An Online English Language Enhancement Course for Primary teachers of Regional medium schools of India: an innovative Telengana Experiment

 Even after studying English as a compulsory language during their school or college days many teachers working in Government or provincialized non-English medium primary or secondary schools of the country often hesitate to speak in English confidently when they are required to do so. This lack of confidence is not due to the lack of their knowledge of English.  Many teachers of these non-English medium schools can read and write English quite well, their written English may be the envy of many teachers working in English medium schools.  But words often fail them when they try to speak in English. Have we ever enquired how a teacher feels when he or she is unable to comprehend English news bulletins or to take part in a formal or informal discussion in English? If you ask them what makes them uncomfortable in speaking English, they may point out their limited knowledge of English vocabulary, some may  blame the irregular pronunciation rules of English, some of them  may say they  are confused by the subject-verb concord of the language and many of them confess that they   are baffled by the differences between the formal and the informal registers of the language. All the teachers, however, admit that the lack of an adequate exposure to authentic  English and the scope for speaking English in real life situations are the two deterrents that affect their proficiency in speaking English fluently and confidently.

What’s the solution? You can’t start a spoken English course for these teachers as you do for children learning a new language. Card games, whispering games, using syllable stress bingo, fun with silly tongue twisters are effective tools for enhancing the speaking skills of young learners but these tools are not suitable for adult learners who are already capable of reading and writing in English with varying degrees of proficiency. They find these techniques too contrived and mechanical.  As they have an advanced knowledge of the usage of the target language, you can’t teach them when to say “How do you do?” and when to say “How are you?” You can’t use the standardised spoken English courses marketed by international agencies as the themes and the locales used in those course books are too alien to our Indian teachers. We have to remember that these teachers are educated adult learners, they are well placed in the society, they have a positive self-image and they are linguistically and academically far more advanced than an average learner of a foreign language.  Moreover, they don’t need English for any instrumental purpose, they teach their respective subjects in their schools quite effectively and confidently without any proficiency in speaking English fluently.

 The only practical solution is to help these teachers to use English in non-threatening situations and to give them a lot of comprehensible and compelling inputs for using English meaningfully in domains in which they feel comfortable.  Practicing English with self-respect without any compulsion or inhibition can help build both the teachers’ confidence and competency in speaking English fluently. Prompting them to take part in dialogues which require verbal responses and by involving them in discussions  on topics related to their immediate experiences, needs  and challenges are two effective ways of developing spoken language skills of our teachers who hesitate to converse in English even after learning English for  ten or twelve  years  during their school and college days.

The discussion done so far is based on my personal experience of being associated with an online English proficiency course named “English Language Enhancement Course (ELEC) Level 1” which is being conducted jointly by Azim Premji University, Bangalore and State Council of Educational Research and Training(SCERT), Telengana, Hyderabad, India. It is a nine-week online course which aims at empowering all the primary teachers of Telengana in a phased manner in speaking English confidently, fluently and spontaneously in their work places as well as in situations encountered by them in their day to day life. The course helps them to comprehend the main ideas of any conversation done in English and to produce simple connected texts on topics related to their professional, personal and social lives. By providing compelling and comprehensible input the course enables the participants to describe experiences and events, ideas and responses to a wide variety of topics related to their immediate environment and this prompts them to interact in English with their fellow participants in a non-threating situation. The course aims at developing the fluency of the learners without making them obsessed with grammatical accuracy. 

It is a theme-based course and these themes are selected keeping in view the interest of the adult learners involved in teaching in the primary schools of a State. Each of the themes is explored during the course with the help of video-watching, reading the related texts and engaging with structured tasks monitored by the mentors and the facilitators of the course. Each of the tasks requires the participants to respond  orally. They upload audios of their own speech, listen to others’ audios, respond to them and interact with their peers during the online classes. The use of break out rooms during the zoom sessions makes the group discussion quite animated and interesting. They discuss the issues from their individual perspectives taking cues from personal experiences. They watch a video, listen to a TED TALK or a story narrated in English and discuss them with their peers with the support of their mentors. The focus of the discussion is on the meaning making and not on the language. During the process of articulating their point of view the participants speak in English with least inhibition and without any obsession with grammatical accuracy. Online group discussions, panel discussions, role play on topics related to the themes, sharing personal narratives are some of the techniques used during the course.

The duration of this on line course is for nine weeks. During the first and the nineth week, there are two webinars of 90 minutes each, one in the morning and another in the evening  in addition to  2 hours of self-study per day which amounts to 25 hours per week.  During the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth weeks, the participants attend one webinar of 90 minutes every week in addition to self-study of 4 hours per week which amounts to 5.5 hours per week.

With effect from the last week of August 2020, the 5th phase of the English Language Enhancement Course referred to in this blog is being attended online by more than one thousand Govt. primary teachers of Telengana. 15 (fifteen) batches having two sections of about 40 teachers each are attending this online program quite enthusiastically. Each batch has one Coordinator and each section of each batch has three Mentors. In the break out rooms the mentors facilitate the discussion on the themes selected for a particular week. 80% of the  talk time for a particular session is reserved for the participants and 20% of the talk time is for the Mentors or the Coordinators.  The on line as well as the off line support provided by the Mentors and the spontaneous participation of the teachers during the zoom session enhance the speaking skills of the participants. The voluntary mentoring by a highly motivated team of Coordinators and Mentors  sponsored by SCERT, Telengana,  the  theme based lessons prepared jointly by Azim Premji University and SCERT, Telengana, the logistic support provided by the University and  a detailed planning by all the stake holders are the key to the success of this online program.

The evolution of the course took place in a collaborative manner. In the month of July 2019, the first draft of the content and the pedagogical approaches for the Course were discussed with a group of 15 highly qualified Resource Persons of SCERT and the DIETs of Telengana followed a brainstorming interaction with 103 Government primary teachers of the State. This interaction helped the Course developers to understand the teacher’ English language needs and fine tune the course content. In the first phase 138 teachers joined the course in the month of February. This was followed by Phase two leading to the third phase having 346 participants. In order to scale up the program, the fourth phase started with more than one thousand teachers in the month of August 2020.

The learnings from the course: (a) Online English language programs for Indian teachers is  a viable proposition. (b) We learn to talk only by talking, not by memorising grammatical rules. (c)  English teachers should give up their obsession with grammatical accuracy while inspiring their learners to speak in English. Fluency should precede accuracy. An undue emphasis on grammatical accuracy demotivates the learners. Once fluency is acquired by the learners they may be guided towards accuracy. (b) For the success of any online program for teachers we need a dedicated team of teacher educators who are willing to work beyond the normal period of their official duty. (c) Teachers are willing to attend courses when they find the courses relevant, interesting and non-threatening.  (Can you imagine a zoom session for 90 minutes starting at 6pm in the evening continuing  till 8 pm or beyond  without any sign of fatigue on the part of the participants?) (d) Teachers can become tech savy within a few days and can get all the advantages of online courses without any inhibition. ( e) Academic and administrative support  of the all the stake holders and a positive vision of teacher education  can inspire and empower the teachers even in the midst of a global catastrophe.

(It is a personal blog and the opinions expressed in the blog are based on my personal reflection on an   on line course in the field of English Language Teaching in India.)



The vision of an Education system that will be second to none: A Paradigm shift in Pedagogy

I may not be alive when India gets an “education system by 2040  that is second to none”, but I will die a peaceful death thinking that all Indian learners will get an access  to the highest quality education in this  country itself regardless of the social or economic background. If the vision of the new National Education Policy 2020  is translated into action realistically, parents like me won’t spend the last farthing of their hard-earned money for sending their children abroad for higher education.  Our university campuses full of American, British, Canadian  and French students pursuing higher education will be a  sight to see just as I saw  hordes of international students  on a number of campuses of the British and American universities.  

Why do Indian students go abroad for studies when we have so many reputed colleges and universities in our country? Why did I  go abroad  to get just another post-graduate degree in English when I had a post-graduate degree  in English from one of the Indian Universities? Many years after I had a taste of education abroad, I did not hesitate to visit Bank branches for an educational loan for my daughter’s undergraduate studies abroad. “Why are you so crazy”, people asked me? “Is it a good investment?” friends and relatives cautioned me. But I knew the nature of the life changing experience that students get in the reputed universities abroad.

I did not enjoy studying in schools, colleges and universities in India. It was a compulsion, it crushed me, it made me dumb. My teachers never asked me to think, I was always expected to absorb my teachers’ thoughts. Even during my  Ph.D work I had to follow the dotted line,  I was terribly  afraid of my Ph.D guide. Any dissenting note was unacceptable to him and I knew that without his approval it would be impossible for me to submit my thesis.  

What a refreshing first class I had in a British University! The professor came to the class, asked us to have a look at the syllabus and to select the books that we would like to study during the first month  of our M A class. The selection was not at random, we had to justify our selection, all the post graduate students argued a lot, tried to justify their selection and I was awe struck by the depth of the literary discussion we had on that first  day of my M A class in a British University.

As an Indian student I expected rhetorical lectures   from my learned English professors. The image of my Indian professor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be” and transmitting his interpretation of T.S.Eliot’s “Hamlet an artistic failure”  was still fresh in my mind. But to my utter surprise , the grey-haired English professor entered the class and asked us to tell him how everything had turned upside down in the very “first act of Hamlet”.  He stopped and the responses from the students came one after another, “Here is  a play in which a guard is on duty and some body is approaching him in the dark. Instead of the guard challenging the intruder, it is the intruder who challenges the guard. The changing of guards at Elsinor is itself abnormal and it signals the abnormal things which happen in the drama. A brother kills a brother, marries his dead brother’s wife, a son promises to kill his father’s murderer but when the opportunity comes  he philosophises, a young man professes his love for a young girl but does little to honour his love.” The professor did not tell us these things, we discussed and he facilitated the animated discussion. We learnt from one another; the professor just prompted us how to look at things from different perspectives. It was an enjoyable learning experience for me. The professor did not analyse the text, neither did he burden us with his critical note, he simply showed us the way to explore literary texts. He   guided us  to become  autonomous learners. Back at home, learners’ autonomy was  very difficult to find in our  universities.  The Pedagogy  of the oppressed!

I don’t remember on how many days I went to the college and university libraries during my a student life in India. But studying abroad, I spent more time in the library than within the four walls of the classroom. I had to find out the names of the relevant books related to the topics  we discussed in the class. I had to read them and tell the professors next day about my understanding of those books. In India, the teachers are expected to provide the reading list, not to speak of dictating notes or handing over photo copies of the materials students are supposed to read. Spoon feeding by the teachers in our schools and colleges makes our education system lacklustre, demotivating and ritualistic. It’s never challenging, cognitively as well as academically.

Unlike the ritual of the  final examination, we were expected  to submit  assignments during the whole academic year. My three term assignments done in a year  were  equivalent  to three M.Phil dissertations submitted by my friends in an Indian University. Examinations are never stressful abroad. But in India  examinations make the students, parents and all the stakeholder stressed.

As a postgraduate student in India, I was assessed for “what” I learnt,  but as a postgraduate student abroad I was assessed for “how” I learnt. My critical approaches to literature, my ability to explore language and literature and problem solving skills in the particular domain were tested during the course, not the content knowledge of the literary texts articles written on those texts. The system capacitated me and my professors facilitated the capacity building process. They did not interfere with my process of knowledge creation, it was just an academic support that led to my academic growth.

It is the pedagogy that matters. The new National Education Policy 2020 adopted by the Govt of India states: “Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centred, discussion-based, flexible, and, of course, enjoyable.” Do our universities care for experiential learning? Experiential learning is the inclusion of phases of reflection designed to help the learners relate a current learning experience to past and future experience.  Expressions like “experiential”. “holistic”, “integrated”, “enquiry driven” “discovery oriented’ “learner-centred”, ‘discussion based”, “flexible” and “enjoyable” call for a drastic change in our pedagogy used in schools, colleges and universities. These are not some high sounding  academic terms, they are the ingredients for making Indian education system  the “second to none” education system of the world as envisaged in the National Education Policy 2020.