The classes now focus on listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in English instead of simply memorising material for an examination.
Future Schools scheme revises English education
AJMAN // Mahmoud Abdelwhab plays a video clip of an accident for students who jot down all the nouns, pronouns and verbs they hear.
"The boy survived a stingray accident," Mr Abdelwhab says, as an example. "Who can repeat that action?"
Abdulrahman Mahen, 16, nervously blurts out: "The boy survived from animal accident."
The teacher notes the grammatical errors as he proceeds to introduce the group to new words associated with accidents, including terms such as rescue, bleeding, destruction and injured.
Mr Abdelwhab's efforts at Al Noaman Bin Basheer Secondary School in Ajman are part of the Madares Al Ghad, or Future Schools (FS), scheme. The effort began three years ago to make students more proficient in Arabic and English.
The project developed out of what education officials viewed as an urgent need to increase pupil competency levels, and to make it easier for them to get into and succeed in college.
Ninety per cent of the students who enter federal universities have to take remedial programmes before they join degree courses.
In his FS course, Mr Abdelwhab seeks to ensure that his students do well on the Common Educational Proficiency Assessment (Cepa) test. A high score will allow them to avoid two years of remedial English courses in college.
The differences between FS and other schools are readily apparent in their curricula.
While other national schools teach mathematics and science in Arabic, FS participants learn in English in the lower grades. The programme is expected to expand every year.
Instruction in English has also been expanded to focus on listening, speaking, reading and writing skills instead of simply memorising material for an end-of-year examination.
Local and international educators appointed by the Ministry of Education as FS specialists are devising standards to align the national education system with the Common European Framework and the American grading system so high school graduates can meet the demands of a college education.
It will take at least seven years before the full results of the project can be assessed, when the first kindergarten pupils who began the programme in 2008 graduate. Students in grades 10, 11 and 12 will have aptitude and placement tests in January and May next year to measure improvement so far.
Educators at FS schools have noticed a small increase in the number of students entering directly into federal universities and some improved results in exams such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (Toefl) and the International English Language Testing System.
When three students at Al Noaman school did well on the Toefl, the principal said it was a proud moment for them after a difficult adaptation period.
"It was challenging for the teachers and students at first," said Ahmed Abdulhamid al Yahya, of the FS programme. "They cannot rely on textbooks, and students weren't used to learning without them. Teachers found it hard to apply a student-centred model and get rid of the spoon feeding."
Only 20 per cent of the FS syllabus is taught from a textbook. Schools in the scheme have instead created a print-rich environment with more access to English-language content. Students are encouraged to conduct research for projects in a dedicated laboratory where they can take quizzes and practice for full-scale language tests.
"Most of the time the students are worried about their scores," said Mr al Yahya.
"We are trying to change that mindset and make them understand that gaining language skills is more important."
Some parents expressed concern about the extra work involved in the programme.
Col Ali Saeed al Matrooshi, who heads the Ajman Police traffic department, has a son in the FS programme, and finds the emphasis on practical work and daily projects an overload.
"Humaid has a lot of homework now," he said. "He also reads more and now watches English movies to learn."
However, he admitted that his children have learned to speak and write better in English because of their involvement in the project.
FS schools have an instructional leadership coordinator who supports the school administration in adopting the programme.
They also have a teacher development specialist who helps in planning lessons, providing the necessary aid and teaching material, and sometimes co-teaching as well.