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The Way to English – Teaching English Through the Bible
Débora Pamplona

In a secularised world such as this we live in, it is not very common to read about Bible-related topics in academic settings. However, this article actually deals with a project - The Way to English – which started in 1999 as a research paper and is today a series of EFL textbooks whose main aim is to teach English as a foreign language through the Holy Scriptures.

How the idea was conceived

Being a member of an evangelical Christian church in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil and also an English teacher at the Universidade Federal do Ceará, my “brothers and sisters” (as we call each other in Christian communities) kept asking me to teach them English. After some reluctance – my day was busy enough already – I got together with a group of about 12 and started to teach them from the regular textbook I used at the university. After a few classes I realised that the material I was using wasn’t suitable for the group, because they had a quite specific purpose in mind - they would ask me to translate Bible verses into English, to write the lyrics of gospel songs, and to teach them Bible-related vocabulary which had to do with their daily lives. The textbook as well as the contents of that course didn’t fulfil their expectation and that was a general feeling. Meanwhile, I was attending an M.A. course at the State University of Ceará and it was time to hand in my project for qualification, so, after some reflection upon the experience I’ve just described, I started to write the first draft of the idea this article is about – teaching English from the Bible.

Having already carried out extensive work on the use of authentic materials for teaching English, it was easy to see that the Bible was a perfect source of authentic materials, since it contained different types of texts – stories (parables, biographies), poems (the psalms), dialogues, and proverbs, which are certainly included among the most celebrated literary records of human history. Then I realised that biblical texts, just like any other text, could well be used for teaching a language. Finally, I decided to investigate how a group of evangelical Christians would benefit from a material specially developed to teach them English from the biblical texts which they know so well in their mother tongue (in our case, Portuguese).

Theoretical Background

The research was based on three theories:

a) The Schema Theory – originally a theory applied to reading, it emphasises the fact that “the reader brings information, knowledge, emotion, experience, and culture to the printed word” (Brown: 1994). It introduces the concept of schema or frame, blocks of background knowledge stored in the memory which, when activated, may interfere positively in the learning process. In the case of Christians, their schema are the biblical texts in their mother tongue, which serve as a connection between what they already know and what they will learn in English.

b) ESP (English for Specific Purposes) – ESP can be summarised as the teaching that takes into account individual needs or interests (Hutchingson &Waters: 1987). Unlike General English (GE), ESP involves a more strict set of aims according to the group to be taught. In the case of this church group, they had other needs that regular GE textbooks do not cover, such as daily routines, when they needed to know how to say pray or go to church, lexical items which are part of their lives.

c) The use of authentic materials for teaching EFL – defined as texts that have been designed for native users with no pedagogical intentions in the mind of the author, authentic materials intend to bring the outside world into the language classroom. Instead of making up characters and dialogues, the material developed in this research used the very people described in the Bible, their dialogues, and their experiences, from where the language was taught. They did not have to learn about the people, but could really concentrate on the language they used. A contemporary version of the Bible was used – the New International Version – to guarantee the authenticity of the language as well as of the information conveyed.

How the experiment was conducted

Step 1. Needs Analysis

The first decision to be made was related to the learners’ actual needs. From the experience described above, I realised that they wanted to learn English for the following reasons:

as a tool for personal and/or professional development
to be able to read the Bible in English
to understand the lyrics of gospel songs in English
to share their faith with foreign “brothers and sisters”
to prepare for trans-cultural missions

The above list gave me an idea of where to start in the needs analysis, a necessary component in any ESP programme, and decided that I would design a material that:

covered the four skills
used biblical texts in its contents
developed communicative abilities in the learners
would be appropriate for the beginning level (for this experiment)

With those principles in mind, a communicative syllabus was designed for twelve lessons divided into three units of four lessons each, which were linked by a wider frame: Unit 1 was about personal information, Unit 2 was about descriptions, and Unit 3 was about routines. The grammar topics as well as the language functions covered derived from a list of the 20 first grammar topics and functions taken from four different textbooks (Take 1, Look Ahead 1, New Interchange 1, American Blueprint 1). As for the reading skill, I used the reading strategies which are important for beginners, such as skimming, scanning, reading for main ideas, and finding cognates. The writing skill was also developed, according to the main topics covered. The only skill not fully covered was listening because of lack of materials on the market and financial resources to develop tapes appropriate for this project. However, in the speaking activities, listening was informally covered (although not under the heading “listening”) in the information gap exercises, for example.

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