How to implement the introduction of English medium instruction in public schools?

DR.Gunapala Edirisooriya.

(A Note I Prepared Sometime Back with Minor Modifications.)

I do not intend to speculate all the reasons for the introduction of English as a medium of instruction in public schools. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that this step has some bearing on the ethnic issue the country is struggling with. Every now and then I read news articles either applauding or criticizing this effort. I support this effort in principle. Full implication of this effort is difficult to judge at this point. No matter how sound the objective of any reform effort is, the final outcome depends on the way it is implemented. I am not convinced that the administrative hierarchy responsible for the implementation of English medium instruction in public schools has come to grip with the enormous implications of this policy in the absence of a well designed plan.

The Island feature article on January 19, 2001 seemed to suggest that all subjects for the G. C. E. (AL) classes are to be taught in the English medium starting from the beginning of the next school year (2002)--a disaster in the making. If there is any truth to this suggestion, I sincerely hope the policy makers would think twice about the consequences of such action. It is one thing to introduce English medium instruction at every levels of education in this country to lay the foundation for ethnic harmony. It is yet another to guarantee that the majority of the population is not going to suffer any undue disadvantage resulting from such policy changes.

Now, the question is how to ensure equal educational opportunity and access to every child with no regard to ethnic origin, caste, SES, and other discriminants. If introduction of English medium instruction leads to unintended outcomes, especially for the majority Sinhala students, then it cannot be considered a wise decision because the ramifications of such an outcome would be no different from the country's contemporary experience in ethnic relations. More often than not, unintended outcomes emerge when reform initiatives are implemented in a haphazard manner. In this vein, I am submitting this memorandum to offer a simple plan to implement the introduction of English medium instruction in public schools in Sri Lanka. The question: How do we teach English for children who have no exposure to the use of English on a daily basis?

First, I would like to describe my experience briefly. I grew up in Rekawa, a small village about 125 miles away from Colombo. In my village school, I cannot remember learning English up to grade eight in any systematic way. Yes, there was a teacher designated as English teacher. Nevertheless, our English teacher did not get an opportunity to teach English, as he was busy with other teaching assignments as our school was always under-staffed.

So, our English teacher had to teach every other subject (hygiene, physical education, Sinhala literature, agriculture, handicrafts, and so on), but English. In this small village school, principal and staff gave no priority for teaching of English. This may not have been a deliberate strategy, but the school environment and the social conditions contributed to this predicament. In grades 9 and 10, I vaguely remember having some sporadic English lessons (once or twice a semester). It was the same experience in grades 11 and 12 when I moved through those grades via Vetara Senior School, Meegoda Senior School, and Hanwella Central College.

(In addition to those schools, I have also attended the Buddhist Ladies College, Campbell Place, Colombo 10 and the Industrial School, Kithyakara Para [my memory says this was the name of the road], Colombo 10. which was later annexed to Nalanda College. There is a slim chance that a reader of this article may remember that I claimed, just one time in my life, I was an old boy of Nalanda. So, here is the ground for that claim!)

Teaching of English in those grades was sporadic and was given step-motherly treatment. Furthermore, students put more emphasis on "regular" subjects because of their relevance for the competitive university entrance examination. During my school days, as can be seen, there were three major reasons for the negligence of English: 1) teaching of English was not considered a priority, 2) students lacked interest in learning English, and 3) the teaching methods used to teach English were archaic.

From kindergarten onwards, the archaic approach to teaching English was to teach writing, reading, grammar, composition, and so on. Yes, this is the approach we inherited from our colonial rulers. In England, this is how they taught English to children whose mother tongue was English. Our colonial rulers applied the same instructional methods in Ceylon. Our teachers in Sri Lanka continued to follow the same instructional approach. It works with children who are exposed to English language from their childhood, but it does not work with students who are not exposed to the language from their childhood. For them, this approach did not work, does not work, and will not work. Facts speak for themselves.

At the higher education level, regular classes were scheduled for teaching of English. Most of my undergraduate colleagues had the desire to learn English. Nevertheless, teaching strategies heavily relied on the same archaic approach. During my undergraduate days, I had to follow an English Intensive Course (EIC). I am sure many of our generation would be familiar with the type of course I am referring here.

I have no doubt that those who were in charge of designing instructional strategies and materials for teaching EICs did the best they could. I have no doubt the instructors who taught those classes did their best. Teaching emphasis was on reading, deciphering, dictation, grammar, and writing. Yes, at the University of Ceylon, we regurgitated those lessons starting with, "Ice melts," "Dogs bark" etc. But, we didn't learn English in any meaningful manner. It was an utter failure. As I was following the course of studies for the Bachelor of Commerce degree, I had no alternative but to improve my reading and comprehension skills because we heavily relied on English textbooks.

Through perseverance, I developed my reading skills well and I put them into good use. Although I could read and comprehend well any textbook in my area of specialty, I could hardly speak or write well in English. At least in my undergraduate days, my colleagues had no sympathy for those who tried to learn to speak English. During my post graduate studies in England, I learned and improved my speaking and writing skills. This is my experience. I have no doubt that I am not the only person to go through this experience as many of my contemporaries and the younger generation must have had similar experiences. My experience guides this simple proposal. I will try to put this in the simplest form I can.

Let me pose this question? How do the young ones lean a language? We all seem to have forgotten this fact! Let us reminisce over this. The young ones listen. They follow the sound. They observe the movement of lips and other facial expressions. They imitate. They start with sounds like: ma, tha, ya, and so on. As they become toddlers, they improve these skills through a process of listening and repetition and expand their repertoire of activities related to speaking. So, what do they learn first in a language?

The answer is, speaking. Yes, the answer is speaking not writing, reading, grammar, composition, and so on. Let me also allude to a universal fact. Any child will learn any language to which she or he is exposed to from the child's birth. No child ever speaks a language at the time of her or his birth. Universally all children first learn to speak a language to which they are exposed to. Through schooling, they learn writing, reading, grammar, composition, and so on. This is a universal truth. Then, why can't we apply this universal truth to teaching English to students who are not exposed to the language of English? This approach places major emphasis on the development of speaking skills. Now the question is how do we implement this approach? My instant gut reaction is, "If there is a will, there is a way."

I have no doubt in my mind that the current effort to introduce English medium instruction in our schools bounds to fail if we continue to use the failed, archaic approach to teaching English. It is not wise for us to hide our heads in the sand if we know that we are bound for failure. Some misguided mind may think and advise that access for higher education through swabasha media has created unlimited and uncontrollable opportunities for the rural children and therefore the solution is to introduce English medium instruction in a hap-hazard manner--in effect, an introduction of a very cleaver controlling mechanism, a gate-keeping mechanism.

This is criminal thinking, pure and simple! No country can afford to withstand failures of educational reform. We have witnessed the dire consequences of such failures during the last three decades. There is no point in implementing “reforms” in a hap hazard manner knowingly or unknowingly. Because of what is at stake we must think of effective strategies and approaches to implement reforms. There are many issues and logistical aspects that need careful consideration. I touch on some aspects of implementing this approach. (I am not an expert in teaching of English. We need to get some expert advice on designing instructional materials needed. Many of the steps delineated below are relevant and needed on a short-term basis.)

1. Make teaching in the English medium a top national priority.
2. Use the Learning of English Through Speaking (LETS) method as the main instructional approach to teaching and learning of English.
3. Implement the LETS method with immediate effect to teach English for every educand (obviously, some who are fluent in English, may be exempted) in all institutions of higher learning (universities, teacher education institutions, technical colleges, and so on).
4. Use the mass media effectively for this purpose (need some planning here!).
5. Using the radio and television networks, prepare and broadcast regular 0.5 to 1.00 hour of programming daily that falls within the school time periods.
6. Immediately followed by such broadcast, those who are designated as English teachers must prepare lesson plans to reinforce and reflect on conversational vignettes. Appropriate materials and instructional strategies should be developed.
7. Decide on a number of levels (layers) of conversation appropriate for the prevailing conditions in schools in Sri Lanka.
8. Prepare instructional materials (vignettes) for each level (layer) of conversation.
9. Make every effort to instill lifelong learning or continuing education a part of teachers' responsibility.
10. Organize school learning activities in such a way that students and teachers can learn English language together. (I assume that more than ninety percent of the teaching cadre needs this impetus, especially in rural areas.)
11. Prepare and broadcast programs over the weekends for parents and children to learn English language.
12. Decide on the medium of instruction (Sinhala/Tamil and English) for various areas of studies. For example, subjects such as Sinhala literature, Sinhala language, Buddhist civilization can to be taught in Sinhala; subjects such as Tamil literature, Tamil language, Tamil culture can to be taught in Tamil; and scientific and technical subjects are to be taught in English.
13. On university entrance examination, appropriate policy decisions related to languages have to be made. For example, those who prepare for this examination in English should take a test in either Sinhala or Tamil. Similarly, those who prepare for this examination either in Sinhala or in Tamil should take a test in English.
14. Instructors of English at universities, teacher training institutions, and schools need to be reoriented toward the LETS approach.
15. Training programs and materials need to be designed, produced, and made available in a timely manner.
16. Planning and implementation (logistics) of the LETS approach have to take place in the short-run and the long-run.

These are only some brief remarks to be considered and a more detailed planning process is emphasized.

I assume that ninety percent of our population below the age of sixty received their formal education including undergraduate education either in Sinhala or in Tamil. All those in high positions (academics, professionals, administrators, politicians, and so on) are no strangers to this predicament. Many of those in the higher echelon of the social ladder improved their English language skills through various means. An overwhelming majority of teachers, except for some of those who live in the metropolitan areas, are not proficient in English language.

In many countries, bureaucratic norms, procedures, and ways of thinking take precedence over ideas of reform and change. More often, people, who are used to think and perform in a certain way, do not seem to know any other way and are eager to maintain the status quo. Moreover, policy makers in the higher echelon of the administration seem to engage in a constant struggle to find a match between sound policies and their political viability. I do not mean to imply that the policy makers are uninterested in the progress of the state. Personally, I know some capable people in many responsible positions (academics, professionals, administrators, politicians, and so on) and I have every confidence in their desire and conviction to serve this country. Nevertheless, to bring about change, we need leadership. I hope the country can expect this from the current leadership. The failure is something SL cannot afford at this juncture.

(Whether they listen to me or not depends on whether the policy makers are genuinely interested doing something with bona fide objectives. Will the deaf elephants hear the beating drums!)



Copyright 1997-2004 www.lankaweb.Com Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Reproduction In Whole Or In Part Without Express Permission is Prohibited.