Stepping over the ‘second language’ barrier
By Esther Williams
In keeping with the current educational reforms, English is being introduced as a medium of instruction in several schools in the country. So far almost 240 schools have implemented the programme that requires the subjects - Social Studies, Science, Maths and Health Science from Grade VI onwards to be taught in English.

Needless to say, to show outstanding results in the international arena and secure positions in the corporate sector, proficiency in the English language is imperative. While most teachers appreciate the importance of English as a global language and the need to change their medium of instruction from Sinhala or Tamil, actually making the transition seems a daunting task.

Although very competent when teaching their respective subjects in the mother tongue, some teachers feel nervous and lack the confidence to tackle the same subject in English, which they have studied as their second language.

The Teacher Training Course at the British School in Colombo has been designed to help teachers face the current changes in the system of education in Sri Lanka. A brainchild of Roshini Cabraal, the current bursar of the school, the programme is intended to meet the need for English teachers and teachers who can teach their disciplines in English.

"The country needs help to bring this about," explains Nirmalie Wickremesinghe, the Course Director who has been responsible for formulating the programme. "It is the British School's community reach programme to be involved with local education reforms," she adds.

A former Vice Principal of Bishop's College, Ms. Wickremesinghe has also been involved with the Amity Schools' Project and has worked with government teachers for around 16 years.

Personality Development, Effective Communication, Conversation and Role Play, Techniques of Literary Criticism, Formal English Grammar, Teaching Strategies and Methods of Assessment form the course content of the training programme that has been designed for those with basic teaching qualifications.

It is essential for teachers to be given an opportunity to gain confidence to teach in English, Ms. Wickremesinghe states. "It is OK for them to make mistakes," she insists adding that when they know that, they overcome their fear of conversing in English and facing interviews.

Ms. Wickremesinghe spoke at length of the importance of student centred education and interactive learning where the teacher is a facilitator. "Teachers should cater to visual, alternate and slow learners and use evaluation methods that provide techniques for storage. Otherwise students become rote learners - they study, reproduce and forget." New teaching strategies and techniques are hence being covered as well.

The 30-day teacher training programme spread over 10 weeks has had participants from Tangalle, Malwana, Nuwara Eliya, Nittambuwa besides Colombo, most being from government schools. School principals, school sponsored teachers and independent participants are among the 160 who have so far attended the programme.
"The training and knowledge I received has greatly improved my employability," enthused one participant, Shenuka Thalpitiya.

Added Thilini, "I enjoyed every minute of the course. As a parent I wish that these attitudes and methods of teaching can be used by the teachers of my own children."
Said Henry Corea, "I really enjoyed this course. I was very backward in English when I started. But now I have improved a lot. The teachers encouraged me a lot and that was just what I needed."

There has apparently been much demand for the programme from different regions including Jaffna. The British School also conducts weekend workshops to upgrade teaching techniques.

Principal of The British School in Colombo, Mr. Jon Siriter, an Inspector of Schools in UK for over nine years, has served in many countries and brings with him inputs from a cross-cultural perspective. His contribution to the sessions on self-evaluation has been immense. "We provide a framework for teachers to evaluate themselves from the set criteria and see how they can develop themselves."

Speaking of the school's initiative in the field, he says, "A school needs to serve the community it finds itself in - children, parents, teachers and the community at large by passing on the expertise we have to the next generation."

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