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The Issue of Teaching and Learning English

The Issue of Teaching and Learning English

Education in India has come a long way, to match the expectations and demands of international careers. While the westernization of our traditional education system has severely impacted our ability to nurture and spread our traditional knowledge, it has also opened opportunities for global careers. The growth of knowledge industries based on information technology and back-office services is a great example. However, the way English is taught has been a chaotic process and continues to pose a challenge to both the teachers and learners. This article suggests a few pedagogical changes to help make the process more effective. 

The ideas and techniques shared here are learned from the field as a corporate trainer where the struggle of the young professionals was experienced first-hand. Some of these techniques were used to good effect, improving the capabilities and confidence of the participants. Hence this attempt to share them with a wider audience. The suggested process is suitable for the schools using regional languages as the medium of instruction.

I feel English is taught in Indian schools in a fundamentally wrong way. We learn our mother tongue by listening and repeating. A mother keeps speaking to the child and the child listens for about thirty months before attempting to speak. Reading and writing begin only around the age of 4. However, English is taught in exactly the opposite way. We start learning the alphabet first and then writing small words, then we graduate to reading and then speaking. This is not the story of the branded public schools where the rich kids go. Most of them start speaking English quite early in life, even before going to school. We are discussing the remaining 90% of the children who know only their mother tongue when they come to school.

A language class is supposed to facilitate fun and help the students fall in love with that language. But we achieve exactly the opposite. The struggle is further complicated by a lack of competent staff and a distorted pedagogy. The scariest stuff for every high school kid is the grammar. The teachers complicate that so much that it leads to nightmares and a general aversion to the language itself. Did we ever learn the grammar of our mother tongue?

How can we fix this? Just by reversing the way English is taught. I don’t think writing English is necessary till the 5th standard. The only thing children and the teacher should focus on is speaking English correctly. Here is a practical challenge. Most English teachers are good at reading and writing and not speaking. They stay in their comfort zone by teaching grammar and correcting written assignments. The real challenge of being able to speak and express oneself is never focused on. Consequently, even after scoring well in the written examinations, most students are unable to speak freely, impacting their future careers. This issue continues even to the level of post-graduation studies.

The primary school classes would only have oral examinations for English and the entire class will be about speaking. No textbooks are recommended which would lead to rote learning. A series of contextual role plays are made part of the curriculum. A huge number of variations would become possible, and children are great with their imagination and would invent many such scenarios for practicing. We have a huge number of fables, stories, and folklore in India. Stories of Lord Jesus, Lord Buddha, Guru Nanak ji, Mahaveer Jain, and Prophet Mohammed along with the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata can be discussed in the classes which would enrich the children in their awareness while improving their ability to speak.

By the time the children enter high school, they are well-versed in all the sentence structures and grammar, without learning it as grammar. This makes any grammar class redundant. The focus would be on writing for different audiences and in different contexts. The high school children would master the alphabet in a month and would start reading fluently by the end of the sixth standard. Where did the fluence come from? They get it as they have been speaking in English for the past five years. The focus in the higher classes is on writing for the desired effect, copywriting, writing fiction, non-fiction, reports, and other more practical skills required for future careers. The children would focus on these nuanced elements for the next four years.    

Another important pedagogical element is to introduce the techniques practiced by toastmasters’ clubs across the world. Simple practices of counting Ah/Umm, catching repeat words or filler words, and catching grammatical mistakes would go a long way in improving the speaking proficiency of the children. These techniques can be used in any high school or college. These processes tremendously improve the students’ skill of focused listening, which is a majorly missing communication skill. These simple techniques are proven across the world in various education systems. Teaching the alphabet through simple stories is a proven practice in Waldorf schools.

The third pedagogical change is focusing on listening comprehension. When students listen to well-articulated speeches and reports from accent-neutral sources, they develop an excellent ability to understand and respond. They also pick up the right sentence structures by emulating and repeating what they listen to. This also reduces the focus on the teacher as the source of language and the teacher becomes a learning facilitator.

These fundamental changes can help all the students to improve their English language abilities. They would be deliberately going slow, only to go very fast once they reach high school. Most importantly, they would get rid of the fear of the language and speaking, the most important aspects of communication. 

About the Author

Flt.Lt. Sridhar Chakravarthi is an experienced organizational change coach and consultant with over 30 years of leadership experience in various industries. He believes in the possibility of exponential growth for individuals, start-ups, and mature organizations. He empowers them to achieve exponential growth by bringing agility into their mindset, processes, and behaviours. He is an authorized training partner for Enterprise Agility University, runs his company “Coach for Change” and lives in Bengaluru, India.