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How do you teach English when
you can't speak it?
by Eleanor Watts
- 1

(This article was first published July '03 issue of the IATEFL TTEd SIG newsletter)

In many parts of the world, primary school teachers are now being asked to teach English, a language in which they are not fluent. This article is a rationale for a course involving teachers and trainers working in low-resource contexts. It is designed to address some of the interrelated needs of:

1. teachers who cannot speak English fluently,

2. trainers who have no primary experience.

The course has been planned for India, but features could be transferred to other countries where teachers are not fluent in English.

In India, state primary school teachers have received little or no training in teaching English and their own experience of learning the language was through the grammar translation method. While the communicative approach emphasises oral skills, especially at the elementary level, they are usually more comfortable with the written than with the spoken word. They tend to feel they should be the givers of knowledge and their pupils the takers. They fear a loss of face in being required to teach open-ended oral skills and feel safer with grammar which has clearly right answers. Their government expects them to use the communicative approach, but the collaborative ideology that underlies it may be anathema to them.

Their trainers, on the other hand, are familiar with the latest theories of English teaching, but typically have never taught in primary schools. They do not know how to control classes of over eighty children with no resources but a blackboard. Their experience is with smaller groups of highly motivated adults in relatively well-resourced classrooms. They have little credibility with teachers they train because they have no practical experience.

The liberal expert is now in the embarrassing position of having to choose between two popular western constructs:

· the communicative approach towards language teaching

· the reflective model of teacher training propounded by Wallace (1991) among others.

If the communicative approach is chosen, the trainer becomes a kind of missionary, seeking to convert teachers to what they perceive as "alien methods". (Canagarajah, 1999, 116) If the reflective approach is chosen, the trainer does not intervene, but takes "the role of 'facilitator' or 'developer', giving little or no information, but encouraging trainees to develop their own body of knowledge." (Ur, 1996, 8)

If, as Widdowson suggests, "teacher disposition … should be preferred to researcher imposition" (1993), teacher disposition is likely to go for grammar translation methods. The very liberality of the reflective paradigm rules out attempting to change the teacher. If, on the other hand, researcher imposition is preferred to teacher disposition, the imposed "alien methods" are unlikely to stick. The westernised teacher trainer who believes that the communicative approach can be imported as a job-lot into another culture is bound to meet with "tissue rejection" - like a body that rejects a surgical implant. (Holliday, 1994, 132)

In my view, it is irresponsible to take either approach to extreme. Non-interventionist facilitators are abnegating their responsibility to offer new ideas to practitioners. However the pedagogic missionary can be both arrogant and ignorant in attempting to impose a foreign teaching style where it is both culturally and practically inappropriate. In devising a teacher education course, both the communicative approach and the reflective paradigm must be modified to fit the context.

A modified communicative approach to English teaching

An obvious response to the problems of teachers with poor oral skills is to improve their spoken English, but there simply is not the time or money for this. What is possible is to give teachers a tool-kit of lessons that can be adapted in various ways, enabling them to use the little English they have in a genuinely communicative way. These lessons will involve minimal use of resources. Blackboard skills will be taught, enabling teachers to get away from the textbook and create at least a few lessons about the immediate environment. Teachers will not be required to lose face by uncontrolled use of the target language and suggested lists of classroom language will be provided. The teacher will usually be at the centre of most lessons, preferring singing, story-telling and teacher-directed games like Simon says to more open-ended participatory games. Pair work will be preferred to group work because it involves less movement and possibility of disruption. Noise will be kept to a minimum to avoid disturbance for nearby classes. While all suggested activities will initiate contextualised and enjoyable oral work, the emphasis will be on the do-able.

It is not necessary for the teacher to be a fluent English speaker to initiate limited opportunities for authentic language use within the classroom. After all, the non-specialist primary school teacher does not need a mastery of trigonometry to teach two-digit addition. She does not need to be fluent in English to lay the foundations for fluency in English.

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