English in Military Culture, Academic Culture and Omani Culture – Maintaining the Balance
by Neil McBeath


This paper examines House’s (2009) definitions of culture, places them in an Omani context, and then demonstrates how Gardiner’s (2006) description of basic infantry training applies to the Sultan’s Armed Forces.

The paper then outlines four sets of materials designed for SAF personnel, indicating how these were designed for men with ever increasing levels of formal education.

It then turns to academic culture, demonstrating that potentially problematic linguistic and pedagogic issues can be resolved in the Omani context.

The paper concludes by describing four approaches to academic writing, suggesting that the academic genres approach is to be preferred.


As this paper which intends to examine the impact of English on three different cultural areas, it seems appropriate to begin with a definition of terms. This paper, therefore, takes its starting point from a paper by House (2009) who offers three contrasting definitions.

Culture defined

According to House, there have been two traditional views of culture. The first was the humanistic view, which captured “the ‘cultural heritage’ as a model of refinement and an exclusive collection of a community’s masterpieces in literature, fine arts, music etc” (House, 2009, p. 109). This is the view that values a “high” and exclusive culture, frequently the product of wealth and leisure, while disregarding everything else. In a nutshell, the gardens are admired but the gardeners are ignored.

The second view is the anthropological concept of culture, which focuses on how a community lives its life – “all those traditional, explicit and implicit designs that act as potential guides for group members’ behavioural patterns” (House, 2009, p. 109). In this instance, culture is defined in terms of behaviour, and can be sub-divided into behaviour deemed “appropriate” – that is, appropriate in the eyes of the community, according to social standing, age or gender.

House also, however, suggests that “with the rise of post-modernist, cultural studies-inspired thinking, the whole notion of culture has come under attack.” (House, 2000, p. 110). In the post-modernist critique “pure culture” does not exist, because stable social groups do not exist. External influences and the behaviour of individuals constantly destabilize groups, and hence the concept of culture is little more than the idealization of a concept serving primarily to reduce the differences between people living in any one area.

The post-modernist conception is attractive, and helps to explain why, for example, Shakespeare’s plays could have been “low”, demotic culture to his contemporaries, but became “high” culture with the passage of time. It also explains how, in the Sultanate of Oman, the 40 years since His Majesty’s accession have seen radical transformations, and yet Omani society has integrated these changes into its culture; accepting the changes because of the benefits they confer.

Holes (2009) reminds us of the extent to which Oman has changed. The Renaissance of Oman is dated from the 23rd of June, 1970, but it takes little thought to realize that practical changes did not occur overnight. The development of a modern state required an infrastructure that remained incomplete until approximately 1985. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to suggest that the first fifteen years of His Majesty’s reign were devoted to the laying of foundations – a basic road network through northern Oman and down to Dhofar; electricification; health and education systems and a series of government ministries to oversee the workings of the system.

The infrastructure alone brought transformations. Holes (2009) reminds us that “The rate of social and economic change in the Gulf in the last 50 years, and especially in the last 20, has been giddyingly fast, and certainly much faster than at any time previously. Before this sudden acceleration there seems to have been a long period of stability, one might almost say stagnation, in the way of life, no matter who occupied the seats of power. In a sense, when we talk about 50 years ago in the Gulf, we may as well be talking about 200 or 300 more years ago, so slow was the pace of change until recently.” (p. 217).

This picture is easily confirmed. Photographs taken in the 1960s show us an unrecognizable Oman that – a country of tribal loyalties, where most people were subsistence illiterate subsistence farmers and/or fishermen; where water came from wells, where travel was limited and based on the stamina of a donkey or camel. Holes (2009) recalls that “In the mid 1980s, it was still a common experience to meet elderly Omanis living no more than 60 miles from Muscat who had never been to it in their lives.” (p. 233).

This, of course, partly explains why the Marxist insurgency in Dhofar never spread. The insurgents were unable to carry their fight north, while northern Omanis had no interest in events so remote from their own sphere. In 1981 I encountered almost the same attitude from a sailor in a class at Muaskar al Mutrafaa. When asked if there was a cinema in Seeb, 10 kilometres from the camp, he had no idea. He lived in Fanja – 20 kilometres in the other direction. He had never been to Seeb in his life. He had no relatives in Seeb and, therefore, had no cause to visit the town.

English in Military Culture

Even in 1981, however, this particular sailor’s attitude was unusual among members of the Sultan’s Armed Forces. Military personnel are different from civilians. They have been trained to think and to act differently, and to see themselves as a caste apart from the civilian population.

Because the first challenge to the Renaissance of Oman was the Marxist insurgency in Dhofar, the first area where major change was effected was in the development and training of an expanded Sultan’s Armed Forces. This development was essential to prevent Oman descending into a period of protracted civil war, but it was also a personal commitment by His Majesty. As a professional soldier, a graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, His Majesty understood exactly how effective military training could be in the transformation of thinking.

Gardiner (2006) makes this clear in the context of an infantryman:-
“When training infantrymen – both officers and soldiers – you should start with the naked man, so to speak, and first teach him how to think and behave. He learns fieldcraft. He learns what gives you away when someone is looking for you: Shine; Shadow; Shape; Silhouette; Spacing; Movement. He learns to look, observe and listen, even to smell, and how to move without being seen or heard. He learns to look at things at things from his adversary’s point of view, both physically and mentally, because only by doing this will he learn how to surprise him, and avoid being surprised himself.

He learns how to survive, to endure and remain effective in arduous conditions; like a wild animal in a wild environment. He learns to welcome darkness as a friend, a protector and an aid to his movement and his flexibility; to think of bad weather as something which offers possibilities rather than something which must be sheltered from. He learns to look after his “oppo”, his friend, and develops a two way trust in his fellows and his superiors – teamwork. Then you introduce tools such as maps and compasses, so he can reliably navigate by night and you give him binoculars so he can extend his visual range.

Somewhere along this process, you start to introduce weapons and other equipment like radios and vehicles. You give him technical skills which add to his lethality, and extend his range to communicate and move. But these technical skills should always be built on the foundations of instinctive attitudes, values and behaviour. You equip the man. You don’t man the equipment. It’s all centred on the man, his attitude, his values, his personal skills; because wars are won by his endurance, his fortitude, his courage and his wits.

Every individual infantryman is a complete stand-alone weapons system. His feet are his mobility; his eyes, nose and ears are his sensors and his surveillance and target acquisition systems. In his rucksack he has his own logistics in the form of ammunition, food and water. But at the centre, serving all these is his computer, his brain. And the defining feature of any computer is the software. Only if the right software has been programmed will he be able to use the hardware and the tools and weapons to good effect. He operates within a wider framework of course, and rarely works on his own, but ultimately individual soldiers must make individual decisions which may affect the course of battles, or even wars.” (pp. 149-50).

This is an enormously long quotation, for which I ask the reader’s indulgence, but it is also a powerful statement of the reality that underlies military training.

There are, moreover, three points that should be emphasised. The first is the idea of starting with “the naked man”. In Oman in the 1970s, this was literally true. The Sultan’s Armed Forces Training Regiment had to inculcate habits of person hygiene that were entirely new to many of the early recruits. Indeed, one order stated that “Now you are a soldier you must wash your whole body at least once a day.” In fact, most recruits regarded copious supplies of fresh, clean water as such a luxury, that they needed no encouragement.

The next step in this process, of course, was teaching recruits to wear military uniform. Western-style underwear, trousers, shirts, boots, socks, belts and berets were all entirely new to young men whose civilian wardrobe consisted of a dishdasha and a couple of wizars. It took time to accustom them to uniform, and it took even longer for them to wear it with the degree of smartness that their officers demanded.

The second point concerns the idea that “he learns to look after his ‘oppo’”. His “oppo” is his fellow recruit, another member of the same regiment, who may be from a different tribe; a different region; who may hold slightly different religious beliefs but who must now be treated as if he were a close relation. His “oppo” is, quite literally, his brother-in-arms.

The third point is that about programming the correct software, because that was where I, as an Education Officer in the Sultan’s Armed Forces, entered the equation. Gardiner is describing the process that military personnel undergo during basic training. In Oman, the Sultan’s Armed Forces offers a career. Oman does not have conscription. The Sultanate has a professional, standing Armed Forces, where personnel can either proceed through the ranks to officer status, or can have direct entry to officer training. In either case, their basic training will be just that – basic. They will undertake further training, including language training, and learn increasingly advanced skills as their careers proceed.

Tri-Service teaching

I started teaching tri-service personnel in 1981. In those days, a new recruit with six years of primary education, which meant two years of English, was regarded as an intellectual. Even so the men I was teaching had read almost nothing, and they had traveled even less. Most of them followed a route from their home village to the capital area and back. Inspired by the Fanja sailor, therefore, I created a series of illustrated worksheets designed to serve as an introduction to the Sultanate, emphasising the military significance of the places mentioned.

In 1982, the worksheets were collected into a fifteen page booklet, and published by the Directorate of Education (SOAF; no date). Here is the passage concerning Salalah:

Another big town is Salalah. Salalah is a town in Dhofar. It is beside the sea. The Sultan of Oman’s Air Force has an airport at Salalah and there is a civilian airport too. There are many farms in Salalah and the country is very green. Near Salalah is Raysut. The Sultan of Oman’s Navy has a base at Raysut, and north of Salalah is Thumrait, where the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force has another airfield. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos has a palace in Salalah and Salalah is the Southern H.Q. of the Sultan’s Armed Forces.

This is written in a very simple style, with frequent repetition and multiple use of set phrases – Sultan of Oman’s Air Force; Sultan of Oman’s Navy – that the students would encounter as they worked through the booklet. It was, of course, designed for men who had studied no more than two years of school English, and yet the subject matter was informative, and relevant to serving members of the Sultan’s Armed Forces.

It was also remarkably successful. By directly mentioning the Air Force and the Navy, and indirectly involving the Army (H.Q. of the Sultan’s Armed Forces) the readers’ interest was immediately engaged. This is vital, particularly when dealing with students who are unsure of their own ability. Masuhara (2003) is adamant “Engaging Affect should be the Prime Concern of Reading Materials” (p. 351), and she is backed by Tomlinson (2008) “the learner needs to be motivated, relaxed, positive and engaged.” (p. 4).

This militarized passage also compares favourably with a similar passage that appears in Target: the Sultan’s Armed Forces General English Course, Student’s Book Two (RAFO; no date). That book offers a series of extended bullet points (pp. 99-100) which appear to be designed as tourist information. Both halves of the double page are illustrated with the same soft, slightly out of focus photograph of an Indian labourer standing by a coconut palm, but the illustration is irrelevant. The information consists primarily of instructions on how to get to Salalah, and information about the hotels there. Strangely, there is no mention of the Dhofar Festival, an annual event specifically designed to attract tourists from other Arab Gulf countries, nor is there any mention at all of the Sultan’s Armed Forces.

I am not impartial. I have criticized the Target course on many occasions (McBeath 2005; 2007a; 2007; 2008) but even the least biased critic might well wonder exactly what the Target compilers hoped to achieve with this type of material, and why they felt that it would have any appeal to Omani servicemen.

Base Ordnance Depot

By contrast, the next exercise was remarkable for the strength of positive response that it generated. By the late 1980s, I was working at the Force Ordnance Service School, and
the soldiers were now of a considerably higher educational standard. It was quite usual to have recruits who had completed both primary and preparatory education, and some had even finished their secondary schooling. By the time that I left the Force Ordnance Service, in 1997, moreover, it was Royal Army of Oman policy that only men who had completed secondary education would be recruited.

In the 1980s we used a course called English Right from the Start (Hore and Hore; 1982; 1983). It was quite effective, but in its determination to teach English as an international language, it had been ruthlessly purged of any material that culture specific. This resulted in two volumes of almost epic blandness, where students were taught to ask for directions, describe people, find their way around office blocks and politely transfer information that few people would want to know.

To Omanize, militarize and generally liven up this approach, I produced a series of passages like this:

Said bin Mubarik bin Said al Hamdani comes from Yanqul, but he is living in Seeb now. He was born in Ibri in 1970 and went to school there. He went to saif bin Sultan Secondary School.

Said is a storeman and he works at BOD. He is average height, well built and has black hair and brown eyes. He is a pleasant, friendly soldier who likes playing football and watching television. He wants to become a Wakeel. He can be contacted on 615931.

Having read the passage, students had to complete a form listing details like Name; Origin; Place of Birth; Address; Telephone Number; Age; Occupation; education etc. The breakthrough with this material came when I used a photograph and placed it above one particular passage. Within days, several members of my class had presented me with passport size photographs of themselves, demanding that I write up their own details.

This led to two changes. Firstly, I used the photographs, but carefully gave no written information about the soldier’s colour of eyes, colour of hair, or any other information that could be found by looking at the photograph. Then I diversified the exercise, by giving out completed forms, and asking that the details be written up in complete sentences.

Once again, this material engaged the interest of the BOD personnel because it focused attention on members of their own unit – their “oppos” in Gardiner’s term. Secondly, their willingness to offer personal information for educational use displayed a level of trust and a recognition that we were all engaged in a collaborative venture. This is what Gardiner refers to as “teamwork”. I relied on the men to present me with data. They, in turn, trusted me to produce materials that could enhance the overall effectiveness of the class, the Force Ordnance Service and, ultimate, the Royal Army of Oman.

The paragraphs also developed existing knowledge and gave practice in skimming and scanning. This reinforced a study skill whose importance is urged by Ewer (1979), Nuttall (1982), McGinley (1985) and Al Mutawa and Kailani (1989). It directed the men’s attention to reading for information, and simultaneously evoked what Johnson (1982) terms “the information transfer principle”(p. 164).

The Sultan of Oman’s Armour

By the time that I was posted to serve at the Armour School at MSO Sha’afa, the concept of tailoring materials to student interests and needs (McBeath 2004) had become an integral part of my teaching. At the School of Armour, however, I found that I was teaching increasing numbers of junior officers, and so it was necessary to produce materials for them.

This is the rationale that underlies the next example, which was designed as a worksheet to supplement an English for Military Purposes text; Command English (Arnold and Sacco 1988).

In this instance the topic of Command English was a unit on Fire and Manoeuvre, which caused no comprehension difficulties at all. The officers had all successfully completed their training at the Sultan Qaboos Military Academy, and were entirely conversant with both concepts.

The main grammatical structure of the unit, however, concerned the contrast between “wh” interrogative and “wh” relative. “Wh” interrogative posed no problem at all, as the comprehension questions used throughout Command English had already given more than adequate reinforcement and practice. This, however, was not the case with “wh” relative.

In this case, we were focusing on subordinate relative clauses, which is an area in which speakers of Arabic as an L1 are known to have difficulties (Kharma 1987). Kharma and Hajjaj (1989; 124-25) list thirteen possible areas of confusion, and explain that “in Arabic the relative pronoun itself (not the whole of the relative clause) functions as the modifier of the antecedent….Hence the subject or object of the verb in the Arabic relative clause is always present, either explicitly or implicitly.” Thus, while Halliday and Hasan (1976) state that “An elliptical verbal group cannot in general presuppose a verbal group in an embedded clause (one that it embedded in the narrower sense of the word i.e. RANKSHIFTED)” (p. 196) – in Arabic the reverse situation applies.

In this case, moreover, the problem was complicated by the fact that Command English did not use “relative ‘wh’ words”, but had opted to use “that”. Leech, Deucher and Hoogenrad (1982) explain “The word ‘that’ …. Is different from the ‘that’ which introduces noun clauses; it is a relative pronoun like ‘who’ or ‘which’ …rather than a conjunction” (p. 98), but I felt that my young officers were faced with sufficient problems without being introduced to the concept of a “that” which meant “which”.

I therefore created the following exercise:

Read this passage and write in the appropriate words. Use “what”, “how”, “where” and “when” only.

Next week the Commander of the Royal Army of Oman will tour the camp at MSO Sha’afa. He will speak to some of the junior officers and to some of the personnel from the three regiments and the support companies. He will want to know _______
Your name is, _______ old you are and _______ long you have held your present rank. You can also tell him _______ you hope to be promoted. You must tell him _______ you joined RAO, and _______ old you were then. The Commander may want to know _______ you come from, _______ you are living at the moment and _______ you find life at Sha’afa. He will certainly want to know if you have been on a course, and if so, _______ that course was held, _______ you studied and _______ you learnt from the course.

This passage simplifies the grammar by deleting the adverbs “where” and “when” (Huddleston 1984). “How”, which Sinclair (1987) glosses as an adverb (p. 708), and the pronoun “what” are also deleted. The result is a gap-fill exercise of the type used by Hinton (1992). It can be completed individually or as a collaborative task, but either way, it focuses attention on the missing restrictive relatives, and requires learners to read the passage with understanding before they can select the correct “wh” adverb.

The topic of the passage was intended to create a schema (Carrell & Eisterhold 1983; 1988; Rummelhart 1980), but it was a schema in the sense used by Llopis (2006) of “cultured schemas…cultural wisdom” (p. 29) It was therefore a schema that could easily be “authenticated” (Clarke, 1989, p. 84) because it reflected a situation which had every likelihood of occurring; where junior officers would be expected to play designated roles. I therefore hoped to produce both a short-term grammatical exercise and long term preparation for dealing with visits by high-ranking Omani and other officers, visiting the Armour Brigade on familiarization tours or inspections.


This very schema, however, separates the military world from the conventions of civilian life. In the materials that I have outlined in this section, it is possible to chart a progression, as the educational level of recruits to the Sultan’s Armed Forces steadily rose, and thus more could be demanded of them. Their complete break with civilian life, as outlined by Gardiner, moreover, made SAF personnel more receptive to changes in educational approach, and their trust in a superior officer – teamwork – aided the process. This is not necessarily the case in the intellectually freer atmosphere of academic culture.

Academic Culture – Linguistic Issues.

Komiyama (2009) refers casually to “English being the dominant language of the Internet, international business and academia” (p. 32) as if this were a truth both uncontentious and generally welcomed, but this dominance is not universally applauded.

Phillipson (1992; 2003; 2006a; 2006b; 2008a; 2008b) has built his reputation around the theory of linguistic imperialism, and has raised important questions about language and power. Even so, Phillipson himself has critics. Saraceni (2008) has noted that “the foundations on which he bases his discussion are perilously shaky, as he indulges in anecdotal evidence and a patchwork of citations from a range of sources with very little or no grounding in sociolinguistics. Indeed, there is a bizarre paradox in Phillipson’s contention: he attributes the highest degree of expertise, authority and credibility concerning the English language to people who are by no means expert, credible or authoritative about it.” (p. 280).

These are strong words, but there is no doubt that some of Phillipson’s remarks leave him open to criticism. When he states (Phillipson 2008b) that “The French have been aware of the threat from cultural and linguistic imperialism for several decades” (p. 253) he refers to French governmental antipathy to the influence of English. He simultaneously ignores how French government policy has unswervingly promoted the cause of the French language (Ager 1996) and that, paradoxically, there is no English equivalent for the term “mission civilatrice.”

Neither does Phillipson ever acknowledge the extent to which English achieved its position as an international language through historical happenstance. A naval victory by the Spanish Armada in 1588 would have resulted in England and Scotland being forcibly reconverted to Roman Catholicism. The Pilgrim Fathers would have been burnt at the stake for heresy. The Massachusetts Colony would never have been founded. Spanish would have become the paramount language.

Similarly, victories by either Napoleon or Hitler would have established French or German as the principal languages of Europe. Twenty five years ago, no one could have foreseen the speed or completeness with which the Soviet Union would collapse, but in 1989, the last challenge to an English dominated global economy disappeared. It is impossible to say for how long this state of affairs will endure (Graddol 1997; Hasman 2000) but at present, the only likely competitor to English would appear to be Chinese.

Even so, Troudi (2009) and Habbash (2009) have recently questioned the justification for using English as a language of instruction in Arab Gulf tertiary education. This has been a surprise development, as the use of English as a medium of instruction had never appeared to be controversial.

Writing from the perspective of Saudi Arabia, Habbash (2009) offers a rather garbled argument that “increased reliance on English in the absence of empirical research will not best serve the future of Saudi English learners nor will it safeguard their Islamic values and cultural heritage”(pp. 96-97). On both counts, however, he would seem to be fighting a rearguard action.

In September 2004, English was introduced in Grade 6 of Saudi Arabian schools. This was a direct result of pressure from Saudi parents, who had seen that English was being taught in Primary Schools in other AGCC countries, and who were concerned that their own children should not be disadvantaged.

The decision to introduce English in Grade 6, however, was itself a compromise. The Saudi Ministry of Education had originally planned to introduce English in Grade 4.The religious authorities then mounted a concerted campaign to block this, claiming that Saudi tradition, Arab Culture and Islamic teachings would all be undermined.

In fact, research by Al Haq and Smadi (1996) had earlier concluded that in Saudi Arabia “learning English is neither an indication of westernization nor entails an imitation or admiration of Western cultural values.” The reliability of their findings, of course, is proved by the fact that the Saudi elite have always used private schools where their children are taught English. Such evidence, however, was not sufficient for the Saudi religious authorities, although Habbash appears to indicate that Saudi parents have not given up, referring to “a trend to lower the level of compulsory English to start at Grade 4 as well as to teach scientific subjects through the medium of English.” (Habbash, 2009,p. 96).

In Oman, however, the use of English as a language of instruction is entirely uncontroversial. The Sultan Qaboos University has used English as a medium of instruction since its foundation, and the newer Omani universities have followed its lead. Until His Majesty’s accession, education in Oman was so very limited, that the creation of an all-through system of public education can be regarded as one of the principal achievements of his reign. The Omani people have shown their appreciation of this by taking a pragmatic, long-term view, and accepting English medium tertiary education as being infinitely preferable to no tertiary education at all.

Academic Culture – Pedagogic Issues

This is not to say, however, that there are no tensions within the education system, although I would suggest that those tensions are not unique to Oman.

In Britain, the summer of 2009 saw the 27th consecutive annual improvement in “A” level results. Despite this, Costello (2009) cites a series of reports from the British press, complaining that undergraduates are “functionally illiterate” or “ill-prepared for university.”

This apparent contradiction is, of course, easily resolved once it is understood that we are discussing two different things. From the schools’ perspective, success is literally measured by the numbers of pupils who gain “A” levels. As a result, schools have learned to produce the goods. Given the time frame of 27 years, many of the current generation of teachers are themselves successful products of the system. These teachers work towards the short-term aim of achieving pass grades for their pupils and, as Garner (2006) explains, the upshot can be that “many students with top grade “A” level passes…..had been coached to answer the questions they would face, but had little knowledge or understanding /of how/ to develop an argument.” (p. 2)

From the universities’ perspective, however, the students are “ready” for admission, because they have finished their secondary education with the requisite number of “A” levels at the appropriate grades. They are not, however, “prepared” because they have no real understanding of what tertiary level education entails.

At this point, a second factor enters the equation. In Britain, in the last 40 years, there has been an exponential expansion in the provision of tertiary education. The percentage of 18 year olds going to university has increased from the 3-5% of 1970 to something nearer 35%. Many of these teenagers are first generation undergraduates. They are the first to ever attend university, and so again, they are not prepared for the experience.

The relevance of this to Oman is quite clear. Sultan Qaboos University is just beginning to receive a tiny trickle of undergraduates who are second generation undergraduates. These young men and women are the children of the very first SQU graduates, but there are probably less than 100 of them in the entire university.

All the other undergraduates are first generation students, and particularly for some of the young women, studying at SQU is a profoundly disorientating experience. For the first time in their lives, they are removed from the control of their families, and are deprived of the support of their friends. In addition, their academic ability – the bedrock of their claim to student status – is also under threat.

Issa (2009) has criticized the absurdly high marks that are handed out in Omani secondary schools, and these marks cause problems. They give students exaggerated ideas of their own ability, and it comes as a nasty shock when they find that their schools successes are not replicated at a higher level.

Secondly, the school marks foster a culture of overachievement, where scoring anything less that 95% is regarded as failure. In certain subjects, this degree of accuracy may be obtainable, but in the humanities, and particularly in English, a student who scores a genuine 95% would be an outstanding exception.

The difficulty with this scenario is, of course, that student’s concerns frequently remain hidden. Teachers’ complaints about the quality of undergraduates receive publicity – the newspapers cited by Costello mention “one professor”, “professional writers”, “admissions tutors”, most of whom remain safely anonymous. The reverse side of the picture, the disenchantment and disempowerment felt by the students, seldom enters the literature.

There is, however, one powerful exception; McCourt (2000), writing of his experience at New York University:- “I never thought that college would be all numbers and letters and grades and averages and people putting me on probation. I thought that this would be a place where kindly learned men and women would teach in a warm way and if I didn’t understand they’d pause and explain. I didn’t know I’d go from class to class with dozens of students, sometimes more than a hundred, with professors lecturing and not even looking at you. Some professors look out of the window or up at the ceiling and some stick their noses in notebooks and read from paper that is yellow and crumbling with age. If students ask questions, they’re waved away.” (pp. 215-16)

So what is to be done?

Firstly, it ought to be possible for academia to learn something from the military. Clearly it is not possible to begin with “the naked student” and turn foundation years into basic training camps, but it is possible to remember to “equip the man……don’t man the equipment.” At university, as in the military, “It is all centred on …..attitude…values, and personal skills.”

Probably the most important of these skills is the mastery of academic writing, and in this area Colledge and Jones (2009) offer four approaches:-
(a) the non-interventionist approach
(b) the study skills approach
(c) the academic literacies approach
(d) the academic genres approach.

The first of these is easily dismissed. It is the approach that prevailed in British universities in the 1960s, and the approach described by McCourt. It was based on the assumption that students came to university already equipped with the skill to meet academic demands. If they did not, it was their fault. Sink of swim.

The study-skills approach developed from a belated recognition that non-intervention was an inadequate response. Study-skills hoped to “brush up” student writing by offering quick-fix solutions – workshops on spelling and punctuation. In some universities there were remediation classes, or no-credit writing seminars, but these were frequently bolted on to existing programmes and they did little to assist students who were experiencing difficulties in their core studies.

Other universities, like the UAE University, offer Writing Centres, where students can receive guidance and support from peer tutors (Donnenworth 2009). This is certainly an improvement on non-intervention, but in a culture that still regards teachers as authority figures, peer-tutors may be regarded as second-best solutions.

The academic literacies approach concentrates on the actual process of writing. It emphasizes the generation of ideas, the creative process, the writing of successive drafts and editing for content and mechanics (White and Arndt 1990), but it pays little attention to genre. It attempts to support students who, like McCourt, are unversed in the conventions of academic culture and is driven by the belief that “students should be able to engage in more diverse tasks, not requiring a traditional academic register’ (Colledge and Jones 2009, p. 33). This may be good for diversity, but quite how it assists students who wish to master academic conventions is unclear.

The academic genres approach, however, focuses on the product (Gobert 2008). It therefore teaches students to write for a readership. It teaches them how to fulfill the expectations that readers have whenever they approach a particular genre and how to manage the constraints and conventions imposed by that genre. Thus, put crudely, it teaches that a narrative should have a beginning, a middle and an end; that compare and contrast essays should do both things, and that cause and effect essays must contain both elements.

The academic genres approach, therefore, leads students into their future discourse community, the academic culture that they have chosen to join. It introduces them to different text types, and gives them the opportunity to read, recognize and then create their own texts in the appropriate style. The approach also indicates when third person writing (An experiment was conducted…) is preferred, and where first person (We began this study….) is acceptable. It also teaches the correct use of citations and the importance of bibliographies.

None of these elements form part of the Omani school curriculum, and few of them can be “picked up” by attending process writing courses. Students have to be taught these things, and they have to practice them – just as soldiers have to be taught how to uses a map and compass to navigate at night.

None of these tasks, moreover, is integral to what we would usually describe as Omani culture, but interestingly, experience proves that Omanis can do them all, very effectively.


Neil McBeath worked for twenty four and a half years as a uniformed officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman. During that time, he taught EFL, ESP and English for Military Purposes (EMP). He declined to renew contract in June 2005, and took at two year contract with BAE Systems, teaching at the School of English Language, Technical Studies Institute, Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has now returned to Oman, and teaches at Language Centre of the Sultan Qaboos University.


Key Terms
Academic – pertaining primarily to university education.
Culture – how people order their affairs in harmony with social group
Engage – to awaken student interest
First generation literates – literate people whose parents are illiterate
Linguistic imperialism – the belief that certain languages dominate others
Military – concerning the Armed Forces
Schema – a concept whose implications are understood by certain social groups

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