To my point of view, Brazil has placed too much emphasis on the teaching of reading comprehension for such a long time. Only now do we start do find material (coursebooks) that give some attention to speaking, for example (listening is still a very limited skill in them). This trend probably has to do with the importance that was given to ESP (English for Specific Purposes) in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which was based more exclusively on the reading skill, though nowadays some authors claim that ESP was never meant to focus entirely on reading.
For some, an emphasis on reading is more realistic (or is thought to be) for the Brazilian context, in which there is a lack of teachers who are fluent enough to promote the teaching of oral language. However, this is such a sad situation, because the oral mode seems to prevail over reading and writing, something that is very easy to realize: as linguist David Crystal cogently argues, we spend most of our time speaking and listening, rather than reading or writing.
Naturally, there is no doubt reading is of paramount importance, but students probably feel frustrated at not being able to listen to a song or watch a movie without captions, for example.
In the development of language, writing and reading came after the development of human capacity to speak and listen, so these two skills should be of great importance to motivate students to learn a new language. In other words: the best part of knowing another language is speaking it, so much so that the first thing we ask someone is “Do you speak English?”, not “Can you read/write in English?” Fluency is probably associated with speaking first.
There are other difficulties to take into account when it comes to teaching English in public schools, such as the following:
* the number of classes
Naturally, one may point that that in private English schools there are only two 50-minute classes a week (the same number in public schools), but this is less than enough in large classrooms, which vary in size (from 35 to 40 students).
* the number of students
In private courses, it is very easy for the teacher to work on, say, pronunciation. Imagine teachers trying to get 35 or 40 students to repeat after them to drill pronunciation skills. Needless to say, in such a big class, there is always the omnipresent problem of indiscipline, which steals precious teaching time.
* the lack of material
Our books (that is, the ones published in Brazil, aimed at “Ensino Médio”) have come a long way and shown considerable development, when compared to the past, when the emphasis was mainly on grammar and reading. Reading used to depart from a certain grammar structure, contextualized in reading passages. Even nowadays, however, reading and structure still take up most of the space in the coursebook for Brazilian public schools, allowing nearly no time at all for the practice of conversation and listening.
As for conversation, it might prove disconcerting for teachers to replicate, for example, pair work with 40 students in classroom (20 pairs). It would take quite a long time to ask each pair to give feedback to the rest of the class. As for listening, many students expect this material should be recorded in native English. Of course one may argue that, from a purely linguistic point of view, this is not so important (for some, not particularly important), but we cannot ignore the reasons why students want to learn English: to use it and practice it as they hear it in music or movies, for example, and in both cases it is native English that counts.
There is no doubt whatsoever students need to get in contact with other Englishes, but why would the way English spoken in, say, Russia would appeal to students’ learning motivations better than English spoken in the United States, England or Australia? In my opinion, native English should be the starting point, while including other varieties would be an interesting plus.
A language is associated with a country and the values it represents, whether we like them or not. It would be linguistically perverse to make our students hate the English spoken in the United States because it is “the imperialist’s language”.
* the lack of authentic motivation
Since English is not widely used in Brazil, students do not have opportunity for real, meaningful interaction outside of the classroom (even in classroom interaction is artificial on the whole); what is even worse, when students try to use English with their friends to practice it, this can be seen as showing off, so many get discouraged from using English when they leave the classroom.
The truth is that even our neighbor’s Spanish language is not an important bilingual experience for Brazilians. In the south, for example, in cities near the border with Spanish speaking countries, instead of learning Spanish, Brazilians ended up developing a kind of “portunhol”, a mix of both languages.
While this no doubt is valid for immediate interactive purposes, this kind of language is not enough to count as real bilingual experience, now consider the distance Brazilians are from English speaking countries and the difficulties this distance brings for students, who may feel they are too far away from real, meaningful possibilities of real language interaction.
Even though English is regarded as very important by Brazilians, speaking it fluently is for some a chimera, a goal that is always being postponed until they have an opportunity to attend a private school or take part in an exchange program. Because of that, many students do not value their teachers’ lessons in public schools, no matter how much effort is put into it.
Just in time: there is some interest in discussing students’ lack of motivation to learn English, but no one cares about teachers’ feelings. Students often try to demotivate their teachers from improving the level of English classes in public schools. Passing at the end of the year is what counts, and as for the grades, students don’t even mind if they are not bright ones. Just barely enough to pass will do.
It is not unusual for some friends of mine, who work as teachers of English, to share that experience when a student asks in a provocative fashion: “Why do I have to learn English, if I do not even know Portuguese well, in the first place”? Students’ demotivation can affect the teacher’s mood too!
In conclusion: it is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to a conducive learning environment in classroom, which is extremely challenging in public schools, instead of blaming everything that goes wrong on the teacher!
English in Brazil:
An examination of policy, perceptions and influencing factors, published by the British Council (available on the internet free of charge)
Refresher Vocabulary & Grammar Tests For Advanced Proficiency Exams with Answers by Ricardo Madureira, Disal Editora.