Primary English in Chennai schools

With a population somewhere between 4-5 million Chennai (previously known as Madras) is a busy city with a wide variety of schools. So far, I’ve managed to visit just four – ranging from strong to fairly weak in terms of their provision for English language teaching. The challenges are multiple, but first I’ll say something about the State policy for introducing an activity-based curriculum (ABL) across the whole primary curriculum, since this seems to have been an important feature of the approach to teaching and learning here.

The conceptualisation of ABL is rooted in an interpretation of the Montessori methodology, with a strictly structured framework based on mainly practical tasks with instructions on sets of work cards that children follow, increasingly climbing ‘the learning ladder’ as they progress through every stage. For each activity, the work group is specified – requiring children to move between pair work, group work and individual tasks, with even a specification of which tasks will be fully or partially supported by the teacher. At the end of each step on the ladder children complete a test before progressing to the next step. In the schools I’ve visited so far the reality of this very carefully structured procedure seems to be a relaxed classroom environment with children working confidently, with varying degrees of independence depending on the task and the individual teacher.

ABL in action

individual and group work in action

The role of the teacher seems to be the most crucial element in the children’s confidence and competence in English. I met some teachers in English-medium schools with a high level of fluency in English who opted for a strongly teacher-led approach with children responding keenly to rather formulaic questioning. In other classes where teachers had a similarly high level of fluency in English, I met children were very happy to ask me all sorts of questions, even curious to find Sweden on the world map and guess how long it might take to fly from Umeå to Chennai! In the two Tamil-medium schools that I visited, where English is taught as a curriculum subject, the teacher’s fluency in English was lower and children’s ability to engage in short conversations with me was very limited. The teacher’s approach to English here seemed to be more strongly reliant on reading and copying from the work cards. Sadly, one school did seem to be very under-resourced in terms of poor school buildings and facilities. In my short visit it was not possible to discover the reason for this, but there was little doubt that the environment had an impact on the learning experience here.

At one school I was also lucky enough to speak briefly with 3 girls aged around 16 who had just collected their weekly copy of The Times (Indian short version for school students). They were wonderfully fluent and very willing to discuss with me a short article in the paper about the dominance of English. An impressive outcome from a girls government school which is not rated as particularly high achieving!

So, as a general impression, the ABL structuring may have its limitations, but it does seem to offer a secure framework with lots of scope for originality, if teachers are adventurous. Under such conditions the key factor that will make a difference in learning English is the teacher’s fluency level. A minimum of around an intermediate level is highly desirable (approximately B1, for those familiar with the European levels of the CEFR). Once this is achieved then it becomes possible to think of moving away from a curriculum focusing on reading and copying, towards an increase in the opportunities for classroom interaction to occur. Lots still to do to achieve quality provision for primary English, but some encouraging signs at least!

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