A need to focus on the basics

Usha Chandrasekaran

In one of my postgraduate classes in English I came across Kayalvizhi who was zealous about learning. She displayed a remarkable understanding of English Literature. With all her flair for fresh thinking, Kayalvizhi stammered a lot while speaking; her writing was intermittent and jerky. During one of our ever-lengthening seminar sessions I learnt that Kayalvizhi reproduced facts collected from her classmates as she was not able to read lengthy material independently. Her remarkable grasp of the unknown and the new and her quest for knowledge kept her on par with the benchmarks we set for assessing performance for college classes. When I probed into her learning history she told me that she had come up to this level by listening to what was taught in the class. She must be an aural learner who receives maximum information through listening. I looked at her with reverence. She added saying that even today she cannot read a novel or short story as the print marks on the page are continuous. She is comfortable if written materials are presented with sub-heads or in short graphs or in bullet forms.

Though I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I did not forget to find out how she reads texts in her mother tongue, Tamil. It was the same story again. She could reproduce facts from a text when I read out the material. It was another story when a team of teachers tried to goad her into reading a page of information written in the novelistic tradition. She is pursuing her M.Phil in English, wherein she has to process a number of texts on her own. She is able to manage because her comprehension is ahead of her text processing skills.

What we need to think about in this context is that Kayalvizhi is only one of the unknown and unsung warriors who are fighting their way through the portals of higher education in spite of their learning difficulties related to language processing. What is lamentable about her situation is that she did not have anyone at the high school to tell her that if she had problems with reading continuous narrative discourse, then she could opt for subjects that are taxonomic like botany, or subjects that involve deciphering symbols and equations like chemistry. There are problems in making such decisions also. One had to find out if she had had the aptitude for subjects that involve deciphering symbols.

ESL teachers in the high school will do well if they plan to provide learners with individualised instruction. After all, the course in English is for the learner and ‘psyching out’ the learner is important if teachers of English are bent upon staying in business. Each individual is as unique as her voice quality or her signature. But we, the Indian teachers of English, are always conscious of our learners as ‘heterogeneous groups’, ‘mixed ability class’, members of large classes”, etc. When new methods are proposed, our minds race back to the array of students seated 5 or 6 at a desk, without even enough elbow room to try out simulation work and gaming activities. This is understandable in the context of India’s population. In the western context, however, learners have been looked at as individuals. There, experimental research in language learning is conducted with classic examples of one or two learners. Classroom research is possible in that context as the number of learners in each class is limited. In India, we generally react to group or mass psychology. Educational psychology always takes into consideration factors like intelligence, aptitude, motivation, etc., while studying the learning behaviour of groups. Recent thinking in curricular reforms has taught us to think of our learners as individuals, who come from a particular background, who bring their own repertory of knowledge and skills to the learning context. They are not empty buckets to be filled with knowledge as Karl Popper might put it. We must take into consideration individual learning styles. Visual learners must be given English learning materials with a lot of visual support. Aural learners will achieve optimum learning level through listening to a lot of English. The teaching materials then will be a mixed bag of activities for all types of learners.

The author teaches English at Seethalakshmi Ramaswami College, Tirchy. She can be reached at ushaaims@gmail.com.

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