Project English | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 23, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 23, 2011

Project English

Bangladeshis, especially the youth, need to acquire and use new knowledge and skills for adapting to an information-based fast-moving world. And it is English that can best help them meet this need. But the English they are now learning (textbook contents through rote learning) mostly for examination requirements is not responsive to this need. They need to learn communicative English for this purpose.
So, our national curriculum at primary and secondary levels has been designed, textbooks have been developed and the majority of the teachers have been trained to facilitate Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). But despite all these initiatives, there has been a continuing decline in the standards of teaching and learning of English.
To reverse the situation, four ELT projects have been set up so far with government initiative, assisted by the Department for International Development (DfID) of the UK government. These projects are: Orientation of Secondary School Teachers for Teaching English in Bangladesh (OSSTTEB), Primary English Resource Centres (PERC), English Language Teaching Improvement Project (ELTIP) Phase 1, and English in Action (EiA). The main goal of all these projects was to strengthen English language education.
The first three projects (1990-2002) helped develop national curriculums, textbooks and training courses based on CLT. They worked closely with the government officials and relevant professionals, but each of them worked separately as a project team. However, the impact of these projects was hugely impressive during the project periods but faded away after they were finished. Though the textbooks for classes 6-12 are still in use, teachers have not yet been adequately developed to handle them effectively. Similarly, the training courses the projects developed have already been replaced.
The need for communicative English, still unfulfilled, has left the ongoing project EiA (2008-2017), with more or less the same modus operandi as its predecessors, i.e. working separately as a team. And yet EiA stands out for its resource and potentiality: £50 million; 9-year duration; partnership with the UK Open University, BBC, local NGOs and the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Primary and Mass Education.
The project aims to improve communicative English of up to 25 million primary and secondary students and adult learners mainly by developing teachers, and using audio materials, drama in television and mobile telephony. A good number of expatriate experts and local professionals have been involved in designing, developing and delivering this huge project. With such enormous resources, this mega-project has the potential to bring about a real sea-change in the existing sorry state of ELT in Bangladesh. An EiA-trained government secondary school teacher remarked: "They (students) have begun to speak in English even outside my class."
However, the journey of EiA or any future project to success will be smoother if both the government and the project work together, keeping in mind the lessons learned from the previous projects.
Avoid projectisation: We have learned that there exists a sharp divide between project and mainstream activities. The divide should be closed. This can be done by an agreement between the government and a project to the effect that there will be no separate workplace or centre for the project personnel. Its experts will be attached to the relevant sections of the country's education system. Both local and project personnel will decide on the policy and implementation of a national ELT programme.
The government is developing a national training programme, Diploma in Education (DPEd), to train all the primary school teachers of all the subjects, including English. A separate training course in English developed by a project cannot be run in parallel with DPEd. However it can be integrated into the DPEd. And there lies the rub! ELTIP tried to integrate its successful training strategy into the government's B Ed programme. It did not happen. PERC also tried to set up an ELT Training and Research Department at National Academy for Primary Education (NAPE) to continue its training activities. It did not happen. In fact, integration of any programme developed separately by a project into a complex centralised education system is very difficult.
Increase the capacity of the incumbent ELT professionals: There are teacher trainers, teachers, supervisors, mentors, material developers and so on. They should be trained adequately in teaching-learning English. ELTIP could not train sufficient number of teachers. The project-trained teachers (only about 5,000 out of 44,000) were looked upon as privileged professionals in schools and in society as they were more competent in teaching English; and they were called by the examination boards for exam setting and markingwork that brought them prestige as well as money. As a result, the great majority of the out-of-project teachers and the senior teachers of other subjects were dissatisfied and felt threatened. Consequently, these disgruntled teachers often put up a strong resistance to ELTIP activities.
Introduce communicative language tests: Currently, all teaching-learning strategies and activities are geared to achieving exam results. So while the project-trained teachers teach communicatively, the testing authorities (NAPE, upazilas and Boards) test students mostly traditionally. Here is an example of questions from an EiA government primary school exam, grade 5: "Write 8 lines of the poem Twos or Clouds. Make sentences with the following words: sidewalk, greet, ..." etc.
So, though students enjoy the new way of teaching conducted by a project-trained teacher, back home they either straightaway go to their private tutors or sit with their easy exam-solution guidebooks. Many English teachers engage in private coaching, which boils down to helping students prepare notes for their exams. As an exam comes nearer, the surge of excitement and euphoria in using communicative English, especially speaking, begins to subside and finally evaporates in the churning out of "exam notes." If communicative tests are introduced and enforced at all levels in all the school and Board exams, students will have to be engaged more in skills practice activities than in rote learning.
Projects come and projects go, and in sync with their coming and going communicative English causes quite a stir and silently disappears. But if, with technical support from a project, our mainstream education system develops trainers, teachers, supervisors, education officials, textbooks, supplementary materials and assessment system, effective teaching and learning will take place and we can have the English we need.

The writer is Senior English Teaching Specialist, Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.

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