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Your Oxford Story: Hafsah Hasan
31 May 2022
There’s a series of OUP books that I have loved as a student, teacher, and parent called Urdu Silsila (Urdu Connection). It’s a beautifully illustrated set of readers featuring a lovable family of characters, who I first met in school when I was six years old. I still remember how lovely it was to read about someone my age and to immerse myself in the vivid artwork on every page.
I’ve always been a visual person and reading the story of a young boy, Sajid, drawing pictures everywhere around the house, really captured my imagination. After school, I remember daydreaming about what Sajid would have been up to. I must have read the story, Tasveerein (Drawings) – and made my mother, who is also a teacher, read it to me in her uniquely engaging way – at least a hundred times. Nearly 24 years later; I still know it by heart.
I was recently reminded of Sajid’s story by my one-year-old boy. He’s learning to walk at the moment and each morning grabs the lowest rung of my book shelf, pulls himself up, and knocks over all my paperbacks. Even though he’s a little young for Urdu Silsila, I couldn’t resist buying the same book for him and introducing him to the characters. As I expected, he loved pointing to the pictures of Sajid and interacting with them in his own language.
But there’s another chapter in my Oxford Story. It’s one that I experienced as a teacher at a charitable, religious school in Karachi which teaches students right from nursery to Matric (secondary school).
Despite having no formal teaching experience before I started working there, I knew something was very wrong on my first day as I observed an English lesson that was being taught in Urdu. I expected every teacher to be like my mother, floating around the room and acting out each character in the stories. Instead, the teacher was just monotonously narrating an excerpt from Oxford Reading Circle to a disengaged class of students.
She read the text from cover to cover, simultaneously translating it into Urdu, without interacting with the students. She then wrote down a set of questions and their answers for the students to copy down. It was rote memorisation at its worst. When asked about the meaning of the words in the book or what they had written down, blank expressions were etched on the students’ faces before finally admitting that they had doubts about the meanings of words.
I remember feeling so disheartened as I didn’t have the skills to change things. That’s when I started visiting the OUP Karachi Office every Saturday for their weekly, free professional development sessions. I learnt so much there about teaching techniques for second languages, how pictures and actions can help build vocabulary, the need to engage students by surrounding them with learning materials, and the importance of encouraging students to answer questions. All the OUP Pakistan (OUPP) trainers were so encouraging and the teaching guides they shared with me were invaluable too!
I started to implement what I was learning at my school, but I was surprised to see that the children were still bored in class. The principal and I finally settled on Broadway, Oxford Reading Tree (ORT), and New Progress English Readers for grades across the school - in some instances it took a while to see results, but it was so gratifying to see students start to enjoy reading and learning. For example, the activities in Broadway encouraged them to read which boosted their writing, while the listening sessions helped their speaking skills. The teaching techniques I picked up at OUPP also helped students learn synonyms. Over time, I could also see the change in the sentences the children were writing.
I had previously noticed how students were only comfortable using a single adjective ‘beautiful’ and only felt confident writing simple sentences such as: ‘This is my school. This is my beautiful teacher. I love my school and teacher’.
In addition to this, students were enjoying the images in the ORT and asking questions about the objects in the books. Not only did they learn more words, but they also became more inquisitive learners and confident speakers as they finally felt like a part of the lesson. Later on, I also introduced Urdu Silsila in the lower grades of my school and it was wonderful to see children asking the same questions that I had as a student!
Looking back, I realise that Oxford’s titles have been a key part of my childhood. I’m so pleased that I’ve helped make sure they’re a part of my son and other children’s lives too.