Sunday, August 2, 2009

The English Language Textbooks for GCE O/L

Previously published in The Island in two parts on 1st and 2nd July, 2008

As a nation we have been, more often than not, involuntarily, betraying our children for too long, not so much through any lack of good intentions as through our collective failure to properly implement courses of action designed for their realization even where much could be achieved with a little effort. Nowhere is this disastrous tradition of failure more evident than in the sphere of education. It is indisputable that education is the highest priority for the youth of a country. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned no worthwhile education is conceivable without a knowledge of English. The main source of help for the majority of our students in learning English is the government-run school English language teaching programme. The importance of good textbooks for the success of that programme need hardly be stressed. Yet the current government English language textbooks compiled for the GCE O/L, in my opinion, do not measure up to the required standards. Hence the following critique.

The English language teaching textbook issued by the Educational Publications Department for use by the students of Grade 11, the important penultimate stage of secondary education in this country, consists of eight units organized around as many themes, e.g. Relationships, Culture, Health and Safety, and so on. Each unit focuses on the teaching of English in terms of specific language functions, and the grammar underlying those functions, in addition to the presentation, practice, and production of language through a wide variety of activities involving all the four primary language skills of reading, speaking, listening and writing.

The preface to the Pupil’s Book states that eight teachers wrote the Grade 11 textbook. While admitting ‘the difficulty of producing a single textbook for the entire country, especially for the teaching of English language ’, the authorities seem to have put much of the onus of teaching onto the teachers: ‘Teachers are required to build appropriate learning situations within the students’ experiences to facilitate the internalization of language.’

‘An outline of the syllabus’ for this Grade given on pages 226-7 of the Pupil’s Book suggests that the course expects the students to achieve a high level of competency in English. However, the quality of the Grade 11 English textbook falls far short of the level of excellence required for the achievement of that goal because of a number of grave shortcomings in its actual preparation.

These defects mainly relate to the composition of those texts that have been specially written, and to the design of questions and other activities based on them. A glance at Unit I (which typifies the rest of the book) would be sufficient for illustrating this point.

The theme of Unit 1 is ‘Relationships’. The very first reading text of the unit is entitled ‘Family Bonds’. One expects any reading text like this, which is offered as teaching material, to be a model of good writing: it needs to be factually clear and authentic, grammatically standard and accurate, and structurally coherent, cohesive, and well organized. But this text doesn’t make the grade in terms of these basic criteria. It is a very poor piece of writing.

The passage opens with the sentence ‘Family bonds or ties play a major role in our lives’. The second sentence is an attempt to define ‘family bonds’: ‘It is the deep attachment between and among family members’. The prepositional phrase between and among family members is an awkward, nonstandard construction, because the prepositions between and among having identical meanings are mutually exclusive: if you choose one in a certain context you can’t also use the other along with it. (However, what the writer probably has in mind is not difficult to guess: between any two members, or two sections of the family, and among three or more of those, for example, between father and mother, between parents and children, and among three or more children, or among all the members of the family. This is what the last sentence of the opening paragraph would suggest.) Though hair-splitting argumentation would seem out of place here, since teaching language is in focus it is important to establish what the accepted usage (i.e. the standard form of the language, or the language of education) in this case is.

I think one of these prepositions should be used in this second sentence, since in normal usage today the word ‘between’, in addition to its other functions as preposition and adverb, shows ‘the result of the shared activity of several people’ as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English tells us.

Then, the use of the colon (:) in the middle of the last sentence of the first paragraph is faulty. A colon indicates a break or a separation, as when an example or a list of things or a quote is introduced. The sentence ‘The affectionate relationships between family members: father and mother, father and children, and among children bring happiness, good fortune and success’ with its misplaced colon cuts off the subject, the noun phrase ‘The affectionate relationships between family members: father and mother, father and children, and among children’, from its predicate ‘bring happiness, good fortune and success’, which makes no sense because the colon cuts the sentence into two separate parts.

The second paragraph begins with the sentence ‘Family bonds arise out of living together in harmony with love, affection, caring and sharing’. Let’s say this is passable, though the gerundial noun phrase ‘living together in harmony with ….’, the object of the preposition ‘out of’, omits the subject of ‘living’, leaving it to be guessed. The sentence could be revised as: ‘Family bonds arise out of members of a family living together in harmony with love, affection, caring and sharing’. ( This is because I think that a subject such as ‘members of a family’ or ‘people of a household’ is to be understood here. Readers could perhaps understand the intended sense without bothering too much about such fine points as I am drawing attention to here; but a higher level of clarity is not too much to demand from a language teaching textbook.)

The next sentence is ‘No matter how rich or poor, family bonds are the same’. Here the two clauses separated with a comma are not in apposition. The universal conditional-concessive clause ‘No matter how rich or poor’ hangs loose here because the adjectival phrase ‘rich or poor’ does not apply to ‘family bonds’. Probably the writer had in mind something like ‘no matter how rich or poor people are, or a family is, family bonds are the same’ (The meaning of ‘family bonds are the same’ is not clear, though).

Another sentence is ‘A child becomes a teenager, an adolescent and a grown up’. This would imply that an adolescent is older than a teenager. However, we know that the word ‘adolescent’ is applied to a young person who is roughly between 13 and 16 years of age. The informal noun ‘grown up’ from the adjective ‘grown-up’ is usually hyphenated: grown-up. The sentence could be recast as ‘ A child becomes an adolescent and then an adult’.

The third and final paragraph of the first reading text of Unit 1 begins with the sentence ‘In the modern world family bonds are drifting apart’. Of course, the sentence is to be read figuratively. It would then mean that ‘family bonds’, like boats, get blown about in the sea by the wind, i.e. get separated from each other; but this would suggest that the bonds get scattered, though still remaining intact. Yet, this is obviously not what the authors want to say. They mean to say that family bonds become weak. The rest of the paragraph makes the vague assertion that people are more mercenary today than they were in the past, and are consequently competitive, rather than cooperative among themselves, and that when we learn to care for our family, we learn to care for our society, and ultimately for the whole country.

The text is for reading/writing according to the instructions. This is not clear . Anyway let’s allow that it’s for reading, but what are the students expected to write? Should they copy the text, or write down the new words, or what? Why aren’t there pre-reading tasks, or other preliminary activities such as skimming and scanning, which would facilitate the process of reading comprehension?

The ten questions in Activity 1.1 seem to focus on extension, rather than on basic comprehension. The basis of dividing the ten questions into a 1 –7 and b 8 -10 is not clear. But it is possible that the students are required to discuss answers to the questions in pairs or groups, and write them down later.

Activity 1.2 is a further speaking and writing task. This appears to recommend collaborative engagement among the students in a kind of brainstorming activity in preparation for the task of writing a paragraph on the topic ‘How can we make this world a better place?’ Such a task would be appropriate if the students have already been introduced to paragraph writing, and hence have a clear idea about what a paragraph is. However, the required length of the student paragraph is 150 words: Isn’t this too long, considering the fact that all the three paragraphs that constitute the reading passage put together consist of less than 200 words?

Activity 1.3 concerns vocabulary, and presents some deductive grammar on the formation of new words (nouns from verbs, and negative forms of adjectives from positive ones) through affixation (adding prefixes and suffixes to bases). Lists of verbs and adjectives are given with some suffixes and prefixes (with a few unchecked spelling errors). The instruction ‘Underline the nouns that get changed’ is followed by

eg. Create – creation

which obviously is an error because e is not a noun in the English language! The instruction should perhaps be worded thus: ‘Underline the parts of the verbs that get changed’ or ‘Underline the parts of the nouns that have been newly added’. (The first alternative will confront the student with the problem of some exceptions, such as ‘move – movement’, ‘collect – collection’, and so on.)

Activity 1.4 is pair work involving discussion followed by writing. The hints supplied for the activity are couched in faulty English (which correct punctuation would have saved): ‘What is responsibility? Responsibility means a duty to deal with or take care of’. Since this is supposed to be a definition of the word ‘responsibility’ that fact should be made more explicit in some way, for example, ‘What is responsibility ?’ or ‘What is the meaning of the word responsibility ?, etc. Another sentence that should be revised is ‘Responsibilities differ according to the position or the post’: it could be made more precise in its meaning by the addition of a post-modifier such as ‘that a person holds’. One of the example sentences given is ‘My main responsibility is to keep the class in control’. But ‘to be in control’ means ‘to be in charge, in command’; here the opposite is meant: the class monitor is in control of the class. Therefore the sentence should be revised: ‘My main responsibility is to have the class under control’ or ‘My main responsibility is to assist the teacher to maintain class discipline’.

Activity 1.5 contains another reading passage. It is a simplified extract from the 19th century novel by George Eliot ‘The Mill on the Floss’. (In the Grade 11 English book this name is misspelt with a double l.) Although it is only a poorly done simplification of a very small part of the original it is described to the student as ‘a part of the novel “The Mill on the Floss”.

The first paragraph of the extract has no structure; it is incoherent; there is no natural flow from one sentence to the next; there is no clear main point to which all the other sentences relate, except the vague picture that emerges of an unkempt little girl of nine, who is not very pretty, and about whose appearance and manner her mother is worried. The illustration that accompanies the text, however, quite inappropriately, shows a carefully made-up young woman of 18 – 20 sitting on a tree reading a book.

The opening sentence is ‘Maggie, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Tulliver is nine and tall for her age’. There must be a comma after Mrs Tulliver to separate the noun phrase ‘the daughter of Mr and Mrs Tulliver which is in apposition to ‘ Maggie’ . (She) is nine and (she) is tall for her age are two disparate ideas that cannot be coordinated with the conjunction and in this particular context. It would be better to have two sentences here: ‘Maggie, the daughter of Mr and Mrs Tulliver, is nine. She is tall for her age’.

(But see the following sentences from an exchange between Mr Tulliver and Mrs Tulliver in the same scene about their daughter Maggie in the retold version of ‘The Mill on the Floss’ p.9 by E.F.Dodd in the Macmillan Stories to Remember – Senior Series - where the ‘and’ conjunction is appropriately used:

‘How can you talk so, Mr Tulliver? She’s too big a girl to have her hair cut short. Why, she’s nine, and tall for her age. …. .’

Here, Mrs Tulliver’s opinion is that Maggie, who is already nine years of age, is too grown-up a girl to have her hair cut short, and that, besides, she is taller than the average girls of her age. In other words Mrs Tulliver adduces the girl’s age and her unusual height for her age, not as disparate ideas in themselves, but as mutually supportive reasons for her strictures on her daughter (however mock-serious her manner is or however fond her maternal concern for the welfare of her child is.)

To return to the Grade 11 English textbook, there is no indication of the setting of the story, nor any hint of the scene of the present events. The word ‘patchwork’ is consistently, but erroneously, printed as two words; so is the word ‘ladylike’. In the sentence ‘Mr Tulliver always thought about his son, Tom’s education’, no comma should be inserted between ‘his son’ and its non-restrictive appositive ‘Tom’, (for Mr Tulliver has only one son by the name of Tom).

The writer uses the dramatic present in the first few sentences, and soon switches to the narrative past. This inconsistency could be ignored, or even treated as a literary deviation, a stylistic device, in creative writing. Here, however, it does not appear to be due to any conscious artistry; it is more likely to be due to carelessness. Even if someone wants to defend it as the former, I feel that such license is too much of a luxury, and hence inadvisable to adopt in a language teaching textbook for the given level.

There is hardly a page in this book which is free from errors. Let me take a few more examples at random from the book. Look at the dialogue under the title ‘True Friends’ given for role play on page 14. One of the sentences is ‘We have met each other when her father was living’. The adverbial clause of time ‘when her father was living’ makes it obligatory that the finite verb in the principal clause be in the past simple: ‘We met…’, not ‘We have met…’ . We may also take a glance at the reading text ‘Kalidasa – the great poet’ on page 17. The first sentence of the introductory note is: ‘Kalidasa, the world famous Indian poet lived during the first half of the fifth century’. Isn’t the description ‘world-famous’ too cheap an epithet to be applied to a celebrated ancient poet? Wouldn’t it be better if we had instead the following?

‘Kalidasa, the renowned classical Indian poet, lived during the first half of the fifth century CE’.

Another instance of error ( once again due to erroneous choice of tense) is the following sentence in the same text: ‘The most emotional moment of the play emerges when Shakuntala bade farewell to her beloved companions, who had been with her, and all the animate and inanimate things,’ where the second and third underlined verbs should be replaced with ‘bids’ and ‘have been’. On page 31 you find the following ‘example’ showing a Main clause and a Subordinate clause: ‘She came to the throne in 1837,(Main clause) after the death of her uncle. (Subordinate clause)’. Isn’t ‘after the death of her uncle’ a prepositional phrase? Who says it’s a subordinate or any other kind of clause? A clause is ‘a group of words containing a verb’; where is the verb in ‘after the death of her uncle’ ? (Of course, this phrase can be treated as equivalent to a time clause; but it is not a clause per se. The word ‘after’ is a preposition in this context, not a subordinator ( subordinating conjunction).

(However,I think, we need not burden the students of this level with explanations of clauses with finite verbs, clauses with non-finite verbs, verbless clauses with ellipsis of be, and so on).

Similar shortcomings are evident in the English textbook for Grade 10 in the same series. Unit 1 of the Pupil’s Book deals with the theme ‘Environment’ in terms of subject-matter, and aims to present and practice the language functions of emphasizing, expressing likes, and presenting facts, together with the grammar items of prepositional phrases expressing cause/reason, purpose, manner, and place, plus Direct and Indirect Speech.

The introductory reading text, which is about the Sinharaja Rain Forest, is a poor piece of writing. It is full of structural, lexical, grammatical and other errors. The clumsy first paragraph is just passable as the introduction of the essay. The second is probably meant to better define its subject; but it does nothing of the kind. It only vaguely refers to the present and the past of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Its geographical location is completely overlooked. Then, in terms of grammar this piece of writing leaves much to be desired. For example, the mandatory definite article ‘the’ before the name ‘Sinharaja’ is left out in certain instances, e.g. ‘In 1840 Sinharaja became a crown property’, and this is followed by ‘In 1988 the Sinharaja was made a National Wilderness area’. An example of lexical errors is: ‘The Sinharaja forest is home to many rare animals, birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles and trees.’ Aren’t butterflies included in the category of ‘insects’?

Activity 1.1 which is ‘Reading’ is ‘pair work’. Does this mean that the students are required to read the text in pairs? How can they do that? Does it mean that they should discuss the meaning of each sentence as they read? That won’t be reading. Reading should be silent reading, an individual activity. The students may tackle comprehension tasks if any, in pairs. So, unless the teacher is given clear instructions regarding how this very first activity should be handled, s/he will be confused about the applicability of the suggested ‘pair work’ technique. (My comments on the Activities are subject to the following caveat: I have been unable to look at the Work Book that accompanies the Pupil’s Book, something I regret.)

Activity 1.2 is a vocabulary check in the form of five sentences with gaps to be filled in with appropriate words from the text. This could be done as pair work perhaps, though no suggestion to that effect is given. I think this task is in the wrong place. Shouldn’t some comprehension exercises be assigned before any writing is attempted?

I may be wrongly accused of nitpicking, which I don’t mind. That is a small price to pay in this instance. I sincerely believe that textbooks must be of the highest standards. As the Commissioner General of the Department of Educational Publications has pointed out in the department’s website, 315 textbook titles provided free for all government schools cost Rs 2398,398,719 for the year 2008 alone. The English language teaching textbooks could be said to account for a substantial share of this sum. It is the national duty of those responsible to give the country the best they are capable of. That is in order to take care of, among other things, the accountability principle in materials preparation (in other words, giving the public value for their money).

Education is big business today. It is also well-known that in our country English teaching accounts for a large portion of this business. That is partly the reason why I titled the first of my triad of articles on the subject “This business of teaching English” carried in The Island of 21st and 22nd May 2008. My second article on another aspect of the same subject under the title “The problem of writing textbooks for ELT” was published in The Island of 4th June 2008. This present one is the third and last. All three have been written in the national interest.

By failing to do their work properly those responsible for education, in addition to other deleterious consequences, drive the children of poor parents (the majority of the population) to the clutches of businesspeople. We must do everything possible to stop this. Hence this attempt to draw the attention of the authorities to a vital problem, that could be easily dealt with provided the will is there.

The departmental objective of providing textbooks of high pedagogical and educational standards (to repeat a phrase often mouthed by those at the helm, which seems to express merely a pious wish) cannot be achieved in the field of English teaching unless the English textbooks for the GCE O/L classes are thoroughly revised or replaced altogether.

These are my personal views. I would be glad to be proved wrong in my negative beliefs. Therefore constructive counter-criticisms are welcome.

Rohana R. Wasala

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