King questions Wasala and elaborates upon his Experience of English Teaching in Lanka

Douglas King, Island, 10 Oct. 2010

Letting the Genie out of the bottle  – A reply

I hasten to reply to Rohana Wasala’s article on the English medium in schools in Saturday’s Island. Firstly, he is mistaken in thinking that there only around 100 International schools – the real figure probably exceeds 300. They are, however, of varying quality and maybe 20% achieve high standards and have good facilities and proficient teachers. Virtually none are “International”. As to these being only for the middle classes, this is certainly not the case. A large International school in Kandy charges only Rs 700 per month for primary grades. How can they make a profit? Easy. Thirty or more students in a class gives a minimum income of Rs:21,000 per month. Many of these teachers are paid between Rs:12,000 – Rs:14000. Parents have to supply all materials, books etc. Even allowing for overheads of buildings, maintenance, etc. a profit can still be made. The secondary classes require higher fees, and probably allow for more profit. When a school charges Rs:2000 per month, assuming 30 to a class, this now becomes a lucrative business. The writer also fails to realise that the physical teaching conditions in so many government schools, rural and urban, are so poor as to negate any real learning of English as a life skill. The 2009 initiative for English, has achieved virtually nothing, and no doubt a new initiative will soon come forth. The real reason that English is in such a dire state, is not that students fail to see its relevance, but due to the way it is taught and the books that are used. I have contributed numerous articles on this subject over several years, and in one article in particular, I stated that I could teach more English in two full weeks, than many students gain in eleven years. I made this offer to the Ministry on several occasions, but of course no reply was received. Rohana Wasala decries the fact that less than 50% achieve an English examination pass. The real figure for the whole of the grade 11 age group is around 25% and many of these are simple S passes with scores as low as 35%. Whatever the government thinks about International schools, they are achieving an acceptable level of English, and maybe that is the only way that standards will be raised. Most middle class Indians send their children to private English medium schools, and that is the reason for a minority of Indians speaking good English. It certainly has nothing to do with some kind of “magic” from the University of Hyderabad.

Douglas King = Educational Consultant in English and Early Childhood Education, cand can be reached via

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Why Basic English is Easy to Learn

I do make excuses as to why after living in Sri Lanka for six years I am still unable to have even a simple conversation in Sinhala. I can count to 10 and I know a small number of nouns and one or two phrases. But this simple knowledge hardly allows me any kind of intelligent conversation or even being able to understand what others say to me. In fact very few so-called foreigners become adept at using Sinhala and even fewer master reading or writing. However, I do speak passable conversational French (learnt at school over 50 years ago) and after several years in Israel a long time ago I can still speak, understand, read and write Hebrew at  a good basic level. Working as a volunteer teacher in Tanzania gave me basic Swahili, although I have forgotten much of it.

 In some ways English is unique in that it has a large number of single syllable words that are in every day usage. For children this simplifies basic sentences, as many common nouns and verbs are mono syllable. e.g. boy, girl, school, bus, pen, book, desk, cat, dog, etc. With verbs there are sit, eat, run, jump, catch, read, etc. But not only are there numerous common mono-syllabic words, there are also around 400 such words that fall into the consonant-vowel-consonant category  CVC, e.g. bus, van, hit, run, dog, cat, pig, etc. For children  sentences such as the fat cat sat on the mat or it is fun to run in the sun or Ted has a red be, may not be scintillating speech but do enable learners to acquire the basics of reading, writing and speaking very quickly.  Translate any of these sentences to Sinhala and there are no mono syllable words and the likelihood is that the Sinhala sentence will contain double or more syllables for the same meaning. Assuming most native speakers of any language  cover the same ideas in the same spoken time, it implies that Sinhala needs to be spoken at double or more the speed of English to express the same ideas. The boy eats bread is only four syllables taken as a whole, and though bread in Sinhala is an exception being uni-syllable,  boy and eats make the sentence over twice as long in Sinhala.

 English has a vast number of words that even many educated people not only don’t use but often do not understand, and after acquiring basic English, the intermediate level does get somewhat more difficult. There are many irregular spellings but these comprise   less than 10% of the language and certainly should not impede speaking. Many teachers in the U.K. and Sri Lanka have over indulged in reading through so-called phonics with children reciting the alphabet according to sounds. This is as bad as those teachers who used to rely on learning to read through sight recognition of words. In fact most children  rely of both methods for learning to read as the words dog, cat, pig, etc. may have been learnt phonetically which is fine, but are now read at sight without separate sounds, rather like reading a chord in piano music.

 But returning to the theme of spoken English, a secure knowledge of 500 words, including many nouns, some verbs and adjectives as well as a number of common prepositions, does allow entry to simple dialogues. I often ask teachers of English to list vocabulary themes such as colours, food, animals, transport, people, etc. After listing 30 to 40 themes they then write ten words for each theme giving them a total of 300 to 400 words. A wide variety of verbs, adjectives, pronouns  can be included with the remaining 100-200 words. A number of common sentence structures can be added using words that denote a question, i.e. what, when, which, who, why, where, how. If a child says “I want some bread” it may not be the politest way  to ask, but it is perfect English and at a more advanced level he may learn to say ” if you don’t mind, I would like some bread please ” or “please may I have some bread” but this is a luxury for advanced English.

 Numerous teachers are still using grammar books with children that  require knowledge of past participles, countable nouns, finite verbs, just to name a few. Its no wonder that so  few people are able to speak English unless they attend English medium schools.

“I go to my friend’s house to play and we have some cake to eat and milk to drink”. This sentence has nineteen phoneme or separate sounds. Without asking someone to translate this to Sinhala, I guess it would beat least twice as long.

 But for children to recite Victorian nursery rhymes accompanied by some vague miming actions and pretend they are learning English is a total misunderstanding of methodology. The majority of grade 11 students not only fail the English examination, but also leave school often unable to respond and understand basic questions. Since the Ministry of Education and the NIE apparently don’t understand  how English needs to be taught or are unwilling to make the necessary changes, and the University of Hyderabad  initiative fares no better, only the high-sounding International Schools can save the day. People should not be fooled by numerous posters advertising classes in spoken English or any other kind of English and assume that such classes will succeed where eleven years in school failed them. Most so-called Montessori pre-schools state they are English medium even though the majority of the teachers have poor English language skills themselves.

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