English Learning Issues in Saudi Primary School


Many students find it difficult to learn English as a second or foreign language. This study focused on the difficulties that Saudi elementary school students face in the course of learning English. From a critical point of view, it is evident that these students have developed a negative attitude towards learning this new language. To understand the concepts behind second language acquisition and the possible challenges that students and teachers face, a literature review was conducted. This review revealed that the students’ description, the teaching strategies, and the native language are the main challenges that negatively impact on the process of acquiring a new language. Thus, four research questions were developed and a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods applied to critically analyze the data for the study. Additionally, this paper highlights the ethical considerations and limitations that the study faced. Finally, the paper expounded on the expected results of the study.


English has become the most common language in the world (Hinkel 2005). As such, it is being treated as a global language due to its vast application in communication all around the world. It is as a result of this fact that the concept of learning English either as a second or a foreign language has increased over time. English as a second or a foreign language is a concept used to describe the use of English by individuals who have different native languages other than English (Crystal 2009). However, the process of acquisition and using English in discourse is not easy and highly relies on factors such as the age of the learners, their environment, teaching techniques, and the needs of the learners. With this in mind, different theories have been put forward to develop the most effective approaches that can be used to teach English as a second or a foreign language (Hinkel 2005).

Initially, English was considered as a language that originated from the United Kingdom and the United States of America. This consideration thus brought about the concept of native speakers and non-native speakers with respect to whether an individual acquired English either as his/her first or additional language. Thus, the concept of native and non-native speakers was used to determine the English proficiency level of an individual. However, given the vast spread of English especially due to globalization, the concept of native and non-native speakers has been greatly put to the test. Globalization has changed English from a regional language to a global language with different dialects being used widely all across the globe (Canagarajah 2006).

However, the process of learning English as a second or foreign language is not easy. Learners usually face a number of challenges that greatly affect their ease of acquisition. Teachers usually try to identify the needs of their students, their attitude towards learning English, and the reason behind studying English as a second or a foreign language (Lightbrown and Spada 2006). Despite this consideration, students still face additional challenges in the process of learning English. This greatly hinders the progress that they make in the course of learning. In this respect, this research focused on the difficulties that Saudi students in elementary school face while learning English. The aim of this study was to develop a clear understanding of the contemporary needs of Saudi elementary students and how the process of learning and acquisition can be enhanced to improve the overall proficiency levels of these students as they move towards higher levels of education.

Literature Review

It is common for non-native speakers to develop a negative attitude towards learning a foreign language (Lightbrown and Spada 2006). This is due to the difference a foreign language has as compared to the native language and the difficulties the learning process might have. Such students usually become uneasy when speaking, listening or learning English. This poses a lot of difficulties to their English teachers as they try to overcome the teaching barriers. According to Graddol (1997), teachers and students tend to face several challenges in the process of teaching and learning a foreign language. Despite the efforts that they put in place to enhance the learning process, they still face challenges in the process of learning. It is as a result of this that Hammond (2001) stated that there are hidden factors behind students who are non-native speakers of English that play a significant role in hindering them to acquire English as a second or a foreign language.

The Effect of the Native Language (L1)

Many students have been conducted on the effect of the mother tongue (L1) on learning a new language (L2). The study by Canagarajah (2006) revealed that Arab students who are learning English as a second language face two main challenges. These students continuously have errors in syntax, pronunciation, spelling, and morphology. Additionally, these students find it difficult to express themselves comfortably and fluently in the target language, especially within academic and social contexts. While focusing on Egyptian learners of English, Harmer (2007) revealed that most students opted to borrowed the patterns of the native language (L1) language and use it to express meaning utilizing the learned language and syntax of the target language (L2). Lightbrown and Spada (2006) concluded that the difficulties that students face in the process of learning English especially with regards to phonology, vocabulary, and grammar are a result of the interference of L1.

The Learners

Institutions that teach English as a second or foreign language follow international teaching practices. Such practices require the students to practice frequently and maintain a high level of patience in the process of learning so that they can be proficient speakers (Lightbrown and Spada 2006). However, Saudi elementary students, as well as other students, usually have the mentality that it is impossible for them to be proficient and fluent in English. This attitude greatly deters the progress that a student can make in the process of learning English and fluently using it in discourse (Jenkins 2006). The study by Hammond (2001) stated that based on the difficulties that students face, they take a wrong approach in learning the language. As such, most of these students study English only to pass the examination and not to become proficient. This approach does not enable them to develop their analytical and creative skills in English hence making it difficult for them to use the language in discourse.

Teaching Approach

An effective teaching strategy and approach is critical in ensuring that the process of teaching English is conducted effectively. Several theories and teaching approaches have been advanced to meet the needs of the students. Several studies have been conducted on the use of the bilingual approach in teaching English to students who are learning English as a second or foreign language. Despite the fact that this approach seems to be effective especially in instilling the basics of the language to novice learners, scholars in the field of EFL and ESL discourage the use of the bilingual approach in teaching English.

As Lightbrown and Spada (2006) asserted, the bilingual approach of teaching only results in reducing the overall level of acquisition. This is due to the fact that teachers use the native language to explain to students the concepts that they cannot understand in English. To ensure that the language teaching and learning process is effective, most teachers apply the interlanguage (IL) theory. The application of this theory eliminates the use of L1 during an English lesson.

According to this theory, the proficiency level of an individual will revolve within the interlanguage continuum (Jenkins 2006). This continuum revolves around the difference that exists between the L1 and L2 of a learner. This continuum is thus used to determine the English proficiency level of an individual. Therefore, the differences that arise between the language proficiency of a given individual and standard American or British English is attributed to the errors that originate from his/her L1 (Jenkins 2006). In this respect, L1 has thus considered a barrier to learning L2.

However, there is a different school of thought that believes L1 should be used to support the acquisition process of L2. This is as a result of the difficulty that students have in communicating in a language that they are struggling to understand its basics. Additionally, the learners and teachers in most cases share a common L1. With this consideration, some teachers transform their teaching strategy to utilize L1 as a complementary language in the English learning exercise. Therefore, the utilization of L1 in learning L2 tends to have positive results since the level of interaction among the learners increased.

Thus, L1 motivates the students to be actively involved in the learning process. According to Lightbrown and Spada (2006), motivation is an essential component in the process of learning since it engages the students in the learning process and plays a critical role in their cognitive development. From a critical point of view, however, the utilization of L1 in the process of learning L2 might not be successful due to several difficulties.

As asserted by Lightbrown and Spada (2006), these challenges originate from the differences that exist between L1 and L2. For instance, there is a great difference in phonology between English and Arabic. The study by Hammond (2001) revealed that it was difficult for these learners to differentiate between words that have the same sounds. Examples of these words include flash and flush, cat and cut. Consequently, these learners faced many problems with pronouncing certain consonants.

It was a common practice for the learners to replace /b/ for /p/. In other instances, the learners substituted /v/ with /f/. The difference between English and Arabic also had an effect on the process of teaching grammar. Arabic does not contain the verb ‘to be’ in its present tense. Furthermore, Arabic only has a simple tense, unlike English that has simple present and simple continuous tenses. It is these differences that made the learners construct sentences such as ‘She flying to Australia tomorrow.’ It is such factors that make L1 to be regarded as a barrier of learning L2.

Significance of the Study

The growth of English as a global language has made it necessary for many individuals from all parts of the world to learn it as a second or foreign language. It is due to this fact that the Saudi government has incorporated English classes for elementary students in its education curriculum. However, as it has been pointed out, these students find it difficult to learn this new language. This paper thus critically analyzed several factors that act as barriers to the process of teaching and learning English in Saudi elementary schools. This analysis was important as it provides an avenue of clearly understanding the difficulties that these students face and hence creating a platform of coming up with theories, strategies, and procedures that will aim at improving the teaching and learning of English at the elementary level of learning.

Currently, most students at this academic level have developed a negative attitude towards learning English. Additionally, their learning approach is only aimed at passing examinations. The implementation of the findings of this study will play a significant role in improving the attitudes that these students have towards the process of learning and acquisition as well as enabling them to not only use the knowledge learned to pass their examination but also to communicate effectively and fluently in different societal settings.

Research Questions

The aim of this study was to determine the difficulties that elementary students in Saudi Arabia face while learning English. To realize this, this study formulated the research questions below to ensure that the most important aspects of the study are critically analyzed:

  1. Does the attitude and perception of the students towards English have an impact in their process of learning and acquisition?
  2. Does Arabic as a native language of the students act as a barrier to the students in the process of learning English?
  3. What are the most effective teaching approaches to meet the needs of these learners?
  4. Can Saudi elementary school students overcome the difficulties that they face in learning English and become proficient speakers?

Research Methodology

This study took a mixture of qualitative and quantitative approaches. As a result, the study utilized several approaches to gather the relevant data that was required to give out the required information with regards to the research questions at hand. First, the study took a case study approach where interviews and observations were conducted on different elementary schools in Saudi Arabia to determine the trends of learning English. To ensure that the data that was collected was effective and efficient, both public and private elementary schools were included in this study. This was a critical consideration especially in comparing the attitudes of the students and the teaching approaches used.

The sample size was designed in a manner that ensured students of different grades across the elementary school are included in the study. This was a critical consideration especially with regards to measuring the attitudes and perceptions that students had towards English in relation to their age and grade. As Dees (2008) asserted, such an inclusion is essential since it enhanced the validity and reliability of the data that will be collected. In such an event, it will be easy to generalize the overall results to reflect the trends that are being experienced in all elementary schools across Saudi Arabia.

Finally, literature review was extensively used in this study. This method is categorized as a qualitative research method and is a critical source of secondary information for the study. This data was obtained from books, journals, and credible online databases. Through literature review, some of the methods that had been used in the previous studies were borrowed and applied to the current study. Also the recommendations of the previous studies were considered in the current work. Information from Document Review was therefore used as a guiding tool in conducting this study.

Ethical Considerations

For the data to represent a true and fair view, the study had a few considerations on ethics. The data collection exercise was conducted within Saudi Arabia. Being an Islamic state, several considerations with regards to tradition, religion and law had to be adhered to. The case study and document review techniques were designed in a manner that it avoided any conflicts with the traditions and religion. They mainly focused on collecting the data that was required for the study. Prior to the commencement of the data collection process, the consent of the respective elementary schools, teachers and students were sought. The purpose of the study was explained and the confidentiality of their information was guaranteed.

Limitations of the Research

Despite the ethical considerations that had been put in place in this study, the main limitation of this study was time. Usually, such studies need to be conducted over a period of several months. However, the current study was only conducted over a period of less than a month. Moreover, due to limited financial resources, rigorous surveys and analyses could not be conducted hence affecting the overall validity of the research study. Finally, accessing elementary schools that were in rural settings and distant areas could not be possible hence the study failed to reflect the attitude and perception of the students from these schools.

Expected Results

This study aimed at identifying the difficulties that students in elementary schools face while learning English in Saudi Arabia. Based on the research questions, it was expected that the study would determine the influence that Arabic has in learning English. From studies that have been conducted, it is evident that L1 acts as a hindrance of learning L2. Therefore, this study was expected to show the barriers that Arabic has to learning English. The results were expected to also show that the negative attitude that most elementary students had a negative attitude towards learning English did reduce their ease of acquisition. The results were also expected to show the most effective teaching strategies and means through which Saudi elementary students can become proficient English students.

Appendix I


  1. What is the average grade of students in English tests?
  2. How many students in the class study English?
  3. What are the teaching techniques that you use in class?
  4. Are they useful? If so, explain. If not, also explain
  5. What are the main challenges that you think your students face in the course of learning English?
  6. What are the main challenges that you face while teaching English?
  7. Do you use Arabic while teaching English? If so, explain. If not, also explain.
  8. Do your students speak Arabic in the course of an English class?
  9. Do you believe that your students can be proficient English speakers?


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