The Tyranny of English Textbooks at the Primary Level: An Indian Experience

Have you ever looked at the English textbooks used in the regional medium primary schools of India from the perspective of the children who are taught English as a second language along with their mother tongue? These textbooks are by the experts, for the experts and of the experts, not for the poor children who are subjected to the ingenuity of the high profile text book writers.
Textbook writers writing English textbooks for children learning English at the primary level in the vernacular medium primary schools often fail to look at the world through the eyes of the children for whom they prepare English language textbooks and consequently, these children find the materials presented in these textbooks silly, boring and meaningless for communicative purposes.
Consider this activity given in the Class I English textbook of NCERT: “ Have you seen an aero plane? Let’s pretend you are a pilot flying an aero plane. (a) What will you see outside your aero plane (i) during the day, (ii) at night? (b) What will you see inside your plane?” How can a child imagine what a pilot sitting in his/her cockpit notices inside the plane? High flying textbook writers are too obsessed with their adult world view. Don’t they know that for the spontaneous use of the target language, the activities should be suitable from the child’s cognitive point of view too? Many activities given in Indian English textbooks, unfortunately, are too threatening for the young children. Far from generating lively conversation in English in the classroom, these activities give rise to route learning. Shouldn’t we try to put an end to these teacher-centred activities thrust upon the poor children struggling with English in a non-English environment?
Let’s take another English Text book for class I currently being used in one of the Indian States. Following the principles of situational Language teaching, the said text book for class I presents English in familiar situations, but these situations, unfortunately, are so contrived that the children stop communicating in the target language! To quote three examples from the said text book.
Example 1:
The teacher asks questions, “Is this my nose?” (Pointing to nose) Answer – “Yes.” (pointing to leg) Answer “No.” “Is this your ear?” (Pointing to a child’s ear). Answer –“Yes.” (Pointing to a child’s mouth) Answer-“ No.” Even before coming to school, an Indian child of class 1 can identify her ear or her nose and knows the names of these two body parts in her own language. In the name of introducing new vocabulary in English, why should we subject her to these silly questions? How will your child react if pointing to her leg you ask her “Is this your nose?” Won’t she feel irritated? Well, this is English teaching at the primary level in our vernacular medium schools.

Example 2:

There is a picture of a boy along with that of a girl. The teacher asks the children to color the picture of the boy, if they are boys, or to color the picture of the girl if they are girls. The teacher goes to a child and asks, “Are you a boy or a girl?” What a mockery in the name of situational language teaching! The first lesson in gender discrimination! Asking a child of class 1 if she is a boy or a girl is again a silly question. What kind of Communicative language teaching is visualized by the textbook writers?

Example 3:

Read the story with the help of your teacher: I went to the market

“I went to the market. I bought a white reddish. I bought two purple brinjals. I bought three orange carrots. I bought four red tomatoes. I bought five green chilies.”
Will a Hindi, Bengali, Kannada or Tamil textbook for class 1 ask a child to read such a boring and unproductive story in her own language? A child of class 1 goes to market and buys “five” green chilies! In the name of using English in real life situations, we are sending a child to market where she will count five chilies and buy them to learn English.
All the English textbooks prepared by numerous textbook preparation committees of many States claim that they are prepared as per the principles enunciated by NCF 2005. In the Prefaces of these text books it is also claimed that by using these textbooks, the children will be in a position to use English in real life situations. The English textbooks, unfortunately tell a different story. The lack of correlation between the objectives of the syllabus and the English text books, the absence of a connection between the learning experience of the child in the classroom and the life outside the classroom, the inability to relate the new to the earlier knowledge of the child and the lack of authenticity of the materials presented in the English textbooks negate the ultimate objective of teaching English at the primary level.
Experts conversant with the theories of learning, child psychology, early literacy and the pedagogy of teaching English in a multilingual context should be sensitive to the linguistic, cognitive and the cultural needs of the children who are the end users of the English textbooks. Look at the world through the eyes of the child if you are preparing a language textbook for your child.

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