Often, an input-rich learning environment offers a good scope to improve students’ language acquisition. This is even more essential when students are exposed to the concerned language only in their schools. Therefore, teachers have an important role to play in providing an environment that allows their students to engage with the targeted language and develop basic proficiency in it.
James Kumar, a primary school teacher (PST) from GPS Aranganoor, successfully implemented certain strategies to improve his students’ reading skills in the classroom. Following this, Azim Premji Foundation, Puducherry, invited him to conduct a workshop in order to share his ideas and engage with teachers who may benefit from the discussion. The workshop, conducted on 27 December 2019, saw the participation of teachers who engaged in learning and subsequent discussion at Mudaliarpet ERC. The workshop was insightful and was deemed as highly useful by the participating teachers, who later reported that they have implemented the suggested strategies in their own classrooms.
Attention of Students: Biggest Requisite
Certain challenges faced by the teachers in this regard are listed below:
- In every class, drawing the attention of students and engaging them in classroom activities serve as the biggest challenge that teachers face.
- Addressing this issue, Mr James suggested that adopting some of the techniques he had learnt during ACE workshops helped him raise his students’ interest and gain their attention.
- One of the strategies discussed aimed to maximize the utilisation of colourful pictures. Students, especially those at the primary level, are more attracted to visual aids while learning, and if pictures are used in conjunction with interesting stories, they become more involved in classroom discussions. This was found to be an effective strategy among all levels of learners, which also improved their basic proficiency in the English language.
The activities were structured in such a way that they were able to further engage students in reading and writing texts. However, before Mr James began elaborating on this aspect, he invited teachers to pose other specific challenges they faced while attempting to develop their students’ reading skills.
During the workshop, the following challenges were highlighted by the teachers:
- Students were able to form simple sentences in English but could not progress beyond that.
- The phonic method was not entirely successful in their classes, and they would benefit better from an alternative, more suitable approach adopted to develop the reading skills of their students.
- One of the teachers was unsure of the reasons for which students found it difficult to improve their reading skills despite being familiar with the letters of the alphabet.
- Furthermore, when students were taught from the viewpoint of examinations and syllabus completion, they were unable to successfully engage in the teaching–learning processes.
PST James introduced himself and addressed the identified challenges one by one.
He noted that during his initial days as a government PST in Karaikal, he employed traditional methods of teaching English. However, he found this approach to be unsuccessful. Asking students to memorise and reproduce sentences in English or instructing them to repeat after the teacher reads aloud do not constitute productive ways of helping students learn a language. These are only rote methods of learning a language and are often observed to be highly unsuccessful processes.
However, when there is an emotional aspect to the topic being dealt with in class, students must associate themselves with the content, which helps in knowledge retention. So, how can we apply this strategy in classroom teaching?
Mr James provided the example of a picture-based activity, wherein students were shown a picture of a tree and were asked to talk about it using English words that they already knew. They were not expected to form perfect sentences but were asked to come up with different kinds of descriptions. During this activity, they tried to form simple sentences, which were often incorrectly phrased. Subsequently, the teacher wrote those down on the blackboard and corrected them at a later stage.
A major disadvantage of the phonic approach adopted to teach students the way to read is that different letters are pronounced differently at different occurrences in a particular word. This confuses learners, especially those who do not engage with the language on a regular basis.
Contextualisation of the content and appropriate use of pictures, especially at the elementary level, can help learners pick up the language easily.
Use of Narratives
Certain useful strategies suggested by Mr James in this regard are as follows:
- Whenever there is a human element to the subject being taught, it resonates well with the students, and they engage better.
- When the concerned story or lesson is set in a context unfamiliar to students, they tend to lose interest in them when these are dealt with in class. To address this issue, the teacher can frame narratives outside of the lesson and integrate them in the story already provided in the textbook.
- For instance, let us consider the example of the poem Clouds in the NCERT English textbook for first-graders. Although it follows a particular rhyme scheme, this poem with seven lines is quite disjointed in terms of its content.
- Therefore, narrating it through a story may help students feel more involved with the same; for example, three friends were walking through a garden on a hot sunny day. They saw a few clouds heading their way. They became very happy when it started to rain.
- Contextualising the poem in this way may help students establish connections with the story. Moreover, the teacher could further engage the students by making them sing the poem. Subsequently, they will be able to read the poem from the textbook as well.
In this way, students can become more interested in classroom activities. Moreover, through this method, they are familiarised with sentence structures, pronunciations of words, and much more.
- This student-centric approach is, therefore, quite interactive in nature. When students are able to come up with their responses to the questions posed in class, the knowledge is retained in their minds, whereas supplied ideas and words often remain in their short-term memory and are forgotten very soon.
Making a Magazine: A Whole-Class Product
By following this methodology in his class, Mr James’ students were able to not only read better but also began framing simple sentences and writing them in English. PST James shared his experiences regarding the way he collected all these writing materials from his students and compiled them into a magazine. This magazine was, of course, a by-product of the response eliciting–editing–compiling process that he discussed in the workshop in great detail.
During the said workshop, which lasted for about four hours, the teachers participated enthusiastically, posing questions and sharing their own success stories. This workshop concluded with a few teachers clarifying their doubts during one-on-one discussions with Mr James, in an attempt to understand his classroom processes in a procedural manner. The teachers found this session to be very useful and relevant to their language teaching at the primary grades level. The feedback submitted by the teachers for this workshop highlighted that it addressed some of the important issues they face pertaining to students’ reading skills in their classrooms.