Competence in English: Struggles and Alternatives

National Curriculum Framework (2005) quotes, ‘English in India is a global language in a multilingual country’ (p. 38). Today no one can deny the reality of this statement. Whether it is the corporate world or the government sector, the value and importance of English language is widely acknowledged. Due to its increasing importance every person aspires to be fluent in English.

English proficiency is important but it is also true that every year hundreds of students struggle to achieve mastery in this language. People do not hesitate to spend money and invest time for gaining competence in the English language. The proof of this is the continuous increase in the number of institutes which offer to train proficiency in English in just magical 90 or 120 days! A lot of help books are sold as well in the name of making students competent English language users. Several schools claim ‘English enriched environment’ as one of the main components of their school curriculum. Parents too struggle hard to admit their children in those schools which can make their children masters of this language. 

This scenario makes us think why attaining competence in English is so difficult for our students. Is it true that language proficiency is only a ‘privilege’ for students studying in high class English medium schools or can we also make it available to all students equally? English is offered from primary classes in several schools and yet lot of students feel incompetent in comprehending simple texts or conversing fluently in the language. They can decode the literal translation of the text but for the meaning they prefer to use guidebooks or key books. Writing, reading, speaking or listening in English is considered a burden by the students and all attempts are made to escape from it. Is there some problem in our approach or pedagogy? The Position Paper on Teaching of English reflects on this problem and states, ‘The “burden of languages” is the burden of incomprehension. This happens when language is taught for its own sake as a set of forms or rules, and not introduced as the carrier of coherent textual meaning; it becomes another “subject” to be passed’ (p. 5). This statement makes us think about our second language pedagogy. It is true that till now our classrooms have been dominated solely by ‘grammar translation’ method. We prefer to translate every sentence and present it before the students in a readymadeform. No attempt is done to make students understand the language and use it in a functional way.

If that is true to a large extent, then we need to look for a solution. How should we introduce English language to students? Do we need to think anew about the aim of second language teaching? What level of proficiency do we expect our students to achieve? National Curriculum Framework 2005 provides answers to these questions as it states that ‘the goals for a second –language curriculum are twofold: attainment of a basic proficiency, such as is acquired in natural language learning, and the development of language into an instrument for abstract thought and knowledge acquisition through literacy’ (p.39). The document emphasizes that in second language, a child must become as fluent as he/she is in his/her first language. The child must be able to use this acquired second language for thinking, expressing, reading and writing freely. As the comparison is done with the first language, therefore, we need to think, how do we learn our first language? Cambourne (1984) suggested seven conditions of language learning namely immersion, demonstration, employment, feedback, approximation, responsibility and expectation. He suggested that when a child is introduced to his/her first language through these conditions, they easily become fluent speakers of language. In the classroom context, Kumar (1996) focuses on the importance of providing freedom, opportunities and meaningful feedback as the essential requirements for developing literacy skills in the first language. He argues that when these conditions are provided in the class, then students learn to use language in a functional way.

It is a point worth reflection that if such conditions and ideas can help a person in acquiring the first language easily, then these conditions must assist a person to acquire the second language too. With this understanding, following suggestions are proposed for fostering second language learning in the class:

·         Print–rich environment

This is the basic condition for learning any language. The child must be presented with an environment which offers him/her to interact with the language freely. One can provide in the class inputs such as story books, charts and message boards. For young children, one can also label the different objects in the class. One must ensure that every child gets enough opportunities to engage with the print. The importance of environment is also focused in NCF, 2005 as, ‘Input-rich communicational environments are a prerequisite for language learning, whether first or second. Inputs include textbooks, learner-chosen texts, and class libraries, allowing for a variety of genres: print; parallel books and materials in more than one language; media support; and “authentic” materials’ (p.39).

·         No focus on errors

Nothing damages the students’ desire to express themselves in the second language than extensive focus on errors. Unfortunately, this ‘error-focus’ is considered as the essence of our Indian education system. We are so concerned with telling students about their errors that many a times we do not let our students experiment with the language. Unless and until students themselves try to frame hypothesis about language structure, it is difficult for them to understand the basics of language. Students must be allowed to commit errors in the process of learning. Errors must be seen as an attempt towards language learning. Excessive focus on errors can destroy students’ desire to write and share (Calkins, 1986).

·         Freedom of expression

Language is a medium of expressing one’s thoughts, views and ideas. However, it is also true that our classrooms offer extremely limited space to students to use language in a functional way. We hardly provide any real opportunities of engaging with the language and whatever opportunities we provide are distorted by our exclusive focus on errors. If we want our students to become fluent users of the English language, then we need to take-off the pressures, fears and anxieties related with language use and encourage students to interact freely with the language in writing or speaking.

·         Communication in class

If we want our students to learn the language, then it is essential that English must become the medium of communication in the class. The teacher must talk to students in English and students must also be encouraged to speak in English. Acceptance must be given to attempts of the students, even if, those are not grammatically perfect. The problem is whenever students attempt to communicate in English, we tend to focus more on the structure of the language, than the message he/she wishes to convey. These repeated mistakes by teachers finally force students to avoid interaction in the class. Students do not want to be pointed for their errors and finally decide to withdraw and stay safe.

·         Meaningful feedback

It is extremely important for a teacher to provide meaningful feedback to her students. In our traditional system, we only evaluate students by marking them or putting red marks on students’ work. This mode of correction never tells students what their strengths are and how they should overcome their weaknesses. We only communicate to students ‘this is wrong’ or ‘that is wrong’ but not ‘what is their strength’. Nancie Atwell (1987) considers ‘meaningful response’ as one of the important factors for developing students as writers. Kumar (1996) has also advocated use of meaningful feedback for students. He remarks, ‘Apart from correcting the child’s mistakes or putting an approval sign, the teacher must write something expressing her response to the child’s writing’. (p.62). Such kind of meaningful response by the teacher will undoubtedly encourage the students to read and write more.

Making provisions of the above mentioned conditions can make a classroom environment appropriate for language learning in a functional way. Language becomes meaningful when students use it for communication and expression. We must understand that one cannot learn anything if one’s mind is loaded with tension, fear and anxiety of being ‘wrong’. It is only students’ engagement with the language in active form which can enable them to learn and master English language. So, as teachers, we need to create such a classroom environment for our students that it offers opportunities, encourages risk-taking, provides scope for errors and accepts hypothesis.


Atwell, Nancie. (1987). In the middle: Writing, reading and learning with adolescents. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books. 

Calkins, Lucy M. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Cambourne, B. (1984). Language, learning and literacy. In A. Butler & J. Turbill (Eds.). Towards a reading writing classroom (pp.5-10). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kumar, Krishna. (1996). The child’s language and the teacher. New Delhi: National Book Trust. 


National Curriculum Framework. (2005). New Delhi: NCERT Position Paper National Focus Group on Teaching of English. (2006). New Delhi: NCERT.


* Article first published in FORTELL, January 2014 | Nidhi Kunwar is currently Assistant Professor, Department of Elementary Education, Mata Sundri College for Women, University of Delhi. She is pursuing her Ph.D in Writing Research from Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi.

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