29th October 2000
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Madhubhashini Ratnayake looks at the problems of teaching English-Final part

Lessons to make teaching exciting and fun

In the final article of this series, a we will look at the SLELTA Conference as a whole, since, so far, what the series has been concentrating on were individual issues that arose from it. 

We started by sounding a cautionary note about being complacent about the teaching of English in Sri Lanka, and this series has tried to focus attention on other factors - some of them outside the purview of the English Language classroom - that play vital roles in the success or the failure of it. Here, we will leave the social-cultural-psychological-economic-political complexities of the situation aside and see how English teaching in the classroom can be improved, and how international networking can improve the position of the Sri Lankan English Language teacher. This too is important. And this is what the Sri Lanka English Language Teachers Association tries to deal with. 

Indeed, Tony O' Brien, Director of English Language at the British Council in London, speaking about ELTeCS (English Language Teacher Contact System) at the Conference, showed how networks develop and grow; how it has the power to involve many people as possible; how it can function as systems for setting up projects and bidding for funds; how it can aid in disseminating the best practice and so on. 

People coming together for the exchange of ideas, experiences, problems and answers; and thereby to learn from each other, was the most vital occurrence of the SLELTA Conference in September. In Sri Lanka, the combination of teachers from the primary, secondary and tertiary levels acting as one community interested in the same goals with regard to the teaching of English, took place perhaps for the first time. They were joined by others who shared their goal, both from the region and from the traditional "centres" of English. 

There was very useful input from the speakers from our neighbouring countries - since at grass-root level, the conditions they experience are similar to ours. For example, Fazle Rabbani and Shamima Tasmin of Bangladesh speaking about "Material evaluation in an ELT classroom", cautioned us to check whether the material provided will match the teacher's style and the teacher's language proficiency. The fact that that too was part of the reliability criteria in the checklist they provided to see if the material was valid and reliable, shows that it is always wise to keep the ground realities in mind, even as we absorb the knowledge disseminated from the "centres". 

Rathi Jaffer and a colleague from India spoke about "Innovation in Dissemination", showing us how technological methods like teleconferencing can be used to reach wide audiences. They spoke about a project done in Karnataka and Tamilnadu in India, where 800 English teachers took part in a tele-conference, since the numbers and distances were too large to handle if they were all to meet physically. Much planning goes into such projects, much help from the government and private sectors is needed too; but it is clear that such technological resources - even a simple television channel - can play a major role in the teaching of English in Sri Lanka as well, 

Moving on to some speakers from the West - Peter Medgyes, Director of the Centre for English Teacher Training at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, spoke about the use humour has in the language teaching classroom. In a plenary that had the audience laughing most of the time, he asked - given that everybody has a sense of humour, and that many would rather confess to murder than to a lack of it, why is it that course book authors pull such a serious face? 

Allison Ross, an examiner for Trinity College, London, spoke of the structure of Trinity College examinations in spoken English, with particular emphasis on the assessment criteria. She pointed out four criteria that are looked for in a candidate: Readiness, Usage, Pronunciation and Focus. She also discussed aspects of communicative competence, fluency and interaction, giving demonstrations of what fluent speakers are/are not like. 

Amy Hamlyn gave a workshop on how to use music and songs in an ELT classroom. To teach adjectives or the description of people, for example, she showed how it was possible to put on some music and ask the students to say what kind of person comes to mind when they hear it. Is it a man or a woman, young or old, lively, excited, brave, thoughtful?

There were also presentations by people at the decision making level with regard to English language teaching in Sri Lanka. For example, Vijitha Yatawatta, the Director of the National Institute of Education at Maharagama spoke on "Making the best of the course book - what the teacher can do". She dealt with the new set of English textbooks for secondary classes in the school system which were introduced in 1999. She spoke about the need the teacher has to bridge the gap between the materials and the learner's needs, since the same material catered to all students with their various backgrounds and learner states.

Then there were presentations by the English teachers of the British Council Language Centre. For example, Gerald Yorwerth, teaching here since 1989, gave extremely useful workshop sessions with his incredible resources of energy. He showed how comics and magazines can be used in language teaching classrooms and also spoke of the art of making effective presentations.

As these examples of a few sessions at the SLELTA Conference show, there is much that can be gained in further strengthening this Association. There were other valuable presentations that have not been dealt with in this series. The many school teachers who spoke at the Conference, coming from all areas of the country, showed the dedication and the commitment they have towards finding some answers to the problems of teaching English. Most participants had something to contribute. The involvement of the private sector was also apparent at the Conference, in the form of the Rotary Club of Colombo sponsoring 15 teachers to the Conference as well as lunch for all participants on the first day. All this is cause for being hopeful about improving the teaching of English in Sri Lanka. 

The current committee of the SLELTA, comprising Professor Thiru Kandiah as Chair, Nirmalie Hettiarachchi as Vice Chair, Rita Perera as Secretary, and Anushya Goonetilleke as Treasurer, along with the other committee members, is focused in its plans to strengthen and broad-base this Association. Among future plans is the holding of regular seminars, conferences, the publication of a newsletter, the conducting of workshops, the setting up of special interest groups and so on. There was free membership offered to all those who attended the Conference in September, and those who would like to join the Association, can contact the British Council, Colombo, for details.

A taste of Sinhala 

Of medals and metals

By Prof. J.B. Disanayaka
A medal is a piece of metal, usually in the form of a coin, awarded to commemorate some illustrious person or event. At the Olympics, they talk of three kinds of medals (padakkam):

ran padakkama (the gold medal)
ridipadakkama (the silver medal)
lokada padakkama (the bronze medal)

The gold medal is considered the most prestigious because we consider gold the most precious metal and the Sinhalese use the word 'ran' (pronounced like 'run' in English) to refer to many people and things that are considered valuable.

The Sinhalese have a habit of smearing on the lips of a new born babe a drop of milk (kiri) from its mother, mixed with gold (ran) and this custom is referred to as'ran kiri kata ga:nawa', literally, applying (ga:nava) gold milk on the mouth (kata). So our little ones have a taste of gold as they begin their life. The Sinhalese also use the term 'ran kanda' to refer to any person whom they consider precious. A lover, for example, would be called 'mage ran kanda' (my golden one).

In the days of Sinhalese kings, the chief queens were called 'randoli' to distinguish them from the ordinary ones, 'yakada doli' where 'yakada' refers to iron, a metal that is not as precious as gold.

Turning a 'silly' story to a work of art

Parakrama Niriella has had his successes in theatre, cinema and television. When he decided to adapt the popular poem, 'Sudo Sudu' to a teledrama, he was ridiculed, he recalls (in a preface to the published teledrama script released as a Sarasavi publication). To many, 'Sudo Sudu' was a silly romance by 'Keyas' - Sagara Palansuriya of the Colombo Era. (It was written in 1941). Many argued that Parakrama's effort would not contribute anything socially or as a work of art. 

To Parakrama it was a challenge. He saw in it a fine frame to work on a theme close to his heart - the environment. 

He was confident it could be turned into a vivid portrait of nature's beauty and charm. When the teledrama was telecast over Rupavahini in August 1999, surveys revealed that it had enjoyed a 68%-72% viewership - a fine response considering the number of TV channels and the type of programmes telecast at the time.

Parakrama realised he had to add a new dimension to the story. He found that Keyas had drawn a lovely picture of the village in the first verse. The next three verses introduced the three main characters - Tikiri, Adiri and Heenmenika. He then relates the tragic tale in 136 verses, which could be read and enjoyed in one breath. 

He had to interpret this into the audio-visual medium. So he introduced a little history and background to each character, developing the story based on the concept of cause and effect, which he found lacking in the original poem. 

Parakrama experimented with three singers who performed throughout the teledrama bringing out the inner feelings of the three key characters. Though at the beginning viewers found it a bit confusing, they soon accepted the vital role they played and the experiment was a total success. 

Mahinda Dissanayake's lyrics-(there were over 50 creations), Rohana Weerasinghe's music and Kulasiri Budawatta's choreography contributed much to that success. 

How he did it

In his preface, Parakrama vividly describes how he worked on the script. He needed solitude. When his fellow tele-director Ranjan Silva introduced him to Upali Jayalath, an estate superintendent in Deniyaya, he found an ideal spot to work on the script. "I was confined to a section of the bungalow. No one disturbed me. The bungalow assistant would give me a cup of tea and call me to the table when meals were ready. What a fine feeling it was to be away from the disturbances in the city. At least for a short time I was free from all obligations. By evening, through the window I would watch hordes of birds from the Sinharaja forest coming down and starting their symphonies amidst the trees around. I would go out of the room and enjoy their company. A cool breeze blew from the nearby hills. Down below I could hear the sound of water flowing. In such an environment it was easy for me to reach Katuroda (the village in 'Sudo Sudu'). That was through Kehelella, my own village where I grew up as a child".

Parakrama also saw the 'Sudo Sudu' characters in his village. 

"The headman in Katuroda was my grandfather who brought me up. Tikiri's bosom friend Adiri was my own dear friend Agirisa whom we all called 'Sena'. I developed the characters of Tikiri and Adiri based on the naughty things both of us used to do and recalling the punishments meted out to us. Heenmenika, Angohamy, Nonnohamy - they all lived in the village." 

Professor Sunil Ariyaratne assesses 'Sudo Sudu' as a successful attempt which only a clever scriptwriter like Parakrama Niriella could have achieved.

To Sunil, the original work had only a thread of a story, the characters were quite empty and the social background was barely visible. 

The plot was undoubtedly popular. That's why 'Sudo Sudu' was picked up for serialisation as picture stories in weekend papers and Robin Tampoe created a film. However, to translate it into the audio-visual medium was a great challenge. Niriella not only mixed the ingredients and wrote a good script but also created a beautiful teledrama.

Sunil sees a fine blend of everything - camerawork, editing, art direction, music and choreography - contributing to the success of the teledrama. 

It gave the viewer the same poetic quality that the original work by Keyas has been giving us for the past six decades. Possibly it has been published over fifty times. 

That's why even today there is hardly a student who does not remember at least a verse or two from 'Sudo Sudu'. 

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