Editor’s note: In this piece, TIRF Trustee Michael Carrier provides an account of his latest consulting work in two African countries and shares his thoughts on how such nations may be able to better meet their English language education needs.

It is a privilege to meet ELT professionals in other countries and have an opportunity to learn about their systems, their challenges, and their concerns – and perhaps contribute a little to the development of English teaching in those locations.

I have just completed a very interesting project in Africa on the teaching of Vocational English (VE). VE is the English that young people need to learn in order to acquire a technical or professional qualification and carry out a particular profession or vocation. There seems to be a problem in many places around the world that relates to a discrepancy between the needs of the workplace and the skills of those preparing to find a job.

It seems there is a disconnect between what employers say they need, in terms of the English language skills required to hire young people for a specific job, and what students learn in secondary and vocational school. In other words, there is a mismatch between the type of language contexts and skills that are emphasized in the class, compared with the language needed to perform a particular job.

In order to discover the reasons for the unsatisfactory student learning outcomes and the low language proficiency of school graduates, Highdale Consulting was tasked with writing a series of reports on the situation of vocational English teaching. This work entailed conducting background research online and a literature review of English in TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) in the region, as well as a series of visits to observe classes, meet stakeholders, and analyse the English teaching system and policies. The team from Highdale Consulting (Michael Carrier and Barry Tomalin, formerly of BBC English by Radio) interviewed a wide range of officials, teachers, students, and employers.

This research was carried out to discover what factors were contributing to this disconnect between language needed and language learned, but most importantly what could be done about it.

The employers emphasized that English is indispensable for the working world – for drivers and technicians, for salespeople and back-office staff, for customer-facing staff. But a lack of English skills is holding young people back from the opportunities that they need and deserve.

Employers report that they are frustrated that young recruits may understand some grammar, but cannot speak confidently to customers or colleagues, and cannot write emails or read technical manuals sufficiently. One hotel manager told me that he had to reject 95% of the applicants from his own country because of poor English skills, and therefore had to recruit from abroad. It is especially discouraging since both countries involved in this study have a 50% unemployment rate for their youth (understood usually as those aged 18-30).

We visited two very different countries, but many of the English teaching issues were similar. In each place, the minister and officials explained their concerns. The situation is worrying and the ministers of education are taking decisive action. The reports from Highdale Consulting point out the problems observed and propose a multi-year strategic plan of action to modify the system and achieve higher levels of language proficiency.

Although the reports supplied to the ministers are confidential, there are some uncontentious commonalities in the responses from those we interviewed, especially teachers and students.

There is a huge hunger to learn more English, but the number of hours in class is limited, and many people don’t know how to gain self-study opportunities online. Most young people do have access to the internet (the majority have smartphones), but no one is guiding them to the kind of online practice activities that would expose them to authentic English and help them gain work-related language practice.

What can we learn from this situation?

Firstly, the demand for English is huge, but often schools are teaching the “wrong” English. Ambitious young people need work-related language – not discussions about what you did at the weekend or reading texts about environmental problems.

Secondly, there are a lot of schools, teachers, and students who would like help from specialists in ELT. They would appreciate assistance with curriculum development, with the design of work-specific materials and access to professional development opportunities to help them teach more communicatively than they currently do.

A lot of resources exist in other countries, so why can’t they be shared? Since ministries of education often have financial restrictions, especially in developing and emerging economies, why can’t the English language community find practical ways to share these work-related curriculum and material resources with others at no cost?

Part of the issue is that many ELT specialists believe that all learning resources need to be localized, through expensive writing projects. But is that really the best approach, if the lack of funding means that students and teachers have no resources at all?

In many cases, the resources from a similar country could be of great value to the under-served schools, teachers, and learners. It is my aim to further explore such benefits for under-resourced contexts in my future work.