as chair and cochair of the EFL Interest Section, and Chair of the TESOL Global Professional Issues Committee and Publications Committee. Zakia’s purpose in joining TESOL? To bring professional development to teachers to in Pakistan and provide a forum for EFL teachers across the globe.

IMG_8604Zakia’s best practices stem from her teacher-mentor, her deep commitment to professional development, and her research in project-based learning focusing on individualizing learning in large classrooms in Pakistan. She is successful in nurturing and empowering teachers by fostering communities of practice both in North America and internationally.

Sherry Blok (SB): SPELT is an affiliate of TESOL, and over the years you have invited many esteemed researchers and TESOLers, such as Rosa Aronson, Diane Larson Freeman, Rebecca Oxford, Bonnie Norton, and many others, to present at the SPELT annual conference. What motivated you to establish SPELT? Why do you believe it’s been so successful for 31 years?

Zakia Sarwar (ZS): There was a great need for a professional forum for teachers at the time. I attended the USIS workshop for the first time in 1978 for English language teachers. Teachers came from all over Pakistan to be trained in the current ELT methodology. By the end of the course, we all wanted to form a teacher’s organization. However, the idea never took root. The need was still felt in 1982, when I came back after completing my TEFL diploma from Sydney, Australia. I attended the first ELT conference in Islamabad and met my colleagues, including Abbas Fauzia Anisa, and exchanged ideas about what English language teachers should do in Pakistan to improve the state of affairs. We immediately bonded as a group.

I was invited back the next year again, it was the same people. Fifteen of the thirty people invited were from the Sindh province. We asked ourselves, why do we have to wait for the government to invite us and get us together? Let’s get together monthly to do something for our own professional development. At that time, the common premise was that only “foreign” experts could provide help. We shifted from the common practice (government top-down) and looked for solutions within our own contexts rather than looking for foreign intervention. The spirit of self-help and teamwork have contributed to SPELT’s success. Besides, our nonhierarchical framework has also given us a lot of strength. Everyone is treated as an equal.

SB: When we look at best practices, much of our values as educators stem from experiences we have had as students. Zakia, you have been such a mentor to so many educators in Pakistan. Who were your mentors?

ZS: We always take our own teachers as our ideals. I was guided in my practice by a political science teacher, Parvin (Hassan) Ali, whom I met when I was doing my Bachelor’s degree. What appealed to me was she knew of students’ needs and wanted students to be sure of what they were doing. She divided us into groups and before our final exams invited us to her house on Sundays to spend the day with us going over problems. We also had lunch, and socialized. She treated us like individuals, with respect, instead of being the know-all and keeping us on a lower level. I’ve tried to emulate her values with my own trainees and students. Parvin and I are still friends today.

SB: How would you define your best practices, Zakia?

ZS: First of all, best practices are contextualized. There is no one way to define best practices. It depends on where these practices take place. The core of best practices is the teacher’s willingness to know that they are also learners, so they are flexible, keep their eyes open, and are willing to take or change whatever they were doing and adopt new strategies without any guilt or shame. If you learn a better way, be happy that you learned something new. In this fast changing world when things are so different—this type of flexibility has to be part of best practices.

Also, humanism and empathy for yourself, your surroundings, and your students. Instead of being the angry person being deprived of xyz, look into what is the best under the present circumstances. Think out of the box. No strategies, no activities, and no materials can be useful for your learners until you are able to relate to your learners and their needs.

Let me give you an example of individualization and learner autonomy. During my TEFL diploma course in Sydney, we watched an ELT film in which there were six to seven students. The teacher knew all of them. At the end of it, I was asked to comment. It was like a fairy tale for me, since it would never be my lot. I didn’t know how to comment. However, in my project-based learning research, I knew connections with my learners were essential. I made my students all wear name tags as a part of their uniform. I also asked them to make a profile card telling me their likes, dislikes, weaknesses and strengths, and future dreams. It gave me a pulse of the class. My learners felt valued because I wanted to know about them. I devised self-learning activities. Good teachers adapt concepts for their own learning contexts. If we think outside the box, we can use the same principles in our contexts. Teachers need to learn that there are options.

SB: What do you want TESOL readers to know about ELT in Pakistan?

ZS: In Pakistan, ELT is still not a fully recognized field of study, and the debate between literature and language teaching has not yet been fully resolved. Teachers are trying to function in many difficult kinds of circumstances—as the majority of them are women. They have to face challenges on the domestic front as well as at their workplace. But a lot of them are very keen to improve themselves professionally. If TESOLers are interested in being citizens of the world, they should reach out to teachers in Pakistan. Exchange ideas, activities, and classroom research. This type of exchange is a win-win situation if teachers are working on an equal footing. Especially today, it is so easy if they make use of social media. Interested teachers can contact SPELT to establish a personal learning community.

That is some excellent advice for 2016! Thank you Zakia Sarwar for sharing your practice with us! If you are interested in being interviewed on your best practices, please inbox me at

from TESOL Blog


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