Never drill students with grammar
I was very delighted to learn that the President has declared 2009 as the year of English and Information technology. English being an international Language, this should have been done several years back by the Governments in Power, for there has been a reverberating cry by students to master English.
Teachers have been imparting knowledge in the Sinhala and Tamil media for more than 30 years. Most of the present day teachers have had their undergraduate studies in the Sinhala and Tamil media and it is pathetic that the knowledge of English of some of them is poor.
Few days of training
It is disturbing to learn that only about 1/3 of the students pass in English at the Ordinary Level. Very many years back the government in power, at that time, recruited quite a number of teachers for teaching English. All that the applicants had to have was a pass at Ordinary Level with a credit pass in English. Most of the recruits were unable to speak English and were also unable to write a sentence without mistakes in spelling. They were posted to schools after a few days of training.
In the Universities we have had several programs in English for those studying in the National Languages. The Walatara School of English, the Chitra Wickramasuriya and the Doric de Souza Schools of English were just a few of them. No doubt there are several other schools now. All of them did not achieve the targets spelt out and they were miserable failures. Undergraduates followed them only for a couple of weeks and there was a considerable resentment to the programs. I strongly suspect that an overdose of grammar at the initial stage was the poison for this high degree of fallout. All that the students were interested was acquiring the ability to read books in English on their chosen subjects and to speak in made by Adhil Hassen, Head of the Islamic Research Organization. Hassen had co-related learning English to a shoe and learning grammar to shoe-polish. He had pointed out that purchasing a tin of shoe-polish and not footwear would not serve any purpose. What he had meant was that learning grammar is secondary although it is important to learn it.
At the tail end of the last government schools were allowed the option of teaching in English at A/L. No doubt this was a step in the right direction but the lack of a planned program to make teachers proficient to teach in the English medium was a severe drawback. I am personally aware how deficient the program was because I was invited to be an observer. Although a few schools in Colombo could provide this facility most schools outside the City limits were unable to provide English medium instruction due to the lack of teachers proficient in English.
I understand that 40 English teachers are to be trained or have been trained at the University of Hyderabad, India. Such teachers should be posted to rural areas, so that they could act as Master teachers to train the teachers in that locality.
Not too late
But what is more likely to happen is that they would be brought back to Colombo and the teachers in rural areas would have to come to the already overcrowded city of Colombo for such training. If it is not too late to impose this condition now, any future batches should be sent only if they are agreeable to go to rural areas as Master Teachers.
Living in rural Sri Lanka is no doubt has its difficulties.
Teachers in rural areas should be given special incentives in cash or an assurance that they would be posted to congenial stations on completion of a particular time period.Unless the program well planned this type of crash program is bound to crash. After all there is no magic involved in the teaching of English.
The writer is an Emeritus Professor in Botany, University of Colombo.