The Yawning Gap
Two articles of great interest appeared in the 9 December Hindu’s EducationPlus and the 19 December Hindu’s centre page—English for Survival by Deeptha Sreedhar and New ways of learning old rules by Rama Kant Agnihotri. Both relate to teaching English in colleges and schools. Both raise issues intimately linked to how English is being taught. In this write-up of mine, I deal with these two issues from a different angle but an essential one in my opinion and suggest steps:
before we can expect learners to acquire life skills, to learn grammar
differently, we need to prepare the teacher with skills to enable learners.
Teachers should first be enabled before they can enable learners to learn
the things the right way. This is my thesis.
For two decades, till 2005, I’d taught Technical English to first year undergraduate students of engineering disciplines at Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering at Sri Perumbudur. At least 10% of my students had studied in the regional medium and hence found it difficult to follow lectures, understand textbooks, converse in English with their classmates and teachers. This percentage increases in colleges located in the districts. Arts and Science colleges have regional medium students in large numbers.
This implied that something was seriously wrong with the support lent to students. Though as a teacher at this level I could get a sizeable number of them to recover their confidence, some of them weren’t prepared to accept my support and hence continued to suffer—one or two disappeared, the rest got low grades and were forced to re-sit several papers every semester.
This article addresses teachers and syllabus writers at the university level, takes up the line of thought said earlier further, analyses ground realities, places the problem in context and suggests steps.
Scenario as it is
Several interested parties—teachers and experts—speak and write about how best to teach and learn English as a communicating tool or soft/life skill. Mostly, the talks and/ or write-ups deal with how to improve teaching English at tertiary level and beyond through quality training of teachers and learning English at these levels through a provision of quality syllabuses—in engineering colleges in particular. Business English is taught to commerce undergraduates and Technical English, to engineering undergraduates.
But hardly attention has been paid to where it is needed most—the learning syllabuses of current and future English teachers teaching in schools and colleges.
Yes, today better syllabuses are got ready, better course books are prepared and used in schools run by the government or private Trusts. Yes, graduates and post-graduates with English literature as their major are being appointed as teachers. Yes, B.Ed. or MPhil courses are offered to improve teacher performance and made mandatory for teaching English. Yes, teachers are provided in-service training, yes, they attend and participate in workshops, yes, they listen to ELT experts in order that they may keep improving their performance. And curriculum and syllabus writers and teacher trainers seem to beam with satisfaction.
Scenario as it ought to be
Yet students at tertiary (Plus One and Plus Two at school) level and at undergraduate level (UG students in both Arts and Science Colleges and engineering colleges) find it difficult to adjust themselves to the needs and expectations of the workplaces. This is because teachers who teach them English at school and tertiary levels have remained ill-quipped. This is because nobody at the helm of affairs ever thought about teacher preparation but concentrated only on teacher training and improving teaching syllabuses. A news item in the 3 December 1996 issue of The Hindu relates to a document prepared by the National Council for Teacher Education. This organization feels ‘all is not well’ with the whole process of preparing teachers for the school systems. Such awareness is welcome but... It is believed that the solution lies in improving the teacher education curriculum (by which they meant ‘teacher training’).
But I believe the real solution lies elsewhere. Teaching teachers how to teach better (with better methodologies and techniques) will not solve the problem. If teachers are not able to perform well it is because there is a yawning gap between what they learn as students and what they teach as teachers.
Let us see how well prepared English teachers (having B.A. and M.A. English literature as the major discipline) in schools and colleges are. This preparation consists of two realities.
Reality (B.A. / M.A.)
What did the present crop of English teachers learn as students in their undergraduate course?
Syllabuses of most Indian universities heavily lean on learning literary pieces of various ages in English literature from Chaucer to twentieth century—prose, poetry, drama, criticism, of course with a course on one or two of these: linguistics, grammar, journalism, mass communication, translation.
What did the present crop of English teachers learn as students in their post-graduate course?
Syllabuses of most Indian universities lean heavily on English, American, Canadian, Australian, European literatures with a few variations like
copy writing, creative writing, English through media and mass media (Madurai Kamaraj)
copy writing, copy editing, and technical writing (Madras)
Linguistics, stylistics, translation, journalism (Goa)
Dalit literature, film studies (Nagpur)
Aspects of language (IGNOU)
Such three-year and two-year learning doesn’t help the learners who are now teachers teach English as a language (with its four listening, speaking, reading, writing skills and their sub-skills) and as a medium of communication, as revealed by a similar analysis of the English syllabuses of classes 7-12 that cover the whole gamut of language skills—listening, speaking, reading and writing (generally known as ‘lsrw’) with their sub-skills:
A. Vocabulary Competencies
B. Grammatical Competencies
C. Listening Competencies
D. Speaking Competencies
E. Reading Competencies
F. Writing Competencies
G. Learning Competencies (Study skills)
H. Occupational Competencies
I. Strategic Competencies
J. Creative Competencies
K. Interpersonal / Social Skills
Thus there is a total mismatch between what today’ teachers learnt (or tomorrow’s are learning) and what today’s teachers teach (or what tomorrow’s teachers will).
Teachers from both these groups should qualify with a B.Ed. What does such a syllabus contain to equip these teachers to teach English to their school and high school learners?
Of course, as several B.Ed. courses in India reveal, both B.A.s and M.A.s are prepared to teach English as a language with specialised courses. These courses concentrate on education and psychology for a major portion of course duration and offer just one course or two on the teaching of English for a very brief period, which is very insignificant in terms of what they are expected to achieve as teachers of English.
Of course, I’m not suggesting even for a moment that the teacher training courses are the problem for B.Ed. is a degree in education.
Teachers wishing to teach English to UG students should equip themselves with an M.Phil. This is a research-oriented course, and almost all qualifiers take up topics in literature. Therefore, this course doesn’t really help teachers teach English as a language.
The onus then is on universities in Thamizhnadu and elsewhere to make drastic changes in their English B.A. and M.A. syllabuses in order to enable future school teachers to get their students ready to face challenges in higher education where English is the medium of instruction and also to successfully tackle communication situations in their place of work.
I can provide here only a content outline of what the learning syllabuses for B.A. and M.A. should consist of:
BA degree in English language should be a four year programme while MA degree, a three year programme.
I For future teachers of English
1. what learners should become
The first three years should be spent on developing learners as prospective teachers into
active and empathetic listeners, able speakers (fluent with tolerably good pronunciation),
good interpreters of reading material and capable writers.
2. what they should be learning
• listening—learn to
• be unprejudiced, open-minded, empathetic, critical,
• provide cues (verbal and non-verbal)
• take notes as preparation for post-speech participation
with single sentences, short conversations, paragraphs, lectures as source
• speaking—learn to
• be unprejudiced, open-minded, empathetic, critical
• speak to an audience with the required skills like being audible, eye
• be active in group discussions, brainstorming, debates—listening
and speaking, participating, encouraging, congratulating
• converse on several topics of interest informally and formally
• reading—learn to
• comprehend dictionary meanings, implied meanings (inferences),
• understand paragraph structure—topic sentence, supporting sentences
• skim, scan, study a paragraph
• understand composition of test items—for vocabulary,
• grasp the use of graphics as part of reading material
• writing—learn to
• form sentences—patterns and types
• use linking devices—for sentences and paragraphs
• write letters (formal and informal), reports, presentations, memos,
minutes of meetings, notices,
• write summaries, précis, analytical pieces (critiquing)
• take notes (emphasize for personal use)
• express themselves through poems, short stories, plays
• grammar—• interactive roles of and relationship between sentence parts
• role of sentence patterns—SVOO/C/adverbial in conveying messages and
• role of sentence types—simple, complex, compound, compound-complex in
conveying messages and meaning
• voice—role and significance of the passive (not a mere conversion structure)
• reported speech—its intricacies in conveying meaning
• role of ‘it’ and ‘there’ sentences
• pronunciation of vowels—monophthongs, diphthongs, difficult consonants, aspirated
• English literature (poems, prose, drama, fiction, nonfiction with emphasis on writers of
the past century) including poems, prose, fiction, drama by Indians for the past two
decades without having to learn about history of English literature, social history of
• Learning ELT theories, criticism, sociolinguistics, pragmatics
B. The fourth year should be spent on teaching methods [live teaching sessions with video
viewing], setting test items and preparing marking schemes.
B. The third year should be spent on perfecting teaching methods [live teaching sessions with
video viewing], setting test items and marking schemes.
While the learner-to-be teachers need to go through a BEd degree, they need not be tested in ELT skills, as this can be taken care of as part of evaluation process of the two degree acquisitions.
II For current teachers who are already teaching classes 7—12
• Arrange for talks by senior / retired classroom teachers/ retired teachers from The English
and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad (I take the liberty of suggesting names:
Dr T Sriraman, Prof. Jacob Tharu, Dr Lakshmi Chandra) to
• instill self-belief in them
• improve their confidence level in listening, speaking, reading and writing
• acquaint them with the beauty of grammar teaching, test items writing
• Arrange for group discussions among them to learn about their difficulties in teaching
existing syllabuses—their insufficient knowledge, inadequate readily-available sources as
reference material in school libraries
• encourage them to read present day fiction—English and Indian writers
• Arrange speeches on topics of their interest, video them, guide them with a frank
discussion, enabling them to learn critiquing as well
• apprise them of the sub-skills in each major language skill and arrange for activities to
familiarise them with the use of these sub-skills
• stress the need to be extensive readers and listeners—newspapers, English TV channels—
BBC, CNN and Indian—NDTV, CNN IBN etc.
• get them to enumerate the benefits of being humane, the absence of prejudices
Of course I know how difficult it is to adjust to such thinking and write new syllabuses but there is really no choice, is there?