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Effective English language teaching

Consultative needs analysis surveys conducted by the British Council over the past three years for in-service teacher education programmes in several states across India, illustrate that government school English language teachers are on the whole, aware of the key principles of English language teaching highlighted in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005.

They generally agree that English language learning is best developed through exposure to English, meaningful practice in groups and pairs, and focus on communicative competence and skill development. But when English language teaching is witnessed live, it is difficult to find evidence of the application of these NCF principles.

Gaps between policy and practice are not uncommon anywhere across the world and are widely reported. This is because while some teachers may voice the ‘right beliefs because they are aware of the pedagogical principles which underpin national policy, privately they may believe such principles are flawed.

Alternatively, while most teachers agree with NCF principles, they feel they are impractical because of systemic constraints such as the format of assessments, large class sizes, inadequate early child-hood education or content of textbooks etc, which make application of their beliefs too challenging. In fact, the way we organise education, assess learners and support learning with textbooks that themselves may not be in line with officially approved principles, can force teachers to act against their beliefs to get the job done”.

Thirdly, teachers may simply lack the skills and confidence to implement their beliefs effectively. In some cases, teachers may not even be trained to teach the English language.

Moreover, the surveys findings indicate that training itself can be a barrier in some cases. When the format of training is lecture-based, conducted by academics rather than classroom teachers, and fails to demonstrate the experiential, interactive nature of constructivist learning, it is likely to prove ineffective.

Regrettably, teachers are usually blamed for this gap between policy and practice overlooking the reality that they need greater support from the system. Systemic solutions are necessary to resolve systemic problems and short, one-shot training courses are of limited value.

Nevertheless despite policy and infrastructure issues, I have been inspired by many teachers with whom Ive worked and who have innovated conducive pedagogies to effectively teach English in primary and secondary schools across India. Sharing some of their innovations and best practices could prove inspirational.

For instance, one small group of teachers in Delhi found it difficult to introduce group and pair work into their large-size classes and simultaneously meet the demands of the syllabus. However, they were adamant in their belief that group and pair work is essential for students to develop English language speaking skills. Therefore they decided to reserve their Saturday period for group activities based on content introduced through the week.

Another teacher arranged her students in groups and pasted the seating arrangement on the classroom door, so everyone was seated before she entered the classroom. This innovation not only established balanced peer-learning groups but also saved time, as she didnt have to organise students into groups at the start of every lesson.

A good idea with multiple benefits is to involve top management with classroom innovations in English language teaching. A teacher who was experiencing difficulty with implementing interactive activities in her classroom, invited her principal to observe her class and render advice. This stratagem enabled the principal to better understand what she was trying to do and why, and the teacher benefited from the principals experience and advice.

On another occasion during a teacher training session, I heard a teacher complain that it was impossible for her to use only English to teach first generation learners, as they werent able to understand her instructions. The teacher trainer persuaded her to persist and report back. She followed the trainers advice and found they understood more than she had assumed.

All these small examples demonstrate a number of valuable lessons:

Its important to share your concerns and problems and seek help and advice from colleaguesIntroduce changes gradually and adapt them to the local context
Ensure that your innovation is reasonable and supported by school leaders
Dont make assumptions about what will work and what wont. Try it out and analyse the response
Dont blame, investigate!

If you believe that English language communication skills are essential for your students future, you need to innovate pedagogies that work in your classroom. But at the same time you must press school leaders and officials to plan systemic changes that will help you implement policy in the way it was envisaged.

(Alison Barrett is head, English Partnerships, British Council India)

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