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Making English language teaching effective

There is a nagging, uncomfortable question that must be addressed despite the optimism rightly created by the implementation on April 1 of the Right to Education Bill: it is not simply “can we get all of India's children into school?” but rather “will they learn something when they get there?”

The current system of state education in Tamil Nadu is vital in helping to provide an answer to this second question. One of the leaders in the “silent revolution” in Indian primary education, since 2007 it has introduced the progressive Activity Based Learning system (ABL) for standards 1-4, and Active Learning Methodology (ALM, a sort of big brother to the ABL system) to standards 6-8. These new teaching methodologies stress greater inclusion and interaction of children in the learning process, aiming to bring variety and enjoyment back into the classroom.

The state government, the SSA (“the government's flagship programme for delivering universalisation of Elementary Education”) and UNICEF have all been delighted with the impact of these reforms in Tamil Nadu. They have seen a marked improvement not only in the academic capabilities of primary school children under the new system, but also in their levels of confidence and their willingness to be involved in the learning process. Following the success of the Tamil Nadu reforms, nearly all other states have followed suit, or are planning to, in implementing similar methodologies.

However, success in the state primary sector also serves to highlight the existing failure at secondary level, where teaching methods remain archaic. The learning experience for these children is passive and uninspiring. Frequently, the onus is placed overwhelmingly on passing exams, for which they need only memorise the contents of their textbooks, rather than actually teaching them the skills they need.

As an illustration of the outdated model, take the current system of English language teaching in the Tamil Nadu secondary sector, where the government directly runs 61 per cent of all schools.

Reading the IX standard English textbook provided by the state board is like travelling back in time. Students are instructed to match everyday words like “philatelist”, “numismatist”, and “ornithologist” to their correct meanings (I only managed one). One chapter explains at length the exact steps that need to be followed when sending a telegram, almost as vital a skill for the 21st century as knowing how to ride a penny farthing.

The book even refers to black people as “negroes” in one exercise, without providing adequate context for the uninitiated English learner, who would not know that the term is now widely considered a racial slur in the Western world (and has been for the past 20 years).

Supplying six million students every year with such outdated, error-strewn learning materials (even their title pages contain typos) is lazy and unacceptable, particularly when you consider that the 2009-2010 budget for secondary education in the state is a hefty Rs. 4,27,211 lakh. These textbooks are, after all, the predominant teaching resources which are intended to prepare schoolchildren for their X and XII standard public exams — tests considered of such great importance that 2008 alone counted 264 exam-failure-related suicides across all state and private schools in Tamil Nadu.

The questionable benefits of the Tamil Nadu examination system call to mind the story of Dr. Yip, a Malaysian who has committed to memory the entire 57,000 word Oxford English-Chinese dictionary. The fascinating thing about Dr. Yip is that although he knows many more words than the average native speaker of English, he can't actually speak the language any better because of it.

The same logic can be applied to the average Indian secondary student. Instead of memorising a dictionary, they memorise a textbook. Learning the meaning of a “philatelist” (a stamp collector in case you're still guessing), and being able to recite poems and stories by heart in no way guarantees, or even makes it more likely, that you will end up being able to communicate in English. A recent ASER study backs up this conclusion: it found that a quarter to a half of 8th standard children in Tamil Nadu could not read or understand even very simple English sentences. However, in failing to test the actual language skills of children, state exams do little to flag up these huge shortcomings.

Of course, the problems of the secondary system, and this includes matriculation and Anglo-Indian schools, extend far beyond the teaching methodology alone. Many, but by no means all teachers, simply do not have the required level of training that is necessary to handle a more interactive, inclusive teaching style. Deviating from the textbook is a frightening prospect unless you are completely comfortable with your subject.

As the lingua franca of the international community, and as the only language that links all the states of India together, the benefits of teaching Indian children to speak English are huge. The ever-increasing BPO sector, the largest employer in the private-sector economy, constantly bemoans the insufficient English language skills of Indian graduates, an elite minority themselves, claiming that only 15 per cent have the required level to work in business services without first undergoing major additional training.

If it is to really mean something, The Right to Education Act must include in it the Right to Decent English Teaching, given the social, educational and career benefits that proficiency in the language can bring.

In a very promising recent development, the Tamil Nadu government has drawn up fresh plans to collaborate with the SSA and The British Council in providing English language teacher training for all state schools across standards VI-VIII. This would be in addition to the English language project already underway for the V standard, for which 60,000 teachers have already been trained up (training for the next 60,000 will be undertaken this year).

Tamil Nadu is finally starting to eschew the archaic and ineffective approach to language teaching that has prevailed for so long. It is now looking to replace it with one which concentrates on communicative as well as literary aspects of language, and so better addresses the modern educational needs of Indian schoolchildren.

The next step is for it to extend these changes once again, this time all the way up through the secondary system. If it does this, Tamil Nadu will become a paradigm for how English language teaching should be carried out in India. If quality English teaching can permeate the Indian school system, the economic and social benefits for the country will be incalculable. India will be able to capitalise on its youthful population, and leave the rest of the world behind in its tracks, gasping for breath.


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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 10:13:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Making-English-language-teaching-effective/article16245446.ece

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