Saturday, October 24, 2009

back to school


Find the “adjunct” in the sentence that you are currently reading; or identify the “indirect object” in this sentence.

What you just read is a small part of the ordeal that the students in the eighth grade of a Tamil Medium Corporation school in Chennai, go through, as a part of their English grammar syllabus.

I call it ordeal because it is one! For the students especially who are experiencing it.

Let me elaborate. I have recently volunteered to teach at the local Government school . During my first interaction with the Head Master of the school, it was decided that I could teach English grammar, as that is a subject that lacked adequate faculty at the school. I accepted readily and looked forward to the experience. I picked up the English text book from the school along with my class schedule ; I was assigned 8th class, B Section.

On the first day at school, I was greeted with great enthusiasm by the children. After a brief introduction by their current teacher, I took over.

I started by asking in English, what the children thought of English grammar as a subject. The question was understood by less than 50% of the class. And among those who comprehended, there was a clear expression of dislike. I prodded further-as to what was in their minds. The most popular response was “ we do not see the use for it”. The reply hit me hard.

Of course as I tried to reason with them why grammar in any language is required , I could sense that their feelings were more to do with their inability to understand the basic language itself! That was the real issue.

I started looking at the facts. The English literacy in this particular class was less than 40% i.e less than 40 out of 100 could read three words in English consecutively without any help. The rest needed support in both alphabet identification and in pronunciation.
Secondly, apart from the regular class hour, there was no other avenue or forum that encouraged English reading for the children. There is a semblance of a library- but due to lack of space, the books are piled up in one corner ( the range of books is utterly poor in collection). And there is no space in the library for students to sit and read . Finally, there is absolutely no effort to converse in English even during the English classes.

Of course, I did not expect these to be present in a Government school. But I did expect that the English language syllabus in a Tamil Medium school is designed keeping in mind all of these.

This is not to suggest that English grammar is not needed for the children of 8th grade. But the pressing need of the hour is making students reasonably fluent in English- reading and writing. And a grammar that goes with that level. By incorporating a fairly evolved grammar curriculum, , the students have begun to feel “fearful” of the language itself. And are avoiding it. In fact when I distributed free books that had English alphabet based words to help the beginners, there were hardly any takers.

A chat with the Head Master revealed that he is constrained by the syllabus thrust on the school by the Government. He agreed that there is a major mismatch between the current English level of students and what is required by the curriculum. But bridging the gap seems an arduous task. While, the idea of introducing English grammar needs to be lauded, over ambition in that effort does not help the cause. It may result in alienating the language further among a set of students for whom the environment is anyway not conducive to learn or practise English. ( no conversation at home happens in English, possibly no English book reading, English TV channel watching or English movie seeing).

Any language is best learnt by usage i.e talking. Not by rote of some theoretical concepts. We all learnt our mother tongue that way. Grammar in that context is understood more as you practise the language and not as a set of rules to be followed. In real life, we never end up needing this level of grammar knowledge- unless you take up literature as a profession- in which case it could be taught at that point in time.( in fact even I had to learn the concepts before I could take classes for these kids!)

So, who needs high flung English grammar? Not the “below poverty line” children of Government schools anyway!.

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