Doctoral graduate specializes in English-language curriculum

Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan outlines national English-language curricular reform efforts in Jordan

Tracing the trajectory of English language as a school subject in the Jordanian public education system provided a rich doctoral dissertation topic for recent graduate Suad Alazzam-Alwidyan, an educational linguist from Jordan. Prior to enrolling in the GSE Curriculum and Instruction doctoral program, Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan attended classes in the PSU Applied Linguistics Department and earned her master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in 2004. Now with her doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the GSE, she will shed light on approaches to improving the teaching and learning of English in Jordan.

Educational journey in Jordan
As a native of Jordan, Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan grew up in a large family where education was a high priority. She and her peers began learning English in fifth grade (offered there today beginning in first grade). She excelled in the national educational system and graduated with top marks. On her 12th-grade General Secondary Examination (the Tawjihi), she earned fourth place in the Literary Stream for all of Jordon that year. She attended Yarmouk University to study English language literature and was valedictorian of her class.

Graduate studies in America
In 2007 Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan won the Oregon Laurels Scholarship for merit, which she applied toward her doctoral work at PSU. “My bachelor’s degree was very theoretical,” she says. “I wanted a graduate program that was more hands-on, and I was interested in the TESOL program because I wanted to understand how to approach teaching English in an applied way. The GSE Curriculum and Instruction program provided me with further applied learning opportunities.”

Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan excelled in her studies of English in Jordan, which she says has one of the best public educational systems in the Middle East. However, it was in the United States that she came to better understand the context of teaching English not only as a second language but also as a foreign language and as a lingua franca. Through her graduate studies at PSU, she has acquired more effective language teaching methodologies and became familiar with different pedagogic approaches. “Teachers [in Jordan] need a new set of skills,” she says. “Before the 1990s, the Ministry of Education’s priority was ensuring that all children have access to the public education system. In the past two decades, however, the emphasis has been on improving the quality of the educational experiences of the students. Adopting a learning outcome-based approach to curriculum and instruction has been a major shift in direction the Ministry of Education has undertaken in order to improve the quality of public education.” Clearly, there is much work to be done on teacher development in Jordan, and she is anxious to be a part of it. “Conceptualizing the curriculum as an ongoing process of renewal is a new way to reinforce the flexibility of teaching, learning, and assessing the intended content and skills in a given discipline,” she says.“It’s a big change.”

Her interest in comparative education, as particularly relates to curricular and instructional practices, expanded when her own children entered school in the United States. They did not bring home a national textbook as she had in Jordan, but instead a steady stream of worksheets, projects, and assignments. This was in stark contrast to her prescribed studies in Jordan, where a single textbook for each grade level is used throughout the country. Historically, teachers taught by rote through a nationally adopted curriculum with minimal supplemental materials or differentiation for students’ abilities.

Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyn sees rearticulating the English-language curriculum in Jordan as a key component in helping adapt English as a tool for achievement and integration in an English-dominant global society. Her doctoral dissertation is entitled “A Critical Analysis of the Jordanian National English Language Curriculum Planning Discourse.” She said: “My dissertation examined the development of the planned, national English-language curriculum in Jordan since the early 1990s in order to better understand where we came from, where we stand right now, and the direction to take going forward.” Her agenda includes follow-up field research that will involve evaluating the “taught” rather than the “planned” English curriculum.

Other research interests
Before deciding on her doctoral dissertation topic, Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan interviewed other Muslim/Arab women on PSU’s campus. “Opportunities have opened up for females to come to the U.S. and study,” she says. She was interested in how their English competence from their native countries facilitated or hindered their adjustment to both the American culture at large and the U.S. higher education academic culture in particular. From these interviews, she learned that her colleagues face Western stereotypes about their culture(s)—how society holds inadequate expectations of what women are capable of achieving and how social arrangements limit what women can do. “As a newcomer, you have to build awareness of the host country’s cultural codes and thought patterns; this will at the same time make you more conscious of your cultural self. As you work on understanding differences, you will also be finding a lot of commonalities which will gradually make you feel more at home in your new context. Language is certainly an important tool throughout the process.”

Why is PSU such a great context in which to acquire intercultural values? “Portland State is one of the most popular universities in the Middle East,” Dr. Alazzam-Alwidyan says. “The different diversity aspects on campus encourage an atmosphere of inclusiveness as well as provide endless opportunities to learn about difference through interacting with others.”

The Black Iris
Suad Alazzam-Alwidyan is also an artist. This colored pencil rendering of the national flower of Jordan, the black iris, or al sawsanah in Arabic, symbolizes growth and renewal. She used it in her doctoral presentation as a metaphor representing the different aspects of change and renewal in a country steeped with the traditions of the past.

Education in Jordan
Education has been a key player in Jordan’s successful transformation from an agrarian, subsistence-based economy to a modern industrialized economy. A reform of the education system, begun in the early 1990s, was a critical step in moving toward that goal. The country has a very high literacy rate of 89 percent, and free public education is well-supported both politically and socially. Boys and girls have equal access all the way through baccalaureate degrees but are segregated by sex in schools. Advancement through the education system is based on summative exit exams, the most decisive of which is the national General Secondary Examination (the Tawjihi) at the end of the 12th grade. In 2003, the government of Jordan began another education reform effort with the goal to move from an industrial economy to a more global “knowledge economy.”

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