We are not high-brow or stark ELT specialists whose discourse goes overhead.


May 6, 2008, E D C, ISMU


We are not high-brow or stark ELT specialists whose discourse goes
overhead. We are practicing teachers, interested to take stock of what
we have been doing and what needs to be done in the next few years of a
very complex, different 21st century. As I look back, and critically
view the developments in English teaching profession, I regret to note
that the mental skills of speech and communication, reasoning and
analysis, creativity and imagination, intellectual stimulation and
challenge, and critical and independent perception have not been
advanced: students seem to know more and more about less and less, and
cannot communicate with each other. I need not emphasize that the arts
of communication or the arts of using the mind are basic to learning,
for they are the arts of reading, writing, speaking, listening,
figuring. They have a timeless quality, as they are the arts of
fostering the critical abilities of students, of their qualities of
mind and spirit that will carry them to their lives.

Nevertheless, the changes over the last few years have been so
rapid that “it makes a completely different linguistic world to live
in,” to quote David Crystal. The internet has already altered all our
previous concepts to do with language. In fact, there is also a
lingering doubt in view of the realities of IT-dominated developments
in the last ten years. Many of us find ourselves, or what we have been
doing all these years, irrelevant. I suspect the fast growth of
electronic publications, including books, journals, newspapers and
magazines, and voice-recognition software, may soon make some of our
arts, for example, writing, an ancient art form. While the printed word
is facing a grave challenge as a medium of expression, voice chips may
soon become indispensable for understanding and responding to verbal
instructions and communication. The fast-moving images may replace text
as the main form of communication: Books are already being played and
viewed and information is visually and verbally communicated. These
trends will not stop. As a result, 50 years hence few people would want
to read, and fewer still would know how to write, as communication,
both factual and expressive, would be through sound and pictures.

To most of us this may appear elitist, but this elitist reality
coexists with the sad fact that a larger section of our population is
functionally illiterate. English is almost not used in the rural areas
just as a large percentage of our educated youths, high school and
college graduates, despite their diplomas and degrees, cannot even fill
out a simple application form, or write a formal letter. Smart ones
among them who have access to computer and laptop increasingly depend
on the latest version of Microsoft’s Word programme for checking
spelling, syntax, grammar, and even paragraph structure. Yet they fail
to write well or express themselves appropriately. Why? I suspect
excepting a very small section of the population, the large majority
learn English the wrong way. Many of you know well how English is also
being taught as a no man’s subject, or as an every man’s subject, or an
extra hand’s subject. This is not a positive or happy situation. I am
also concerned, as I have always maintained, English learning has to be
strengthened at the school level without which there can’t be
improvement at college level. Moreover, sensitivity for the language
needs to be developed.

When people love language, they will use it well, express their
convictions, feelings and thoughts exactly and truly. To quote Charles
Haines, “If users of English loved it, loved the feel and the sound of
a well-turned phrase, loved fine speech in the mouth as they love the
consistency of a good steak;…loved English and took care of it as some
people love and care for their cars, ward-robes, coin collections,
their health, the problem would not be hard to solve. The thing to do
is to induce love. Language use, it must be taught from elementary
school to Ph.D. exams, is more a matter of pleasure and beauty than it
is of rules and strictures.”

It is with this sensibility for English language and its teaching
in various contexts that I thought of a Workshop, or rather, a
get-together, with you, pre-secondary and secondary level teachers, to
share your actual classroom experiences of teaching English, to pool
opinions, and seek remedies within the constraints of your teaching

While I say this, I also keep in mind the ground reality: that is,
poor literacy skills, fluency, and even comprehension. We may continue
to witness poor communication ability, with limited experiences in
writing, speaking and listening, unless, of course, teaching of English
as an additional language improves from school level and need for a
supporting classroom climate and positive student attitudes towards
learning at post-secondary level is recognized. Also, both teachers and
students need to be aware of what to do, how to do it, and when and why
to do it as part of practicing self-regulation strategies.

The ELT community as also the other stake holders in the country
should, therefore, revise and reformulate appropriate strategies and
policies, with tolerance and multilingualism at the core, to remain
relevant in the coming decades. The objective of looking back is to
move forward with a reasoned perspective for taking measures to develop
communication abilities and higher discourse competence, with a
broadened inter- and cross-disciplinary bases, for learning to
understand (rather than memorize) and apply in ones own contexts.

I am aware that there is no universal teaching method or ideal
teaching material suited to many contexts of language teaching.
Whatever didactic techniques one knows without excluding the
behaviouristic drills, and practice and use of mother tongue, where
appropriate, are all valid at different points in the teaching process.
I stand for an eclectic approach as different methods for different
students have always worked and there has not been one best method any
time. With our freedom to choose and adopt any notion that serves our
teaching ends, with a reasonable degree of historical sense,
flexibility and adaptability that allows us to select among a variety
of approaches, methods and techniques, we can meet the challenges of
today and tomorrow. I see teaching communicatively essentially
consisting of an eclectic methodology which incorporates what is
valuable in any system or method of teaching and refuses to recognize
bad teaching or defective learning. In any educational setting,
sensitive and sensible application of continuing evaluation of the
chosen practices should be inbuilt.

English has been practised in a social, economic, political,
educational and philosophical “hot-house”, to use Peter Strevens’
expression, and the hot-house in India differs in quality from state to
state. It is necessary to create an enabling environment – managerial,
administrative, institutional, academic, and curricular—to promote not
only quality education and effective learning with exposure to lots of
natural, meaningful and understandable language but also genuine
communication. This means learners should read and listen to live
language; they should speak and write it in ways that can be understood
by educated speakers everywhere. Moreover, they should eventually be
able to produce and comprehend culturally appropriate natural

At the end of the workshop, having shared with each other what
some of you have done and how, we will emerge more enlightened and
aware about what more we need to do to succeed in the days ahead.
Interaction with colleagues like you should help us envision a possible
policy framework required to support Teaching for economically valuable
language skills at tertiary and/or professional level.

Thank you.

Profesoor R.K.SINGH

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