Parents can help children  to learn English



Living in a welfare state we enjoy, among other things, free healthcare and free education. However, there is much that we as citizens are obliged to do to complement or supplement these services. Unless we thus collaborate with the state the whole community will be negatively affected. The current dengue epidemic has created a situation that illustrates the importance of public awareness and the active cooperation of everyone concerned in minimizing the incidence of the disease. For the success of national education programmes too similar collaboration between the state and the citizenry is of vital importance. The domestic mentoring that parents can provide for their children in the matter of learning "English as a life skill" as outlined below may be regarded as one form of such collaboration between the state and the citizens.

Arguably, the most important as well as the most urgent national educational enterprise that has been launched in recent times is the English as a life skill programme. English as a second language is indispensable for us Sri Lankans to have a good modern education, and to be successfully competitive in the job market. This latest English teaching initiative rightly emphasises the need among our students to use the English language as a normal medium of communication in day-to-day interaction for those broad purposes (for enhancing education and employment prospects).

Now, someone’s knowledge of a language is usually represented as their ability to speak it. For example, we may ask a person, "Do you speak English?", but not "Do you write/read English?" when we want to find out whether that person knows English. This is because ordinarily we assume that speech is the most basic form of language. Accordingly, the current programme highlights the spoken aspect of the English language training that is being provided.

But you can’t just speak English or any other language for that matter unless you have something to speak about; even when you have something that you could speak about you may not speak about it unless you feel an urge/ a desire/ a need to do so; again your urgent desire to speak about a particular subject may not make you speak about it in English if that language is not your mother tongue or first language. So speaking in English involves a strong enough motive to speak about a worthwhile matter in English, and in no other language. Providing such a motive is crucial for students to respond positively to any course of English language instruction. (Our failure to do this, due to a variety of causes/circumstances, goes a long way towards explaining why so many earlier initiatives didn’t succeed.)

Howatt (1984) identifies two "versions" of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT): a strong version and a weak version. The "strong" version is explained as "using English to learn it, instead of learning English to use it", whereas the "weak" version is interpreted as "learning English to use it". The first involves activities that require the use of English for authentic communication among the learners, with no focus on explicit language teaching; the learners are thought to acquire their English solely through meaningful communication. When the weaker version is applied (and this has been normal practice in CLT classrooms over the last decade or so) such communicative activities are integrated into a broader programme of language instruction. In terms of CLT (strong or weak), a major responsibility that devolves on teachers is to generate opportunities for learners to use English for meaningful communication and interaction. Along with this, it is now generally accepted by second language acquisition theorists that reading and writing activities, along with listening, speaking, and thinking promote language learning, something we discovered independently through personal experience and put to good use, too, when we were young children.

Although parents (the majority of whom are not English teachers themselves) should be spared such befuddling theory, it suggests something that parents can conveniently do to help their children learn English: What they can do is to create an environment at home which encourages their children to engage in activities that involve communicating in English. This can be achieved in a number of ways, some of which I describe below. Parents could implement some or all of the following suggestions, and even add other similar activities that they themselves may devise in their individual circumstances. Amidst other demands on their time both parents and children will encounter some difficulty in initiating the kind of domestic interaction that is necessary for such a process to be successful; but it will have its compensations in terms of quality time for parents with their children, reduced tuition costs, and education for themselves. From a language learning point of view, parental involvement in helping their children in the privacy of the home can create a very good context for meaningful interaction through English; the home provides a better affective atmosphere than any classroom outside. (The word ‘affective’ means ‘arising from or influencing emotion’; in a classroom context, the students’ affective needs are those connected with positive feelings such as a sense of security, freedom from anxiety, fear, etc, a feeling of being accepted, loved, and so on; these affective needs should be met before successful learning can take place.)

Parents need not be always talking with their children in English, thereby denying themselves and the children the natural intimacy and informality which is only possible when they interact in the mother tongue. Instead, they can set aside some time everyday or as often as possible, say before supper, for an "English hour". During this time, they must switch off the television, and devote all their time and attention for English. Everybody must talk in English about whatever topic they are required to in the situation; parents can help children revise their school lessons including those about other subjects (but only in English during the English hour) or get older siblings to help the younger ones with lessons. English should remain the focus of the activities.

The day’s news can provide a topic for discussion. Children may be asked to take turns in answering the questions that a journalist filing a report on any newsworthy event usually answers: who, what, when, where, why, and how. For example, in the case of a motor accident, Who was the driver? Who was injured? Who reported it to the police? Where did this happen? When?, etc. It is also a good idea to encourage learners to find vocabulary that is necessary to talk about special events such as the opening of parliament, an earthquake, floods, religious events, and so on.

Even parents without any English knowledge can get their children to interact among themselves through English with the help of older children who have at least some knowledge of the language.


Once a week, they can extend the duration of the "English Hour", turn ing it into a kind of social get-together. Since the number of participants is an important factor for its potential for success, it would be a good idea to invite other children who are relatives or neighbours to take part. Let the children organize the event. They can have a variety of items such as short speeches, songs, dances, stories, playlets, etc all in English. Neighbours can take turns in hosting such an event. If for practical reasons, such camaraderie is not available, let it be in the privacy of one’s own family.

By getting the children to read a lot of English, parents can help them develop their vocabulary, and improve their speaking and writing skills. Parents should buy them story books, magazines, papers, etc that are appropriate for their age. Local newspapers, especially their Sunday editions, carry children’s supplements with a wealth of reading materials including English medium lesson materials. It is good to introduce children to these irrespective of the medium of instruction that they have chosen. As far as possible English learning activities should be integrated into the study of other subjects.

Before the proliferation of avenues of education and entertainment accompanying advances in communication technologies like telephony, television, and computer, reading was a major source of knowledge as well as a popular pastime. Today the easy availability of computer-based education and entertainment seems to have driven reading as we knew it to a secondary position, particularly among the young. Literacy itself is acquiring a new meaning. It has begun to mean a more composite, multimodal capacity than represented by its conventional definition. Text is being replaced by image, as it were.

Of course, the use of the computer and the Internet in the country, particularly in the rural areas, may not be as widespread as we’d wish. At least those who have the facility must be encouraged to make the best use of it. The Internet is an inexhaustible source of English language teaching/learning and general education materials. Many websites offer free downloadable materials for language practice, and testing; there are many free dictionaries. Using the Internet, students can engage in activities involving all the four basic language skills; they can expose themselves to different varieties of International English. In any family, parents with some knowledge of English, or children studying in higher forms can browse through the Net, and make these resources available for the younger children. They can use these with some guidance.

Parents should encourage children to use the Internet to research topics in other subjects even though they may be studying these in Sinhalese or Tamil. This will enable them not only to learn more English, but also to improve their general scholastic performance. One important advantage that students can enjoy by using the Internet is that they can look for the newest information in any field that they have chosen.


Parents may access the following free websites with their children for English language learning activities and see if they can be exploited: (These are just a handful out of countless such sites available on the Net.) http://www.clarity.comhk/program/clickintoenglish.htm

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