On learning English

Anindya Chanda

Learning the English language is a boring task for many. Taking down pages and pages of dictated long answers, mugging up lists of meanings of words… students just don’t like it. However, this doesn’t always have to be how the language is taught and learnt. Learning this beautiful language can be a real treat.

Let me give you an overview of how our English teacher, Ms. Mini Joseph, conducts her classes. Firstly, every student is encouraged to write his own essays on a current topic of discussion. Their interpretation is accepted if it is justified by some reference of the text. Even if the writing is not of a high standard but makes sense and is original, we are encouraged. Ms. Joseph believes in giving us critical feedback and points out repeated grammatical errors and wrong sentence structures in our essays. This helps us improve our writing skills.

We are allowed to interpret poems in our own way too. Our teacher interferes only when any of us deviates too much from what the poet intended the poem to convey. We are allowed to cross quote works by the same author or by different authors to express our ideas as long as we are able to justify our choice of quotes and words. We are allowed to compare freely between genres and styles as our instructor firmly believes that all art is a vehicle. It transfers ideas from the artist to the observer.

As for dictation, our teacher gives out points to incorporate into our answers. We are free to exercise our discretion in using them and can also include any points researched from the Internet or from books. At this stage, we are learning to think for ourselves. This is recognised in class and originality is appreciated, thus giving us students the confidence to write more and the inspiration to elevate our level of writing.

While analysing text in an essay, our teacher first sees if the student is correct in principle, i.e., if he/she has supported his/her interpretation with quotations and clues from the text; if he/she is also exact in detail, special recognition is given.

As for explanations, our teacher’s lectures are rich in content and straight to the point. While analysing a drama piece, I have noticed how my teacher makes connections with the ideas popular in the period of composition and gives evidence of the author’s views time and again.

Likewise, I have noted that the traditional approach works well in the case of grammar. Of course, any new rules that have been added to the language have to be taught.

The area where most students falter is in their diction. Discussing the not-so-popular synonyms and giving reading assignments are effective in tackling this. For students whose mother tongue is not English, the barrier lies in the rhythm of the language. Just like a song, normal speech also has a rhythm. This rhythm is analyzed and the pronunciation of difficult words is shown by telling the student which speech organs are to be used. Prose is read out in proper rhythm so that the student can hear this. The student is then encouraged to incorporate this rhythm into his/her spoken English.

Coming back to literature, development and exercise of the cognitive abilities of a student are essential. Be it a poem, a story, a play, we are shown how to pick ideas from the text. Next, the ideas are channelled into a train of thought such that there is a flowing connection between subsequent points. The state of mind of the author while writing the piece in question is discussed if material is available on it and during the next step, i.e., analysis, this is taken into account and connections between the author’s personal life and the piece of writing are made.

Our teacher also introduced us to the concept of peer-teaching. Peer teaching is indeed a good idea as it brings in fresh perspectives on the lesson taught and highlights problem areas that students have. I have had the opportunity to peer-teach in my class and this activity has enabled me to look beyond the superficial aspect of studying a lesson. I taught a poem – “The Lady of Shallot” by Alfred Lord Tennyson to my class of 43 students. This experience compelled me to look up several reference books and the Internet for sources to teach the poem effectively.

A special mention for drama: when a play is being studied, it is always helpful to visualise the play in one’s mind while reading it. Our teacher encourages us to question the significance of every small action that takes place. Does it have any symbolic meaning? Does it contribute to the mood in a certain way? These questions along with a constant analysis of the psychology of the characters complete our study.

To invoke the student’s interest is the most difficult part of a teacher’s job. In my class, students are taught to examine parallel forms of art such as paintings, documentaries, art house cinema, etc. Trips to art galleries, film festivals are either arranged or told about so that we can correlate what we learn in literature with what is happening in the world outside our classroom.

The author is a student of class 11 at St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, Kolkata.

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