Thursday, 29 May 2014

Challenges in Teaching English at Primary School



'English is a global language in a multilingual country like India and it is taught and learnt as a second language.'
                                                            - NCERT Sourcebook for Assessment for Teachers.


When I got a call last Saturday asking me if I would be able to take a session for the teachers of Kendriya Vidyalaya schools at their in-service programme at Vasco I was taken aback for a moment. Would I be able to find something relevant to say? After all, these were seasoned teachers of English and my current area of work was teaching at college level.

Still, my experience as a school publishing professional for over a decade would give me certain insights I could share. I thought of the ELT workshops I had taken during my career, some as far away as Ballia on the Bihar-UP border and the other in the hills at Haldwani  near Nainital. My mind also went back to ELT workshops I had attended as a novice with seasoned ELT practictioners in Delhi, Gwalior (near Tansen’s tomb) and Lucknow. I noted their style of presentation and how after the ice-breakers the teachers were eating out of their hand. I marveled at their sang-froid and savoir-faire. Could I do it?

I decided to give the school a visit before hand – if only to quieten my fears. The intention was to get some feedback from the teachers themselves about what were their need areas.  I jotted some of these down when I met the teachers last Saturday, 24 May – the feast of Mary Help of Christians. (I felt this was an opportunity which was sent by Mary on her Feast day.) Some of these issues were:
-English as a Second Language (ESL)   -Communication
-Phonetics, pronunciation and IPA        -Creative Writing
-Teaching Poems                                  -Listening/Speaking Skills
-Spelling                                               -Groupism*    

When I actually did my stuff today, it went off like a dream. I had studied the entire set of books which the teachers taught, viz. Marigold Books 1-5 for classes 1-5 published by the NCERT. I discovered in my preparation that e-books of these were also available on the NCERT website. Since at 12 midday I had just 90 minutes to perform, I adopted the process format where after dividing the teachers into 5 groups on the basis of the class taught, I set 2 tasks, viz. 1) Brainstorm what difficulties you face as teachers of the same level 2) Present a sample lesson for your level from Marigold (The relevant unit from the e-text was displayed on the OHP).

As each level made their presentation I subtly offered my observations on ELT pedagogy from the position papers of NCERT and the NCF document weaving in the issues raised earlier. A new energy animated the classroom where senior teachers role-played students of Class 1 of Class 2 to Class 5 as their own colleagues did what they did best, i.e. teach. One teacher even showed a power point of the ice creams to go with her teaching of the poem 'Ice-Cream Man' by Rachel Field! (Marigold Book 5). As we got to level 4 I could not resist reading my own poem 'Barefoot Child' which was published for that level.# I urged teachers to write their own poems on children to understand the feelings of a child.

To help them with the phonetic symbols I offered them an interactive link to a site which displays all the phonetic symbols of vowels and consonants. You simply click on a certain symbol and 2 words appear which use that sound. along with playback on audio of that sound.~ Writing the phonetic transcription of the long vowel sound /u:/ on the board I asked the class what the symbol stood for. When they hesitated I asked, 'WHAT IS FOREMOST ON YOUR MINDS NOW?!' 'FOOD!' they chorused. Because of a glitch in the software we were nudging 2 by now. As they filed out of class after the vote of thanks I saw that I had pushed their learning -- and mine. Some of the teachers had given me their email addresses so I could pass on some links to essays on current trends in ELT at primary level. Foremost among these I found was the disarming essay titled, 'Teaching English at Class 1.'>

Over lunch at KV1 I mulled over my takeaways. Teachers liked the session as it was informal, interactive, informative -- and humorous. I thanked the teachers, the Principal and KV for giving me the rare opportunity to offer a session like this.
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Abbreviations: International Phonetic Association (IPA); National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT); ncert.nic.in; National Curriculum Framework (NCF 2005); *The tendency of children to sit with friends who speak the same language. This point emerged today. # Skyline Coursebook 4 by Sheba Victor, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006;~http://www.oupchina.com.hk/dict/phonetic/home.html; > Nivedita Bedadur in Language and Language Teaching 1.2 (July 2012) www.azimpremjifoundation.org; pix above of Dr. Brian Mendonca reading his poem 'Barefoot Child' at a session on teaching English at primary level for KV teachers at KV 1, Varunapuri, Vasco, Goa (pix. inset) on 29 May 2014.

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