From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya At a time when the country’s public education system is in the doldrums with shortcomings being revealed almost on a daily basis, a small revolution is on its way to transforming at least one aspect of it – that of English teaching. It’s well known that the difficulties encountered in teaching [...]


A mini revolution in English teaching


From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

At a time when the country’s public education system is in the doldrums with shortcomings being revealed almost on a daily basis, a small revolution is on its way to transforming at least one aspect of it – that of English teaching. It’s well known that the difficulties encountered in teaching English at school level have for decades posed a challenge that education authorities struggled to meet. It was a complex problem that required a correspondingly creative response if there was to be any headway.

It would appear the ‘Presidential Initiative on English as a Life Skill’ launched three and a half years ago has succeeded in making a breakthrough in this area, where few others were unable to make any impact. Today, the initiators of the programme claim, many children in village schools will speak in English. They may make mistakes in grammar and pronunciation no doubt. The breakthrough lies in the fact that they have overcome the fear of speaking the language. This fear of making mistakes, and being laughed at,was the main hurdle faced by teachers earlier.

While international standard English is accepted as the formal written form of the language, the English as a Life Skill project focuses on spoken English for the purpose of ‘communication, employment and access to the world of knowledge and technology.’The programme’s slogan ‘Our English, our way’ points to the difference in the approach used. A newly trained band of English teachers has banished the attitude that students must learn to speak English as Englishmen do. A whole new set of teaching material, including DVDs for distance education, has been developed with their input.

The first set of these teaching material was presented to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees on Tuesday. At this ceremony a group of schoolchildren from Uva Province presented a skit that demonstrated, with brevity and wit, the difference in their new learning experience. Education Minister Bandula Gunewardena on the same occasion announced that spoken English would be tested at the GCE Ordinary Level exam starting from 2015. This indicates that the new approach has been integrated with the education system at every level.

Sunimal Fernando,Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on English, attributed the ‘fear factor’ in students to two sources — socio-cultural and psychological. One lay within the school system which, the Presidential Advisor said, apishly copied the same approach that was used in Britain.It was unsuitable because unlike British children who spoke the language at home before they started learning to read and write in school, our students had hardly heard a word of English at the time they were introduced to the subject. English was taught to them in the manner of dead languages like Pali, Latin or Greek, where the teaching does not include speech. As a result students developed an excessive ‘reverence’towards the language,which forbade any mistakes being made, and created a huge barrier.

The other obstacle he identified was that English was the language of the elites, who controlled the English teaching enterprise. People from this narrow segment of society could not relate to a village child. After 1956 when the underpinnings of elitism were eroded, English remained the last weapon of the elites who jealously guarded it to maintain their status. The teaching enterprise controlled from Colombo, Peradeniya and later Sri Jayawardenapura could not understand why this exercise did not work, despite the fact that the language was taught five hours a week for 10 years by 23,000 teachers in 9,700 schools.

Fernando’s approach appears to have turned this system upside down. He went to the villages and talked to the Provincial Directors of Education, under whose purview 90 percent of the schools function. It was with their insights and the input of other provincial education officials and village English teachers from all nine provinces that a new concept emerged. “We never allowed anyone from an English speaking home or elite school to take leadership. The only qualification was that their home background had to be Sinhala or Tamil speaking.”

A toolbox of activities was developed to make learning an enjoyable experience. Fernando says it has been so well received that children referred to the day allocated for the Spoken English class as ‘sellang davasa’ (‘fun day’). Another guiding principle he applied was never to ‘order from above,’ but to let teachers innovate and create their own activities. The objective was to make students to speak without fear so that gradually with practice the mistakes would be corrected.Looking back on this process, he says the qualitative shift in the approach to teaching in fact reflects the President’s development philosophy very well.

It is possibly Fernando’s background as a sociologist that made him uniquely suited to the task of identifying where the barriers to learning English lay, and addressing them.For instance, at one point it became evident that there was resistance towards the programme from school principals, some of whom were not releasing the teachers for training. There were cases where the principals and their deputies could not speak English, leading to situations where students might potentially look up to the English-speaking teachers more than the principals. Realising that this situation affected the power structure in the school, a decision was made to give all principals and deputies too 100 hours of English training.

The task of ‘training the trainers’ was carried out with the help of scholarships from the English and Foreign Languages University of Hyderabad, India. A national cadre of 122 Master Trainers of Spoken English was established with 320 Assistant Trainers to help them. Fernando says he can ‘never forget’ how the then Indian High Commissioner, Nirupama Rao, came forward to recommend the EFLUas the ideal place for this training. It has a special focus on teaching Spoken English in situations where it is not spoken at home. Today under the English as a Life Skill programme,all English teachers in the public school system have received 80 hours of immersion in the teaching of spoken English.

There is yet some distance to travel before this bold initiative can claim to be a complete success.Fernando is confident of getting there. “There is a huge thirst to learn English”he says. “The President gave me a winning horse to ride!”

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