by Cheri Pierson
As I sat down to reflect on my experience as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher at an overseas Bible institute, I realized that I had something to share concerning one of the important practical realities of theological education in non-English speaking contexts.
As I sat down to reflect on my experience as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher at an overseas Bible institute, I realized that I had something to share concerning one of the important practical realities of theological education in non-English speaking contexts. My knowledge was drawn from thirteen students, representing seven different languages, who assembled that first day for my class on English for Bible and Theology (EBT). As I greeted these students, I had no idea of the diverse needs that would challenge my skills as an English teacher. I had to ask myself some poignant questions. “Who were these students and what were they there for?”; “What was my task?” and “What did I bring to the teaching-learning situation?”
Who were these students and what were they there for? One man, president of his denomination, wanted help with theological terms and grammar; a woman, superintendent of her denomination’s Sunday schools, wanted to be able to understand sermons in English; others, serving as pastors, seminary professors and youth workers in their homelands, wanted help with reading strategies and biblical vocabulary. All wanted assistance in English for a very specific purpose—to access biblical and theological resources not available in their native languages.
What was my task? I had eight weeks to prepare these students for biblical and theological studies. The first week was an intensive review of basic English skills, four hours per day. The next seven were given to preparing these students to understand theological and biblical texts, etc. It was clear that their success in their studies depended a great deal on their success in my classroom.
What did I bring to the teaching-learning situation? I had a lot of enthusiasm, an English study Bible, a minimal knowledge of theology, a few outdated journal articles, no textbook or curriculum to follow, a low budget—and a lot to learn.
OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
Economic or political restrictions in many areas of the world have denied large numbers of Christians access to a biblical education similar to that in seminaries, Bible colleges and Christian colleges in North America. Consider believers in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, for example. Now that political barriers have fallen in these countries, many new converts as well as mature believers, are eager to understand the word of God more thoroughly and learn how to teach it more effectively. But how many biblical and theological articles and books are available in Bulgarian, Albanian, Estonian or even in Russian? And how many seminaries and Bible schools can offer instruction in these languages?
What is available for believers from other parts of the world, for example, Indonesia, Korea or Japan? Do they have a sufficient variety of theological materials in their languages? And do their seminaries and Bible colleges offer instruction only in the students’ native languages, or do they require a knowledge of one or more other languages?
Unfortunately, theological and biblical resources in most of the world’s languages are few or nonexistent, thus creating a heavy demand for materials and appropriate instruction in English as a Foreign Language. To meet the growing need, Western missions have sent Christian workers to teach in Bible colleges and seminaries. Most leave unprepared for the challenges they will meet. In one Bible school, for example, fifty students with only a shaky command of English reading and writing skills and little conversation ability expectantly pack themselves into a classroom built for twenty. How can an untrained EFL teacher, even though he or she is a native speaker of English, help these students learn to read textbooks written for native-English speakers? And a seminary in a neighboring country expects students, after only one semester of English instruction, to understand theology lectures delivered in English. What can an EFL teacher do to prepare these students for educational challenges such as these?
The goal of this article is to discuss teaching EFL to students whose purposes for learning English are (1) to take seminary or Bible courses and/or (2) to access biblical and theological resources. These learners require more than general-purpose English; they need a specialized variety of English, called English for Bible and Theology (EBT).
Personal experience has convinced me that we can do a great deal to prepare our students to handle English-language demands such as these. To do this, however, we must design and implement specialized EBT instruction that is based on three fundamental assumptions.
First, once EFL students have acquired a basic knowledge of English, they no longer share identical English-language needs with intermediate and advanced learners from other disciplines. For example, the language requirements of those preparing to be business professionals or pilots necessarily differ from those of seminary and Bible school students. This latter group must read English well enough to understand the English Bible, journal articles, theological texts, Bible dictionaries, concordances, Sunday School materials and other Christian literature. And in institutions where some or all instruction is in English, students also must command the varieties of oral English used in sermons, prayers and academic lectures.
Second, the most effective teaching approach for these learners incorporates samples of actual materials (or simplified versions of these materials) that the learners will use in their disciplines. For example, the use of basic theology books and Bible dictionaries in EFL classroom instruction exposes students to a specialized variety of English and prepares them to handle the English-language aspects of their academic course work. In addition, once they leave the seminary or Bible school, they are better able to make use of a range of EBT resources.
Third, EBT instruction must be compatible and integrated with other English-language instruction, so that all teaching efforts are mutually reinforcing. For example, if Bible students must write term papers in English, the EBT course work should contain a focus on this skill as well.
STEPS IN DESIGNING AN EBT COURSE
EBT courses must be designed for each group of learners. One EBT course may focus heavily on theological terms and grammatical constructions used in the English Bible as well as reading skills required to comprehend course textbooks. Another may include an oral skills component which not only helps students understand lectures given in English but also helps them learn to interact with English-speaking peers and professors—and perhaps even preach, pray or teach in English. Whatever the exact focus, the following key steps are essential for designing an effective EBT course.
1. Conduct a needs analysis to determine (a) how the learners will use English in their theological and biblical studies and (b) the specific language requirements of the seminary or Bible school, if there are any beyond EBT studies. This often requires gathering data from the institution’s administration and faculty as well as from the students themselves.
There are different types of needs assessment tools used for gathering data including interviews, observations and questionnaires. Although time-consuming, interviews may reveal issues and questions that can later be followed up by observations (e.g., classrooms) and/or a questionnaire. Questionnaires reach a broader audience in an efficient amount of time. More specifically, they can elicit facts about participants’ backgrounds, uncover opinions and attitudes about language learning and determine what different groups’ (administrators, teachers and students) expectations are for the course.
2. Identify and classify all biblical and theological resources available to students. These include, but should not be limited to, course texts, journals and library books used at the seminary or Bible school. Identifying this information helps the EBT course designer/instructor to assess the range of materials students are expected to access in their theological studies. Classifying it helps the EBT teacher to focus instruction on actual discourse, vocabulary and grammar that students need to master in order to use these materials effectively and efficiently. The school’s librarian should be able to provide a printout of the library’s offerings as well as a copy of the different theological course syllabi. Reviewing the course syllabi can help the teacher with the next stage of designing the course.
3. Determine realistic goals and objectives for the course. Aware of the needs of the students and the demands of the program (see step 1 above), the instructor leads the students toward mastery of specific goals. The instructor has explicitly outlined objectives for the course and integrates these into each lesson. These objectives provide the teacher with a sense of direction for selecting specific content. More specifically, the students are moving toward mastery of certain aspects of the language. An example of a goal might be: the student will be able to survey a theological textbook by mastering reading strategies such as previewing, scanning and skimming. Objectives indicate how students will master this goal. For example, a student will answer a series of questions which require use of a table of contents, index and glossary of an introductory theological text.
4. Decide on course content and learning activities. Since steps 1-4 should provide many ideas for possible content, the primary difficulty for most teachers will be choosing the most useful content and most appropriate learning tasks. The selection of activities must correspond to the course objectives and be appropriate to the level of student proficiency. The instructor should use a broad repertoire of learning activities to achieve language learning goals. The activities for each lesson should not be too difficult or too simple and should be focused on clear objectives (see step 3).
5. Cultivate autonomous language learners. A major goal for instruction is for the students to be independent of the teacher and to continue learning language outside the classroom. By focusing on language learning strategies and by encouraging students to use these strategies beyond the classroom, the instructor cultivates autonomous language learners who can make use of their growing language proficiency in their library research or in presenting information in another classroom where English is the medium of instruction.
There is a growing need for quality English-language instruction and curriculum and materials development in seminaries and Bible schools around the world. This article has addressed some basic principles for planning instruction and listed steps in designing an EBT course that meets the specific English language learning needs of students studying Bible and theology in these institutions.
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Cheri Pierson is an assistant professor of Intercultural Studies and TESOL at Wheaton College Graduate School. She specializes in teacher education, English for Bible Theology, and women in missions. With her family, she served with Greater Europe Mission in Sweden.
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