Teaching English language through literatureby Md Anisur Rahman
IN THE present age of global communication, English language teaching and learning has become a burning issue for the existence for Bangladesh. Though English is a compulsory subject in the country starting from Class I right up to the bachelor’s degree, much more importance is actually given to the secondary (SSC) and higher secondary (HSC) levels. Two public examinations are also held at these levels under the eight education boards of Bangladesh. So, at these levels, the question of what is the best method of teaching/learning arises. After studying various methodologies, this article observes that literature can leave a pragmatic impact on the English classroom in Bangladesh, creating a special impact on SSC and HSC level students. It also examines, through close evaluation of the text books at the SSC and HSC levels, the need for teaching literature in the language classrooms in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has a long history of English teaching/learning. However, every section of the country related to teaching/learning English in Bangladesh admit to the fact that state of English language learning is not as satisfactory as it should have been. The causes behind this are manifold. Low-paid and low qualified untrained teaching staffs, inability to formulate an effective curriculum, lack of proper methodological support are some of the hurdles in learning English Language. Many methods are followed on many propositions by many scholars. But the problem still haunts the academic authorities. Much research has been undertaken in this regard though not much has been deduced from them.
Mazharul Huq (1986, BELTA Journal, pp1-5) admits that despite considerable amount of time being devoted to English instruction, the general proficiency and achievement of the majority of the students graduating from high schools is unsatisfactory and disproportionately low. In support of this poor level of proficiency, Simon Kay (1998, ELT Gazette) asserts that there has been massive loss of English competence in recent years amongst school leavers and graduates leaving the government in no doubt that it must invest to reinstate English as the second language. Subrata Kumar Das (1998 Observer Magazine, p2) also states that the state of learning and teaching English in Bangladesh is quite miserable. Educationists and experts identify the wrong methods of teaching as the root of the problem.
It has been observed that the text books of students of SSC and HSC levels have been enriched with many activities from newspapers and other sources, but little scope has been introduced for the students to be acquainted with literature. Instead of literary pieces such as story, poetry, fiction, drama etc, text books are compiled with newly written topics. In the name of a communicative system, text books are increasingly discarding literary pieces. It is said that we ‘are reading something as literature when we are interested in the general state of affairs’ to which it refers to its pragmatic function in the real world (Brumfit and Carter: 1986). Gillian Razor (1993) said in this respect, ‘one reason for this is that too often when reading literature, students are expected as if by osmosis, to acquire a kind of competence in reading literature.’ So, it is important for teachers of language teaching to identify and increase the students’ literary competence. The study of literature makes literature itself the content or subject of a language course, while the use of literature as a resource draws on literature as one source among many different kinds of texts for promoting interesting language activities. If the students are familiar with literature in their own language, then studying literature in English can provide and interest them to thought-provoking points.
If the course material for the classroom is carefully well-designed, the students will feel more interested and the situation will give them a relevant and meaningful aspect to their own lives. For example a good novel or a short story may be particularly fascinating and involve the students in the suspense, a play may engage them in complicated adult dilemmas, and a poem may bring forth a powerful emotional response.
Teaching faculty should feel that something concrete must be carried out to get to the bottom of the problem and motivate colleagues to believe that teaching a language through literature is an effective measure to equip the learners to learn a language appropriately. The teacher therefore is subject to do something; at least finding a solution to teach a foreign language in an effective way.
In Bangladesh, SSC and HSC level education are two year courses each, designed and conducted by the National Curriculum and Textbook Board. All the textbooks from class one to HSC level are developed and published by the Board. A team of writers trained in UK through ELTIP project have written the books under the guidance of national and overseas consultants. As written in the preface of both of the books, the Chairman emphasises that the books follow the communicative approach to teaching and learning English in Bangladesh. The book provides learners with a variety of materials such as reading texts on interesting situational topics, dialogues, pictures, diagrams, tasks and activities. The materials which have been developed for practice are carried out through four language skills namely listening, speaking, reading and writing. As a result, the authority expects that classes will be interactive with students actively taking part in classroom activities through pair work, group work and individual work. Thus the books will facilitate and provide ample opportunities for students to use English for a variety of purposes in interesting situations. The books are divided into units based on a theme with several lessons that contain reading texts, and a range of tasks and activities designed to enable students to practice different skills. Some literary texts have also been included though not much emphasis is given to content but to the exploitation of the texts to prompt a diversity of language activities.
The SSC textbook contains a unit (unit 16) with six poems which are designed for language practice with the objective of reading the poem with the correct stress and pronunciation, answering and discussing questions, writing composition, writing dialogues, asking and answering questions, matching pictures with descriptions, answering questions looking at the pictures, listing words and rhyming and matching pictures with titles. in another unit (unit 20) three stories are designed with the objective of developing language skills through answering and discussing questions, completing tables, writing paragraphs, discussing pictures, filling boxes to show sequences, writing another story with clues, writing letters and listing important ideas. Many other units contain real life situations in the form of stories like Becky’s visit to Bangladesh from UK, Neela’s stories, Feroza’s stories, Meena’s stories and daily stories from other situations. The book consists of 22 units in which 119 lessons are introduced, that include topics of both national and global contexts, thematically, culturally and linguistically appropriate and interesting for the learners. Sufficient grammar content has also been incorporated with language skills so that the elements taught and learned in situations can easily be associated to real life situations, not just to be memorised as separate items. Objectives of the lessons, as written in each lesson, are to develop four skills, though credits are not awarded in listening and speaking skills in the examinations.
On the other hand, the HSC textbook does not contain any complete unit with poems or stories. There are two poems about Daffodils in Unit Two and a song of William Shakespeare in Unit Seven. A very short story about a cook and an abridged story from RK Narayan’ s Under the Banyan Tree’ are rare examples of stories selected to be read in this textbook. In the last unit of the book a short drama concerning environmental education has been incorporated. Within 24 units, 158 lessons are included which deal with the subject matter of families home and abroad, importance of English, pastimes, environment, disasters like erosion, earthquakes, floods, education, entertainment, culture, personalities, human rights, human resources, social development, wonders of the world, modes of communication, world heritage, healthy living, globalisation, space, challenges of the new century and people. In the preface of the book, the Chairman of National Curriculum and Textbook Board, Dhaka, mentions that this book is designed for practice of four skills in an interactive mode, in the communicative approach. So, it has supplied ample opportunities for students to use English for a variety of purposes in interesting situations. But it is observed that no credit is awarded in listening or speaking skills in the syllabi or questions of the exams.
In the second papers both for the SSC and HSC, textbooks are written for the practice of grammar and composition. Grammar includes right form of verbs, articles, use of preposition, speech, completing sentences, tag questions, etc., in situational context as the syllabus is in communicative language teaching. In the composition section, story writing is present to develop the learners’ creativity but no selection of stories has been given from the literary text.
In the field of language teaching, teachers are nowadays very eager to use the technique of literature which is popular in teaching both language skills and language areas (i.e. vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation). It is definitely felt that literature offers a great number of advantages to language learning and teaching. According to Collie and Slater (1990:3), there are four major reasons which direct a language teacher to use literature in the classroom. These are a) valuable authentic material, b) cultural enrichment, c) language enrichment and d) personal involvement. In addition to these four main reasons, universality, non-triviality, personal relevance, variety, interest, economy and suggestive power are some other factors requiring the use of literature as a powerful resource in the classroom context.
Our curriculum developers should examine different theoretical questions, which support the advantages of literature and some major approaches to the teaching of language through literature suggested, which can benefit our teachers and students in teaching/learning situations in Bangladesh.
Md Anisur Rahman is an assistant professor of English at Palash Shilpanchal University College, Narsingdi. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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