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.)