September 2013
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Kendra Johnson, Rollie Lewis, & Florin M. Mihai

Kendra Johnson

Rollie Lewis

Florin M. Mihai

Background Information

In 2005, there were 2,500 Saudi students studying in the United States. In 2013, a report available from has put the number of Saudis studying in the United States at 71,000. A large number of these students are women studying at intensive English programs (IEPs) around the country, creating the need for instructors and administrators to understand these students’ cultural and educational needs.

Because of the increasing number of Saudi women studying at our IEP, we wanted to explore the unique experiences of these females. We focused our attention on the challenges Saudi female students faced as ESL students as a result of their transition to a country with drastically different laws, customs, language, and even dress from their own.

In Saudi Arabia, sexual segregation is an integral part of the education system. At age 9, girls are made to wear a veil in public and attend female-only schools. Both administration and faculty at girls’ schools are composed only of women (Al-Hariri, 1987). Male teachers cannot work in female schools, and females cannot teach in male schools. If there are not enough female teachers, students are taught by male faculty via closed-circuit television (El-Sanabary, 1994).

Before Saudi universities began accepting females, many women studied abroad, and many still go abroad to study fields that are inaccessible to them at Saudi schools, such as journalism and aviation (Hamdan, 2005).

Participants and Characteristics

To identify some of the challenges Saudi women faced as ESL students, we conducted several interviews at an IEP affiliated with a large university in the Southeast. We wanted to interview women who had been in the United States for less than a year so that their first impressions would still be fresh in their minds. Another criterion was that the women be at an intermediate or higher level in their listening skills to ensure that they would understand the interview questions. Based on these criteria, we identified and interviewed four women, whose profiles are listed here.


Aamina was a 33-year-old single woman from Jeddah. She had been in the United States for 4 months and studying at the IEP for about 2 months. She had certificates in computer study and English from a Saudi Arabian institute. She had attended 2 years of college in Saudi Arabia and wanted to complete her bachelor's degree in the United States. She said that improving her English skills would provide more opportunities and improve her chances of finding work.


Sanaa was a 27-year-old woman from Jeddah. She had been in the United States for about 11 months, and she attended an IEP in another city before coming to this IEP 5 months previously. She had a bachelor's degree in art, and she had worked in customer service. She was studying English in the United States because she wanted to get her master's degree, possibly in photography, so she could find good employment in Saudi Arabia. She had been married for 3 months, but since her husband was in Saudi Arabia, she lived with her brother and his family in the United States.


Taja was a 24-year-old woman from Medina. She had studied at this IEP for 3 months, prior to which she spent 9 months studying in another U.S. city. She had obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology in Saudi Arabia before coming to the United States. She was studying in the United States because she wanted to get her master’s degree in psychology. She was single, lived alone, and had no relatives in her city.


Zahra was a woman in her mid 30s from Riyadh. She moved to the United States nine months prior to beginning her studying at the IEP. Before coming to the United States, she had worked as a chemistry lecturer. She was studying in the United States because her employer wanted her to begin teaching chemistry in English. She planned to get her PhD in education in the United States at her employer’s request. Zahra had been married for 11 years, and she had two children under the age of 10.

Self-Reported Challenges

Pace of Instruction

Taja said that the grammar teachers moved through the material too quickly:

I hate grammar....because I can’t understand quickly in grammar. I need a lot of time. Sometimes teachers explain two units or three units in 5 minutes. Ok, [not all students can] understand in the same way. Maybe I understand quickly. My friends not quickly...I don’t like.

However, Taja thought she would like grammar if the teacher would slow down. Sanaa said she did not understand anything in her first class in the United States because the teacher spoke fast. She said she felt very bad about this because she thought that she knew a bit of English before leaving her country, but when she arrived in the United States she felt that she did not know anything.

Academic Policies

Another common challenge revolved around the discovery of certain academic rules that vary between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Taja disliked the tardiness policy of her classes in the United States, which she said was much stricter than the tardiness policy in Saudi Arabia. She was penalized in the United States if she was more than 5 minutes late, while teachers give leeway for up to 15 minutes in Saudi Arabia.

Aamina had also suffered because of differences in academic policies. She explained a case where she received a bad grade in her writing class because she was unaware that it is not acceptable to use material from the Internet without providing a source.

"I took one sentence from Internet and [the teacher] doesn't tell me until...the last day we have the final test," she said. "And he come at the lab and he told me, 'You stole some sentence from the Internet and you didn't tell me.' I tell him, 'Why didn't tell me before this day? Today is the final exam. You have to tell me before, not today.'"

Aamina explained that taking a sentence from the Internet for an assignment in a Saudi Arabian classroom would not be a problem. She said this particular interaction with the American teacher was the first time she had heard that it was not acceptable to take material directly from the Internet without citing the source.

Working With Male Students

Zahra said that she was nervous before starting her classes in the IEP because she was afraid that her teachers would not understand her culture and would require her to work with male students. She discussed this possibility with friends and prayed about what to do. But upon her arrival she found that she had no need to worry because her teachers helped her by allowing her to work with other female students.

Possible Solutions

While two of the women said that it was beneficial for Saudi women to work with men in the ESL classroom in order to prepare them for university work, three of the women agreed that they should not be forced to work with men if they do not want to. Depending on the beliefs of the students, working with men may violate their religious values; requiring them to do so has the potential to anger them or cause anxiety. In light of this, ESL teachers in a preacademic program could encourage their female Saudi students to work with men by explaining that working with males prepares them for the American university system. Ultimately, teachers should leave the decision in the hands of the students themselves and remember that each Saudi woman is an individual with a set of values and should be treated as such.

Comprehension checking and allowing time for practicing language before moving on to the next concept are essential. Additionally, ESL teachers should define expectations and rules clearly with the knowledge that norms concerning academic behavior and rhetoric are not universal.


All of the women found their ESL classes and life in the United States to be as they expected. The features of ESL classes that proved most challenging to the women pertained to variations in academic policy between the Saudi and American educational systems, such as the strict adherence to the tardy policy, the speed of academic instruction, and the severity of committing plagiarism.

While attending coed classes is challenging on some level, the extent to which it is an issue varies greatly depending on the personality, life experience, and the religious values of the individual woman. Saudi women may feel uncomfortable in class with men for several reasons, ranging from a fear of being ridiculed by male Saudi classmates to the belief that male/female integration violates the teachings of the Quran, which one participant explained forbids integration in order to prevent students’ minds from straying from their work. Previous experience working with men in a professional environment can ease some of this discomfort. However, the importance of the unique personality of each individual woman should not be underestimated; discomfort provoked by any of these factors can be compounded by such personality trait as shyness and inflexibility or alleviated by assertiveness and confidence.


Al-Hariri, R. (1987). Islam’s point of view on women’s education in Saudi Arabia. Comparative Education, 23(1), 51–57.

El-Sanabary, N. (1994). Female education in Saudi Arabia and the reproduction of gender division. Gender and Education, 6(2), 141–151.

Hamdan, A. (2005). Women and education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and achievements. International Education Journal, 6(1), 42–64.

Kendra Johnson is an ESL instructor at Seoul National University of Science and Technology in Seoul, Korea.

Rollie Lewis is an ESL instructor at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.

Florin Mihaiis an associate professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida.

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