01 May 2012

Easing out the enigma about interactive English

This post refers to a newspaper article (published last month) and Tamilnadu Government’s move to include English medium sections in all schools, which is a welcome one in today’s global scenario.

As the writer rightly states, there are two reasons for the shallow level of English language teaching in Government and Corporation Schools: (i) Insufficient exposure of children to the language and (ii) Lack of appropriate teacher development programmes.

I think that this state of affairs is not only confined to Government and Corporation Schools but also to many Private Schools (including so called `International Schools’).

I know of many schools which use educational technology in their ELT programmes. If we monitor the language used by students in such schools, we can easily find that though they `seem' to be fluent, their English is grammatically incorrect. Any experienced professional would know that effective teacher development programmes which can train teachers to use technology in a user-friendly manner  are more important than educational technology itself, however expensive it may be. In today's digital context there is an imminent need to get children and teachers exposed to positive aspects of computers. If we look from this angle, there are numerous ways in which schools can implement very cost effective computer assisted classroom strategies.

It is very normal for primary school children coming from non-English speaking homes to be deficient in all the four English language skills. Usually these children are asked to speak or write on `My school', `My home', `My garden' etc. In one of the schools where I worked, I liked to break convention by advising my English teaching colleauges to ask them to let their children speak or write a paragraph or so on their `favourite snack' instead of `My school' etc. My colleagues never expected this from me and some were very sckepical. As usual, I assured them that such a non-conventional strategy would go a long way toward the right objective, they accepted it half-heartedly. Once they tried it in their classrooms,  they became overwhelmingly convinced that the strategy worked. Now they realised the immense potential of child friendly approaches in the classroom.

Well, coming back to the issue, it is not difficult to solve the problem by implementing following school based interventions at the lower primary level (Standards 1 to 3):

1. As English textbooks can make use of Environmental Science content in their lessons, we can remove Environmental Studies from the curriculum and replace the subject by English (This will remove the current disparity found in English and EVS textbooks: the former containing simple sentences and the latter, long and complex sentences). This will also automatically increase exposure time for children to interact in English. (I tried this strategy at a K-12 school in Chennai in 2004-05).

2. Instead of simply treating English as a curricular subject, teachers can be trained to handle their classes informally with English as the communicational medium. Research evidences have clearly proved that children learn more effectively in informal settings. While it is important for teachers to be `trained to teach’ English, it is more important for them to speak, read and write good English. (Whenever school managements asked me to conduct `spoken English classes' to teachers, I had explained to  them as how it would not work, and how we can motivate teachers in a better manner by providing them with good audiovisual  resources such as BBC World Service TV and good English language movies besides good books in print).

In countries like Bhutan, English is the communicational medium right from LKG, given the fact that children from rural households know no other language except their mother tongue. By the time these children reach middle school, they communicate well in English. The main  reason for this is that teachers need to speak in English among themselves, let alone with students.

In Cambodian Government schools, children do not study subjects across the curriculum in English. Besides, in remote regions such  as Rattanakiri, exposure to Engish is very limited due to marginal tourism (unlike in Phnom Penh, Siem Riep etc). Obviously, children from such regions suffer a linguistic setback as far as English is concerned. When I was working in Cambodia, NGOs and the Governnment initiated an interesting pilot project: English was introduced into the curricular content in a gradually  increasing manner from Grade 1. My colleagues told me that the project began to show desirable results.

I think that our Departments of Education should try to adapt best practices from around the world when designing and developing programmes. Sometimes it is effective to think  globally and act locally.

Most importantly, these ideas can take shape effectively only if school managements can wait for impact. Oddly enough, from my experience of having worked in schools, most schools don't have the patience to wait for impact.

Hence the first step in the right direction would be for school managements (ultimate decision makers in our Indian scenario) to view these issues from pedagogic points of view and take a non-conventional approach (i) as advised by competent principals who have actually tried innovations with success or (ii) as evidenced by educational research worldwide.

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About Me

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Chennai, Tamilnadu, India
I am a K-12 Education Management Professional turned freelance Education writer. I have worked at different levels in K-12 school systems, textbook publishing, elearning and Education NGOs. I have held memberships in The Association for Science Education (UK), American Association of Physics Teachers and The Malaysian Institute of Physics. I hold a 1st class B Sc Degree in Physics followed by B Ed [English and Physical Science] and M A [Childcare and Education] degrees. My published works include 59 articles in teacher development magazines in India and the US and a book entitled `Creative Classrooms and Child Friendly Schools' (listed in Amazon). This book is almost an anecdotal account of my professional experience in six countries (including Cambodia where I worked as Technical Adviser to the Ministry of Education, Youth And Sports). I served as mentor in the Certificate of Teaching Mastery Program offered by Teachers Without Borders.