An interview with Mrs. Yeshi Dolkar on English Language teaching Mrs Yeshi Dolkar (PGT English), TCV school Upper Dharamsala.
You have taught in TCV schools for many years. You are one of the most experienced English language teachers. Tell us a little about how satisfied you are with the way we have taught English in TCV schools?
English as second language teachers can only be satisfied if the strategies we use help us in achieving our goals of teaching English here at the Tibetan children's village school. If our goal is to achieve just conversational fluency which involves a lot contextual support and is cognitively undemanding like the ability to answer yes/no questions or have conversations on the playground, then I must say that we have done an excellent job because this is what most of our students can do very well. But, if our goal is also to achieve fluency in academic language which is technical and specialized and requires a lot of critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, generalization and evaluation, I'm afraid we have a serious problem! We all know that our students, even after twelve years of studying English, have difficulty making complex statements, sharing opinions and speaking at length on complex issues.
To get a better idea of our problem we must understand the stages involved in the development of language. Recent researches on second language acquisition and learning have found five distinct stages. The length of these stages depend upon many variables such as the age of pupil, the level of proficiency already achieved in the native language, academic proficiency in native language, the comprehensibility of the target language input at each stage, the amount of interactive opportunities and richness of the exposure to the target language in and outside the classroom and so on. The first stage is called the silent receptive stage or the "Silent Period". In this period the pupil has 500 receptive words. The second language learner is very quiet but understands simple instructions and responds by pointing or gesturing. Then comes the second stage called the Early production Stage. The student here knows around 1000 words. In this stage the student speaks one or two words phrases such as yes/no and gives short answers to questions like what/who/when. The third stage is called Speech Emergence Stage. Here the pupil has a vocabulary of around 3000 words. The students to communicate and asks questions and also says longer sentences with grammatical errors. The fourth stage is the Intermediate Language proficiency Stage, in which, the students has acquired around 6000 words and begins to make complex statements, shares opinions and speaks at greater length. The fifth and the final stage is called the Advanced language Proficiency Stage when the pupil achieves near-native ability. Now it's very clear that most of our students in the senior school are in the third stage. There are few students who are still in the second stage and fewer still who have reached the fourth stage. Under the normal conditions where students have plenty of opportunities to interact in English in the school and outside the school, the silent period is said to last from a few hours to six months, the second stage another six months, the third stage, a year, the fourth stage, another year and the fifth stage lasts from 5-7 years. This means that within a period of 10 years the students become fairly proficient in the second language. However, in the kind of situation that we are in, where the opportunity for acquiring language (picking up language unconsciously) is very limited but where the student most of the time is learning it consciously inside the class. It is really very difficult to say whether what we have achieved is satisfactory or not. Nevertheless, I see a lot of scope for improvement particularly with regard to our teaching strategies and by increasing the opportunities for interacting in English both in the class and in the school.
The general belief that a comparatively easier way of learning a language is hearing it as often as possible. What in your view, are the possible occasions we can create for the students to hear English spoken to them as much as possible?
In the natural order of language development, listening comes first. Children listen, comprehend and then produce speech. In fact, the very reason why our students take such a long time to achieve proficiency in English is because they hear very limited English. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the English language teachers and all teachers at the middle and senior schools to provide as much meaningful English hearing opportunities for our children as possible. As English teachers we must make it a point to speak to our children in English only, in and outside the class. Read to students in the class, in the library, at home etc. use audio visual aids. Provide opportunities to students to interact with native speakers. Have student listen to news on the radio and TV. Have students listen to stories, poems, songs from the tape. But make sure that the listening exercises are active and not passive. In active listening, students take down notes as they listen and then talk and write about it.
Acquiring a fairly fluent writing skill is so important in the academic life of the students. They have to write their exams. This skill is given to them from their early years in school. Will you talk about a few general practices that the teachers can follow in helping them keep on improving their writing skill?
Writing is a skill. The more we practice it, the better we get at it. The initial practice should be on building word power and sentence skills. This is crucial for accuracy in later writings. As children gradually show control over sentence skills, introduce short compositions. Have children keep daily journals. It is s wonderful way to practice writing. The content in the journal could be on specific happenings, thoughts and feelings of the day. It can be on something the students heard from teachers, friends or parents, or something they saw on the playground or on TV etc. Writing for a real reader such as letter writing exchanges between students of two schools is also an excellent idea. Publishing students write- ups in the school magazine or in local newspapers can also be highly motivating. Yet another idea is the dialogue journal where the students writes about his/her problems and questions to the teacher and the teacher writes back. In short, create a lot of opportunities for real-life writing. Another fact about writing is that it not natural. It is man-made. Therefore it must be taught. Students do not learn to take down notes, writes summaries, paragraphs, essays, stories, poems, project reports and so on, on their own. The skills required for organized writing must be taught. Whether it is in writing or in speaking, students should be allowed to use Tibetan words for which equivalent English words can't be found. For example, if a student is describing the process of making buttered tea, it is absolutely okay to use the word "Dongmo". The English language is full of such words. Besides,, researches today say that this use of native language increases comprehensibility which is conducive to second language acquisition. Finally, teachers must give sufficient time to the students to finish their writing. Evaluating students writing has always been a big problem for second language teachers with the huge class. But the good news is that there are number of correction strategies to lighten your burden without actually taking anything away from the students.
What approach do you think can the teachers adopt in making the children involved more in the teaching-learning process in the classroom.
Language is acquired in an environment that stimulates conversation. A stimulating language environment can be created first by making the language content comprehensible. Use pictures, objects and gestures to help students understand. Provide students the opportunity to interact with one another by way of games, groups discussions, presentations, project work, teacher-student interactions, role-plays, dialogues etc. Encourage critical thinking and analysis to achieve fluency in academic language. Choose topics that have relevance to students in real life and create situations in classroom. Create a low-anxiety environment. Take appropriate help from native language to make language input easy to understand. Use the internet to read about the latest researches, theories and teaching strategies on second language acquisition and try to understand them in our context. This will help you understand the nature of second language acquisition and guide you in developing appropriate teaching strategies.
Homework is said to be the extension of school into the children's homes. What type of homework do you suggest, may be given with the view of helping the students improve the four basic skills on their own.
Homework is given to review class work and practice skills. If used properly it helps in developing a child's mental skills, competence and independence. Homework should be stimulating and according to the ability of the child. It should be profitable. Having students copy notes is not going to develop essential skills like reading and writing. Have students read for at least fifteen minutes every day at home and have a few students talk about what they read in class the next day. A little writing exercise can sometimes be given on top of the usual reading homework. But once again give them ample time when it comes to writing. Writing requires that. Organized writing is a process that involves prewriting, the first draft, the second draft and the final draft. Finally, plan your homework keeping in mind the school programs. Be sensitive and give little in a lot of other activities.
TCV schools have fairly rich resources and aids for English language teaching. Will you suggest some of the ways to use them in a more effective way?
The use of resources is indispensable in the teaching and learning of English as a second language in our school. Given the situation that we are in, particularly, at the elementary school level where students have very little opportunity to learn the language, the use of materials and resources become crucial. Resources increase the comprehensibility of the language content taught and stimulates and engages the students in language production. Here are some wonderful resources that are available in our school and that I recommend every language teacher to use.
1. Technology in language teaching.
a) The internet is today one of the best resources that every educational institution should have. Unlike books it is the fastest, the most accessible and has the latest information on just about anything in the world. Today you can sit at home and get a foreign university degree, thanks to the internet. For English language teachers the internet has a wealth of information. Use it. Here is an opportunity for young teachers to excel yourself in your teaching and make a huge difference in the life of our children, something that I never had when I started teaching English. You can imagine how very ignorant I was.
b) The language laboratory is yet another highly effective and sophisticated resource we have in our school to develop listening and reading skills. I used it a number of times with the senior students and I could see how much my students enjoyed it. The most memorable experience we had this year was when I had them watch a wonderful English movie "The Great Debaters starring Denzel Washington in the language laboratory". The effect was phenomenal. Unlike watching movies on TV or in auditorium where there is always sound clarity problem which can be very annoying for second language learners because it reduces comprehensibility, our language laboratory which is equipped with headphones for everyone worked wonders. This was probably the first English movie that my student thoroughly understood on their own. The multi-media room and the audio-visual room can also be used particularly for power-point presentations besides movies.
c) The Overall Projector is a crutch I use these days because all the twelfth grade classrooms have one. It is a huge time saver and money saver. I don't have to write an entire model paragraph on the blackboard nor have I to make 30-40 copies of them when I am teaching writing skills. Students can also use them very effectively when making group presentations. Unlike the charts, they are visible even to students sitting at the far end of the class. All I have to do is just print out the model paragraphs or even the outline of my lesson on a transparency sheet and use it every time I teach the same lesson to another group of students.
2. Hand- outs
When teaching reading skills, handouts work very well. Keeping in mind the resources problem here in our schools, I make handouts that can be used again and again.
Pictures printed on transparencies or drawn on charts are effective to stimulate thoughts, imagination and conversation.
4. Flash cards
Flash cards are also effective materials to build vocabulary and sentence skills.