Report on the National Conference on English Language Teaching-Learning in Rural Areas and English as Medium of Instruction at NCERT

The four-day national conference (20 to 23 March 2017) that was organised by the Department of Education in Languages, NCERT, New Delhi, focused on two major themes: “Teaching English in Rural Areas” and “English as a Medium of Instruction”. It was attended by a wide range of delegates, from schoolteachers, to administrators, curriculum planners, materials designers, educationists and research scholars from across the country.  For us as budding researchers, the four-day period was an amazing learning and awareness raising experience. We got a chance to discuss, understand and internalize the practical problems related to English language education not only through the discussions during the conference, but also from our long chats over lunch, at the dinner table and our post dinner late night walks.

The conference began with an overview of the programme by the conference coordinators, Dr. R. Meghanathan and Dr. Meenakshi Khar, followed by the inaugural address by Professor Hrushikesh Senapaty, Director, NCERT. Professor Senapaty spoke about the hegemony of English over Indian languages and hoped that the deliberations of the conference would guide future policy making by triggering a critical discourse on these issues. The key note address was delivered by Professor Amritavalli, formerly Professor of Linguistics at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. Interestingly, she made her talk interactive and responded to questions from the audience triggered by the data that she presented. She argued that a learner’s non-success in learning English that fulfils curricular objectives may be because of systemic failures and not individual incapabilities or social demands, as English is still a second or even a foreign language for many school children. The systemic failure was the inability to see language learning as a process and mistakes as stepping stones. She further suggested that the English performance of Grade X school children should not impact their final certificate. She asserted that premature emphasis on accuracy led to examination oriented practices, resulting in a complete absence of language learning experiences. The system therefore should create learning opportunities where English does not function as a gatekeeper. Most importantly, she asserted that English as a subject is as important as Mathematics or Science, and each child in India has a right to get exposed to all the opportunities that English has to offer.

There were two plenaries in the conference. In the first plenary session, the speaker Ms. Amy Lightfoot (Assistant Director-English Partnerships, Academic Quality Assurance, British Council, India) spoke about the issues related to English medium instruction in India and the problems associated with it. She argued that English may be the language of opportunities, but Indian languages could not be abandoned for that would affect the quality of education. In the second plenary, the speaker Professor Anju Seghal Gupta, Head, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi, spoke about the issues related to disadvantaged learners and English. She specifically spoke about the lack of opportunities in English language education, and said that these were not specific to any geographical location, caste or religion, although certain groups of people from rural areas remained noticeably underprivileged. Both sessions resulted in an interesting exchange of ideas. 

The speakers presented papers on a range of topics, which carried a mix of theoretical articulations and reflections based on their practical experiences from across the country. The papers focused primarily on the problems of English/bilingual medium instruction, teaching English to rural and other underprivileged learners and pedagogical and assessment practices.

On day two and day three, the sessions were preceded by workshops. The first workshop run by Dr. R. Meganathan, was on “Classroom Research and Ethnography of Schooling”.  Beginning with an orientation, Dr. Meganathan demonstrated how to select a topic and decide the appropriate research approach for it.  The second workshop, was run by Dr. M. V. Srinivasan, who guided the teacher-researchers on “Doing Ethnography in the School Context”. He shared his experiences as an ethnographer and talked about the problems he had faced during data collection. His sharing of actual field notes was the highlight of this workshop. 

The valedictory address was delivered by Dr. Srinivas Rao from the Zakir Husain Centre for Education Studies, School of Social Sciences, JNU. He spoke about how English has been perceived in India over the past 50 years, from a perspective of English as the primary language, to it now being one of the many languages that we need to enable in a grassroots multilingual country.

The conference ended with the consensus that multilingual or mother tongue based education is the only way to address the current reality of rural as well as urban students, in not just language but also subject classrooms. English may be taught as a subject, but introducing it as a medium of instruction even before the child’s first/home language is developed would be suicidal. 

Zareena. J. M. is a doctoral research scholar at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFL-U), Hyderabad. She is currently working on the pedagogical implications of consciousness-raising (C-R) tasks in developing basic English tenses.

Vikas Kadam is a Ph.D. research scholar. He is doing his doctoral research on “Dynamic Assessment of English Writing Skills” at The School of English Lang at The School of  English Language Education, The EFL University, Hyderabad.