Why do we need Writing Centers in our Universities?

Unlike the Writing Centers of the US universities, ‘Writing Center’ is an unknown entity in the Indian Universities. All postgraduate students can write academic papers, can’t they? Go to a library, read the books and journals recommended by your professor and prepare your term papers or your assignments . There’s no body to guide you, no body to tell you how to avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism, how to write critically and independently. What is MLA style sheet? Nothing to do with the MLA ( Member of the Legislative Assembly!
Are writing Centers writing labs? How does the University community view the functioning of the writing centes in the USA? Referring to the status of the writing centers in American colleges, Lisa Ede makes a significant observation, “our second class status is symbolized by our basement offices and inadequate staffs and budgets.” (Ref: “writing as a Social Process: A theoretical foundation for Writing Cente, retrieved from http://casebuilder.rhet.ualr.edu/wcrp/publications/wcj/wcj9.2/WCJ9.2_Ede.pdf
I am glad that I was associated with the writing Center of our University. Unlike the writing centres of the American universities, this Writing Centre was planned not so much in the space of building English language skills but as a more specific intervention that supported the “academic writing and critical thinking” of the students irrespective of the medium in which they had studied earlier during their school or college days. It was designed as a one to one consultation space for the postgraduate students of Education and Development to refine their thought on the formats of their assignments and to provide them timely help on specific assignments. The primary objective of the Writing Center was to help the students to write better and to construct arguments more logically, precisely and convincingly.
The most challenging task faced by the students coming to the Writing Center was the challenge of cohesion and coherence, thematic as well as linguistic. Often, there was a mismatch between the coherence of thought and the coherence of expression. Again, even when some students were competent enough to develop an argument orally, they were confused do so in writing. “ You speak so nicely and you articulate your ideas so brilliantly. Why do you feel so uneasy in expressing them in writing?” I used to ask some of them who were afraid of writing an assignment as per the norms of a particular discipline. I realized that what these students needed was scaffolding. They had the ideas, they had listened to their professors with a critical bent of mind and had read a number of scholarly books, but were unable to present their point of view in a cohesive manner due to their insufficient exposure to the domain specific writing style. It was not a question of their lack of proficiency in English, it was a question of the lack of exposure to the domain specific conventions and the rhetorical practice.
The Writing Center also helped me in gaining a new insight into ‘process writing’. With many students, structuring their ideas in writing was more problematic than structuring their paragraphs and it was often noticed that the lack of linearity in processing the thought content affected the processing of the writing output.
On the basis of my interaction with a highly motivated group of students coming from English as well as other Indian language backgrounds and hailing from the various parts of the country, I do believe that all the Indian colleges and universities should make provisions for ‘writing centers’. The fact that you are a native speaker of a particular language does not guarantee that you can write academic papers in that language. We learn writing as a developmental process, through mentoring, experimenting and exploring. We don’t learn it just by listening to the academic discourses of our professors. Don’t lull them with your rhetoric, give them a hands-on experience.

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Elementary Teacher Education in India: An Exercise in Futility?

While I was going through the course material prepared for the Diploma in Elementary Education course of the DIETs of a particular Indian State, I got the following mail from a teacher educator who was also a member of the team which was developing course material for language papers. The topics were: “Understanding Language and Early Literacy”, “Proficiency in English and Pedagogy of English”. The mail written in Hindi says, “डाईट विजिट के दौरान मैंने/ हमारे कई साथियीं ने वहाँ के Teachers and Pupil teachers दोनों की ही स्थिति को देखा| वे अंग्रेज़ी तो दूर, हिंदी में भी उतने प्रवीण नहीं हैं| Pupil teachers के लिए दो से तीन पृष्ठों के हिंदी आलेख पढ़ना भी कठिन कार्य है|” ( While visiting the DIETS, we have observed the language proficiency of the teacher educators and the their trainees. Not to speak of English, the trainers as well as their trainees are not proficient in Hindi. For the ‘pupil teachers’, it is a very difficult task to read two or three pages of an article written in Hindi.”) This report made me sad. What will these would be teachers (the trainees of the DIETs) do after completing their Diploma in teacher Education! I wondered. If you can’t read a few pages written in your mother tongue, how will you teach that language to your pupils? I wonder if the development of course materials for a Diploma course in Teacher Education for the ‘would be teachers’ who are not proficient in any language will serve any practical purpose!
In nutrition, DIET is the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism, in the Indian education system, DIET is an organization entrusted with the responsibility of teacher education at the elementary level. But go to a DIET (District Institutes of Education and Training) in any part of the country, you will be appalled by the lack of diets in these DIETs! Academically, they are the victims of malnutrition.
Right from the Kothari Commission 1964-66 to the National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education (NCFTE 2009), the professional preparation of the teachers has been recognized to be crucial for the qualitative improvement of education, and keeping in view the paramount importance of the professional preparation of teachers, a number of teacher education institutes including the District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) have been established across the country over the years. As the teacher educators of these teacher education institutes are entrusted with the responsibility of facilitating and enhancing the professional competence of the teachers and the student-teachers at the various stages of school education, various commissions and policy statements have also stressed the need for enhancing the professional competence of these teacher educators. But, unfortunately, the teacher education institutes where these teacher educators are involved in both the pre-service as well as the in-service teacher education programmes, often take for granted the professional competence of these teacher educators. Far from being the centres for cultivating academic rigour and critical reflection for developing pedagogical practices, these teacher education institutes are often reduced to formal training institutes churning out would be teachers years after years.
Lamenting on the lack of academic rigour noticed in the existing teacher education programmes of various teacher training institutes, Chattopadhyaya Commission, 1983-85 remarked, “ Institutes of teacher education have become breeding grounds of academic stagnation and resistance to change. The training of teachers happens in insular, intellectually impoverished environments that are severed from ground realities as well as the aims of education they espouse. Such intellectual isolation actively discourages educational theorization and the growth of disciplinary and interdisciplinary enquiry.” The intellectually impoverished environments of many teacher training institutes discourage the urge for professional development lying dormant in the minds of many a teacher educators engaged in the pre-service and in-service training programmes. Emphasizing the urgent need for developing teacher educators, NCEFT, 2009 made a special reference to the systemic and academic overhauling of the DIETs which are expected to play a pivotal role in the field of teacher education at the grass root level. The NCEFT 2009 pointed out the present scenario prevailing in the DIETs in a very unambiguous manner. “Currently, DIETs find themselves under-equipped in required faculty capabilities, the faculty appointed do not possess basic experience in primary school teaching, insights into primary education problems and professional skills in teacher training and research.” The concern for the professional skill development of the teacher educators and the need for developing their knowledge-base for professional growth are the recurrent themes of NCEFT 2009 which comes down heavily on the absence of specially qualified teacher educators in elementary education and suggests that the “ preparation of teacher educators for the elementary stage needs the inclusion of a variety of scholarship from the sciences, social science, mathematics and the languages.”
Teacher training institutes of India need total overhauling and a pragmatic course of action. We cannot allow the under qualified teacher educators to ruin the future of millions of primary school children across the country. ” Some thing is rotten in the State of Denmark!” but we are afraid of calling a spade a spade. “sada satyam bruat, opriyam satyam ma bruat” . Always speak the truth, don’t speak the unpleasant truth!!!!

Unlocking my heart with a new language

Learning a new language is always a challenge as well as a reward at any point of time in our life. Just as Shakespeare unlocked his heart with his sonnets, don’t we want to unlock our heart with a new language?
When I joined the University three years back, I attended a one month course in Spoken Kannada arranged by our University as I thought that learning a new language,( the State language of Karnataka, South India) would be an asset for me emotionally, socially and a culturally. I attended all the classes enthusiastically and religiously, the instructor was very kind and supportive, the class mates were cooperative and we had a lot of fun too. But the limited exposure to a new language which is totally different from my other tongues failed me miserably when I tried to interact with the Kannada speaking people outside the classroom. The situational language teaching which taught me the functional use of Kannada in specific situations did not work in the real field.
“auto, hosa roadge borthara?”(auto, will you go to the Hosa road?), “ munde hogi” (go staright), “ illi Nilsi” (Stop here), “uta aita?” ( Had lunch?), “Hegidhira?” (How are you?). “Chennagide” (fine), “thumba chennagude” ( very nice), “tea beku, coffee bera” ( I want tea, not coffee)…… well, I know how to use these expressions, but the day to day interaction with the common people speaking Kannada demands more than these expressions. Though my month long formal Kannada class introduced me to a new language, I am not confident enough to use it for social interaction. I wonder, why? Though I live in a society where Kannada is the dominant language, though I have the motivation and the urge to learn the language, I failed and failed miserably.
The spoken variety of Kannada that the people speak is far away from the bookish Kannada that I learnt in my class. In normal speech, many expressions are shortened, morphophonemic changes take place regularly and the contexts make many known expressions unknown. Hedging is another area that confounds me. But what contributed to my failure are the kind responses of my interlocutors. When the native speakers of Kannada find that I am struggling with my Kannada, they immediately switch over either to Hindi or English. If I were a child, my companions would not have done that. They might have laughed at me for my inappropriate use of the new language, but they would have continued with their own language providing me the necessary linguistic environment.
There is a popular belief that the younger the learner, the quicker the learning process and the better the outcomes. It is believed that older learners of a second language rarely achieve the native-like fluency that younger learners display. Well, I don’t believe in the ‘critical period hypothesis’ and I don’t hope to achieve native like fluency in Kannada. All, that I want is to be a competent user of a new language even after 60. Then, what are the impediments? It seems that you cannot learn a new language without a total immersion in the target language. Don’t try to be a language learner, try to be a language user. Language learning is a performing art and in order to perform well, you need a platform. I could not learn Kannada well as I am yet to get a platform to perform.
Learning the Kannada alphabet was not easy too. The Kannada language has some important features that make it unique in relation to the languages I know (Assamese, Bengali, Hindi and English). Unlike English, in which the letters of printed words map to the speech sounds, Kannada is an alpha-syllabary language based on the ‘akshara ‘system, in which each ‘akshara’ maps to phonology at the level of the syllable. Again, unlike Assamese, Bengali and Hindi which are comprised of less than 40 letter units; Kannada is made up of over 474 CV symbols, along with diacritic marks for consonants.
The path of language learning is not always full of roses, it is a long journey full of linguistic as well as non-linguistic challenges. But, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep”.

Materials for teaching English in a non-native context

Creating suitable materials for teaching English in a non-native context is a challenging proposition even for an established material writer. Apart from the theoretical issues involved in the planning and the actual production of the materials, the material writers on English language teaching are often confronted by the diverse English language teaching scenario prevailing in the non-English speaking countries of the world. The question of the suitability and the authenticity of the material from the point of view of pedagogy and cultural sensitivity haunts a material writer of an English textbook right from the conceptualization to the actual publication of the book.
I remember the days when I had to teach communicative English to a group of undergraduate science students. The course book published by an international publisher and prescribed by my Indian University for the “Functional English Course” had a lesson which started with an advertisement published in an English newspaper. The caption of the advertisement said, “Wanted a wife for a Month”. In the same book, there was a task for the learners, “Tell your friend how you spent your last week end,” Well, I had to use these materials for facilitating communicative activities in a large class of 18 year old boys and girls. An advertisement published in a local daily catering to the needs of tourists in an island and an innocent topic like ‘week end’ or ‘ Friday night’ were too embarrassing for some of my colleagues who used the said textbooks in other sections of the same class!
The use of culturally unacceptable issues in English textbooks used in non-English speaking countries can make the teaching-learning of English a very uncomfortable experience for the teachers as well as the learners. Therefore, in order to make the English course books ‘global’, publishers and course book writers should be careful of the ‘sanitisation of content’ (Gray,2002:166).
But, a mere ‘sanitization of content’ in the English textbook is not enough from a pedagogic point of view. I would, rather suggest that English textbook writers who write textbooks for the countries of the ‘expanding’ and the ‘outer’ circles should aim at ‘deculturizing’ the course books. The mere avoidance of culturally inappropriate materials in the global English text books does not yield the desired learning outcome. Deculturiszing the English textbooks by incorporating locally available resources appears to be a more meaningful alternative. The inclusion of local topics, concerns and the perspectives of the local people make the course book acceptable, socially as well as psychologically to the non-native learners of English.
Balancing ‘globalisation’ and ‘glocalisation’ is a difficult task for an English course book writer who wants to write an English textbook aimed at capturing the international market. Too much ‘glocalisation’ may affect the ‘authenticity’ of the material presented in the English textbook. Can we present English in our textbooks without taking note of the ‘target language culture’? How to make a balance between ‘inclusivity’ and ‘authenticity’. Any answer?
Tomlinson’s book, ‘Materials Development on Language Teaching’ (CUP), Block and Cameron (ed) book, ‘Globalization and Language Teaching’ (Routledge) and Canagarajah’s ‘Resisting linguistic imperialism in English Teaching’ ( (OUP) are good resources for refining our theoretical understanding related to material production in ELT, but the actual production of good authentic materials suitable for non-native learners of English needs something more than a theoretical understanding of the principles of material production. Empathy with your English learners coupled with a sound theoretical understanding of the principles of material production in language can make you a successful course book writer in English in a non-native context.

Writing for Scientists Workshop Notes

There are so many courses available on ‘creative writing’ and ‘academic writing in English.’ But can we teach ‘creative writing’ or ‘academic writing’ as we teach the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing? Here is a nice blog in which the blogger says, “the whole process of working with formal written language is one of fine-tuning as opposed to actually teaching” Don’t you think so? We should try to facilitate the writing experience of the learner who is interested in exploring the world of creative writing or the genre called academic writing in English.

Thinking Change

Below are some extracts from my talk for TESOL France/CUP last Saturday, as my slides were really minimal I thought this would be more useful. Still in bed recovering from the bronchitis so apologies for lack of proof-reading, proper conclusion etc.. A big thank you to Bethany Cagnol and Terry Elliot and all those of you who attended and gave me support.

In my experience the whole process of working with formal written language is one of fine-tuning as opposed to actually teaching.I don’t really believe that one can teach writing skills in the same manner as one can deductively teach a grammar point.

Writing is such a unique expression of the self and while we can make people aware of register, range of lexical terms, the use and effects of stylistic devices, rhetorical devices and conventions of the given field, it is unsustainable to actually make someone write a…

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What’s your identity? Teaching Language or Literature?

“I wonder if I could meet you today to discuss my seminar paper, Sir,” I asked my English professor with ‘due respect and humble submission’. The grey haired bespectacled English professor looked at me gravely and thundered, “If you want to meet me, meet me. Why are you wondering?” Well, I was not wondering or wandering at all, I had made a polite request! The professor of ‘English literature’ interpreted my request too literally, I suppose. My knowledge of Grice’s ‘cooperative principles of conversation’ and Brown and Levinson’s notion of ‘politeness phenomena’ failed me miserably. Was there any ‘Face Threatening Act (FTA) on my part? I asked myself.
When I joined English Language Teaching Institute and declared openly my preference for English language teaching (not English literature), I met the same professor one day and invited him to visit our Institute. He retorted, “Sorry, I can’t. You have gone astray!” ( To quote the actual utterance, ‘tumi beleg phale ghusi gola!). Yes, I had gone astray! I had opted for the “Road not Taken.” Even after making my obeisance to Shakespeare at his birth place and spending lovely evenings on the bank of the Avon in the company of the statues of Lady Macbeth and others, even after spending a year in the birth place of D.H .Laurence, I had defected from the illustrious group of professors of English literature to a dubious club of English language practitioners. Instead of teaching Wordsworth and Shakespeare to groups of highly competent postgraduate students studying in ivory towers, I preferred to work for the ill equipped English language teachers working in the most disadvantageous places of the country. Literature has its sublimity, language has a responsibility!
An uneasy calm exits in the corridors of the English Departments of many Indian Universities. Those who teach literature and those who teach English language belong to two opposing camps. Sometimes, they are not even in speaking terms! Discussing Leavis, Roman Jakobson, Bhatkin, Derrida, Lacan and Julia Kristeva in English in a postgraduate class is intellectually stimulating and professionally satisfying, but, how do you feel when you know that half of the students attending your impassioned discourse on literary theories are unable to use English for communicative purposes?
What is literature, by the way? Isn’t it an example of language in use and a context for language use? “Studying the language of literary text as language can therefore enhance our appreciation of aspects of the different systems of language organization” (Carter,1982:12). How can your students appreciate literature if they have not developed the requisite competence and sensitivity in the related language?
In order to make the study of English literature a meaningful and rewarding experience for the non-native students of English, an integrated English language and literature course should be designed in our Universities and the Department of English should be renamed as the ‘Department of English Language and Literature’. A literature professor blind to the wonderful resources of the language and a language professor blind to the unlimited resources of the literature of that language are anachronisms today. It is often observed that English language specialists and practitioners are blissfully oblivious of the beauty of English literature and shun the resources of English literature. Similarly, many teachers of English literature tend to ignore language and linguistics as if they are too mundane for them. Language and Literature are the two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?

English nursery rhymes: the first lesson in gender discrimination?

Death, desolation, destruction and gender discrimination are some of the recurrent themes of a number of ENGLISH NURSERY RHYMES. Nursery rhymes have a very important role to play in the development of a child’s language awareness and language sensitivity. But how do they affect the cognitive development of a girl child when she sings and repeats them during her childhood? Popular English nursery rhymes seem to be linguistically useful, but cognitively harmful for the girl child. Is there any research done in this field? I wonder. The power of language or the language of power monopolized by the patriarchal society?
The language of nursery rhymes is generally very simple and suggestive and the rhythm and the picturesque quality of nursery rhymes captivate the impressionable mind of children. The musical quality of the rhymes have no correlation with their thought content and neither the singer nor the listener is interested in deciphering the meaning of the rhymes. Rhymes for the sake of the rhymes, just for music and fun. Nothing serious? Are we sure?
A number of well known English nursery rhymes are gender biased and they present the girl child as a subordinate to the male child. The nursery rhyme: “Jack and Jill went up the hill/to fetch a pale of water/Jack fell down and broke his crown/ And Jill came tumbling after” presents Jill as a poor girl who has no option but to follow Jack. Jill, in this nursery rhyme represents the girls of a patriarchal society. Why can’t Jack come tumbling after? Does it affect the male ego? By teaching gender biased nursery rhymes, aren’t we instilling a sense of submissiveness and inferiority complex in the mind of the girl child?
In the rhyme , “Polly put the kettle on,” it is Polly who puts the kettle on, as the kitchen will be her domain when she grows up! “Peter put the kettle on” would be sacrilegious for the male child.
In the rhyme, ‘Sing a song of six pence’ the girl child is very subtly introduced to ‘parlor’, ‘bread’ and ‘honey’, the counting house has been kept reserved for the male child. “The king was in his counting house/ Counting out his money/ The queen was in her parlor/ Eating bread and honey.” Doesn’t this rhyme seem incongruous in an age when men and women have an equal right to the ‘counting house’?
English nursery rhymes present the male child as robust, energetic, adventurous and ambitious while the girl child is presented as meek, humble and submissive. Take the example of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb”: “Mary had a little lamb/ Its fleece was white as snow/ And everywhere that Mary went/ The lamb was sure to go.” The similarity between Mary and lamb is too obvious. Cant we say, “ Michael had a little lamb”? No, we can’t, because the meek lamb and the meek little girl child collocate nicely in the psyche of the male composer of this nursery rhyme!
The theme of violence is all pervasive in a number of English nursery rhymes. “The maid was in the garden/ Hanging out the clothes/ When down came a blackbird/ And pecked off her nose.” The picture of a bird pecking off the nose of a maid is not at all a pleasing experience for an innocent child. Is it desirable to portray a bird as the villain of the piece? Moreover, why should a blackbird target a ‘maid’? Dose it imply that girls are not capable of thwarting the evil design of the attacker? Can’t a blackbird peck off the nose of a male? It seems that the patriarchal society derives a kind of sadistic pleasure in portraying women as helpless creatures even in the nursery rhymes! A girl child gets a taste of gender discrimination, albeit unconsciously, by repeating these gender biased nursery rhymes!
The apparently innocent nursery rhymes are not so innocent; they seem to have a hidden agenda in instilling a sense of inferiority, helplessness and discrimination in the impressionistic mind of the girl child. Linguistic development affecting the cognitive development!