How do you teach English when
you can't speak it?
by Eleanor Watts
(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 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,
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
A modified communicative approach to
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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