English is progressively being deemed as a ‘must-know’ language in India. It is rather intriguing to observe that in a multilingual country, regardless of official language policies designed to support the use of regional languages in educational contexts, English in fact is used in all areas of everyday living in the country; it is the language of administration and education, and furthermore jobs in India continue to require fluency in English (Gargesh, 2006). As a result, parents in India are more interested in placing their child in a private English-medium school, a school where subjects are taught in the English language, rather than in a regional or nativelanguage school (Galab, Vennam, Komanduri, Benny, & Georgiadis, 2013). Due to the poor quality of education in government affiliated vernacular medium schools, even parents from low economic strata want their children to learn English and hence are shifting their kids from government run vernacular medium schools to private English medium schools.Enrolment at vernacular schools is declining drastically. (Masani, 2012).
The English Language Crisis in Vernacular Schools of India:
Onlya minority of high-income Indians have the good fortune to be educated in India’s elite and expensive private English medium schools.There is still a colossal stratum of the Indian population which attends state affiliated vernacular schools where English is not the chief medium of education and where the status of English is ambiguous (Gupta, 2012). They are deprived of effective English learning and struggle to compete in the job market after formal education (Ramanathan, 2007). It has been observed that vernacular students in India still learn English in traditional ways: rote memorization and drills of repetition (Javalgekar, 2013). The teaching is inappropriate and inadequate as most English teachers teach through the grammar-translation method in vernacular medium schools (Javalgekar, 2013).Jayanthi (2011) argues that there is a gap between what learners of English are taught and what they actually need. Moreover, they deal with English merely as a school subject; English language is not used as a medium of instruction since the vernacular schools emphasize using the regional or native language as the official language for the teaching of all subjects (Pramod & Kad, 2013).Their lingua franca is the regionalor native language and they learn English by rote as they do other subjects.
Around 47 million Indians in the 15-24 age range were unemployed, based on the alarming data published in the 2011 Census of India.India’s crisis is not just unemployment – but also un-employability of a vast majority of students who are unable to communicate proficiently in English. Students coming from vernacular language schools in India feel diffident, inferior and nervousas they find it difficult to adjust to English medium colleges and universities(Pathan & Shiakh, 2012). A larger supply of confident, English speaking workforce would improve income levels and socio-economic equality in our country. No concrete steps, however, are taken by the government to change the situation.
ICT is the Key:
The current system of English language education in India is unable to fulfil the emerging wants of people in a competitive and globalized setting (Gargesh, 2006). There is a crucialneed for improvement in teaching of English to vernacular medium students mostly from under-privileged socio-economic backgrounds so that they could sustain, flourish and prosper in the real world, as also because there were a lot of dropouts from vernacular schools. Exposing vernacular students to the significance of English language should be an enduring obligation for English language teachers in these environments (Ramanathan, 2007). They should master the various ways of teaching English keeping in mind the teaching-learning needs and contextual constraints.
Recently, the use of ICT as a tool to improve the different English language skills has been foregrounded in India (Chhabra, 2012; Kumaran, 2011; Light, 2009; Light, 2013; Raval, 2014). Perhaps using ICT for teaching English is the answer, but not in the way it is currently being used nowadays as teachers in India tend to learn and use ICT in a formal and outdated fashion (Chandrakant, 2014). Research on the influence of technology in education frequently reveals that teachers still need to develop their ability and attitude to carry out innovations, that the school culture is not supportive of embracing technology, or that the policies are not relevant to the use of technology (Groff & Mouza, 2008).ICT integrated solutions must be initiated to reduce the disparity faced by children from poor strata due to their inability to communicate in English, then to improve the utilisation of the limited infrastructure and limited teaching staff which exist in vernacular medium schools, and to teach students through affordable technology which makes the English subject fun and easy for them to understand (Kumaran, 2011; Gupta, 2012).
Teacher Professional Development:
Student achievement is not influenced directly by new curricula and materials, or sophisticated ICT infrastructure. Better student outcomes are the end result of better teaching skills (Bolitho & Padwad, 2013). English language teachers, with a suitable ability level and effective resources to cater to the teaching-learning practice, are among the essentials for language learning in any environment and are especially crucial in the case of second language learning (Wang, 2005). The goal of India’s education reform is to improve student performance through changes in teaching practices, and changes in teaching practices are likely to result from changes in professional development (Bolitho & Padwad, 2013). Consequently, professional development is one major area, which needs significant changes if quality teachers in India are to become available (Chattopadhyay, 2013).
However, research claims that in-service teachers are seemingly in a constant struggle to reconcile the theory of professional training with the practice of the classroom. Bolitho and Padwad (2013) highlight the problem of sending English language teachers to training workshops that neither meet their needs nor capture their interests, and later result in ill-prepared teachers. Much professional learning should be rooted in the specific contexts in which teachers function (Doecke, Parr, & North, 2008).However, most of the in-service training for teachers in India is reported as one-shot and de-contextualised workshops that are mainly held at schools to meet an urgent need to strengthen teachers’ practical knowledge (Padwad & Dixit, 2008). Teacher contributions to their own learning are rarely recognised in India as professional development; teachers’ role, responsibility and agency in their own professional development are disregarded (Stannard & Matharu, 2014). As a result, merely officially sanctioned professional development programs obtain recognition and support in India, even if they may not be related to teachers’ needs, whereas new forms of professional development based on teachers’ own initiatives, needs and interests are not recognised or supported (Bolitho & Padwad, 2013). Teachers end up engaging in formalised learning environments which are separated from their learning needs and outside of their school schedule (Bolitho & Padwad, 2013). As long as this is the case, government funding and resources for vernacular medium schools will continue to be largely ineffective. Schools in India can no longer separate professional development activities from the on-going realities of teachers' work and their workplace. Professional development and teachers’ context should be seen as integrated and interdependent by schools and policy makers in India to support change and ongoing improvement efforts towards ICT integrated teaching (Raval, McKenney, & Pieters, 2012).According to Khan (2015),innovative professional development of English teachers in India is achievable with consistent time, school support, and collective participation of teachers.
Based on my review of related literature, a number of factors are important in planning and implementing professional development for English teachers in vernacular medium schools of India. Imported methods of teaching English have been used in a country like India.The language professionals in India have not yet evolved appropriate methods and techniques of teaching English in the Indian context, based on classroom experience, understanding, needs and constraints. We have lived on ‘received knowledge’ and imported teaching strategies from highly developed countries. But they prove to be ineffective in the context of vernacular medium schools of India which are typically synonymous with overcrowded classrooms, limited infrastructure, low socio-economic student backgrounds, varied curriculum, ineffective textbooks, etc. (Jayanthi, 2011). I suggest a contextual-collaborative approach to improve the quality of teaching and learning English in vernacular medium schools of India. An effective and on-going professional development program,based on the contextual-collaborative approach, should:
- Identify the vernacular students’ needs and constraints of learning English
- Identify the professional development needs and constraints of English teachers in vernacular schools
- Design context-based ICT resources within the students and teachers’ needs and constraints
- Engage students and teachers in new pedagogy
- Monitor and assess implementation
- Evaluate outcomes
- Reflect, revise and improve
Teachers in vernacular medium schools have to reconsider their teaching strategies and provide their students with innovative opportunities to deal with English language learning requirements.However, the schools or their English teachers could be hesitant in the beginning or might take time to accept changes in ICT integrated teaching and professional development based on contextual-collaborative knowledge, theories and methods. Since ICT is not organic to teaching of English in vernacular medium schools of India, it will take extensive time,expert guidance, and school support before the teachers understand its finer nuances, but meanwhile they can learn it well through the contextual-collaborative approach for professional development.
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Atiya Khan is a Master of Education (by research) student at RMIT University in Melbourne. She has taught Business Communication and Advertising in Commerce Colleges of Mumbai and is presently a visiting faculty at RMIT University’s School of Education.