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Four Ways to Improve Bilingual Education Policy Implementation in the UAE

The UAE has invested heavily in developing a K-12 education system that produces students proficient in both Arabic and English. These bilingual policies – including the Madares Al Ghad program and the New School Model in Abu Dhabi – have seen varying levels of success. Given that stagnant learning outcomes in English have negative implications for Emirati students’ ability to access both employment and government-funded tertiary education, identifying how bilingual education policy implementation can be improved will help enhance students’ academic and career outcomes.

In the spring of 2020, I conducted research on how bilingual education policy was being implemented in government schools in Ras Al Khaimah, focusing on the barriers which teachers were facing in teaching scientific subjects in Grades 10-12 through English Medium Instruction (EMI). The research identified four key ways through which the implementation of bilingual education policy could be improved:

  1. Provide intensive support for students during the transition to English Medium Instruction

Whereas Abu Dhabi implements EMI in technical subjects in Grades 1-3, Ras Al Khaimah implements EMI in technical subjects at a later stage of the education system. This late immersion model has implications for the support that students need when transitioning from Arabic-medium instruction to EMI.

For example, several teachers reported that the need for students to learn complex scientific terminology in English holds the potential to undermine students’ understanding of scientific concepts. Policymakers need to consider ways in which to ease this transition. One example could be integrating scientific vocabulary into EFL curricula at an earlier stage of the education system. EMI teachers could also be encouraged to use Arabic in the classroom when it is essential to student understanding. Such support is crucial for students with weaker academic performance who may find the transition more difficult.

  1. Review the teacher recruitment processes

The research found that the focus on recruiting native English-speaking teachers – in cases where they have limited teaching experience, qualifications, or both – is unlikely to raise students’ learning outcomes in the long term. Candidates with prior teaching experience, particularly in teaching students whose first language is not English, should be prioritized.

Bilingual teachers interviewed as part of the research reported successfully leveraging their bilingualism to support students’ transitions from Arabic Medium Instruction to EMI. Therefore, priority in recruitment should be given to bilingual (English and Arabic) teachers, regardless of whether English is their first language, especially as the policy expands to include more lower-ability students for whom the transition to EMI will be more difficult. When monolingual native English speakers are recruited, basic Arabic training could enable them to better support the transition to EMI.

  1. Update professional development to reflect the needs of the bilingual policy

EMI teachers interviewed in this study reported receiving professional development that was high in frequency but variable in its effectiveness in supporting them to deliver EMI education. Based on their feedback, there are several ways that the professional development given to EMI teachers could better reflect the needs of the bilingual policy.

First, the training provided to foreign teachers upon arrival in the UAE should include a greater emphasis on the pedagogical implications of cultural differences and preparation for the context-specific challenges that teachers are likely to face. Second, ongoing professional development would benefit from a greater focus on EMI environments’ specific needs, including training on the appropriate use of bilingualism to support EMI. A reliance on workshops and seminars is unlikely to effect behavioral change. In contrast, a blended model that combines such approaches with more ongoing and embedded forms like mentoring, coaching, and professional learning communities is likely to be more successful.

  1. Provide teachers with additional support to tackle broader barriers to policy implementation

Implementing a specific policy cannot be detached from the wider educational environment in which it is situated. Successful implementation relies not only on the sound design of the policy itself but on consideration of its broader barriers.

In the case of bilingual education policy in Ras Al Khaimah, this was evident in several interviewees reporting that poor student behavior – particularly in boys’ schools – made implementation of the policy difficult.

To address this issue, EMI teachers may benefit from additional support to tackle student behavioral issues. This support could take the form of professional development relating to classroom management, but it should also encompass the fostering of a school environment in which poor student behavior is considered a structural problem rather than a failing of individual teachers. In addition to improving EMI learning environments, improving behavior in boys’ schools would aid in addressing the persistent gender attainment gap in the UAE.

The full impact of introducing EMI in scientific subjects will not be seen for some time. Still, the teachers interviewed in this study consistently reported that students’ English skills were rapidly improving due to the policy. By translating teacher feedback on the barriers they face in the classroom into policy adaptations, these gains can be increased and sustained so that young people leave school proficient and confident in both English and the sciences.


Alexandra Hall-Chen is an Education Policy Advisor for CBI and a recipient of the Al Qasimi Foundation’s Oxford University Scholars Grant. To find out more about bilingual policy implementation in the UAE, read Alexandra's policy paper "Bilingual Policy Implementation in Ras Al Khaimah."