Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teaching English through Mother-tongue - classroom activities, principles

Or How To Teach English When You Yourself Don't Know It So Well!
There are close to 2000 (or maybe more) 'English' words in daily use in Hindi (and most Indian languages for that matter, and non-Indian ones as well). Ordinary words that we've even stopped recognizing as English words, such as: 
cup, plate, bus, cycle, train, rail, phone, call, mobile
table, fan, TV, sofa, bell, message, letter....

The point is, if these 'English' words are already known to our students, is there any way we can use them to help children learn English better/faster, less painfully?

If you are a teacher
At different times we've been told different (and sometimes difficult) things, such as:
  • 'Keep language pure – don't use mother-tongue (or L1, i.e. first language) or L2 (other commonly spoken and known language) along with English (i.e. L3! or, you guessed it, third language).' OR 
  • 'You must make use of the
    'communicative approach'. 

But it's still not clear exactly what we have to do in the classroom. 

Also, a major difficulty remains – most teachers required to teach English can't speak it themselves. However, they do know their mother-tongue, as do the children they work with. So how can this help?

Through two simple principles, actually.
1.     Language is more like a skill, and skills can only be learnt through practice. This means that in order to learn language, we have to use it. How can you create conditions in the classroom where children use English? How can you make it interesting and fun so that they feel like using it?
2.     If it is possible to guess the meaning, participation really increases. For instance, if you see only the tail of an animal, you immediately start thinking of what the animal is, isn't it? Our mind is like that – show it an entry point (into meaning) and it must follow it.

Here are some examples of what you can do with these two principles. Throughout the following, don't hesitate to use the mother-tongue to explain, clarify, give examples, and even translate where needed. As far as possible, start each activity with English words already known and in use in mother-tongue. Make good use of actions, gestures and expressions to make your meaning easier to understand.

Activity 1 - What's the right sentence?
Point to the table and say, 'This is a pen.' When children shake their heads, say, 'No, this is a table.' Next, point to the ruler and say, 'This is a pen / bus / table.' Get the students to make the right sentence. Slowly, get students to make both the wrong sentence and then the right sentence…

Is there any other kind of 'wrong sentence' that children will understand? E.g. raise one finger and say 'I have raised ten fingers!' You can use colours, sizes, numbers, children's names (e.g. 'Kalavati is holding a bus'), the environment ('We live in a village called _______). You'll find this is a lot of fun and children will be eagerly waiting for the English class. More importantly, they will keep playing this even after the class!

Activity 2 - 
Where's this thing?

Hold your mobile or a pencil and ask, 'Where's the mobile?' Answer it yourself, 'It is in my hand.' Now place it in different places (on/under the table, behind a book, in a child's pocket and so on). You can use the 'wrong sentence' approach or even talk about it 'directly'.

Activity 3 - 
Bigger, smaller (and other comparisons)

Take a few objects and introduce children to comparatives. 'The pencil is longer than the rubber.' Or 'The rubber is broader than the pencil.' Or the mobile is bigger than the rubber.' Again, you can use the 'wrong sentence' approach if you want. Ordinary objects in the classroom can really help.

Activity 4 - 
Guess Who I am

Once your students are familiar with some of the words / sentences, you can move into this description based activity. Use the objects you have already used in previous activities. Give clues in English and ask students to guess it. Start with straightforward stuff – 'You use me to make a phone call'. Then move to more difficult ones – 'When you write with a pencil and make a mistake (give mother-tongue word here), you use me.' Build on this, and get children to make such sentences using a mix of English and mother-tongue.

Activity 5 - 
Bilingual stories (and other oral texts)

Stories well known to children, or stories they like from the mother-tongue textbook, are of great use. Narrate those stories, sentence by sentence. Speak one sentence in the mother-tongue and then say the same sentence again in English. If you are not sure of the English version, ask a resource person or someone who knows English to help you write it out. Just a few stories narrated like this would make a huge difference.

You can extend the same to other popular oral texts. Take film dialogues that children might know. E.g. the popular ones from Sholay –
'How many men were there?'
'T-two, sardaar.'
Or, if they are fond of cricket (this includes girls), use sentences such as: 'He's just hit ball, it's going for a six… oh no… it's been caught!'

I leave it to you decide exactly how you will use these suggestions. Important reminder: have fun, use mother-tongue for help (but not too much!) while getting children to guess what is being said. Later, give them an opportunity to speak in a mix of English-mother-tongue themselves.

Activity 6 - 
Ten things about me

This is an application of 'Guess Who I Am' mentioned above. Start by mentioning ten things about yourself (why ten? Just like that, for no reason at all!). E.g. I'm a teacher; I like being with children; I have a big beard (point to it)… and so on. Now ask children if they can say some things about themselves. They can use mother-tongue words where they don't know the English.  You can supply the English word if you know it; if you don't use it as an opportunity to refer to the dictionary in front of children and provide the right word. This way you will learn along with them, but they will learn something more valuable than the words themselves!

Also important for all the activities above: get children to think about how they are using the language and start becoming aware of the patterns that are emerging. In every activity, enhance the scope for application to the extent possible. 

All these are oral activities. Why? Because before children can get into the rest of English learning they need a strong oral phase where they get to listen to enough English and speak it in ways that make sense to themselves and other children around them. If you have a TV in your school and can show children's programmes in English, I'm sure you'll find interesting ways to make use of them.

However, once children have begun learning to read in the mother-tongue, you can also convert many of the above into written activities or at least add written components to them.

Finally, using the activities given here as a starting point, you can make tens of activities of your own... I'd love to hear from you and include your activities in future posts.

If you're a curriculum developer or textbook writer
Did the section above trouble you? Do you think language learning is being made impure? And are you worried about how children will learn pronunciation? Well, don't be! It is better to have bad pronunciation and the ability to use the language rather than good pronunciation and no ability to use language!

How can you help the teacher? First, re-examine how English learning is framed, identify what is really worth learning and look at the ways in which such learning can be promoted in multi-lingual contexts like ours.

Next, incorporate the kind of ideas mentioned in the previous section, in your textbooks, workbooks and teacher training where appropriate. Also, can the English textbook have texts from textbooks of earlier classes? Especially those texts (such as stories or picture-based texts or descriptions or even lessons from mathematics/environmental studies) that children have especially liked.

Because the meaning of these texts is already known, the material has a much greater degree of predictability, which really helps children (and the teacher!). If necessary you might simplify these texts; exercises may be in keeping with the level of English children are at. In 2008, the Government of Haryana introduced a set of such workbooks (for primary grades) that have proved to be very useful indeed.

But what will happen to the structure, grammar and notions of what is correct and what is not? As said earlier, if there isn't enough experience of using the language, the structures are not going to make sense either. But perhaps a bigger issue is that if thinking itself is not developed, language too will not. And even if it does, what is expressed may not be worth expressing!

Finally, if children start using English they will not only find their own ways of expressing and communicating, but will also start inventing a lot of new words and expressions. India has already made a fair number of such 'additions' to the English language (e.g. 'prepone' or 'give me a missed call'), made by people who set out just to communicate rather than become scholars of the language. Ironically it is by using the language freely and without concern that children will not only learn it but also contribute to it.

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