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 dialects in the country, English is the connecting thread. Eight-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.

What do you think are the shortcomings of teaching in the country?

The faculty of a business school told me that when students have group discussions on case studies, they often find it difficult to take decisions. In this context, I think it is important for teachers to treat students as adults and prepare them for a growing workforce.

Textbook 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 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, th e 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.

CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) is the ability of an individual to use language effectively as a medium of instruction for academic learning. In other words, it is the use of language for studying academic subjects in school. The term was coined by Jim Cummings, Professor at the University of Toronto.

Dr Ramanathan comments on the significance of CALP, in the context of English teachers:

I would like to give you an example of a poem on benzene that was introduced in the English curriculum of a school in Nagaland. This was part of a workshop I conducted in Nagaland in January last year as a consultant for the Nagaland Board of Secondary Education. After two years, the teachers protested that the poem be withdrawn from the syllabus. They insisted that they did not understand science and were not equipped to teach in this genre. The problem here essentially is that teachers are not provided with the tools to learn what they eventually are going to teach.