English as a Foreign Language (EFL) has constituted a major part of the curriculum in private and public institutions in Saudi Arabia for over eight decades. More recently, the emergence of English as a global language has made it a socially desirable language in Saudi society, as elsewhere in the world. However, despite the long history of English teaching in Saudi Arabia and the growth of the profession over the years, the overall English proficiency level of the majority of students is low and unsatisfactory. Saudi researchers have reported many reasons for the ineffectiveness of English Language Teaching (ELT) including, but not limited to, low levels of student motivation, negative attitudes toward English, a substandard English as a Foreign Language (EFL) curriculum, and inefficient teacher pedagogical practices. These problems fall into two major categories: problems related to the ‘why’ of teaching and learning of EFL, and problems related to the ‘how’ of teaching and learning EFL. In investigating these issues, much of this research has been carried out within individual/psychological/structuralist/positivist frameworks, which has failed not only to problematize the complexity of such constructs but also to appreciate the fact that all realities are produced/(re)produced via ‘discourse’.
Hence, the present study investigated EFL teaching and learning practices by employing Foucauldian and poststructuralist frameworks. This study used poststructuralism not only as a theoretical lens per se, but also established it through the implemented analytical tools and textual representations of the collected data. Employing a poststructuralist discursive perspective made it possible to view EFL teaching and learning as complex social practices, interacting with the discourses of English and ELT practices available in the global as well as the local context(s). These discourses create the nexus between power and knowledge and impact on what an EFL teacher/ learner does within a classroom setting by constructing perspectives of reality through which he or she comes to understand the EFL teaching and learning process in certain ways which constitute epistemological spaces and generate particular practices.
Drawing on policy documents, EFL textbooks, classroom observations, interviews with two Saudi EFL teachers, and focus group discussions with Saudi EFL students in two rural areas, the study identified seven discourses circulating within and competing across the examined discursive spaces. The first three discourses are related to English and its values, including: English as a universal language; English as the language for better employment opportunities; and English as the language for spreading religion. The remaining four discourses centred around ELT with exams as an important aspect of EFL learning and ELT; CLT as the key to success in ELT; L1 as a barrier to successful EFL learning; and EFL textbooks as an essential aspect of the processes of EFL learning and ELT.
In exploring the production and (re)production of these discourses through the examination of how visibilization, normalisation, exclusionary/inclusionary acts, classification, and subject positioning as discursive strategies are employed, it was found that whether a particular discourse was made visible or invisible depended on other discourses operating across the examined discursive spaces: the social context, the policy, the textbook, the classroom, and the teachers and students. The analysis of the connection(s) and misconnection(s) between these discursive spaces demonstrated that the interplay between the different discourses constructed discursive battlegrounds, which impacted the processes of EFL teaching and learning. Through the investigation of this interplay, it was found that there was a disconnect and an ambivalent relationship between the study participants’ espoused discourses of English and their EFL teaching and learning practices, suggesting that EFL teachers and learners should not be considered ‘stable’ figures, but rather as social agents with discursively constructed ever changing subjectivities. Furthermore, the analyses of the constructions of the discourses operating within the examined policy texts demonstrate an intra disparity and fragmentation. This was manifested in the difference between the ideals of the EFL curriculum and the institutionally imposed regulating techniques, that is, examinations and teachers’ assessment practices which had negative effects on EFL teaching and learning dynamics. Additionally, as a consequence of the competition between the different sources of discursive constructions, I found that there was a gulf between the EFL policies and the enactment of these policies in EFL teaching and learning dynamics in the observed EFL classrooms. The findings of this study also indicate that if a discourse promoted through the policy is mediated by discourses operating in the larger societal context, it became more visible in teaching and learning practices as compared to other discourses that did not have social moorings. This suggests that taking the prevailing social expectations into account at the stage of developing any policy is of paramount importance.
The study concludes with a discussion of the implications of the interplay of connections and misconnections between competing discourses across different spaces in Saudi educational settings for improving the EFL teaching/learning environments in Saudi Arabia and other similar contexts.