Teachable versus Unteachable Materials; Two Examples of English for Military Purposes
by Neil McBeath


The following paper is not original work. It has been compiled from papers that I have presented at different conferences, from papers that I have published and from papers that are awaiting publication (McBeath 2005a; 2005b; 2006a; 2006b; 2006c; 2006d; 2007a; 2007b; 2007c; Forthcoming a; Forthcoming b)

From January 1981 to June 2005, I served as a uniformed education officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman. Although I say it myself, I was an extremely good officer. At any rate, I was good enough to be the only British education officer to receive the WKhM (Wissam al Khidma al Mumtazza – Distinguished Service Medal) from His Majesty the Sultan. The criteria for such an award are “outstanding service and devotion to duty over an extended period of time.” I left Oman because of threats I received from the British civilian in charge of the Curriculum Development Cell – the man responsible for the IT backup for the RAFO Target course.

I mention this because I do not want to give the impression that this paper is simply a hatchet job on former colleagues. The points I am making, the failures and shortcomings that I expose, have an academic legitimacy. The fact that so many different academic fora have been prepared to publish my accounts is, I think, indication of the fact that my concerns are genuine, and that they resonate with other practitioners.


I would like to start with a quotation:-

“There are certain truths which stand out so openly on the roadsides of life, as it were, that every passer-by may see them. Yet, because of their very obviousness, the general runoff people disregard such truths, or at least they do not make them the object of conscious knowledge. People are so blind to some of the simplest facts of everyday life that they are highly surprised when somebody calls attention to what everybody ought to know.” (Hitler 1925/1939; 238).

The above quotation is contentious, more because of its source than because of what it actually says. Since 1945, it has become academically impossible to suggest that Adolf Hitler was ever right about anything, but the essential truth of this quotation is so self evident as to need no defence. In this paper, I intend to examine some obvious truths, some simple facts of everyday life, and explain how these impinge on the Royal Saudi Air Force English Course, and the Royal Air Force of Oman’s Target course.

Fact One:- Both these courses are designed for serving members of the armed forces in AGCC states.

Fact Two:- The armed forces, in any country, form their own discourse community.

Fact Three:- When we teach the language used by any specific discourse community, we are teaching language for specific purposes.

English for Specific Purposes.

In February 2006 I gave a paper at the Fourth TESOL Arabia ESP SIG Conference, which was held at the University of Sharjah. The paper was entitled “ESP is NOT TENOR Plus.” ESP means English for Specific Purposes, and TENOR is Abbott and Wingard’s (1983) term for the Teaching of English for No Obvious Reason. I believe that ESP and TENOR are at opposite ends of the English Language Teaching continuum.

Somewhere along that continuum lies General English – always open to the charge that it is either too specific or not nearly specific enough to be of use to any particular group of students. Reda (2003) has pointed out that most General English courses are, in fact, based around anything up to 24 principal topic areas, and that the term should more accurately be English for Limited Purposes, but I would suggest that this separation of ESP, General English and TENOR helps to explain some of the negativity to which Costley (2007) refers.

Cozens (2006; 7) states that “some teachers would argue that there is, indeed, no need for ESP, and that all language needs can be taught through ….. a general language programme.” Mellor-Clarke (2006; 46) points out that “In LSP teaching, some teachers may feel threatened by dealing with specialist ‘content’ in the classroom.”

Assuming this is true, it would go a long way to explaining comments like “I don’t see why I should know about military ranks”, and “My brother’s an engineer, and he’s never had to describe a screwdriver” with regard to the RSAF English course materials.

I say explain, but not excuse. In the fist instance, teachers may not need to know about military ranks, but if they are teaching service personnel, then their students must master this information. The second objection misses the point completely. Native-speaking brothers, be they engineers or anything else, can be assumed to be conversant with what Hutchinson and Waters (1979; 7) describe as the lexis of “popular technology”. RSAF cadets will also be familiar with the concepts of “popular technology”, but they will only be able to express them in Arabic. This dichotomy can be resolved if teachers follow Bell’s (2006; 36) advice and “adapt their teaching to suit the context in which their students are studying and approach the teaching of specialized vocabulary accordingly.”

The RSAF English Course

And that is exactly what the RSAF English Course attempts to do. The RSAF course is quintessential ESP. It is written for a single group of learners, working in a single institution – the School of English Language at the Technical Studies Insitute in Dhahran. It was designed to replace the American Language Course, which was culturally inappropriate (Al Ghamdi 1989), and it has done so very successfully. Lanteigne (2007; 141) reminds us that “Regional culture and target language needs cannot be ignored in language teaching”, and the RSAF course has been able to fuse the general Islamic culture of Saudi Arabia with the specific discourse needs of the Royal Saudi Air Force.

The writers of these materials work as a team, and they have broadly followed the practice outlined by Viney (2006). Many of them have had recent classroom experience, and they liaise closely with the English teachers in the TSI. The materials are trialled both independently, and in “whole book” form before being finalized. This is in accordance with best practice, as outlined by Richards (2005) and Al Mahrooqi (2007).

Feedback from teachers is encouraged, and while it has to be admitted that some teachers are frequently negative, trialling catches most of the typographical errors, mis-numberings and infelicities that can occur in the course of compiling any long work.

RAFO Target .

The RAFO course, Target, by contrast, claims to be “The Sultan’s Armed Forces General English Course”, immediately raising the question of whether it is possible to have a General English course for such a specific purpose.

Target is written by personnel working for the Royal Air Force of Oman, but it is taught in seven different centres, five of which are exclusive to the Royal Army of Oman. This raises a second contradiction.

Target was written to replace an increasingly dated in-house course called SAF English, which had itself replaced English Right from the Start (Hore and Hore; 1982) The SAF English course superficially resembled the current RSAF English course, in as much as it was obviously a local, in-house production. Target, by contrast, emulates the products of major publishing houses. It is drenched in colour, and printed on thick, glossy art paper.

The Target writers, moreover, are quite open in their ambitious claims for the course. Target is taught

“not only to the servicemen and women of the Sultan’s Armed Forces, but also to various members of the Royal Guard of Oman; the Sultan’s Special Forces; Internal Security Service; the Royal Yacht Squadron; the Royal Oman Police, and the Diwan of the Royal Court.

Target has three levels, bringing the learner up to the first level of the Royal Society of Arts/University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (RSA/UCLES). This level is examined by the Key English Test or KET” (Student’s Book Level Three P. i)

This sounds very impressive, but much of it is window dressing. It is mere speculation that the Target course brings learners up to KET level. No Omani personnel have ever been entered for KET after finishing the current Target series, and I believe that the RAFO Directorate of Education and Military Culture might be wise not to make such an experiment. I feel the results might come as a very nasty surprise.

Certainly the reference to servicewomen of the Sultan’s Armed Forces overstates the case. In reality this means a small group of RAFO military policewomen, and the female flight attendants on the RAFO BAC 111s.

There is no reference in any of the Target coursebooks to either the Internal Security Service or the Diwan of the Royal Court.

The Royal Yacht Squadron only appears once (Level One Workbook P. 17) when students have to copy the letters “RYS” twice. The Royal Guard of Oman and the Sultan’s Special Forces only appear in a list of acronyms that have to be placed in alphabetical order (Level One Workbook P. 17).

One reason for this disparity between claim and reality is that there are only three Target writers, one of whom has absolutely no experience of teaching SAF personnel at any level. Neither of the others has taught since at least the year 2000.

Trialing of the materials is limited. Target Level One thanks, by name, the two teachers who trialed the material, but neither of them is now in the Sultanate. The first was critical of some of the material. He was then the victim of denigrating comments about his teaching ability, and he resigned after he was denied an internal promotion. The second teacher was dismissed.

I do not know how many people trialed Target Level Two, but in January 2005, Target Level Three was being trialed by one teacher who was working at the Sultan of Oman’s Armour. In April this year, the Omani English Language teacher who was serving with the Armour Brigade described Target Level Three as “unteachable”.


Comparisons and Contrasts.

As we have seen, the RSAF course material is aimed at one specific group of learners, and the materials frequently extend and reinforce each other. This can be seen from the way in which the course exploits maps, which are effectively authentic materials.

Allwright (1977; 5) takes the purist view that “no materials, published or unpublished, naturally conceived or designed as materials for language learning” should ever be presented to students. In ESP, authenticity is all. Allwright would therefore probably approve of the use that the RSAF course makes of maps.

In Book 1, Module 3 (P. 61) they are used to teach directions and regions – Northern Region, Eastern Region, Central Region – and these allow RSAF cadets to activate knowledge about their own home areas. In Book 2, Module 1 the cadets are given maps which show the distances between the principal towns and cities of the Kingdom. This allows them to calculate the distances that are relevant to their own journeys and those of their classmates. It is only when that personal information has been established that they move on to a map that indicates the locations of the Kingdom’s principal airports (Book 3, Module 4, P. 20).

So far as Target is concerned, Student’s Book Level One offers a map of the Arabian peninsula, plus Turkey, Egypt and Iran (P. 66). The illustrator, however, has opted for a map which views the peninsula from a diagonal angle, looking north east from some point south west of Aden. It is as if one were looking at the region from a satellite somewhere above the secessionist state of Somaliland.

At the same time, Egypt has been revolved so that its border with Libya now seems to touch the Aegean coast of Turkey. Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, being to scale, are so small as to be invisible, and the writers have turned the entire exercise into a magazine’s general knowledge activity, printing the answers upside down at the bottom of the page.

In the same book (P. 171) there is a map of the Sultanate that is, frankly, wrong. The instruction here is “Look at the map and the key. How many cities are there?”

If the map is to be believed, then Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE, and Dubai is another city. Sharjah, Ajman and Al Ain have disappeared. Oman has no capital city, and the only city in the Sultanate is Salalah. Muscat and Seeb, which in reality form the Capital Area in Oman, are separated and downgraded in status to towns. By contrast, the oil drilling station of Fahud, and the very small coastal village of Al Ashkara have their status enhanced, and are upgraded to towns. Finally, the principal base of the Royal Navy of Oman at Wudam is also shown as a town.

To add to this confusion, the accompanying gap-fill exercise (P. 172) states that “Seeb is a city in the ……. of Oman”, while a second exercise asks students to name “A city about 200 km south west of Muscat”. Quite clearly, the intended answer is Nizwa, but according to the map, Nizwa is only a town.

In short, this exercise is a disaster. The writers’ own proof reading (or lack of proof-reading) has destroyed what could have been promising material.

Micic (2005; 5) declares that “The ESP teacher should not become a teacher of subject matter, but rather an interested student of the subject matter.” The Target writers, however, demonstrate that they have so little interest in their subject matter that they are capable of making gross errors about the basic geography of the Sultanate.

What makes this worse is that the information is freely available and easy to access (Ministry of Information 2005; 2006). One of the Target writers actually worked at RNO Wudam for several years. He seems to have been so unobservant that he failed to notice that Wudam al Sahil was the name of the village just south of the perimeter wall, and that the larger village on the main highway to Muscat (some 3 km from the camp) was called Thirmid.

Barlow and Floyd’s research (1998) indicates that there are certain topics that Arab Gulf students find sensitive or offensive. To a certain extent, their findings are supported by Sellami (2005) who points out the importance that Arabs accord to “respect, honour and loyalty” (P. 81). These qualities are also encouraged in military culture. For an Arab serviceman, there can hardly be a greater disincentive to learn than the presentation of materials that display a cavalier disregard for facts, and information that could be regarded as disrespectful to his tribal territory.

A worse instance, however, is to come. The Target Level Two Workbook presents students with a map of the area around Raleigh, North Carolina. (P. 71). The students have to read six sets of directions, follow the map and write in their destinations.

Maps of the USA could be relevant to SAF personnel. RAFO send personnel to the Lackland Air Force Base at San Antonio in Texas. RAFO Specialist Vehicle Sub-section personnel go to Oshkosh, Wisconsin for training on fire tenders. Fort Lee in Virginia offers an Ordnance Quartermaster course for ordnance personnel from the Royal Army of Oman. Savannah, Illinois has trained RAO ordnance personnel working with guided missiles. The Sultan of Oman’s Armour has sent personnel on courses at Fort Bragg, in Georgia. The RNO has paid courtesy visits to Boston, Massachusetts, New York City and Baltimore, Maryland.

No SAF personnel, however, have ever been sent to Raleigh, North Carolina. The only reason that this map appears is that the Target illustrator comes from that area. His family has hog farms there.

And this brings me to the nub of my argument. The real difference between the RSAF English course and the RAFO Target course is that the RSAF course has never lost sight of its final goal. The RAFO team, by contrast, have been allowed to treat their intended audience with contempt, and have produced self-indulgent, over illustrated, partially plagiarized, frequently irrelevant materials, shove them together, and call them a course. This may seem like a harsh judgement, but I shall prove each point.



We have already seen how the RSAF course uses a series of maps to work through schemata of increasing sophistication. Compare this with Target. In Oman, schoolchildren begin to study English in Class 4, a full three years before their Saudi counterparts (Issan – No Date). Even so, Target Level One devotes 5 pages of the Student’s Book and 13 pages of the Workbook to the formation of letters. The Target Two Workbook contains a further 9 pages on the same topic. There is no progression here. This is simply repetition, and irrelevant and pointless repetition at that.

If Target One students could not form letters, they would never have matriculated from Secondary School. If Target Two students could not form letters, they would never have passed Target One.

Equally irrelevant and pointless, but for different reasons, is the following activity, which is based around a reading passage.

The Wilson Family are having a holiday is Spain at the moment. They aren’t staying in a hotel. They are camping in the mountains. Right now Mr. Wilson is playing cards with a friend and Mrs. Wilson is taking photographs. The children are Lucy and Mathew. Lucy is riding her bike and Mathew is fishing in a river near the campsite.

The students are required to use the information in the text to complete a “Family Holiday Information Form”, which appears to have been developed by a surveillance agency. It lists Family name; Number of family members; Number of children in the family: Holiday location and Activities.

Clearly, the intention behind this exercise is to provide practice in information transfer, but why this type of material should engage the attention of learners from the Omani Armed Forces is VERY open to question. In Candlin’s (1972) New Age English Course, the stereotypical Brown family was designed to provide a central focus. Students were supposed to follow their increasingly atypical activities and learn something about British life and institutions along with the language.

The Wilsons, however, violate the expectations of even that, dated, approach. They emerge from nowhere and are never heard of again. All we ever know of them is that they are camping in some bizarre location that requires their every activity to be logged.

Here then, we can see a concrete case of what Dat (2003; 388) describes, showing “how learner identity may be denied. Experienced teachers have seen how adult learners sometimes feel embarrassed by the childish content of many activities that treat them like a group of unintelligent people. For example, instead of being guided to discuss dealing with stress in workplaces or issues of more personal and mature concern, they are made to talk about the impersonal ‘fictitious Robinson family with a stupid dog and two boring children’ (expression from Allwright and Bailey 1991; 162)”. For Robinson, read Wilson, and Dat, Allwright and Bailey have hit the nail on the head.


I have not come across any direct instances of plagiarism in the RSAF English course. There are materials that are similar to those that appear in other texts, like the “How to change a car wheel” exercise in Book One, Module 3 (Pp. 56-57) but that is an extension of the entirely original “How to change an electric plug” (Pp. 54-55)

The Target course, by contrast is driven by the illustrator’s belief that “there are no new textbooks”, a mantra he repeated frequently in the course of a meeting held on January 30 th, 2005. Weidenhaupt (1982; 77) reminds us “Maintain something boldly enough, and some mud will stick”. The illustrator’s belief appears to have given the Target team carte blanche to raid the library.

Target Two, for example, has its own “How to change a car wheel” (Pp. 96-97). This exercise is directly plagiarized from Jupp and Milne (1980; 44-48) but Jupp and Milne’s original is better. Their introductory section on tools, the work on phrasal verbs and the exercise on opposites are all ignored, and Target Two simply requires students to sequence instructions. The illustrations, moreover, show an Omani civilian changing a wheel, when a figure in uniform would have given the exercise more face validity.

Other material has been plagiarized from Hore and Hore (1982 ) in Target One, Hartley and Viney (1978; 1979), and Rost (1986) in Target Two, and Target Three has taken material from the internet.

“RNOV Shabab Oman is one of the worlds tallest ships and she often takes part in the Round the World Tall Ships Race” (P. 14). She isn’t, and she doesn’t.

This is part of a passage that has been downloaded, with little understanding, from two or three different websites. The first clause comes from an incorrect Wikipedia entry, and later information has been taken from either the Omani Ministry of Information’s website or the more general Omani heritage website NizwaNet. This passage is therefore an example of what Unissa (2006; 85) describes as “cut and paste” plagiarism.

The problem is that Shabab Oman is not one of the world’s tallest ships. That title would probably go to a Caribbean cruise liner, a bulk container or a container carrier. Shabab Oman is a Tall Ship, a specific type of sailing vessel (NOT a yacht) that is crewed by either young people who are volunteers or who have been engaged for a single voyage as a type of adventure training.

Even among Tall Ships, Shabab Oman is not particularly large. She is dwarfed by similar vessels from Holland and Russia. Her main claim to fame is that she is the Arab World’s only Tall Ship. She has never taken part in the Round the World Tall Ships Race because there is no such contest. Shabab Oman has won the Tall Ships Friendship trophy four times in succession, and the last Tall Ships Race began in Waterford, Ireland, and finished in Frederikstad in Norway.

Plagiarism from the internet is a major problem in Arab Gulf universities. Paper after paper has been devoted to this problem at TESOL Arabia and other Gulf ELT Conferences (Birks; Hunt; Mandalios and Remondi 2001; Birks; Hunt and Mandalios 2003; McBeath 2004; Owen 2006/2007; Kershaw 2007). It is deeply depressing to see supposed professional people, who are being paid to produce original material, choosing to behave in ways that would be penalized if they were undergraduate students.


Over illustration

The Shabab Oman passage, like so much of the Target series, is beautifully illustrated, almost to the extent that the image of a fully rigged Tall Ship swamps the text. To be fair, Target One broadly avoids this trap. There is an illustration of pool balls (P. 4) that purports to teach numbers, but that is all.

Target Two and Target three are less restrained. In Target Two, some tourist information about Salalah (Pp. 99-100) is superimposed on two identical pastel silhouette backgrounds that add nothing to the students’ understanding, while in Target Three’s information on the Sultan’s Armed Forces (Pp. 28-30) the illustrations of Service Emblems positively distract from the task. The Sultanic crowns at the top of the page almost obliterate the instructions.

Self Indulgence

The very next page in Target Three (P. 31) offers a particularly graphic instance of self-indulgence. Under the guise of teaching military vocabulary, the Target illustrator has slipped in his own medals, forgetting that these are medals that could only be worn by an expatriate civilian. No Omani, and certainly no Omani service personnel, could ever wear these medals. The page also shows an Omani lance-corporal, who has no relevance to the activity, and who is incorrectly dressed. The sole medal ribbon he wears is that of the Thirtieth Anniversary Medal, and while the illustrator has made sure that his own Thirty Fifth Anniversary Medal is shown, he has not bothered to update any other medal ribbons.

This is not the only instance of self-indulgence in the Target course. Reference has already been made to the maps of North Carolina that appear in Target Two, but in Target One, there are several pages devoted to boxing (Pp. 57-59) where sport-specific lexis – bout; round; loses; champion – is introduced.

The RSAF English course contains elements on sport, but is careful to list only sports with which RSAF cadets are known to be familiar. Boxing is not one of those sports. Kerr and Davidson (2006) cite Ros (2005) who offers a list of international sporting events that take place in the Arab Gulf. Again, boxing is not mentioned.

I asked the writer of these materials why she had chosen to include this material. I was told that her father used to box for the British army.

Filial piety is hardly an excuse for presenting learners with activities in which neither they nor their societies have demonstrated any interest. At best it is failing to “take into account the socio-cultural features of the region where the coursebook is to be used” (Lopez Barrios and Villanueva de Debat 2006; 14). At worst, it “results in an unfavourable assessment of the students’ own culture and glorification of the foreign one” (Lopez Barrios 2003). Bolitho (2005; 18) makes much the same point, stating that “people do not take kindly to the implication that we necessarily have something better to offer”, particularly when that something is the primitive spectacle of two men trying to beat each other senseless.


I would like to finish with another quotation. This comes from the Target course illustrator, who, in the course of a meeting on January 30 th, 2005, opined the following:-

“All you can do is teach them how to change a car wheel, how to make a cup of tea, and how to pick their noses.”

This opinion is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it was designed as a counter-argument to my assertion that the “How to change a car wheel” exercise had been plagiarized from Jupp and Milne. The logic behind this riposte was that only a limited number of schemata were available, so I was making a fuss about a co-incidence.

Unfortunately, the man’s own examples tell against him. Changing a car wheel and making a cup of tea are precisely the examples used by Jupp and Milne. Their work was originally plagiarized in the old SAF English course, and when Target was being written, the development team simply lifted the exercise from the previous material, ignoring its history.

Secondly, this quotation takes us back to the concerns of Cozens, Micic and Dat. The speaker has really missed the entire point of his plagiarized materials. These exercises were not written to teach SAF personnel or any other group of students how to change car wheels or how to make cups of tea. They were chosen because there was every chance that adult, or young adult, students would be fully conversant with both processes.

The purpose of ESP materials is not to teach content, but to teach how English can be used to express content. In this case, we are concerned with the use of the imperative mood in written, non-face threatening instructions.

Thirdly, of course, this quotation reveals a breathtaking contempt for the Target audience.

Or, more exactly, for what the Target course claims is its audience “the servicemen and women of the Sultan’s Armed Forces”.

Here, I think, is the main difference between the RSAF English course and Target.

The RSAF English course is primarily designed for the RSAF cadets in the TSI. The Target course, by contrast, is designed to appeal to other stakeholders in the educational process. The heavy art paper; the mass of illustrations; the lack of white space are all designed to impress senior officers in the Sultan’s Armed Forces; senior officers who will never have to teach the course, but who can be persuaded that because a course looks professional, it is professional.

In fact, Target is a triumph of style of substance. The project was misconceived from the beginning. It was entrusted to people who were more concerned with promoting themselves and their own interests than they were with serving Oman or the Sultan’s Armed Forces. The course has always promised a great deal, but it has never delivered much. The Omani trying to teach this course at the Armour Brigade has summed it up in one word – “unteachable”.

And unteachable materials are useless materials.


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Neil McBeath worked for twenty four and a half years as a uniformed officer in the Royal Air Force of Oman. During that time, he taught EFL, ESP and English for Military Purposes (EMP). He declined to renew contract in June 2005, and took at two year contract with BAE Systems, teaching at the School of English Language, Technical Studies Institute, Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has now returned to Oman, and teaches at Language Centre of the Sultan Qaboos University.


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