Saturday Magazine

Mending flaws in teaching English
by Vijaya Jayasuriya

Yet another bout of syllabus planning is said to have taken place at the holy of holies of our education the NIE with a view to, presumably, improve standards of teaching English in schools. Many are the times when new syllabuses came into being and innumerable are the ways and means recommended by the powers that profess to bring about better standards, yet unfortunately the plummeting levels of performance never seem to take a reverse trend what with deteriorating public exam results as well as general proficiencies such as communicative competence in English among students.

If around 10 years of English at school cannot equip a learner with an ability to read and understand a junior tabloid of a newspaper, get the gist of a news item over the radio or TV, manage a day-to-day communicative function such as answering a tourist seeking directions or else write out a skimpy personal note to a friend eg. "leaving early, keep door locked", what is the use of dumping billions of rupees of funds into programmes almost every year? Planning new syllabuses then without tracking down and remedying the existing faults in the system would be nothing but, to use a sinhala folk dictum, like tucking up the loin-cloth to curb diarrhoea!

The crux of the problem lies in teaching proper, the act of teaching itself to put it in a nutshell. This however has inevitable implications for wide ramification of other activities such as planning programmes, training of teachers, regular refresher courses, observation of the teaching act both inhouse and by visiting personnel etc. The whole gamut of these activities pivot round the classroom itself, for it is for that setting that the courses are planned, teachers are trained and also where observation takes place.

"Bad teaching" would be too vague and simplistic a proposition to describe the problem which calls for delving into deep professional realms to arrive at a reasonable explanation. What constitutes ineffective teaching not only involves ignorance on the part of teachers but mainly lack of acquisition of skills together with their underpinning theoretical constructs. More than a mere knowledge of these theoretical bases what makes an effective teacher is a rich repertoire of pedagogic skills which should through constant and thorough practice be almost second nature, as it were, to a teacher so that they are applied effortlessly and suitably where ever necessary.

Why should such an almost esoteric type of practice be necessary in the English classroom whereas anyone can disseminate knowledge of a subject if they are equipped with such knowledge? For example graduates who just pass out of universities take A/L classes by storm and produce phenomenal records of exam results without having had any training in teaching (or with a brief and fruitless stint of training) merely by dictating notes to students mostly sitting down tight the teacher’s desk!

The central issue to be discussed in this article is why the type of teaching described above more or less succeed with teachers often having little or no training at all in the craft while teachers of English with years of training, both institutional and in-service fail to produce students either conversant with the language or more important, able to communicate in that language.

Two major factors operate here underlying any learning situation; motivation on the part of students and the stated objectives of the programme. Though to my knowledge there appear to be no such defining of objectives in our A/level courses other than simply achieving a certain level of knowledge (or some obvious skills in such a case as medicine) of a list of subjects, the schools English teaching programmes boast clearly defined objectives accompanying their syllabuses or course books. Though they may be subjected to slight alterations they invariably incorporate statements in terms of what the learners would be able to do at the end of a course or how he would be able to perform using the target language.

Though simple by appearance the two enterprises or their doctrines have vastly different implications for the classroom and hence the future of their clients—the student. The complexity of this diversity can be illustrated by a simple example when a student comes down in his A/levels the parents more or less know that it is either the fault of the teaching staff or the student’s weakness, but in the case of an O/levels failure in English it is very rarely that one can pin point where the fault lies hence the all-embracing proposition that the teaching of English all over the country has come down tragically.

If we take objectives of teaching English in lower grades (including O/levels) it is naturally something much more complex than those at A/levels - the difference being, simply stated, teaching a content subject and teaching a language with the exception of some "office skills" incorporated in the recently introduced "General English" course at A/levels which cannot be called "language skills" in a broader sense. In teaching English, the objectives of any course should incorporate being able to communicate in that language using any of the four major skills ie. listening, speaking, reading and writing. Now teaching a student to be well-equipped with these skills is a much more momentous task than simply imparting knowledge of a subject which they in turn disgorge at an exam.

The major problem plaguing our school English teaching programme therefore is invariably the teaching of it as a content subject rather than a living language. If you take ten classes, in nine of them the students will be sitting still, tight-lipped merely trying to absorb the ‘knowledge" the teacher delivers with the disastrous upshot of that "content" being altogether lost on her students.

What is critically needed to make the English class, a place of communication–mainly oral–is the teacher’s ability to create that oft-quoted "acquisition-rich" environment within the four walls of the classroom. The validity of this concept has been proved by ample research work conducted by the American researcher S. D. Krashen whose theories are respected by other writers in the field.

"Krashen insisted that language cannot be learnt, but only acquired through natural communication. Many of his ideas have been soundly criticized over the years, but his views have been, and remain, very influential in the language teaching and learning field..."

(Griffiths, C. K. Parr J. M. ELT Journal - 55/3: July 2001)

Whether it be a reading lesson or a writing one, the teacher should spend the better part of the lesson to get the students to express themselves orally. This would appear at a glance to be the most difficult task teachers of English are called upon to perform day in and day out yet the golden key to this conundrum lies with the type of training teacher gets particularly at the outset of her career, of course before she most pathetically falls into the miserable rut of being an ineffective scarecrow meaning little to her students.

The vital part of the process of making a good teacher lies with the training programmes, mainly the initial residential courses. It is at this level that novice teachers should be given a thorough training in how to make a class of students valuable in the target language, for example rather than explaining a reading passage and then reading out "comprehension questions" which the teacher herself answers for the students, a reading text can very well be utilised to generate a lively discussion. What then of the language for them to talk?

This should begin step by step, going from simple to complex answers training them in how to respond to questions or queries. The teacher should be resourceful enough to encord questions in such a way that her students can pick out answers from the text itself without much hassle. Providing answers in the form of multiple choice invariably help in getting students to learn how to respond to a question: ie what kind of day is today? It is a rainy day or is it a sunny day? The little discrepancies in question forms and statements can very well be tackled at later stages once students achieve fluency in language because it is of course the natural process of language learning for fluency to precede accuracy as the student gains more experience and knowledge of the language, the other important point is that no one learns a language without making mistakes which means learner’s hypothesizing with newly acquired utterances ("Interlanguage" Selinker, L. 1972 IRAL 10:219-31). Also a prolific writer on applied linguistics Rod Ellis postulates: "...lists of errors that pupils are likely to produce represent the products of their language development..." (Ellis, R.1984:10)

Thus the movement towards "accuracy" of language use is essentially a path full of language errors which are attempts made by students experimenting with language.

The second flaw often noticed in our classroom is a phenomenal lack of motivation on the part of students to learn the foreign language. This is no great surprise because when they do not gain anything then can use in real life, anything they can be proud of, they are not only demotivated, but are also alienated from the English classroom. If the teacher is tactful enough to use the target language from the very beginning of taking up a class and encourage students to take part in active interaction using that language there will be adequate motivation in them to learn English.


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