Further discussion on the importance of English teaching

by Travel Paulie on August 2, 2010

Bali being taught, Bali

I’ve had a few days to think further on my concerns regarding the legitimacy of teaching English in this environment.  I still hold the same position as I did when I wrote it, but I’ve developed my ideas about how the problems can be addressed and strategies for making the English teaching more meaningful and thereby an important role for volunteers.

Before reading this article, it’s probably better to give my previous one a look to understand what I’m talking about, and then come back to read this one.

I decided I needed to talk with the person who is heading, in large-part, the particular initiative that I’m working with.  They manage, coordinate and support over 60 Karen migrant schools in the area.

I asked her several questions, and got really very satisfying answers back.  It confirmed some of what I suspected, and provided me with heaps more background information.  We discussed their opinions on English teaching by volunteers, concerns they have over the volunteers themselves, operational complications that volunteers present to them, and what they really feel they need.

The purpose of this article is to provide some of these details as a backdrop to the discussion about whether English teaching is really important or not.

Yes, it is important

I’m starting with the conclusion since it feels a lot easier that way to lay out many of the main points brought up in today’s conversation.  What disturbed me most was a previous conversation I had had at the beginning of the week that left me with the over-riding feeling that the English teaching volunteers that came here were presenting more of a burden than providing an actual benefit.  The best way to summarise/paraphrase the sentiment I was getting is: ‘Sure, English teaching is kinda important, but at “this” expense it’s hardly worth it.’  “this” being the time and money that goes into coordinating their arrival and work placement.

So while I’d previously had doubts about the whole ESL thing in the first place, this really started my questioning my very presence here.  Was I just a token of help, a representation of assistance, as opposed to actually being productive in any real terms?

I asked to know what exactly happens to most of the children after they graduate from the school.  The answer was as I expected – they nearly all return to their families in Burma to work the fields/factories, sometimes living near the border, travelling back and forth.

Given this confirmation, it’s hard for me to see any substantial benefit of my being there.  Yes, I’m contributing to a cumulative cultural-exchange effect that the presence of native-English speaking teachers bring to these communities. But again, what use is the English I’m teaching them?  Well none really…

I asked were there any other options for the children besides return home and work (already vaguely aware that there is a program of university scholarships that some students receive).  And yes, there are approximately 25 scholarship positions every year, but it’s not an easy thing to obtain.  It turns that a high level of English is required to apply for and be granted one of these scholarships.

So English is important after all!

A better alternative to how English teaching is delivered

English is being taught in such a manner that the students who work hardest receive the same level (and I’d argue a lesser level) of teaching as those that do not work as hard.  How?  Well I see it while I’m teaching – I try to bring the weaker students’ level up by focusing my efforts with them and neglect the more advanced students because they understand the new teachings quickly, if not already.

I’ve been aware of this problem practically from the beginning and a few weeks back I floated the idea with the school that I might give private 1-on-1 lessons to the more capable students.  If not 1-on-1, then perhaps 1-on-2, 3, or 4 etc.  The idea being that small, more intimate groups will provide a more effective English learning platform. This by-definition excludes the weaker students from teaching if these intensive lessons substitute the larger classroom lessons.  The idea never really got off the ground.

The reasoning for my desired approach is simple.  If you teach to the whole class and you neglect the most gifted students, you stunt their growth and learning.  This hinders their ability to learn the language in the limited time available, reducing their potential to further their skills, and ultimately impacting their chances of receiving the scholarships that would break their cycle of poverty.

I am starting to believe that it is better to focus on the most advanced students and those with drive and ambition in order to raise them to a level where scholarship acceptance is a real option.  Perhaps then, 1 or 2 scholarship candidates per year may develop instead of zero candidates in the case where not enough attention was shown with those students displaying the potential and motivation.

Furthermore, this has the knock-on effect of showing other students that if you work hard, and display a strong desire to learn and aim for something big, you can, and likely will, be shown preferential treatment that reflects your motivation and efforts invested.  I predict that you would see a sharp rise in the overall study efforts of the class, and of the school as a whole.

I am not saying you forget the weaker students and let them rot in the back of the classroom, what I’m staying is that where resources allow, reward those students that show a willingness to try to excel, by providing them with further access to learning/study.

So where to next?

I have raised my ideas and concerns, and I’m fairly confident that it was well received and there will be action taken on it.  I figure that if there are 2 or 3 English teachers present then rather than teaching 4~6 different grades in the traditional manner, focus could be given to the more advanced students by shuffling around the teachers and classes to accommodate some “intensive” lessons.

I guess time will tell if they are brave enough to experiment with new ideas and suggestions.  Perhaps my logic is skewed and flawed, but that’s fine.  I’m happy to be corrected.  As it stands though, I just hope there is a better way because I’m not convinced that the current approach is highly effective by a long shot.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Clive August 2, 2010 at 20:27

Hi Paul, glad to read that your doubts are being resolved. Here’s a guy you should follow: @olafelch and his blog: http://whatsnewintheworld.net/
His “teaching according to ability” article may be useful to you.


Paul Goodchild August 2, 2010 at 22:14

Hey Clive. Thanks for the tip, he’s got some interesting writing for sure.
Cheers for following along 🙂


Chloe August 8, 2010 at 02:59

Funny, I came up with the same questions, and received more or less the same answers. I too sometimes felt like a burden to them, and I too wondered once or twice whether or not teaching English would actually help. But we came to the same conclusions.. It IS worth it. Even if, out of a hundred children, it will change the life of only one. Because then maybe that one child will be able to change the life of others. And others. And others… Who knows?

I agree, it’s well worth trying to organise private classes for the best students. Private, so that the others still get the benefits of the classic lessons. The girls in 8th grade are great Paul.. Itha, Mumbé, Mietha… They actually want to communicate..

Good luck! Love!

PS: how are the tables and chairs coming on?
And your computers?


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