A Fresh Approach to Teaching the English Language Innovatively

Language is the essence of civilization and no human society can function without the passing on of language from one generation to the next. In the article that follows the author tries to suggest ways in which teaching the English language can be an innovative, engaging and fulfilling exercise.

Sunanda Ali has been teaching English Language and Literature for many years. She now heads The Peepal Grove School, a residential school in Andhra Pradesh. 

It is impossible to conceive of what life would be like without language. Our earliest memories are of what our parents or other family members said to us; our memories themselves are couched in a language. There is a never-ending conversation with our own selves going on in our minds, a ceaseless babble of commentary, observations, recollections etc.

Yet another site of learning

Language can create, reflect or change our reality. As language is such an integral part of our lives, and indeed of our inner lives, teaching language seems like a formidable task. One doesn’t know where to start. Added to this, of course, is our peculiar problem; in our country, children study in a medium (English) which is not their first language, and many children engage with this language only in school. This is a fact which cannot be wished away, and any amount of sentiment (or politics!) only muddies the issue, and does not lead to a solution. (It is relevant here to say that children who are good in their mother-tongue (who have been talked to at home constantly, and who have been exposed to a wide vocabulary in their babyhood) find it easier to pick up other languages in school.)

How then, does one hit upon the right, or at any rate, a largely effective approach to teaching English? Language is used for both communication and expression. In our schools, when we encourage our students to use English to communicate something, or to express themselves in their writing, we call the lessons English ‘language’ lessons. When we read a book in class (or a poem/ play/ story/novel), where a writer expresses herself, when we study it and teach students techniques to critique it, we call the classes ‘literature’ lessons. As the primary goal in both these cases is to learn how the language works, in this article I will not make a distinction between literature and language but explore how to make all the teaching of English as effective as possible. As all language is motivated basically by the instinct to communicate, we need to understand that students will be motivated to learn and use the language, only if they feel/ see the need to share their thoughts and ideas. So, the primary task of the English teacher is to make the English class a space where meaningful interaction is stimulated. The teacher can do this in several ways: by engaging in discussions on a topic of interest, and encouraging each student to participate; by designing learning activities where students talk to each other or others in school (e.g. they interview each other, teachers, or workers); giving them writing tasks where students are motivated to share their thoughts or ideas on topics they can relate to easily. The key thing for the teacher to remember is that the content of the lesson must be something the students are deeply concerned with, which means that then the teacher will find it that much easier to get the students to read and write in English. Consequently, they will also be motivated to correct themselves when they see the teacher’s feedback as a pointer to making their communication (their writing, or speech) more effective. Hence, it follows that when the teacher recognises that English teaching needs to be based on a premise that language is a tool for effective communication, then the scope for ‘teaching’ it widens. And, in theory, can include everything. The teacher, can then, explore the possibility of using content from other subject areas (in collaboration with other subject teachers) to teach reading and writing skills.

In a Creative writing cum Physics exercise, I have seen a Physics teacher ask his students to write a story on ‘A World without Gravity’ where he was able to assess the students’ knowledge of the scientific concepts he had taught them earlier. Then, both he and the English teacher showed the students where they had failed to communicate their understanding clearly, and that they could make the scientific principles in their stories clearer by paying more attention to their English writing skills. An interesting project for Grade 4 & 5 children was done collaboratively by an English teacher and a Science teacher, where the children were taken for a walk to observe and note down all the wild flowers they could see.

They knew the names of a few and the Biology teacher helped them by giving them the names of some of the other flowers. For the flowers they did not know the names of, the children were asked to make up their own names. They were then asked to draw columns on a sheet of paper, write down the description of the flowers and their leaves, the place they were found, and any other characteristic. They were then asked to observe one flower as closely as possible and then make a drawing of it. As a further exercise, they were asked to write a paragraph describing all the attributes of that flower. This was a language exercise, where some children had to be guided to write a paragraph correctly.

This kind of collaboration between the English teacher and other subject teachers is exciting to think about. Not only because students who are not interested in English would be more motivated to improve their writing because they are interested in the other subject in question, but also because teachers can use content of different kinds in their classes. For example, the teacher can also source texts from Science Fiction, and share them with her students, where she can show them how the writer’s felicity with the medium has made her successful at communicating ideas from Science. We should never be tired of repeating to ourselves that language can only be learnt if students are clear that it is a tool to communicate their ideas/ thoughts and express themselves. Teachers need to ceaselessly look for content that students are excited by, or are interested in. A recent Sports Day Event in school can be used for a writing exercise where students are asked to write letters to their friends who have won, or lost, in the events they had participated in. (I have done this with interesting results).

The impulse to congratulate a friend who has won a race, and the empathy which a student would feel for (and hence, a need to console) a friend who has come last in it, would give rise to some original, heartfelt writing. After asking the student’s permission, the teacher can have a lesson where the students can sit in a circle and listen to some of the letters read out. Games like ‘Treasure Hunt’ for younger students at an elementary level to learn about prepositions and how to follow directions, circle games where each child starts a sentence with ‘If I were< I would’ are fun, and build language skills. The language teacher encouraging students to write letters to her in a special notebook opens up opportunities for communication and sharing of concerns, and also improves expression. Language learning takes place everywhere, and not only within the four walls of an English classroom. A story told to, or read out to, younger children is an excellent way to introduce a rich vocabulary.

A discussion over lunch, a word game during ‘Break-Time’, are all spaces which an English language teacher can use to reinforce learning. David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost experts on language, in his book ‘How Language Works’ talks about how we communicate meaning in our speech through our into nation. Intonation expresses feelings; pauses and stress draw attention to meaning and emphasises words we feel we want to give importance to. Appropriateness of language also is a very important factor in our social interactions. As we keep listening to people around us speak, we pick up these subtleties. Teachers need to capitalise on the human being’s inherent ability to pick up language.

An environment rich in the spoken language, access to books and other visual stimulation (like attractive posters containing words familiar to children) would make language acquisition easier. Language is fun, language is for exploring reality, language is for expressing our realities and language is for communicating with other people. We are told that the Icelandic people have more than ten words for snow.

As snow is such a big part of their lives, their language reflects it. We know that in India, we have many different words for our blood-relatives. Again, this phenomenon reflects our social reality where Indians are family oriented and our relatives make up a big part of our lives. All these and more examples show that language cannot be divorced from our daily lives, and that our language is a living fabric of our reality. Every year, new words are added to our dictionary, and words often change meaning over time. Given all this, it seems absurd that our English textbooks are structured around a set pattern: the lesson, questions on the lesson, grammar exercises based on given examples, vocabulary on words in the lesson etc.

There is often no interface between what is happening in the lesson, what is happening to the child outside the classroom, and what is happening in the child’s mind. It is necessary to see English language teaching as a seamless, ongoing process between the lessons and the child’s world. All that the syllabus asks us to do; the grammar, the vocabulary, the writing exercises, the study of literary works< can be done within this framework. That is the only way the child can learn the language, the way the language is meant to be learnt. English language classes and the pedagogy of English language teaching needs to work on this approach much more than it is doing now.

This article is published in The New Leam, SEPTEMBER 2017 Issue( Vol .3 No.27 – 28) and available in print version. To buy contact us or write at  thenewleam@gmail.com

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