24th September 2000

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English language: Breaking the elitist barrier

By Madhubashini Ratnayake

A successful national con-ference of English teachers marking the formation of SLELTA - Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association - concluded on September 3.It brought together teachers from all spheres in Sri Lanka, those from the regions, as well as from the 'centres' of English language teaching. The sharing of ideas, experiences and knowledge, marked Sri Lanka's entry into the global network of English language teachers. In this series of articles, The Sunday Times will highlight some of the issues brought forward at this conference.

"One of the greatest problems of teaching English in schools had been the fact that no course existed for those who wanted to learn the language after the GCE O/L examination. They had only the GCE A'Level exam which catered for a minority of students.

A group of academics got together and rectified that situation by creating a General English Course for all A'Level students - and now the greatest obstacle for students not to have this chance of following a course in English is the fact that those in charge of education in the Provincial Councils have not succeeded in getting the (course) book across to all students in the country," charged Dr. Manique Gunesekera, Head, Department of English, University of Kelaniya, at a plenary session of the SLELTA conference.

"The only A' Level exam on the English subject that existed up to now was designed for a specific purpose - to select students to English departments in universities. It was an elitist examination, being there for the benefit of a minority of students. Only 25% of the students sitting for it have been successful in passing the exam in the past ten years," she said, referring to the English literature based course in the A' Level classes. "What about the others who need English language proficiency? What about the national hunger for the knowledge of the language? All this time, there has been a national exam catering for a minority of students, at the expense of the majority. Are we going to ignore that issue further?" she asked.

As a result of not side-stepping the issue, when the New Education reforms were being made, a committee of academics from the universities as well as the National Institute of Education, brought forward the idea of having a course in General English for the A'Levels. This was introduced to the GCE A'L classes in 1999 and the first examination is to be held in 2001. This is a compulsory course that all students from all streams have to follow. The exam at the end of the course will be optional since, as Professor Ryhana Raheem of the Open University explained later, it would not be fair to make the exam compulsory without first seeing that the course was taught successfully in all areas of the country.

The earlier A'Level English exam still functions in the same role as before. The optional General English exam will not at present play a role in selecting students for the degree courses in universities.

" This course should not be considered a 'watered down version' of the existing A' Level syllabus," emphasized Dr. Gunesekera. "The two courses have completely different aims. The literature-based subject was not the need of the majority of students. The Victorian novels etc. that function as the standard text of this course have no relevance to the lives of the majority of students anyway. What they needed was a general English course geared to give them the ability to function in the work environment around them. It was not fair to not give them that after the O' Level course in schools."

Volume 1 of the General English Course book was compiled by the National Institute of Education, and the Universities of Colombo and Kelaniya and the Open University of Sri Lanka, having as Editors, Dr. Manique Gunesekera, Dr. Arjuna Parakrama and Dr. Hemamala Ratwatte. An audio cassette is integrally connected with the book and the whole course is made self accessible as possible, due to problems that can occur such as lack of teachers, Dr. Gunesekera said.

"But the book and the cassette have to reach the students. It is vital that each student has them. This is where we have come across the greatest problem - inefficiency in getting these across to the students. This responsibility was given to the Provincial Councils and it is sad and disheartening to think that they could fail in such a vital issue as this," she said.

The presentation at the SLELTA conference by A.M.M. Navaz and M.A.M. Sameem of the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka on 'A'L English Teaching in the Schools in the Ampara District' exemplified of the point that Dr. Gunesekera was making. Twenty-three schools in the Ampara District of the 25 they had surveyed were in urgent need of books, they said. They pointed out that "the books were not available on time so that almost all the schools have not covered the required syllabus within the expected time" and that "some schools had not commenced 2002 English classes due to lack of books and teachers."

Volume 2 of the General English course is due to be released soon, and it is hoped that distribution will be more efficient. "We feel that if the central government handled the distribution of books, or even charged a small sum for it, somehow, the book would have got to the students in time," Dr. Gunesekera said. Another idea being discussed now is the possibility of tying up this course with a Rupavahini programme which is accessible to all students.

"In designing the course we had to take into account the fact that we are dealing with students with varying proficiency levels of English, since it was a book that would be used in Colombo as well as the more rural areas. So we designed the course in gradual levels of complexity. And we have encouraged the students to pick parts of the book that they find useful or manageable.

We have also tried to select topics that would interest the teenager. Real life, authentic language situations were used. And it is standard Sri Lankan English that is used throughout the course," said Dr. Gunesekera, explaining some theoretical considerations that had to be taken into account.

Not all-theoretical issues have simple answers however. "What English do we speak really?" questioned Dr. Gunesekera. "This is a sensitive issue. We are talking of many diverse communities and the students may have to get involved in many of these. For example, if one wants to enter the business community, just teaching them 'Business English' may not be enough.

The students might have to know to talk about other subjects that have no relevance to it - rugger, for instance. We have to face issues like these. The vital question is - Are we to keep the majority in ignorance or are we to try and teach them?"

Next Week: The implications of this last question: The 'Kaduva' syndrome.

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