26th October 1997


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My goodness, it's my method!

Notes From An English Teacher's Diary: "Notes From An English Teacher's Diary" - Part 3

-by C.N.S.

Fresh from Gov ernment Training College, Maharagama, where we were instructed to use what was known as the "Direct Method" to teach English as a second language, we tried to teach English without uttering a word of Sinhala. We created lots of situations in which to speak English, asked questions and got answers to them, gave instructions and made the pupils carry them out.

"Siripala, go near the door," was one such instruction. Siripala ran to the door and brought to us the gunny bag (goniya) that served as a door-mat in that cadjan-thatched classroom in a government school in Uva.

A colleague in this same school, George Ratnayake, later an Education Officer (English) at a seminar organized by the de Lanerolle Committee on the Teaching of English related this illuminating story. A GTC trained English teacher was teaching the first lesson in English, according to the scheme prepared by the Ministry of Education. It dealt with the Verb Pattern Subject +BE+subject complement/adjunct as in "This is Nimal". "This is Sarath", "This is Kamala", etc. The enthusiastic newly trained specialist teacher went round the class touching each pupil's head and saying "This is Nimal", "This is Sarath", "This is Kamala" etc.

At the end of the lesson, the Education Officer asked the children in Sinhala, "What does "This is Kamala" mean? "Me Kamalage oluva" (This is Kamala's head) was the reply he got in chorus.

So much for the success of the Direct Method, popularized by the British Council and visiting British ELT experts in those early days of English as a second language in Sri Lanka!

There is also the oft-quoted story of a "Demonstration Lesson" at GTC where an enterprising English teacher who taught the Present Continuous Tense by demonstrating how to make a glass of orange juice. She took with her an orange, a knife, water, sugar and everything else required for the purpose. "Teaching aids," they are called.

Her pupils watched with the keenest interest the meticulous manner in which their teacher washed the orange, cut it in two, and squeezed it into a bowl as she spoke the present continuous tense verb patterns "I am washing the orange." "I am cutting the orange." "I am squeezing the orange" and so on until her delicious glass of orange juice was ready. She even took a sip or two of it and tried to say at the same time, "I am drinking orange juice".

When asked at the end of the day, what they had learnt in their English lesson, the pupils replied, "We learnt how to make orange juice." They had missed the wood for the trees. The aim of the day's lesson was to teach the Present Continuous Tense in English. The teacher was given an "A" for her lesson!

"My goodness, my method! was the title of an article Dr. Douglas Walatara, renowned and revered English teacher-educator, wrote as follows in the first issue of Changing Times.

I remember an old advertisement of Guinness. A man seated under a crane lowering its load suddenly realizes that his glass of Guinness may be crushed, and shouts, "My goodness, my Guinness!" The attitude to method among teachers at teaching practice is a similar one of sanctified love of one's method.

It is high time our teachers of English realised that they were individuals gifted with intelligence, lovers of their subject, with one aim uppermost the communication of knowledge, whether it is "wide" or "linguistic." The teacher of English is a teacher of culture, judgement, assessment. Every method will have to be subordinated to the need to get across, to teach, to communicate. So a good teacher is never a slave of any method, but the master of all methods, with the potentiality for creating ever newer and newer methods, if the aim uppermost, i.e., communication of knowledge, demands it. Often he may have to translate to achieve this. The ultimate test of one's success is whether one has "taught" not whether one has observed one's methods.

The ultimate in an obsession with "visual aids" and "method" was a demonstration lesson by an ELT specialist at an In-Service Course for English teachers. He took to his class a contraption in the form of a plough just to teach the pattern, "The farmer is ploughing his field". The pupils remembered the "nagula" but forgot the "plough" its spelling, its pronunciation and how to use it as a verb in a sentence!

These "teaching aids" that are given high priority in teacher training courses are not seldom of dubious value and sometimes a positive distraction. "Techniques" are a highly marketable commodity, a result of the flourishing trade in "knowhow". Teacher training has suffered from this technological side effect. Techniques of teaching English have eclipsed the importance of knowing the English language.

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