Journey through English


by Peter Melvyn

If you are not familiar with this title then take a close look at the English text book for grade 6 used by most government schools. This is the text that students in their initial year of secondary school use to become competent in the English language. President Rajapaksa, several years ago, made a commitment to bringing about some sorely needed improvements in the way that English was taught. One assumes that he assigned the task to those most experienced and knowledeable to carry it through. Fast forward three years and there does not appear to be any obvious change in the ways schools teach English, and certainly no observable evidence that it has improved.

My neighbours daughter recently asked me to help her with some passages in her grade 6 English text book. She attends a popular urban girls school. I found it very instructive to flick through 84 pages of this book to get an insight as to why so few students are able to hold a simple conversation in English. Apart from using a small type face the content does seem more suitable for students at A level and it is highly unlikely that average eleven years old in the USA or the UK would be confronted with such difficult text.

"The house was specially decorated for the occasion with beautiful light bulbs and baloons. Ashani, the youngest girl in the family looked radiant because she was going to start a new life from the following day. Mother was busy supervising the work in the kitchen. Father was assisting with the decorations. Ashani and her sister were admiring the new sarees and the jewellery, especially the ring."

(the misspelt word "baloon" is from the original text.)

No doubt there are some grade 6 students able to follow this level of English as they are either from an English speaking family or have attended numerous tuition classes. It is doubtful if many O level students could comfortably cope with such a passage. Apart from the difficulty in English, not many 11 year olds would find a passage on a matrimonial ceremony to be inspiring.

Yet just two pages later (page 20) the page is occupied by 4 basic sentences with a total of 20 words to be matched to four pictures. Certainly in keeping with learning simple English. The previously mentioned page contains around 200 words! Pages 72 and 73 are surely not meant for this book and would find a suitable home in an environmental science text for grade 9 or 10.

"Since fossil fuel is limited and is not always environment friendly, scientists are looking for alternative sources of energy, some of these which, are being used in varying quantities in some parts of the world are solar energy, nuclear energy, geo-thermal energy, tidal energy, and wind. We are fully dependent on some form of energy to make our lives comfortable. So we have to conserve energy.

Can such a topic really help children towards practical English? This passage and the questions that follow could make interesting reading and discussion in Sinhala or Tamil at a higher grade level. But what is it doing in a book for teaching basic English to 11 year olds?

Just a couple of pages later and considerable space is given to grammar and the correct use of adverbs and adjectives. Its rather confusing and unlikely to be absorbed by students who will learn far better by practical examples. There is a rather interesting example given for students to select the correct sentence.

"I worked hardly all night"

"I worked hard all night"

The first sentence could be taken as "I hardly worked all night". A very different meaning.

Do grade 6 students really need to write a letter to the Medical Officer for Health in Kegalle (page 47) or to involve themselves in the diabetic problems of a 45 year old? (page 39).

Mr Rushdi is 45 years old. He has a sedentary job as a telephone operator in a large hotel. He is mildly diabetic and therefore does not like food with a lot of suger. A diet containing about 3000 kilo calories is good for him".

(This appears to be a medical record and maybe should be confidential!)

There are some minimal spelling and grammatical errors and these could be overlooked if the subject matter was more relevant and suitable for the typical grade six child. The index pages inform us that the book was prepared by a panel of four writers and published with financial asistance from World Bank. Are these esteemed writers English teachers with considerable current experience? It is questionable as to whether these books were ever used on a trial basis to assess their suitability.

There have been numerous articles criticising the way English is taught but never a response from the numerous desk-bound officials at either the N.I.E. or Ministry of Education. President Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly had it right when he was outwardly critical of the way English was being taught. It would serve him well to use his Presidential authority to personally ensure that his reform directives are carried out. Despite the President’s criticisms, the same government "servants" are churning out the same useless methodology. Getting the Indian and Norwegian governments on board to help Sri Lanka learn English is an insult to those unsung heroes who are unable to teach better English due to being captives of text books such as illustrated in this article.

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