A workshop on language testing and training for English teachers was conducted recently at Anna University — one of the many initiatives aimed at improving the communication skills of students.

Fluency in English or the lack of it, more or less impacts how students get placed in companies.

Even more so, during college years it touches the raw nerve as many students from rural backgrounds find it difficult to cope with the city atmosphere —poor English further accentuating this crisis of identity.

Asha Dinesh, counsellor, says, “Students from rural backgrounds find it difficult to mix freely with other students and have a tendency to cling to minority language groups.”

“Nevertheless, students need to know that communication is not limited to being fluent in English. Body language plays an important role — it’s about developing confidence. You can even use simple English words to express yourself,” adds Dinesh.

A number of initiatives have been undertaken at Anna University to help students improve their communication skills.

One of the recent initiatives had U.S.-based Janet Orr, director, Teaching English as an Additional Language (TEAL) Services, come over to Anna University for a workshop in language testing and training for English language teachers.

Challenges

Orr observed that teachers face a challenge in separating teaching from assessment. “Teachers should know the difference between what is good for teaching on the one hand and testing on the other. The test paper should be prepared keeping the diversity of students in mind, and not a situation where one student has an advantage over the other. All students should be able to understand the test.

For example, multiple choice questions should have options which are distinct from the rest, so that students can make a clear choice,” she says.

Sujatha Priyadarshini, one of the professors who attended Orr’s workshop, says, “It is important for students to understand what is being taught in class, which is reflected by how they perform during exams. These tests help us identify the key problems faced by students. Based on this, we will hold remedial classes for students who underperform.”Classes in English language are held to help them brush up their communication skills. These classes are imparted for two semesters in the first year and for a single semester in the third year during the four-year engineering degree at Anna University. So, to what extent do these sessions really help students from the Tamil medium schools?

“Special classes on soft skills development, which include communication skills and questions frequently asked at job interviews, are periodically organised for the students. In addition, the alumni are invited to train the students for group discussions,” says T. Thyagarajan, director Centre for University Industry Collaboration.

On the other hand, for many of the rural students English is a second language. Therefore, instruction in English makes it only worse for these students. “Teachers find it difficult to cater to the needs of these students — while these students expect the teachers to teach the course subjects in Tamil, they are familiar with the technical concepts only in English. Teachers, therefore, find it difficult to instruct in two languages simultaneously,” says Veena Selvam, Assistant Professor of English.

Orr speak

Life experiences make a lot of difference in learning. According to research I did at the University of Atlanta, I found that when students from rural backgrounds come to study in a university located in a city, they perform better compared to secondary school because of the exposure they get from activities they were deprived of earlier. The fundamental idea is to give students a lot of opportunities. For example, ask them to watch a movie and write a review based on that. Encourage them to visit a museum or go for sporting activities.

You could visit http://www.americanenglish.state.gov/ for material on improving your English.