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

About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the assistant director of programs at the Centre for Continuing Education, Concordia University. Montreal, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in second language education from McGill University and has more than 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the intensive English program at Concordia University. She received the TESOL Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to English for academic purposes, global citizenship education, assessment, and teacher feedback.
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4 Responses to Best Practices in ELT—in Context: Pakistan

  1. Fauzia Shamim says:

    Dear Uzma,
    Thank you for your comments. As one of the founder members, I would like to clarify that SPELT membership is through out Pakistan. SPELT travelling conferences are in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Abbottabad and teachers from far flung areas come to the nearest city where it’s convenient for them to attend …. so one can say that SPELT is trying to work all over Pakistan, not just in the big cities!
    When SPELT was founded in 1984, there was little awareness about ELT in Pakistan. I agree that the situation has improved a lot in the last 30 years or so; however, as you point out, we still have a long way to go. At the same time, we need to remember that SPELT is a national organisation working in difficult circumstances in a developing country. Hence, while as an affiliate of TESOL International, we strive to learn from our peers working in comparatively well-resourced environments, we are sometimes constrained by our contextual realities, which include the ongoing ‘conflict of interest’ among the literature enthusiasts and Applied linguists (and English language teachers) in university departments.
    On a more positive note, we feel proud that SPELTers have freely given of their own time and resources to help SPELT grow, and continue with its free Academic Sessions, publish its quarterly Journal, run training courses, and organize its annual travelling conferences.Having said that, I strongly support your idea that SPELT should also starts its blog like TESOL to encourage ELT teachers and students to share their ideas and publish their writing there. Would it be possible for you to suggest this to your local chapter’s working committee and work with them to make it come true? Also, if there are takers to start a collaborative research project in Pakistan, that would be great too. We could work together to apply for mini research grants from TESOL and IATEFL for this purpose.

    SPELT is now 31 years old and has come a long way from when it was started with a handful of members (and activities) in 1984; with interested members/volunteers like yourself we hope to reach every English language teacher in Pakistan soon, Insha Allah!

  2. uzma says:

    its really nice to see Zakia Sarwar’ s interview in TESOL blog. In 1993, when i was doing Diploma ELT, Zakia Sarwar came to teach us in Punjab University Lahore. She really put tremendous effort to establish SPELT in Pakistan which is now working in all big cities of Pakistan.
    ELT in Pakistani scenario is highly recommended phenomenon now. But SPELT is too much limited in its activities. It is not as active as TESOL is. Here i would say that SPELT too starts its blog like TESOL and encourages ELT teachers and students to publish their writing there and share their ideas on it. SPELT should try to reach those who have aptitude for research. SPELT should inspire ELT teachers especially from government institute to write about their experiences. SPELT must reach itself to those places where there are problems in second language learning.
    SPELT must grow like TESOL.

  3. What is true of the ELT scenario of Pakistan is also true of the ELT scenario of the whole Southeastern region of Asia. Zakia Sarwar’s remark that .”ELT is still not a fully recognized field of study, and the debate between literature and language teaching has not yet been fully resolved” is quite significant. How many Universities of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh offer full time postgraduate courses in ELT? Literature is for the gifted intellectuals living in ivory towers of the Universities, language is for the poor school teachers working in difficult circumstances. The uneasy relationship between the English literature taching and the English Language teaching is the root cause of the deplorable ELT scenario of many countries of our region.
    Thank you for your blog and the nice interview.

    • uzma says:

      hi Parthasarthy
      yes i agree with you that literature comes before language teaching but i think you have seen now that TEACHING LITERATURE THROUGH LANGUAGE is being taught in ELT classes. Now ELT teachers are aware of how to integrate literature and language. I will say teaching language can not work well without teaching literature.

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