Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Teaching Conversational English in Rural India- My Experiments

I recently volunteered to teach conversational English to a group of adult students. This being my first time teaching English, I read up a lot and tried different techniques. While it is too early to say exactly which one worked and which failed, I have seen some successes and have an idea about what I want to keep doing and what I want to stop. I am sure everything will be clearer in a few months' time.

This post is my attempt to document at a high level this experience of teaching conversational English to adults. I am breaking this post in three parts: Principles, Techniques and Results.

Here are the broad principles that I have used, some well planned and some noticed in retrospect. These principles were weaved in every interaction in the class.

Attention-Relevance-Confidence-Satisfaction (ARCS) was the starting point and continues to be one when I prepare for a class and when I conduct it. I may not know much about teaching English, but I know without doubt that motivation is a must. So, I try my best to understand what motivates the students and keep refining my understanding of it. All my lessons are then designed to meet these personal goals of my students. 

(Here is another situation in which I have used ARCS successfully:

2. Stay Away from Grammar 
I take this teaching assignment very seriously. So, I read up a lot on how to teach people to speak a language they have studied in school. I must have read about 50 articles and watched countless videos. The one message that made perfect sense to me (mainly from was that if 5-10 years of learning grammar in school did not teach students to speak the language, another 6 months of doing the same is not going to help!

Also, seeing Aloka learn Hindi in the last four months made it obvious that grammar rules are given unnecessary importance in schools. If a child can learn to speak a language without knowing grammar rules, so can my students. As a result, we don't use words like tense or prepositions or verbs in my classroom. And if any student uses such words, I pretend I am hearing Pahadi that I do not understand! I use correct grammar while teaching, but I don't teach grammar. 

3. Immersion

Not rocket science this. Immersion is essential when learning a language. Aloka's recently acquired Hindi skills are a stark example of this. Atreya's plan to study German in Germany is another. Language is about communicating and if you don't listen to it and speak it continually, it can never be mastered. So, at least in my class, students have to speak only in English, with very rare exceptions. The results of this principle can be extremely frustrating for some students (and sometimes for me as well). But every now and then, we all see a breakthrough and it is all worth it.

4. Personalized Attention and Correction
I read in one of the websites about the need to learn deeply, instead of learning widely. From my experience as a learner and a trainer, I know that we learn deeply that which matters most to us, and what matters most to us is ourselves. So, I try to highlight one area of improvement for each student based on their activities and ask them to learn it deeply, often ignoring other learning points covered in the class. Each person may end up learning a different thing in a class, but they learn it deeply. Quality versus quantity. Instead of trying to learn a lot, learn only a little but learn it deeply.

5. Vulnerability and Personal Rapport
The biggest stumbling block in learning English by Indian adults is the shame associated with speaking incorrect English. If I am going expect my adult students to shed their insecurities and become vulnerable in front of me and the class, then they have to trust me totally. They have to see me as someone who is like them, who is vulnerable and imperfect, even though she may speak fluent English. Ironically, vulnerability begets trust and a personal rapport. So, I don't teach from a mountain top like a guru who has reached somewhere, but from among them, as someone also on a journey to learn, albeit something else. 

6. Fun
As a principle, I make my classes fun. I believe that everyone learns best when they are enjoying the process of learning. I don't believe in standing up and giving a lecture for more than 10 minutes in a class because listening to lectures is no fun, so I limit one-way presentations to an absolute minimum and add elements of interaction and participation in every class. It works for me too, for I would hate to have to carry on a boring lecture for 1 hour. Students come to my class expecting to have some fun, and I don't think they are disappointed often. 

7. Class Composition
My small but very driven advanced class!
Not really a principle, but I could analyze it in retrospect as one. I was given a mixed class when I started- there were students who spoke English often as part of their work (but not fluently), and others who had never spoken a sentence in English, and some others who were in between. I went along with this group without complaining because frankly I didn't know much about teaching English anyway, so was yet to form firm opinions. In retrospect, having a mixed class of colleagues who were friendly with each other worked quite well. This is how. In the initial days, when I was the stranger to all and perhaps intimidating, the advanced students supported and encouraged the beginners. And having advanced students in the class encouraged me to talk totally in English because at least 3-4 students were nodding and not looking lost!

After 15 classes, however, I see the need to split the class according to their competency level. The beginners need more attention on things the advanced students already know, the advanced students need personalized support only possible if the group is smaller, and the intermediate students need to take on leadership roles and support the class.

Now on to specific techniques that I tried.


1. Focus on Quick Wins
Quick wins here mean stuff they can master quickly and start dealing with English without hesitation. One of the fastest wins has been greetings. Everyone was asked to think of ways of greeting each other, and other people they meet, and present both- the types of greetings and the response- in the next class. One of my very clever students tried it on me without my even knowing it and shared my response in the class the next day. I learned something about myself that day!

2. Address Common Problems

I observed a few problems such as live in/at, meeting on/at/in, incorrect framing of questions, and past form of some words like fall, drink, eat. These became lessons for weeks to come. 

3. Memorization

Although I am not a fan of memorization, I found it very powerful when teaching English to folks who had never spoken it. I gave them a few questions about themselves (name, age, village, family, who they love most, and their deepest desire) and had them write the answers on a piece of paper. Students could help each other. Once written and spoken and corrected by me, they had to memorize their introduction. Then we recorded the introduction on my iPhone and made them listen to it. The idea was that information about themselves should be the easiest to remember, and when opportunity comes, it should be the easiest to tell. Just having another medium (recorded voice) added the fun element.

I plan to extend this activity to creating scripts for common situations they encounter and making them memorize. The idea is not that they remember each word, but are so familiar with the vocabulary required and the correct sentence structure that it gets ingrained in them.

4. Listening as a Skill

Once again, this came to me from seeing Aloka learn a new language. She began to speak Hindi only after she began to hear it. So, I talk a lot in English in my classes and then ask questions about what I spoke. Most of what I talk about are my personal and sometimes juicy stories. Because more of this is needed than I can manage in classes, and because my students have very little chance of listening to English outside of the class, I record articles and have them listen to them as homework assignments. 

5. Speaking Practice
In every class, we have some speaking exercises. I choose topics that make them uncomfortable and animate them, such as arranged versus love marriage, favorite movie/TV show, crime in the neighborhood, food they like to eat, and describing each other. 

6. Short Activities
I try to keep lecturing limited to one or two key learning points in a class. For example, I might talk a bit about how to talk about, but once this is done, the focus shifts on the students practicing what they learned.

For this, I devise short activities for each class. Here are some of the activities we do in the class.

a. Build a Story: One person starts a story and each person adds to the story in turn. This activity generates a lot of fun and forces students to listen carefully and speak.
b. Show and Tell: I randomly give objects to students and they have to speak 1-2 sentences about the object. 
A role play in action! 
c. Passing the Parcel: The person who ends up with the parcel has to choose a slip of paper from a bag and talk about the topic written on it. Topics are color-coded for a mixed class, and people can choose an easy topic or a tough one based on their level. 
d. Role Plays: I split the class in pairs and give them a topic, or have them choose one, to act out.

A game to practice describing quantities! 
e. Sentence Building Games: I have successfully used Aloka's sentence building jigsaw puzzles for my classes. For teaching correct use of verbs for subjects (subject-verb agreement), I wrote subjects and verbs on separate pieces of paper and had students work in teams to construct correct sentences. I used a similar game for practicing how to describe quantities of things. 
f. Quiz: These are based on the topics taught. Students are asked to identify correct and incorrect sentences. Sometimes I give them printouts, and sometimes just write on the board. Sometimes they answer as individuals, sometimes as teams. Variability is key to keep their attention.
g. Communication Games: There are two games that served well to force students to communicate in English with each other, often ending in frustration with their lack of mastery over the language. The first is a jigsaw puzzle of a world map. Students can only speak in English when requesting specific pieces to fit and once the map puzzle is fully made, have to describe parts of the world to the class. Another game is used commonly in leadership training- describing a picture while another person draws it based on the description. 

7. Extensive Activities: English Play
At the end of 15 classes, the class was asked to write, direct and act in a play in English. The topic was of their choice- alcoholism. The engrossing and funny play was presented to an audience of about 30.  Many actors forgot their lines and spoke incorrect English. That didn't matter. What mattered was that 12 adults, most of whom had never spoken in English before, found the courage to stand before an audience and speak confidently, while having fun. I was in the audience, seeing the play for the first time, and was overwhelmed by their energy and courage and confidence. 

Nine people from this group were part of my class. 
Language teaching is an endless task. Results are slow and depend on a number of factors controlled by the students' environment. I have been able to capture some feedback from my students' colleagues and sometimes the students themselves about their progress. Here are a few. 

1. A few of the foreign volunteers who work in the organization remarked that several of my students have begun to take initiative to speak to them in English, even if it was to greet them in English. Some others have gained enough confidence to carry out longer conversations. 

2. One of my students shared that while he hasn't learned enough to speak in English, he was able to face one of his English-speaking foreign-returned friend confidently, simply because he was no longer scared or embarrassed about not knowing the language. He even attempted a few sentences and had a laugh at his mistakes. 

3. One of my star students has shown tremendous improvement, as per the feedback I received from her boss. In addition to speaking a lot more in English than she did previously, with foreign guests and locals, she has even started using work-related idioms in her emails. 

I couldn't be happier!

1 comment:

  1. Such a wonderful, detailed, and thorough write-up, Puja! I am getting ready to teach conversational English to a bunch of young adults who have little or or no English background but need to quickly get familiar/comfortable in our sassy, corporate environment. I have already taught a similar batch and have used successfully many of the methods you have mentioned here, esp role plays and talking about the self. In fact, this blog post makes me confident that I am on the right road; thank you so much for making the effort and meticulously noting down the entire process. Loved the post a lot! Keep writing. Hannah