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.


Why is it difficult to learn a new language in a formal language classroom?

Learning a new language is always a fun as long as you don’t have a language teacher around you! There is nothing more interesting in life than exploring and appreciating the beauty of a new language. Many language teachers, unfortunately, do not accept this simple truth. They make the life of a learner miserable by using their ill-conceived theories of language acquisition and language learning. It’s a pity that many language teachers frighten their learners with their ingenious pedagogical practices. Ask a child if she is afraid of her language teacher and you will find out the grim truth! Why can’t the language classroom replicate the universal success in the acquisition of basic language proficiency that a child spontaneously achieves outside the classroom?
When I was young I fell in love with a language which belonged to an alien language family. The songs and the folktales of that alien language impressed me so much that I learnt how to respond to that language even without knowing the intricacies of its grammatical rules. The language called ‘garao dima” by its native speakers is popularly known as Dimasa, a member of the Bodo group of languages which come under the Tibeto Burman family of languages. As a speaker of an Indo-Aryan language, I found it very difficult to learn a tone language in which the adjective follows the noun: ‘a beautiful girl’ in that language is a ‘girl (malasa) beautiful (Majangbi)’, If you pronounce the word ‘hatai’ with a level tone, it means ‘tooth’, but if you pronounce the same word with a high tone, it means ‘market’. If someone asks you: “bra thangma?” (where are you going?) and you reply “hataiha” (to the market) with a level tone, you will mean that you are going to the “tooth”! It should be “hataiha” with a high tone. My rendezvous with that fascinating language came to an end rather abruptly when I had to leave the place called Dima hasao. But the echo of that language resonates in my ears even when I am thousands of miles away from the beautiful land of the Dimasas.
In retrospect, I am amazed to recollect how I learnt Dimasa informally, from the market place, from my chats with friends, from my interaction with villagers in interior villages like Didambra and Nobdilangting and through my immersion in Dimasa folk songs and folktales. In those days, I knew nothing about the “top down” and “bottom up approaches”. There was neither CLT nor CALL, but I learnt a language just because I loved it and was surrounded by the sounds and the rhythm of that language. Many of my friends of my youthful days used to laugh at me as I lived for years together in a hut built exclusively for me in a Dimasa village by a large hearted person who appreciated my tryst with a little known language. It was total immersion, total dedication and an unconditional love for a language. All the theoretical discussions on the role of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for learning a new language were meaningless for me. I learnt it as I got a total exposure to that language.
Years later, when I started learning Kannada, (ಕನ್ನಡ)/ˈkɑːnədə), I was amazed to find out that ‘I had breakfast’ is “Naanu tinDi tinde” in Kannada but ‘I finished my lunch’ is “ooTa aaytu.” The word for breakfast is “tinDi” but I can’t say “Naanu tinDi aaytu”, it is always “tinde” not ‘aaytu.” No language teacher taught me this usage, I learnt it the way the Kannada speakers use it. To cite two more examples. (a) When to say “hEgideera” (How are you) and “hEgideeya” (How are you)? (b) “What are you doing?” means “Enu maaDutta ideera?” as well as “Enu maaDutta ideeya?”. Well, it depends on the context, for elderly people, I would say, “ Enu maaDutta ideera?” but for my friends or juniors, I would say “Enu maaDutta ideeya?”
Language is a social behavior, don’t spoil it with the prescriptive grammar. Listen to the people, talk to the people, love the people, you will learn a language in spite of your language teacher. Using a language is a performing art and while performing in a new language context, we should remember ‘who speaks what language to whom and when?’.

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!

A Language pedagogy rooted in Indian tradition

During my childhood, my father used to ask me to get up early in the morning to recite after him an incomprehensible song
“मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥’
“mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhā tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ/ yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam” which can be translated in English as “ Hey hunter, you will find no rest for the long years of Eternity/For you’ve killed an unsuspecting bird in love.” Though the sound and the rhythm of the verse enthralled me as a child, I did not know the meaning of these two lines even during my high school days. Later, I was glad to know that I used to start my day with the first sloka of Sanskrit literature that had emerged spontaneously from Valmiki’s rage and grief.

Ours was a basic primary school modelled after Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of basic education. The school would start with two songs, one in Sanskrit and another in Arabic. As soon as the school bell rang 10 o’clock in the morning we would start singing

ॐ ईशा वास्यमिदँ सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ।।
“Ishaavaasyam idam sarvam yat kim ca jagatyam jagat/tena tyaktena bhunjithaah maa gridhah kasyasvid dhanam” (The entire universe is indwelt, enveloped, covered by the Supreme Being; /Live a happy life in this world. Enjoy your existence; do not suffer.) Though we could not understand a single word of the sloka, we recited it for long five years day after day twisting our tongue to make the correct pronunciation.
Years later, when my daughter started her nursery classes in a Christian missionary school, she would start her day singing ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Without knowing the meaning of the prayer, she recited it days after days and loved reciting it just as I loved reciting those incomprehensible Sanskrit hymns or slokas taught by my father and my primary teachers.
What was the purpose of bombarding me with incomprehensible input? Was it a meaningless ritual or was it an attempt to introduce me to my rich linguistic and cultural heritage? Was it indoctrination? What was the theoretical justification? The behaviorist approach? I do admit that learning by memorization echoes the behaviourstic principles of repetition, practice and habit formation. But my exposure to poetry in an unknown language or my daughters exposure to psalms sung in a foreign language did not go in vain. They introduced us to the world of sound, music and rhythm, they enhanced our language sensitivity in a very impressionable period of our lives. It does not matter, if you are introduced to Sanskrit or English. What matters is the linguistic input, comprehensible or incomprehensible.
The notion of’ ‘input’ propounded by Krashen is not relevant in the context in which we learn languages in Indian schools. Krashen’s input hypothesis states that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. He called this level of input “i+1”, where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1” is the next stage of language acquisition. The pedagogy used in Indian classrooms does not and cannot follow the input hypothesis propounded by Krashen. It should be “incomprehensible input +1”. Don’t we start acquiring our mother tongue with incomprehensible input? Read aloud sessions advocated by the champions of Early Literacy Programs also start with incomprehensible input.
The euro centric ELT pedagogy being followed in Indian primary schools is fraught with dangerous consequences. The elitist ELT pedagogy which is linked with the global ELT industry is alien to the Indian tradition of language pedagogy. I fail to understand how the same teacher can follow two pedagogic traditions in the same school for teaching two languages to the same students in the same class! In ancient India, knowledge was transmitted orally and a great emphasis was given on ‘Sruti’, learning by the ear. Even today, in Indian schools, language learning in the mother tongue mostly depends on verbal learning at the primary level. Supposing, as a primary teacher, I teach Hindi and English at the primary level. In the Hindi class, I follow a pedagogical approach, in the English class, I follow another. What a mockery of the language pedagogy! How do children learn more than two languages informally even before going to school? It is the oral pedagogy, the listening to learn. Can’t we replicate the context and the pedagogy in our formal classrooms in the vernacular medium schools of India?
The NCF position Paper on ELT advocates a multilingual pedagogy but it is strange to note that even after the publication of this highly acclaimed document twelve years back we have not prepared our English textbooks as per the pedagogical approach advocated in that Position Paper. Why should there be two separate periods for languages? One for the school language and another for English? Can’t we have an integrated language class where both the languages are introduced simultaneously? We learn all languages in the same way, be it the first or the second and therefore, a differential pedagogic treatment does not seem to be desirable during the early years of language learning.
Oral repetition was one of the common pedagogies used in ancient India not only for teaching languages but also for teaching mathematics. (Reference: Subramanian,J. 2012. Indian Pedagogy and Problem solving in ancient Thamizhakam, History and Pedagogy of Mathematics Those who are interested in exploring the traditional Indian pedagogy of language may read the article The relevance of Hinduism to English language Teaching and Learning by Bal Krishna Sharma

ELT and Social Justice: Opportunities in a time of chaos”

JJ Wilson’s plenary on “ELT and Social Justice: Opportunities in a time of chaos” at IATEFL 2017 Glasgow conference had enough food for thought for the English teachers attending the conference. How can an English teacher explore issues related to social justice in his/her language classroom? Why should he/she do so? What are the theoretical issues involved in such an exploration in a language classroom? What will be the nature of the pedagogy involved? Are all English teachers capable of venturing into a terrain which may affect ELT itself?
JJ Wilson is widely published in the USA and the Uk and his blogs at and are very popular. According to the IATEFL brochure, JJ Wilson has trained teachers in 30 countries and he is at present the writer- in- residence at Western New Mexico University where he teaches ESL Methods, Linguistics and Creative Writing. Based on my reading of his blogs, I expected a lot from his plenary talk given at the Glasgow IATEFL conference and I am glad that JJ Wilson was at his best on that memorable day. The style of his presentation and the message that he shared with the audience can never be forgotten by anyone who listened to him delivering the plenary.
JJ Wilson examined the arguments for including social justice issues in ELT classrooms and demonstrated the ways in which social justice issues can be used in the ELT classroom for enhancing the learner’s competence in English along with developing awareness of emerging social justice issues across the globe. He not only spoke about the theoretical issues, he also showed how classroom activities such as storytelling and poetry reading can provide input rich environment for introducing social justice issues in a language class.
The three questions raised by JJ Wiliams were : (a) What is social justice? (b) What does social justice have to do with ELT ? and (c) How are we qualified to teach social justice? The answer to these questions is based on the assertion that “All education begins with what students bring to the class.” Education, we must agree, starts from students’ experience and therefore, English teachers should explore the desirability of using social justice issues in their English classrooms.
In order to demonstrate the actual classroom practice involving ELT and social justice issues, JJ Williams asked the audience to take a piece of paper and perform the following tasks: (a) illustrate an issue that you are passionate about, (b) find a partner and explain to him/her what you illustrated, (c) discuss how the issue is represented in your work and (d) lift up your picture and show it to the world. Apparently, very simple tasks, but they were very effective in sending the message of his talk.
He showed a few photos of classrooms around the world and asked the audience to ponder on the materials, technology, environmentand decoration used in those photos of the classroom.
JJ William read a wonderful poem “I remember” and asked the audience to repeat each line. The tasks to be done: (a) Write a list of words which represent your background, (b) What has changed since you were a kid? (c) Why?
Referring to stories, JJ Williams asked the audience: What kind of stories can we use to teach social justice? The answer, according to JJ Williams, is “ Stories of ordinary people doing great things.” What a great message! It has implications for ELT material writers too. JJ William wondered why ‘it takes rich white western celebrities to save the developing world while so many people in the developing world saving themselves?”
The talk prompted the audience to look at social justice issues from a new perspective and raised a pertinent question: Can I teach English without taking into consideration social justice issues confronting the learners across the globe?

Julie Moore is a freelance ELT writer and lexicographer based in Bristol, UK. Her main interests are in vocabulary teaching and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). She worked on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English and Oxford EAP (C1). She was also involved in developing and writing the new Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice books. […]

via Focusing on vocabulary for academic writing — Oxford University Press

Grammar is Glamorous: Listening to David Crystal at IATEFL Glasgow, 2017

Listening to David Crystal is always a joyful learning experience and we are grateful to IATEFL online for arranging an interview with him during the IATEFL Glasgow conference, 2017. During the interview, David Crystal talked about his latest book on the glamour of grammar and the impact of Brexit on the English language.
‘Making Sense: the glamorous story of grammar’ is a great tribute to grammar by one of the greatest experts of the English language who knows how to demystify grammar dispelling the popular misconceptions about grammar. Grammar is glamorous and both the words ‘grammar’ and ‘glamour’ are related, David points out during the interview.
“Why do you call grammar glamorous? How is English grammar glamorous?” Grammar is glamorous if you look at it from ‘semantic’ and ‘pragmatic’ perspectives, David asserts with examples. Why do we say, “you are prohibited” instead of “We prohibit you”? Words by themselves do not make sense, it is the grammar that expresses the meaning, it is the grammar that makes sense of our oral or written discourses.
Listening to David, I remembered what he had written in his book “Making Sense: the glamoros story of Grammar.” In the said book he had categorically stated, “ Words by themselves do not make sense. They express a meaning, of course, but it’s a vague sort of meaning. Only by putting words into real sentences do we begin to make sense. We begin to understand each other clearly and precisely, thanks to grammar, because grammar is the study of how sentences work.”
David admits that for most people grammar is boring, it’s just analysis. People always feel uneasy about the various points of grammar, they are often worried that what they say may not always be what they mean. During the course of the interview David assures us that grammar need not be daunting. We are afraid of: grammar because we do not know the true nature and function of grammar, the more we understand it, he argues, the more sense we will make.
In order to make his point of view clearer, David says that learning grammar is like learning driving. Learning to drive does not mean learning the functions of the wheel, the brake, or the other parts of the engine, it is learning all about the road and the sensitivity. Similarly, learning grammar does not mean learning the functions of the subject or the predicate, it is about the sensitivity of the language.
During the interview, David expresses his views on children and adults learning grammar and the impact of Brexit on English language. If you are interested to know more, log in to . I am interested in the glamour of the English grammar only, stylistically speaking. Grammar and stylistics go hand in hand, if you study grammar, study stylistics.