17th August 1997


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Teaching English: a panorama of experiences

By Gem Karunaratne

Nineteen ninety seven has been termed as the year of 'Educational Reforms' and the teaching of English is high on the list of priorities. I am convinced that the English teacher and his/ her command of the spoken and written language is the prime factor in the teaching of English, although other considerations obviously matter. I remember visiting a small school near my home during supervision of teaching practice. I was surprised that the children responded well to the lesson and I asked the Headmaster, a Muslim gentleman, the secret of their success. He was embarrassed as he confessed that he took the English lessons himself, although he was a Mathematics trained teacher. His command of the English language and enthusiasm contributed to their success, although he had never studied English Methodology! This citation stresses the need for testing spoken and written ability before recruitment.

How far has the textbook and the curriculum an influence on the teaching of English? A few years ago I was commissioned by the National Institute of Education to conduct a research study on "English Teacher Effectiveness with special reference to the use of the Communicative Approach".

I spent over one year on this project, visiting a large number of schools in Colombo, an area which had good facilities for teaching English and Puttalam, an area very poorly served with facilities and teachers, using a stratified random sample. The study was presented at the National Institute of Education to an audience comprising University Professors, Directors of Education, Principals of Teachers' Colleges, lecturers and teachers. It revealed that the majority of teachers in the sample found the textbooks useful, particularly those teaching in type 1 AB Schools. However many teachers in disadvantaged schools could not use the textbooks at all, as they were far too difficult. The textbooks remained in the school cupboards. Others too thought the books were not easily understood.

The study revealed three broad levels of ability in the schools. As an interim measure it was recommended that English should be taught and tested at three levels; the lowest level following very simple material based on primary concepts and the environment. The second level could use a modified text book with dialogues and the minority in the highest level if ability could follow a more challenging and advanced syllabus.

If the present books were to be used there should be additional material for the gifted. The books used in schools contained a few theoretical and abstract lessons, but the dialogues based on the communicative approach were generally enjoyed. The workbooks had useful exercises but unfortunately had not been well distributed. A drawback in the system was that it tended to ignore the needs of the gifted. This tendency was highlighted in an earlier study which I carried out for the University of Colombo entitled "Gifted Adolescents of Sri Lanka" (M.Phil thesis 1981).

These gifted students will be the leaders of English language teaching in the schools and universities in the future. A student from a prestigious Colombo school excelled in creative writing but made mistakes in spelling and grammar. She confessed that she had never learned grammar at school. "I am ashamed to tell you that I do not know when to use 'wear' and 'where'. Please help me. Students of this type could maintain the high standard of English for which Sri Lanka was reputed in the past. They require a more challenging syllabus with an emphasis on grammar.

The teaching of literature presents special difficulties to our teachers, as literature cannot be taught at a superficial level. A student from a prestigious school thought Eleanor Rigby was so poor that she picked up rice, as those attending the wedding had eaten rice and curry in the church. Her loveliness was merely a matter of physical hunger to the boy concerned; he completely missed her longing to partake of the joyful experience of the bride. In the old A level poetry book the three trees and the old white horse in 'The Journey of the Magi" were part of the scene. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ denoted by these objects had never been mentioned. In the new book students are under the impression that sonnet No. 18 was 'written to a beautiful lady'. In the G.A.Q. and Degree classes the study of Milton baffled most students. Reference to the Bible could have helped to clear confusion regarding "that one talent which is death to hide" (Sonnet on his Blindness) "the worthy bidden guest (Lycidas)" and God hath pronounc't it death to taste that tree (Paradise Lost BK IV) . I noticed with pleasure that the new G.A.Q syllabus of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura prescribes the study of the Book of Genesis. With regard to the teaching of literature, the education of teachers on the proper lines is strongly indicated.

The teaching of English has to be a cooperative venture, devoid of petty jealousies and conflicts. In my experiments in the Mirigama District, I found that team teaching helped to overcome many problems in the schools. Similarly we English teachers have to get together as a team to enable our students to gain mastery of this powerful international language which will stand them in good stead in facing the future.

(The writer is a former principal of an English Training College and a research fellow at the National Institute of Education)

A relaxing hobby

By Chamintha Tilakaratna

[Image]One of the many traditional arts of the land of the rising sun, Japan, is 'Ikebana,' and Nobuko Munidasa, is one of the few who practise this art in Sri Lanka. Ikebana developed from the Buddhist ritual of offering flowers to the dead, and has evolved over more than six hundred years, achieving the status of an art form independent of its religious origin, though it continues to retain strong symbolic and philosophical overtones.

Ms. Munidasa's mother had sent her to an Ikebana school, Ohara school in Japan, at the age of twelve and since then she has been studying and practising the art. In Sri Lanka alone she has held around six exhibitions and her seventh will be on August 23 and 24 at the VIP lounge of the Galadari hotel, which will be declared open by the Japanese ambassador to Sri Lanka Ms. Sugiyama.

"I hope to bring out the Japanese culture and to arouse interest in this disappearing art through the exhibition," she said. Over twenty Ikebana creations will be on display at the exhibition and the entrance fee will be Rs.150. " The art of Ikebana takes a lot of patience and time, not to mention that it is a little difficult to practise in a country like Sri Lanka where there are no four seasons like in Japan, which means that one will have to make use of the same flowers throughout the year," she added.

Having to import flowers for the exhibition as a result, Ms. Munidasa also stated that she, however, encourages her students to make use of the plants and flowers that they find in their gardens which are unique to Sri Lanka.

"Ikebana is flower arrangement which is more simple and gives more space than the western style of flower arrangement. But today, western styles have been combined in the Ikebana forms and vice versa," Ms. Munidasa said. According to her, it is a very relaxing hobby, which she does purely out of the love for it and not to make an income."

A literary analysis

[Image]Jackson Anthony, versatile actor and dramatist will present a literary analysis of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra's stage play 'Maname', at the Drama Festival to be held next week to commemorate the first death anniversary of Prof. Sarchchandra.

The play Maname, which is included in the A/L syllabus for Sinhala Language has generated much interest and discussion on it's composition. This book titled 'Ebavin Bihiviya Maname' (so Maname was born) is an attempt by the writer to analyse the socio political background on which Sarachchandra based this drama. Jackson Anthony is presently pursuing post graduate studies at Sri Jayawardenapura University.

[Image]In commemoration of the first death anniversary of Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra a number of his famous stage plays will be re-enacted at Tower Hall, Maradana. The Drama Festival will continue daily from August 20 - 29 at 6.30 pm. The Festival will open with the staging of 'Maname'. On the 26th another brilliant play by Sarachchandra, Sinhabahu, will go on stage.

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