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The art of acquiring English language skills

Mary Kay seales, Senior English Language Fellow, USA interacting with College Teachers at Bishop heber College in Tiruchi. Photo: M. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

College students who can reproduce excerpts from Shakespeare but cringe at the idea of carrying a simple conversation in English? Graduates from various disciplines sporting seventy plus scores in English but struggling to frame simple questions?

All is not what it seems when it comes to language, as marks are poor indicators of competency in language. We may have moved from mere textbook reading to assignments, seminars and viva-voce in teaching the English language in our colleges and universities but how many students can use the language in real-life situations?

Controlled chaos

A recent workshop on best practices in English language teaching organised by the U.S Consulate General in Tiruchi for college teachers brought to light that English language teaching in our classrooms focuses more on ‘learning' the language rather than ‘acquiring' language skills. For the latter to materialise, the language must be used as much as it is heard as senior English language fellow Mary Kay Seales put it. “A noisy classroom is a good classroom as you cannot be quiet in a language class – you have to practice what you learn. I call it controlled chaos- it might be chaotic- but there's a lot of learning happening.” When lecturers from various colleges were asked to articulate their goals of language teaching, it was clear they wanted their students to be proficient in academic and conversational English alike. Ms. Seales was quick to agree. “I come across many students with high TOEFL scores who find it difficult to have a proper conversation with me or understand what I'm saying.” She attributes this to heavy emphasis on a single area like grammar. The mantra is to combine Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) with Basic Informative Communication Skills (BICS). But how? Content module is the proposed solution— a student-centred teaching method where teachers are facilitators and students active learners.

Content modules

Content modules are what Seales likes to describe as ‘task backwards approach' where teachers pick a theme and work backwards to teach skills. Here the contemporary topic or issue is the primary focus and skills are inevitably acquired while exploring the topic through diverse activities.

“Content modules are fun for both students and teachers. It is like killing two birds with one stone- students acquire language competency and concurrently become more aware of the world.” Choosing environment as the sample module, she explained how the module becomes a vehicle for skill acquisition. From asking students to conduct polls and interviews to playing a game of ‘recycling bingo' and collecting famous quotes, listening, writing, reading and speaking skills are developed along with critical thinking, research and team building skills. “It is great fun and good language at once. There is natural acquisition rather than learning.” Teachers can move on to include appreciation of literature by introducing poems on nature and ignite student's creativity by asking them to pen their own poems. Interest in current issues can be generated by looking up news stories and social responsibility can be instilled by getting them to notice their immediate neighbourhood and come up with ways to clean it.

Content modules require resourcefulness on part of the teacher to design modules, tweaking them based on student feedback. Initial attempts may fail but the concept works in the longer run as every student feels involved. “Everybody gets their voice heard and feels their work is valued.” Modules can be designed around music, books and plays. A simple task of translating a favourite vernacular song into English and narrating the story behind it can develop a host of skills and make it interesting for students. While some Indian teachers may consider content modules as impractical in classrooms where language competency is sacrificed at the altar of examinations, Seales reassures that examination perspectives can be creatively incorporated into modules that can be worked around the syllabus.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 4:52:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/careers/the-art-of-acquiring-english-language-skills/article2467550.ece

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