Dr. Hema Ramanathan, Associate Professor at the University of West Georgia, has done research on English language teaching in India. She presented a paper on Curriculum and Instruction at the Vellore Institute of Technology as part of the 9th International Congress on English Grammar on January 4. She discussed her views with Bincy Mathew on the status of English language teaching in India.

Can you assess the importance of English as a medium of instruction?

Considering the number of languages and variation of dialects in the country, English is the connecting thread. Eighty five percent of students study in regional language schools, where English is not the medium of instruction for teaching other subjects. It’s not a problem for them while they are in school. But, once they are in university, where the medium of instruction is English, they find it difficult to cope. This in turn affects their job prospects, which are stymied by this language disability that is they are not fluent in English.

Textbooks are an important part of the curriculum not only for the teacher who uses it for reference but also for the student who relies on it to prepare for examinations. Do you think the current syllabus is adequate to develop the language skills of students?

About four decades back, we were exposed to writers of the likes of Shakespeare, et al, which provided scope for in depth thinking, debates and discussions because the texts were rich in human element. However, that is not the case with today’s syllabus which focuses on variants of contemporary literature that is mostly contrived and newspaper articles leaving little room for discussion.

English language teaching is imparted differently across the different boards and states in the country. How do you think this affects the student’s ability to grasp the language?

English language should be taught from the elementary level. Children can learn and grasp a language better at a pre-adolescent stage. If they learn a language post-puberty they find it difficult to achieve native proficiency.

How can a teacher cope with the varied needs of a class that typically consists of 30-50 students?

Teachers today have to address a wider swathe of students with different skills. They needs to know where the students are lagging behind in terms of grammar, tense, etc, and deal with each of these issues. They cannot teach everybody the same thing in the same way. Therefore, they need to adopt multiple strategies to address the needs of an assorted class.

What are the shortcomings of language teaching in India and how do you think this can be addressed?

I conducted a workshop in July last year in Chennai for the United States-India Educational Foundation. I found that many teachers do not have a sound knowledge of grammar. They have an inability to analyse what they teach and how they impart the training. They need to know whether they are teaching for fluency or accuracy and develop strategies accordingly. They do not know the difference between grammar that is necessary for written and spoken English. For example, morphemes are often ignored. On the other hand, every detail of grammar should not to be given equal importance, either. They should be given the platform to make this choice.

How can teachers be trained to enhance their teaching of the English language?

Professional development (in-service training for teachers)has not been of much help in aiding teachers cope with the new teaching methods and updated syllabus. You need to give teachers time and space to learn new material. For example, the ABL (activity based learning) has been amorphous in terms of the fact that teachers are not given sound training. There should be a post-observation conference where the trainer and the teacher analyse the teaching method and work on ways to improve it.