Indian ELT at sixty plus: An essay in understanding

Makhan L Tickoo

Background: Two major changes have taken place over the last six decades in Indian ELT. Both have made notable additions to its thought and practice. We shall look at both to grasp their essence and take stock of where ELT stands today.

On January 26 1950, independent India adopted a Constitution that made it a Secular Democratic Republic. For schooling, a main result was that a growing number of pupils began to enter the existing as well as the newly established institutions. A steadily growing percentage of them came from families where the parents had not been to school, and in most cases did not see much value in their children’s learning English at school. Among a small number of decision makers two related facts also began to cause concern – one, that English had lost its special status and place on the school’s work schedule, and two that for a sizeable number of policy makers and educational thinkers the language had become suspect and was viewed as a legacy of the colonial Empire.

Among the leading decision makers at the Centre a few, including India’s first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru, had, however, seen good value in keeping up the standards of teaching English for important national reasons. They invited the British Council (BC) to start its ELT activities in India in their understanding that it had been teaching the language in several countries for over a dozen years.

A new approach to ELT methodology: 1950
The BC opened its office in New Delhi and began by teaching short-term training courses to trainers and teachers of English. Two milestone events in the next decade stood out, however, and each added to the other in introducing a major change in ELT curriculum and methodology.

  1. The first took place at Mahableshwar near Pune in May 1950. It was the first ten-day conference attended by some 30 senior ELT practitioners from different parts of the country. A new approach was promoted by its leading proponent, E V Gatenby. Having worked with Harold E Palmer and A S Hornby, the two leading ELT reformers in Tokyo, Gatenby was at that time the Linguistic Adviser to the BC.

    The approach that got promoted had four defining features – oral direct method, early start to English, keeping the first language out of the English classroom and the claim that the alternative with its seedbeds in the UK had gained universal applicability.

    Several significant additions to Indian ELT intervened between that first milestone event and its sequel. These included the first graded ELT syllabus by Jean Forrester in Madras in 1952 followed by another with different emphases by F L Billows in 1954 and the founding of India’s first English Language Teaching Institute (ELTI) at Allahabad in 1956.

  2. The second major event was the fortnight-long seminar at Nagpur in December 1957 under the auspices of the All India Council of Secondary Education. It was directed by a senior ELT practitioner, J G Bruton, who was the BC’s English Language Officer in Delhi and had received his ELT training at the Institute of Education (IE) London. The very next year, Bruton served as Director of Studies at the Central Institute of English (CIE) Hyderabad from its beginning in 1958.

At Nagpur, Bruton with much success promoted an approach to ELT with its two major claims:
“The compilation of frequency lists in response to the realisation of the necessity for vocabulary control” and the results of “a great deal of investigation … carried out in Great Britain and the USA into the nature of and particularly into the characteristics of individual languages.” (NR:6)

Its main product was a report, which contained a detailed graded syllabus, lists of essential words to be covered linearly during the years of schooling, guidance on the ‘how’ of teaching – its essentials and emphases – and also on tests and exams. In those offerings, the Nagpur Report (NR) laid the foundations of a new approach to ELT.

Very soon NR and its recommendations served as reference points for materials producers, teacher trainers and many classroom teachers over a dozen years. Christened the Structural Approach (SA), the producer received enthusiastic and mounting support at the ELTIs.

Before we proceed further, we shall answer two questions that arise:
What did the SA offer Indian ELT and what gave it an appeal among growing numbers of senior trainers and teachers? The following stood out and should be understood by teachers of English in schools and colleges.

The SA in its main essentials:

  1. That the easiest way into a language’s mastery for use lies in the learner’s gaining command over some 300 (more or less) well selected and sequentially ordered sentence patterns and a carefully selected vocabulary of some 2500 (3000) most frequent words that get taught along with the patterns.
  2. That these patterns and words get taught in an order, which being based on credible research, forms part of the detailed, prescribed syllabus. During its early years of use that order got viewed as sacrosanct and no changes were allowed.
  3. That from early on attention must be paid to the sound system of English with special attention to those sounds that are known to cause problems to learners.
  4. That attention must be paid to the four skills – L (listening), S (Speaking), R (reading), W (writing).
  5. That the key to the mastery of the language lay in mastering the structures and the words that accompany them through repetition and mimicry memorisation given that the best learning had its essence in ‘over-learning’.
  6. That the basis of good learning lay in high-quality teacher performance given that a ‘good’ teacher could shape learner behaviour in the desired direction by drilling controlled language in a regulated linear order capable of guaranteeing cumulative gains. The gains would be incremental and thus provide full coverage of the essentials required for accurate language use by every learner at the end of the defined course of study.
  7. That learning a new language depended greatly on the formation of a new set of habits.
  8. That good teaching must aim at eliminating all errors and must hold up the belief that mistakes are anathema and must, as far as possible, be nipped in the bud.
  9. That every teacher has to aim at near native competence in the use of sounds and structures of the language.

Practitioner acceptance: Why?
Desperate for workable solutions most practitioners trusted the imported word as having come from the ‘knowers’: i) Classroom teachers saw it producing desired results given that there was a close link between items that preceded and those that followed and together they moved smoothly from lesson to lesson towards a complete coverage of the essentials. ii) Test writers found that the making of such tests offered little challenge since the year/term-end exams were meant to seek just a faithful regurgitation of what was taught. iii) Materials writers too found it easier to work in a carefully graded well laid-out progression.

Doubts Arising: Several doubts arose from early on in its use, however. Three examples follow:

  1. At the first training course at the CIE (1958-9), a trainee teacher from Kerala, C P K Tharagan, expressed doubt whether an approach, which viewed a human learner the same as a boa-constrictor and left no room for his/her creative processes, can succeed in ensuring the mastery of a foreign language.
    Tharagan’s view had come from a sincere teacher’s deeply felt doubt about real learning taking place in an environment where the main emphasis was on teaching that offered no challenge to the learner’s mind and no encouragement to their inner resources. However, Tharagan’s question was ignored by the ‘guru’ and his ‘audacity’ in doubting the ‘truth’ made him into a pariah among his classmates. Most of them had become ‘true believers’ in R K Narayan’s sense of that term. (Narayan saw such believers often acting out the command without allowing any place to questioning).
  2. Not long after a senior dissident among BC’s own specialist trainers at the CIE – H V George used his classroom experiment to conclude that what helped learning was “not repetition but repetition of effort” adding that “remembering is reconstruction” and involves efforts to get at meaning (George in Two Practical Experiments with teachers-in-training”, CIE Bulletin 3, 1963), pointing out “that unexpected high scores (that were gained by the subjects) are related to the ‘challenge’ that is presented to learners.” (CIE Bulletin 3, 1963:20-30).

    A few years later George added the following: “I never held that language was mainly a set of habits or that a language is or should be learnt simply by observation, imitation and repetition to the point of automatic responses. Nor could I believe that grammar (structures, a structural approach) forms a reasonable base for a school course.” (CIE Decennial Souvenir 1970: 32)

  3. Michael West served the Indian Education Service for 20 years and produced “The first language teaching materials to have emerged from an experimental project.” (Howatt A History of English Language Teaching 2004 edition:278). West, who gave many years to controlled classroom experiments, found several points of educational concern in the SA at work.
    i) That often ‘performing’ teachers left very little room for learner involvement, which is the key to true learning. In his experimental study in language classrooms using a stopwatch he found teacher talk monopolising the class hour in the belief that the teacher’s teaching was the same as the learners’ learning.
    ii) In the very detailed syllabus that formed part of the approach, he saw a guide map encroaching upon the role of a class teacher and in important ways that of materials writer, which such a document was neither qualified nor mandated to do.

The second major alternative: 1970s
Since the early 1970s the profession has been taking in a lot of better-informed wisdom on methods and materials from sources in linguistic and educational studies. The fact that the alternative has gained growing acceptance in the profession makes it important for us to grasp its essential theoretical base.

The alternative curriculum promoted soon after India’s independence and the desperate need for a panacea to answer mounting professional concerns was, as we noticed above, based on the understanding that i) a language is a system with its several interrelated subsystems including those of sounds, words and structures. ii) the mastery of any new language can come best from a command of those systems, which together constitute the integrated whole capable of enabling the learner to use the learnt language in life.

As the days passed it was realised, however, that those assumptions were too simple (simplistic?). They did not, except in the case of learners who gained usable language from other sources of learning (e.g., rich and rewarding family environment with lots of opportunities for practice), result in producing English language for use in real-life situations.

A new theory began to take shape as a result of inputs from different sources of knowledge. A main source lay in research findings that reversed the accepted belief system. These findings can be defined in negative and positive terms thus: i. a language is not or is only very minimally ‘what it is’ (as defined in terms of its systems). ii. Its real relevance especially for teaching and learning lies not so much in ‘what it is’ but in ‘what it does’.

To teach a new language much as in learning /acquiring one’s own, one must focus attention on what it has to do for the learner. Looked at thus, a language must above all serve its users’ main need by helping them put across not words and sentences, but meanings. The main focus therefore has to be on ‘how (to enable the learner) to mean’ (= be able to put across meanings. This major change of focus from ‘forms’ (sounds, words and word groups) to ‘functions’ is one of the major sources of what has gradually evolved over the years. It has also been strengthened by findings on how effective learning happens.

Let us briefly look at some of what has formed part of the New Thinking, and in a small measure, of new practice in as yet small but steadily growing percentage of schools and colleges.

Risk-avoidance was a major part of the approach, which as we saw above, viewed mistakes as threats. It is gradually being replaced by a view that sees value in risk-taking.

Let us look at both using a few examples.
i. A learner is asked by her teacher to shut the door. The learner does so and says, ‘Madam, I shutted the door (because you asked me to).’ The teacher is right in thinking the student has made a serious mistake in English verb use. So she helps her set it right. But there can be a different reason for what happened. It is that the learner has found that a rule governs English verbs (viz. they take ‘ed’ for past).

The teacher sees it as signifying progress into the learner acquiring a rule of grammar. She uses different techniques to help the class towards what is required – e.g., helps the class to set apart regular verbs (close, closed) from irregular verbs (shut, shut) and makes sure they can use both with all their variations in use.

A different and larger concern arises, however, in actual classroom practice. It is this. The teacher finds that when she, for good reasons, lists and corrects all such mistakes, the learner sees that the teacher and perhaps a few classmates have caught him making mistakes; he sees in it a threat to his ‘self’ and may decide not to be part of classroom interaction. The result becomes a source of classroom behaviour that is capable of undoing much of the good done by the learner’s taking part in classroom interaction.

Other related threats arise too. When a teacher encourages learners to take risks for progress in writing or in speech, mistakes are not corrected at the end of every such practice hour. In theory it has value but problems do arise here too.

The school authorities, for example, often view it as the teacher’s failure to pay attention to mistakes, so do parents/guardians. Risk taking offers an incentive towards system expansion but it demands a supportive social and schooling system.

The teacher must educate everyone with a stake in the learners’ success to see value in the alternative teaching-learning strategy being adopted.

ii. A main addition is encouragement to ‘group work’ (GW), which in many classrooms is fast becoming an integral part of ‘communicative’ classrooms. The reason is that it is seen as a rich means of bringing about learner participation, which results in system enrichment for each member of the group. But is it really so? There seems to be a clear divide in what research on GW has discovered. A longitudinal classroom study, which ran for some five years (Viz. the Bangalore Project: 1979-84), found that GW may not prove to be a better use of children’s time. At least five unwelcome activities were observed at work. They were:
a. learners use mainly their mother tongue
b. they often learn each other’s mistakes
c. repeated use of shared errors engenders fossilisation
d. one or two pupils dominate and steal most ‘turns’ in the group
e. pupils dislike being corrected by group-mates

A lot of research in second language acquisition and also in the study of other subjects at school over several years, however, suggests the following.

i) group members need not necessarily learn each other’s mistakes more than learners do in classrooms or in out-of class activities
ii) pupils enjoy helping and being helped by group-mates
iii) in a well-organized and monitored group, there is every reason to believe that each member gets support towards participation

As for the fear regarding the mother tongue being used by group members, or in the English class that resulting in errors, which get fossilised and become part of the learners’ long-term use, there is growing evidence to show that far from being just a major source of learner errors, the mother tongue is capable of becoming a rich and rewarding source of enrichment.

A good reader in one language can, for example, be enabled to become a good reader in the other language. Research has also shown that a strong foundation in the mother tongue facilitates a faster and better learning of the other tongue(s).

What is true of group work is also more or less true of several other potentially rewarding additions made in the last 30 odd years. However, they need further support from classroom studies. So though it is clear that ELT as a profession has moved fast forward in certain welcome directions, it is nowhere near the final solution in many.

Another major recent adoption is the use of ‘authentic’ materials and classroom authentic activities. Also, in such interactive classrooms the goal is to encourage the use of language that is true to life and not just language used in the classroom context.

A major addition to both theory and practice has been the incorporation of ‘tasks’ as part of ELT materials and methods. Tasks are units of work each with a clear objective, which is normally both linguistic (for example using a ‘determiner’ correctly) and also true-to-life uses of language.

Questions arise about the extent to which many such useful innovations can be adopted for successful use in primary English classes or in State-run schools by teachers with limited proficiency in English. But there are convincing arguments in favour of their use as they clearly encourage learner participation.

Looking forward: A subjective view
Having looked briefly at aspects of the two curricular additions made to ELT during the last six decades, a main question to be addressed is ‘where do ELT practitioners go from here?’ Two alternative paths are open to them. One, adopt the latest in the understanding that it is the best, and two take the best from both based on a full understanding of their own classroom. The view that appeals to me is that although there is a lot going for the second alternative and therefore the teacher should get to know it fully and strive to adopt it as far as possible, she/he should become aware of what works/does not work best in his/her classroom and adopt those means that serve him/her the best. In general, it seems wrong to dismiss everything that is not ‘progressive’ and thereby end up throwing away the baby with the bath water.

Even the best theoretical ideas must pass the litmus test when put to use in classrooms which vary greatly between cities and towns/villages, well provided and poorly provided, those with access to both old and new technology and the ones with neither. In each case the teacher must be fully aware of both the objective(s) teaching/learning and also the cushions and constraints in the contexts she has to work inside. Above all, she must get to know as fully as possible the strengths and limitations of her pupils.

The author is a renowned ELT scholar who has authored and edited books and series on Language teaching and learning. He has a special interest in the history of ELT He can be reached at

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