Questions related to quality in teaching depend on the “what” of knowledge and the “how” of knowledge, and these questions keep challenging the educational institutions. The “what” of knowledge deals with the content knowledge present in the materials, i.e. thematic issues. “How” deals with the ways and means that knowledge should be disseminated to help students attain the standards set for them. It also deals with how English language materials are presented to the learners. In my article, I will deal with the quality of the English language materials used in teaching.
Presenting English texts as a second/foreign language to learners is a daunting and challenging task. It needs a thorough understanding of the proficiency levels of the learners, in addition to an understanding of their first language, social class, culture, and the level of difficulty of the language itself. These factors play a vital role in determining how well a learner can learn English. In the light of these issues, textbook writers should attempt to fit together the language level of learners and materials. They should also try to present the topics in a more interesting manner so as to motivate the learners to read the texts. This would help the learners to attain the standards set for them in the programme.
Before we look into the problem of solving the language barrier, let us define it. Hallberg (2010) defines language barrier as a kind of a psychological barrier in which language is a psychological tool that affects communication. This definition explicates the point that a language barrier paves the way for incomprehensibility. The materials that writers develop have to therefore be comprehensible as well as learner-friendly texts.
From my observations of student teachers who learn English as a foreign language over a period of ten years, I have concluded that there are three important points that a materials’ writer should take care of while writing textbooks. They are:
- Style of writing
- Lexis, syntax and discourse
Every discipline uses language to posit its theories, laws, etc., and the vocabulary used is generally technical and restricted to that discipline only. For example, mathematics, sciences, etc., use specific technical terms to explain concepts/theories. The specific vocabulary/technical terms of a discipline are known as register. For example: salicylic acid, ketones, alkynes, etc., belong to the field of Chemistry; and focal length, capillary system etc. belong to Physics. Once the register is known, it is easy to understand a science text as the remaining language elements mostly comprise of frequently used simple phrases. This is an advantage for any science student.
However disciplines of social science and literature have a limited register, there is more creative usage of language in these disciplines. Consequently, these texts pose problems to learners due to their incomprehensibility. Simply selecting and grading the vocabulary as per the level of the learners does not suffice. The textbook writers must also bear in mind the different Indian contexts and proficiency levels of Indian learners in rural, semi-urban and urban areas.
Style of Writing
Compare a science text with that of a literary or social science text. We find a significant difference between them, especially, in the usage of language. Very often, there is excessive use of unfamiliar language in literary texts, which is usually not explained. This makes an ordinary learner uncomfortable with the text and he/she loses interest in reading it. This is probably why many learners rely more on question papers from previous years rather than on prescribed texts. Hence, textbook or materials’ writers must adopt a simple style in writing, which will help learners at both ends of the normal probability curve to perform well.
Lexis, Syntax and Discourse
Usually, textbook writers do not seem to pay much attention to the selection of words or language structures while presenting points or themes. It is important that writers select vocabulary which is simple, structures which are short and direct, a discourse which is clear and logical, and finally, produce a text which is comprehensible to learners. In this regard, Stephen Krashen’s comprehensible input will help learners learn English easily.
Another point to contend with is that learners have different levels of English proficiency. Hence, textbook writers, while writing must bear in mind the weakest of learners. Stephen Krashen talks about comprehensible input in languages. He says that any new language input should be at i+1 level where “i” stands for the current level of a learner and “1” stands for the immediate next level, in terms of input. It implies that a text should be written in such a way that it is just one step above the learner’s level. If it is i+2, for example, there is a difference of two levels between the current level of the learner and the target level. Therefore, there is every chance of misunderstanding the input and forming wrong notions and beliefs. If on the other hand, a text is pitched at the learner’s level and made appealing, the learner will certainly find it useful and interesting.
Therefore, given the Indian context, the necessity to learn English for communication and employment, textbook writers should remember the following points when writing a book. The book must:
- Have a sound theoretical knowledge of materials preparation
- Have elements of humour.
- Relate language to real life contexts
- Present ideas and concepts in a logical flow.
- Have a glossary giving the meanings of difficult words so that the learners may know the contextual meaning of the word immediately.
- Avoid figurative language
- Use simple vocabulary
- Write short sentences
- Use active voice in the text
- Use the English equivalent for an unknown foreign phrase
- Have a text where every phrase speaks to learners.
The aim of all teaching-learning materials in ELT is to disseminate knowledge of English. If the materials have redundant or uncontrolled language structures, vocabulary, etc., they pose difficulties for learners in comprehending the text. This is compounded by the fact that English is a third/foreign language in the Indian context (Devupalli & Mandly, 2010). In addition, Indian English language learners studying in government schools are frightened of English. In such a situation, materials’ writers should feel the pulse of our learners and write the materials accordingly. Materials which are simple, brief and student-friendly will help learners to move forward in attaining a certain standard and ultimately, the quality of education will improve.
A sample text for high intermediate proficiency students is given as follows.
The man in the other bed would live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and colour of the outside world. The window overlooked a park with a lovely lake, the man had said. Ducks and swans played on the water while children sailed their model boats. Lovers walked arm in arm amid flowers of every color of the rainbow. Grand old trees graced the landscape, and a fine view of the city skyline could be seen in the distance. As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene.
One warm afternoon the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man could not hear the band, he could see it in his mind’s eye as the gentleman by the window portrayed it with descriptive words. Unexpectedly, an alien thought entered his head: Why should he have all the pleasure of seeing everything while I never get to see anything? It didn’t seem fair, he began to feel envy. He began to brood and found himself unable to sleep. He should be by that window - and that thought now controlled his life.
Late one night, as he lay staring at the ceiling, the man by the window began to cough. He was choking on the fluid in his lungs. The other man watched in the dimly lit room as the struggling man by the window groped for the button to call for help. Listening from across the room, he never moved, never pushed his own button which would have brought the nurse running. In less than five minutes, the coughing and choking stopped, along with the sound of breathing. Now, there was only silence—deathly silence.
The following morning, the day nurse was sad to find the lifeless body of the man by the window, and called the hospital attendant to take it away. As soon as it seemed appropriate, the man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone.
Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look. Finally, he would have the joy of seeing it all himself. He turned to look out of the window beside the bed. It faced a blank wall.
drain draw off
on end continuously
enlivened brought back to life
amid in the middle of
exquisite extremely beautiful
picturesque visually charming
parade a music troop in uniform marching in step with one another
band music created with the help of drums, trumpets, and other musical instruments
staring looking fixedly
groped trying to find out
Krashen, S. D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York: Longman.
Krashen, S. D. (1991). The input hypothesis: An update. In James E. Alatis (Ed.). Georgetown university round table on languages and linguistics 1991. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
Hallberg, D. (2010). Socioculture and cognitivist perspectives on language and communication barriers in learning. International Journal of Behavioral, Cognitive, Educational and Psychological Sciences, 2 (2), 111-120.
Devupalli, V. P. & Mandly, N. (2010). Translation: A pedagogical possibility to improve reading comprehension skills. Bangalore: The English Classroom.
Devupalli Vishwa Prasad teaches B. Ed. and M. Ed. Programmes at Maulana Azad National Urdu University Hyderabad. His areas of interest are teacher education, innovative pedagogies, syllabus designing and authentic materials.