A question of agreement

Geetha Durairajan

A couple of months ago, I met a person who works for an organization that aims to serve rural India; one of their primary goals is education for all and they run quite a few schools across the country. I went to their office with an offer to help in any way I could; when I told them where I was working and what my area of specialization was, the inevitable request was for training programmes for English teachers. I was told that many of their teachers had problems with English and that “their nouns and verbs don’t talk to each other”. This was said with a little laugh to indicate that it was ‘a bit of a joke’, like something that could be ‘uttered’ at a party for effect! That statement bothered and upset me; the assumption behind the ‘judgment’ about the language ability of the teachers was that if subjects and objects of sentences don’t concord, if there is no agreement between the subject and the verb in a sentence (and I assume we’re talking here about something as simple as singular and plural nouns and verbs), then that person DOES NOT KNOW ENGLISH, or at least, ‘cannot speak it properly’. Such people, particularly when they are teachers of English, are supposedly ill, in need of that ‘horribly easy to prescribe yet difficult to individualize, diagnose, and provide medicine’ – a remedial course!

In this particular context, I was specifically asked if I could run short courses for these teachers, since they could not spare the time, which would “ensure that they speak English properly!” The specific request was, believe it or not, for short 5-day courses! I made some appropriate noises and left, for I did not want to start an argument about what “speaking English properly” meant, let alone pontificating on it. The organization has not got back to me yet and so, I am, for the time being, safe from having to justify why a remedial course in grammar is not going to help teachers or students for that matter, to ‘speak properly’. I am also not obliged to explain why remedial teaching is not an injection or a vaccine that will make the person taking the course ‘immune’ to errors in five days! But that is not the issue here. The statement about nouns and verbs not talking to each other got me thinking about this supposed ‘panacea’ for all language evils – the dreaded remedial course in English. This seems to be a problem only with the teacher of English! To the best of my knowledge, there are no remedial courses in mathematics, or physics, or geography, or history! Definitely not for any other language in our country.

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Why do teachers or students need a remedial course? What should these courses contain? Is teaching or signing up for a remedial course something to be ashamed of? These and more questions kept running through my mind when I heard about the marital discord between nouns and verbs.

Talk to any group of teachers who are asked to ‘do a remedial course’ for a group of students and ask them about the attitudes of other teachers. More often than not, the reaction of these other teachers, is ‘oh you poor souls’ or ‘oh, so all of you have been saddled with’ and so on. To use a very typical Hindi phrase, remedial teaching is seen as jhadoo pocha work; it is needed to keep the house clean but not something to be enjoyed, relished, or talked about!

There are many Indians, who, for various reasons, do not have age or level appropriate proficiency; more often than not, this is not because they are not capable of becoming proficient in English but because of lack of exposure, insufficient teaching, unavailability of the language in the environment, etc. We all know that in our education system our language teaching classes focus on content and students become very adept at memorizing and reproducing answers but find it difficult to comprehend difficult and hard to access texts or write coherent essays. Many of these Indians with ‘problematic’ proficiency are often teachers of English but this does not mean that our ‘remedial courses’ need to teach them grammar.

What they need is to be taught to read and write. As one of my former doctoral students who often teaches remedial courses (to graduate and post graduate students) put it, “When I give my students an article to read, they read from the first to the last letter. That is not reading with understanding! So I teach them first to read the title, and then look at section headings if they exist. I then teach them to look at the verbs used in the article and understand from that the stances or positions taken by the author, and then use all that to try and get the essence of the article.”

This is what ‘remedial’ teaching needs to do: teach students or teachers as the case may be, to read and write with care; to do focused listening and (for some time at least) plan their speaking events. When we find that someone needs nutrition we do not give that person salt, pepper, and sugar! If we are given the chance to provide food we will give them a wholesome meal. Teaching someone to read and write with understanding and making them aware of higher order skills is wholesome food! Salt, pepper, and sugar, and many more spices if the food is Indian, is needed for taste, but that is not what food is made of. Subject-verb concord is not as unimportant as question tags in sentences, but all of us know that when we write long sentences, even our concord has to be checked. I distinctly remember asking the proof reader of my doctoral thesis to check concord for it is very easy to lose track of the main clause in a very long sentence. Many Indians may need remedial teaching, but that cannot be restricted to a solid dose of grammar!

The author is Professor, Department of Testing and Evaluation, EFL University, Hyderabad. She can be reached at gdurairajan@gmail.com.