Friday, December 2, 2022

Teaching English: An Analysis of Practices

The arrangement of lower jaw in human beings is a unique gift of God because of which we are able to produce a variety of sounds which no other being on earth can. Our efforts to convey our feelings and ideas in a meaningful way through these sounds led to the development of words and language. Language is the foundation for the evolution of civilization and culture.

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What is language?

What is language? It may be defined as meaningful communication of feelings and ideas through words arranged in a particular order. Language is like a building made of bricks called words and cement called grammar. Any attempt to teach English without teaching words is a vain attempt. We learn Tamil or Hindi from our neighbours by learning words (Pronunciation, meaning etc.) and trying to use them. So should be the way with English. Not concentrating on learning of words is the fundamental defect in the teaching-learning of English because of which we have graduates who cannot even write a letter in English.

Once, the objective of learning a language was to enjoy literature in that language.  Later focus shifted to language with the concept ‘Language through literature’. Then it has been teaching of Language Skills for communication.

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Research proved beyond doubt that a reasonable knowledge of English could be attained in 6 to 9 months and that communication skills can be developed in 100 to 150 hours. As per pedagogy a student who completes 9th class in vernacular medium is expected to possess a vocabulary of 2000 words which is enough to display a reasonable ability in the four skills of language (Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing). By the time he completes his +2 course he should have acquired a vocabulary of 3000 words. He should be able to understand and use English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and face TOEFL.

Haves and Have-nots of English

Sad reality is that 85% of our Engineering graduates are without jobs as they lack Communication Skills. In spite of this general scenario some of the students speak good English even in their primary classes. Communists see a division in society as “Haves” and “Have-nots” in terms of wealth. Similarly we see today a division among our students as “Haves” and “Have-nots” in English. A few students who go to better schools and some whose parents take good care of their children’s studies, learn good English and grab all the opportunities where as the “Have-nots” of English are deprived of every opportunity leaving them in despair. A majority of the Have-nots are from rural areas and Vernacular Medium.  When a construction worker is taken to another state, he learns the language of the region in 3-6 months without any teaching. Are our students worse than him? These paradoxes prove that there is something fundamentally wrong with our teaching-learning of English and that it needs a thorough investigation. Teaching by giving summary of a lesson or a paragraph orally, giving a PPT is  useful in teaching the content. These are not the ways to teach a language.

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Creative use of language

If English teachers are asked to teach lessons like “Cloud Computing” they will have to look at the clouds as they will not be able to teach neither English nor Computing with such lessons in the curriculum. A lesson prescribed has not only to be student friendly but also to be teacher friendly for teaching-learning to happen. With robots round the corner to do routine things, our objective in future is likely to be creative use of language.

Earlier an English teacher used to read the lesson in the textbook line by line in the classroom. The students noticed the pronunciation of new words and the meaningful word groups in the sentence. They observed different forms of a word (for example: appear, appeared, appearance, apparent, apparently) and noted the shade of meaning from the context. This improved their vocabulary and comprehension levels. When meanings of words are learnt a student develops interest to read more on his own. Exposure to language in any form (general books, magazines, movies etc) makes him learn the word groups and word order or syntax automatically. Grammar is actually a bonus while learning mother tongue (L1), but for second language (L2) it has to be taught for ascertaining accuracy. That is why we say L1 is acquired but L2 has to be learnt. Though Traditional Grammar was taught separately students used to see how those rules were applied while reading a text. Later teaching traditional Grammar was discontinued and a veiled approach of indirect teaching of grammatical items without using terms of Grammar was used. Repetitive practise of Structures and patterns was adopted.

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Drilling approach

The Behaviourist approach to learning says that drilling is the way to learn. Their focus is on sentence structures and speaking. Experimental verification shows that students displayed 90 to 95% accuracy through this method of teaching without ever understanding what they wrote as answers. Students from some of the corporate +2 institutions who secure high marks in +2 examinations but get very low marks in Engineering or Medical entrance examinations prove that this drilling approach does not make one understand the subject.

The Cognitive approach gives importance to understanding of what is read or heard and then produce sentences. A look at the CBSE question papers reveals that less than 30% of the questions relate to the prescribed texts and all other questions have to be answered with the general ability of a student. So a student today cannot depend on memorisation but try to understand concepts for his development.

Age of a learner and the language of his region are major factors in learning a language. We adopt the research findings regarding teaching English from England and USA where English is L1 (mother tongue) and apply them here where English is L2. Clearly the strategy to teach L1 is widely different from strategy for L2. For example activity based teaching and language games are useful for students under 14 as they do not understand as much as adults. These are waste of time for older students who can understand concepts instantly and can spend time more on practicing the learnt aspect for consolidation. The point to note here is a 5 year old in England has so much of ability in English usage which a 17 year old in India does not have. Obviously the teaching methods applicable to a five year old Western are not suited to the 17 year old Indian. Ancient teachers while teaching Sanskrit, Greek or Latin made the students learn things by heart when they were children and when they grew into adolescents they thought and understood what they had learnt earlier. Memorizing and analyzing are the two ways of learning at different stages of life.

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Children learn faster

It is well known that children learn faster than adults. A child which is naturally exposed to multiple languages learns all of them well without any effort. This ability decreases after 14 and a student has to put in effort to learn a new language. In adults knowledge of L1 helps in learning a second language (L2). Psycholinguists say that children learn chunks of data where as adults can learn only item by item. Understanding what is read, relating it to what is already known and tying to apply it are the factors which help students learn effectively. Word grammar (i.e. different forms of words, conjugation), Homonyms, Synonyms and Antonyms are good means of building vocabulary. Mimicry, substitutions are useful in teaching Phonology, Connectives, Vocabulary and Syntax. If we aim for RP we may end up with Indian English. If we aim at Indian English we may end up with Tenglish (Telugu like English) or Hinglish (Hindi like English) etc. We should concentrate more on Listening and Reading while teaching children and on Writing and Speaking while dealing with adolescents. Ability achieved in one skill helps in leaning other skills too as they are all inter-related.

Testing is an important aid in teaching-learning process. It gives us feedback to decide the validity of the materials used and the methods employed. More than Entrance or Terminal Tests, Diagnostic Tests help us plan Remedial Teaching. There should be a specific objective for each (bit of) question. If copying is allowed in the examinations by ‘kind’ invigilators that is the end of education and consequently the nation.

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Sensitize students

Corporate colleges at +2 neglect English. But without English survival is a problem. So teachers at collegiate level have to put in more effort to bring the students back on track. English language cannot be learnt without word consciousness. Teachers have to sensitize students to become conscious of spelling, contextual meaning, pronunciation, form of a word and the way it is used. With exposure to English an awareness of word groups in a sentence and word order in a sentence (Syntax) can be acquired almost without conscious effort. Language spoken in the region can be treated as L1 though mother tongue is different. When we force small children to speak English without L1 environment it results only in Butler English which has to be unlearnt later to learn the right language. Learning a language is directly proportional to the amount of exposure to it.

Methods of teaching English must be different for under14 students and adolescent learners. Adults learn by observation and understanding concepts, a cognitive rational approach, Concepts of Grammar too can be given directly for understanding and practise. English is to be learnt for communication, critical thinking and creativity. Gaming activities for adolescents may be liked by the playful but will be considered silly or waste of time by serious learners. So in the fast world of today concept has to be given directly.

Having said all this, let me finally say that the most effective tool in teaching is the personality of the teacher which motivates learners.

(Part of a research Paper I presented in an international conference).

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Rajendra Singh Baisthakur
Rajendra Singh Baisthakur
Rajendra Singh Baisthakur had been a Lecturer in English. He is a poet, critic and translator. His interests are Literature, Philosophy and social media.
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