English Textbooks and the rural children of Indian Primary schools: the great rural-urban divide

As I teach a course on ‘Curricular Material Development in Language’ in my University, I have collected/downloaded almost all the English textbooks used in the regional medium primary schools of various States of the country. These textbooks are prepared by groups of highly experienced English teachers, edited by a galaxy of ELT luminaries and approved by highly competent authorities of the respective States. But the suitability of these textbooks for the first generation rural learners of English is debatable from a pedagogic point of view. How authentic are these textbooks for the rural children of Indian Primary schools?
An analysis of the English textbooks used in various States indicates that the materials used in some of these textbooks are alien to the socio-cultural milieu of the first generation rural children learning English as a second language at the primary level. Lexical items, the locale, the points of view, the life style and the values presented in numerous English textbooks of various State Boards betray the perception of a strong elitist urban based educated middle class of the Indian society and consequently, the incomprehensible input presented in these books act as a demotivating factor in acquiring the required skills in the target language. A close stylistic analysis of the materials presented in the English textbooks used in the vernacular medium primary schools of India reveals the pedagogical irrelevance of these materials for a meaningful interaction in the target language. Many primary teachers have told me that some of the texts used in the English classes are not suitable for developing the learners’ communicative and strategic competence in the target language. Psychologically, culturally, socially and geographically, the materials used in the textbooks do not appeal to the rural children of Indian primary schools, they point out ruefully. English textbooks are about Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai. In the English textbook for class V of a particular State Board, for example, out of the six heritage buildings four are from Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Amritsar!
Though the NCF Position Paper on Curriculum, Syllabus and Textbooks suggests the preparation of suitable teaching learning materials to engage the child in active learning, English language textbooks used in the rural areas of the country fail to engage the rural children in active learning as they cannot relate themselves to those textbooks which are visually, culturally, socially and psychologically far removed from their immediate environment. An utter lack of context specificity of these textual materials and the absence of their relevance for the real life use of the target language pose a serious challenge for the rural learners trying desperately to use English for their so called ‘upward social mobility.’
Why should there be a mismatch between the pedagogic objectives of teaching English and the stylistic features of the materials presented in the English textbooks? It is really unfortunate that in the name of linguistic empowerment, the traditionally deprived rural children of India are often subjected to the tyranny of English textbooks. They often suffer from a sense of cultural displacement.
The English textbook for class V of a State Board has a lesson named “The Nuclear Test” which is narrated from the point of view of a little girl. Note the following sentences used in the story:
(a) “Anjali’s mother worked in an office and she left along with her father every morning. Breakfast was always cornflakes and it was usually sandwiches for Anju’s tiffin.”
(b) They would not go with them to eat out in restaurants. They would not watch movies in theatres. They would not enjoy shopping just for fun. They thought strap dresses were too foreign and short skirts totally avoidable. Pop music was ‘noise’ and ice-creams were ‘not good for health’.
Lexical items like ‘cornflakes’ ‘sandwiches’ ‘strap dresses’ ‘pop music’ and ‘ice cream’ are too urban-centric and they perpetuate the urban-rural divide. Supposing, you are a teacher of a Kannada or a Hindi medium rural primary school of India. How will the class V children of your class respond to “enjoy shopping just for fun?” How many teachers teaching English in the rural primary schools of India can use ‘window shopping” in an appropriate context?
The class V English textbook of another State has an activity for the learners. “Old age homes are becoming very common in big cities. Find out why do old people go and stay there .What sorts of services are provided in these homes?” Introducing the concept of “old age homes” to the rural Indian children of class V? Not to speak of villages, how many Indian towns have old age homes?
In another English textbook for class V of another State, the following activity is given to the class V learners of English: “ Suppose you went to a zoo with your parents and saw many interesting things there. Write five sentences to describe your experiences.” A typical urban perspective!


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