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What ails English language teaching?

Recently, it was reported in the media that Puducherry Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi made a surprise visit to a government higher secondary school in the union territory. While interacting with the girl students of Class XII, she asked them to write what they would like to do after completing their Plus Two. According to a news report, the students were unable to write their answers to the question correctly in English. Reacting to the students’ written response in ungrammatical English, Ms. Bedi made a remark that “this would restrain them from succeeding and mar their self-confidence”.

The students’ lack of proficiency in English might have shocked Ms. Bedi but I was neither shocked nor surprised by it. Why? It is a known fact that most students studying in higher secondary schools, not only in rural but also in urban schools, do not have adequate English language skills. It is my guesstimate that over 80% of the students in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry cannot express themselves in English even after having learnt English for 14 years. If that is the case, the percentage of students who are “AngloSkilledNots” (those who do not have English language skills) can be more or less the same in other States too. If it is a matter of grave concern, how should policy-makers and educationists respond to this stark reality?

Most students who have scored over 80% marks in English in their classes X and XII public examinations are neither able to write a paragraph or a letter without grammatical mistakes nor are they able to converse in English. How will these students be able to study their other courses at the tertiary level? There have been reports of students having committed suicide just because they were not able to follow their courses in English in professional colleges. A number of students have discontinued their studies. Many students continue to suffer from inferiority complex which hinders their academic growth and will hinder their career in future. Ashita Pravallika who is pursuing her master’s in IIT Kanpur says, “Even at IIT Kanpur, there are some B.Tech students who lack proficiency in English and it affects their academic performance. These students realise the importance of English communication skills in their final year when they prepare for placement.”

Empower students

English, being an international language, plays a key role in the academic life of our students, whether they come from rural or urban background, and is the key to their career success. As British linguist David Graddol says “English is likely to remain one of the world’s most important languages...”. As long as English continues its predominance globally, #AngloSkilleds (those who have the advantage of English language skills) will have predominance over #AngloSkilledNots. In the struggle between AngloSkilleds and AngloSkilledNots, it is always the former group that has advantage over the latter. It is the responsibility of the policy-makers and educationists to address the issue and find an effective solution. It is the responsibility of the teachers to empower the students and enable them to acquire English language skills. It is a challenge that teachers need to face.

Though there are many, the three gravest maladies that contribute to the ineffective English language teaching in Indian schools and colleges are: lack of focus in and neglect of teaching English language skills, ineffective assessment practices, and inefficient teachers.

“Easy to pass but not easy to use the language for communication purposes” is what many teachers and students give as a response when they are asked to comment on English. It means that English is taught to prepare for exams and not for life. It also implies that English language skills such as listening, speaking, reading, critical reading and writing are totally neglected. In most State Board schools, English teaching is grammar-centric and done in a mechanical manner. The focus is more on marks rather than on skills.

Assessment plays an important role in testing the language skills of learners. Most language tests and exams test students’ memory skills and not their critical thinking, critical reading and productive skills. For example, the following questions (1 & 2) do not make any sense. 1) Define these terms: noun, adjective, interjection. 2) Change the following items from active into passive: i) I drank coffee yesterday. ii) She met him at the railway station yesterday. The sentences changed into the passive form sound so unnatural and that is not the way we speak English. Compare the above questions with this question (3): 3) What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences: i) John’s parents have come. ii) John’s parents came here at 10 0’clock. This question makes students think and write their own answers. It is also important to test students’ listening and speaking skills too.

Most teachers teaching in State Board schools have not been trained to teach English as a skill. Recently, I met a teacher working in a government school. She said that the assessment pattern for class XI has changed but the teachers had not been trained to prepare students for such type of examinations.


Are there remedies for the maladies stated above? Yes, there are. If there is a will, there is a way.

Learning a language means learning a skill and therefore, English must be taught as a skill. Learners can acquire language skills (thinking, listening, speaking, reading, writing) only if they have sufficient practice in the language. It implies the English classroom is a place where learners practise the language and not just listen to the teacher passively. Classroom is a like a playground where students play with the language.

There should a radical change in the assessment pattern. Students should be aware of the importance of all the language skills, and examinations should be designed in such a way to test the skills of the learners.

Not just qualified but trained teachers should be appointed to teach English. In my view, in-service training is as important as pre-service training. Teachers need to update their knowledge and skills constantly and the system should encourage teachers to attend such training programmes periodically. This, in turn, will enable them to be effective in the classroom.

The author is an English language teaching (ELT) resource person, academic, columnist and freelance writer. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 8:11:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/what-ails-english-language-teaching/article19741269.ece

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