Teaching English

The critical issues in the way schools teach English

Teaching English is a special challenge for India. The following are the reasons for English being a special challenge for us:

  1. English is a second-language but for many it is the academic language.
  2. Academic-level competence in any language requires extensive reading in that language; competence to read literature in the language is a pre-requisite.
  3. Reading skills of our children are very poor for academic-level language, we are not a ‘reading nation’
  4. For over three-fourth of Indian children, English is really a foreign language – they do not hear it around them.

These challenges cannot be addressed within the framework of the design of teaching-learning practices in schools. Specifically, here is a list of five of the more critical issues in teaching English as the academic language in our schools and the reality on the ground:

  1. Appropriate technology for effective language learning: The application of technology in language learning is in fact hurting learning. Technology must be innovatively used for offering lowest cost extensive reading material, widest discussions, creative writing opportunities, peer reviews, collaborative writing, listening, speaking etc.
    a. Current situation in classrooms: In India, technology is commonly used in the form of Language labs – quite a waste for English medium schools. Worse, English prose and poems in textbooks are being presented as multimedia content in the so-called smart class and eliminating all reading tasks.
    India may be the only major country where the academic language is supported through
    language labs. Globally, it is used for teaching a second-language at communicative level and used for up to a couple of hours a week, per child.
    b. Recommendation for change: Technology must be innovatively harnessed for learning English.
  2. Efficacy of English language pedagogy: It should be hinged around extensive demand for reading, expression and peer collaborations.
    Incidentally, students with English as the mother-tongue – in the USA, the UK, Australia – are expected to read up to 52 books a year to take the English language competence from communicative to the academic level.
    a. Current situation in classrooms: Reading is not a practice in Indian schools! In a majority of schools, even the English textbooks are read in the class by teachers! Obviously, there is no reading of books beyond textbooks! Overwhelming majority of Indian students may not even be reading 52 pages a year! There cannot be a worse disability for learning a language (and academics in general!)
    b. Recommendation for change: We must not use textbooks and use a series of original works of literature along with worksheets. Of course, there are major challenges because teachers are mostly non-readers. However, there are alternative models available.
  3. Extensive reading content in English for all other subjects too
    a. Current situation in classroom: Reading is part of classwork, mostly led by the teachers! Science and social science syllabus have very limited ‘reading material’. Very interesting collection of books are now available for maths and science and these need to be integrated into the reading list of students.
    b. Recommendation for change: We need to significantly increase the quantity of content to be read in all non-language subjects; increase the ‘language content’ of other subjects.
  4. Role of high standards of English language competence among all teachers for effective language learning : all non-language subject teachers need to use significantly better English.
    a. Current situation in classroom: In most schools, the language skills of non-language subject teachers are far below expectations. The language gains in the English periods are more than undone for the majority of students due to incorrect English usages of the teachers of other subjects.
    b. Recommendation for changes: Schools must be committed to better English language skills of all teachers.
  5. Role of parent education on the due process of learning a second-language on effective language learning (more so because the second-language eventually becomes the academic language)
    a. Current situation in classroom: There is no parent education on the issues pertaining to English language learning. For instance, parents expect their children to speak conversational English before they start to read and write it.
    Worse, the overwhelming majority of school leaders are also unaware of the issues of teaching a second language as an instruction language.
    b. Recommendation for changes: The hierarchy of learning the mother tongue is – listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The hierarchy for a second language as an academic language has to be reading, writing, speaking and listening.

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