Taking English to the masses
Educated at Royal College, Colombo and then at the University of
Cambridge and still later at the University of London, his career at a
Geneva based development organisation has taken this unassuming
gentleman through remote villages in Southern Europe to researching
among grass roots communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
However, his relationship with the field of education goes back to
the days when he was teaching Sociology and later on heading the
Sociology Department at the University of Peradeniya.
Today, he is a Senior Advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and has
been functioning in that capacity for nearly ten years since the days
when the current President was the Minister of Fisheries.
With the year 2009 being declared the Year of English and Information
Technology, the Co-ordinator of the Presidential Task Force on English
and IT, Sunimal Fernando speaks with Business Today about their mission
to take English as a life skill to the remote corners of Sri Lanka.
Second part was published on Saturday (May 2).
The ideal English program is largely a 160 hour program. There are
many such spoken English courses that claim to teach English in 100
hours or so, what’s different about this program?
As for the existing 100 hour courses we see advertised on bill boards
and newspapers, a few are known to be quite good, some not so bad and
some are just a disaster. Their quality varies. It is hard to generalise.
One thing that seems common to them all is that judging by the quality
of their human resource output, the level they reach at best is the
‘Survival English Level’ of the Indian model.
This quality of output is not employable. Another observation is that
they don’t seem to have developed and employed effective strategies to
overpower the socio-psychological barriers and attitudinal positions
which in my view account for nine tenths of the English speaking problem
in our country.
We hope our Master Trainers on the other hand and through them our
teachers will understand this reality and face up to it with their own
innovative strategies and techniques for bringing about the much needed
attitudinal change among their learners.
Over the years, we have introduced many language measures to improve
English language skills among our students. However, these various
initiatives have for the large part failed. Is there a real
understanding of what has gone wrong and have you addressed those issues
in this new strategy?
Let me add that I see 4 reasons why the Presidential Initiative may
succeed while earlier initiatives - I agree with you - were failures, or
colossal failures for that matter.
The first is that earlier initiatives were crafted on the erroneous
premise that English is a ideologically neutral communication tool while
ours is based on the premise that English is both an ideology and a tool
of communication and both aspects need to be addressed if change is to
The second is that earlier initiatives were top down affairs, crafted
by ‘know-all intellectuals’ and so-called ELT (English Language
Training) experts from Colombo and abroad, and handed down to provincial
officials and teachers for implementation in our schools.
The Presidential Initiative by contrast is a bottom-up process where
strategy, curriculum and action plan are crafted entirely by rural and
small town master trainers and teachers and implemented by the planners
themselves with the cooperation of provincial and zonal level officers,
while the unsuccessful ELT experts and ‘know-all intellectuals’ who have
failed to deliver in the past are simply asked to cooperate by not
interfering and misguiding the national effort.
The third is that the earlier initiatives were culturally insensitive
in that they sought by implication to weaken the national languages and
thereby the national culture and heritage, thus inviting rejection by
the national community.
The present initiative is designed to accept the primacy of the
national languages and English is projected as a culturally neutral life
skill rather than as an alternative to Sinhala and Tamil. The fourth is
that the present initiative is backed by the political will and
determination of the President while the earlier initiatives were
crafted as ministry level administrative interventions.
What were the selection criteria to choose the 40 trainee teachers?
The English Unit of the Ministry of Education selected the 40
teachers. The opportunity was advertised in the newspapers, minimum
qualifications were stipulated by the Ministry and applications were
called from teachers, Regional English Resource Centre (RESC) managers,
and provincial and regional English coordinators among others.
All these were responsibilities of the Education Ministry. The
Presidential Task Force played no part in the selection process.
Finally, qualified candidates were interviewed by the Ministry and forty
were selected on a provincial basis - 4 from each province other than
the Western, Central and Southern province from each of which 6
candidates were selected.
The part played by the Task Force was to obtain the scholarships from
the Indian Government and to stipulate on a direction of president that
the opportunity should be equitably shared by all the provinces. Thus,
we now have EFLU trained master trainers in all the provinces.
Is this teacher-training program a one-time training or will there be
more batches going to Hyderabad for training?
Yes, the Indian High Commission has told us that once again this year
there will hopefully be an award of 40 more scholarships for teachers to
be trained as master trainers in Hyderabad.
We are indeed very thankful to the English and Foreign Languages
University in Hyderabad as well as to the Indian Government for their
continued support and cooperation.
We also hope our proposal to the Indian Government which was accepted
by them to establish a Centre of English Language Training (CELT) in
Peradeniya as a part of bilateral cooperation in the field of education
with technical assistance from EFLU, Hyderabad will be implemented in
the course of this year. The infrastructure which was requested from us
by the Indian side for this Centre has been constructed and for the
present lies idle.
What have the first batch of trained teachers done after returning?
On their return the Presidential Secretariat in cooperation with the
Education Ministry brought them into a participatory process through
which they were empowered to develop a strategy and program for
transferring their newly acquired spoken English training skills to the
teacher base in the country.
For this purpose they met together in several workshops that were
designed and facilitated by one of Sri Lanka’s most sought after
specialists on Participatory Process Management Chamindra Weerackody,
who offered his honorary services to the Presidential Initiative.
Despite various institutional roadblocks and low grade obstacles that
were thrown in the way of this process by the old establishment that had
failed the country, time and time again, Chamindra Weerackody stood his
ground and motivated the master trainers to develop a new curriculum for
the training of teachers in spoken English methods, produce new teaching
materials and handouts and above all to generate a new spirit of
determination to succeed where the old outdated gurus and Colombo based
commissars of the country’s English teaching enterprise had failed.
They now have their own teaching manual, their own manual of
supportive teaching handouts and their own action plan for the country
prepared by them. All these were done in less than 3 months of their
return from Hyderabad.
During the ceremonial launch of the Year of English and IT on
February 13th, one of them in the company of Professor Abhai Maurya the
Vice Chancellor of EFLU Hyderabad presented the teaching manual and the
2009 guide book with a work plan also prepared by them to the President.
Use correct Spoken English Training skills in teaching
Earlier at a one day seminar organised by the Presidential Task Force
and the Ministry of Education, they had presented in detail the new
spoken English curriculum and work plan to the 117 provincial and zonal
level officials who administer the teaching of English in the country
and obtained their unstinted support for its implementation.
By mid February, training programs in the teaching of spoken English
commenced in the provinces and we from the Presidential Secretariat have
been visiting them personally.
Does this mean that there will be a syllabus change in English soon?
Yes, certainly because the present school curriculum remains tailor
made for children who come from English speaking homes. Spoken English
is not given any importance both in the school syllabus as well as in
the examination system. Children are taught to read and write English
and the examinations - O/Level and A/Level included - test a student’s
reading and writing skills.
Today, speaking skills are neither taught nor tested. This is the
crux of the problem. It explains why with nearly 22,000 English teachers
and with English classes from grade 3 upwards, the average child leaves
school without being able to speak in English. The child is taught
English in the way that we were taught Sanskrit, Pali, Latin and Greek -
only to read and write and never to speak.
The National education system and its so-called ELT specialists must
hold themselves accountable to the people of our country for
perpetuating this state of affairs at great social and economic cost to
But, now the Government has acted. On January 29 this year the
Cabinet decided to direct the relevant authorities to add a spoken
English module to the present syllabus from Grade 3 upwards in the
immediate short run and to train the English teacher base through an
accelerated program as a matter of urgency to administer this new
This goes in parallel with the development of appropriate teacher
capacity to change the school curricula in the direction of practical
Hence, a complete paradigm shift in the English syllabus has been
mandated by the Cabinet. The country’s education authorities now have no
option but to follow the Cabinet directive and respond to the needs of
As you mentioned, there are a number of measures taken to improve the
quality of English training in schools. What about private tutors? Are
there any measures being taken to improve their quality?
Yes, we have as many as 3,027 private tutors that teach English among
other subjects. Large numbers of school drop-outs attend these tuition
classes to acquire employable skills such as English. Therefore, private
tutors play a very important role in the country’s English teaching
Now all that I said for the schools where English teaching is
concerned applies in equal measure to the tutors as well.
The quality of their output to say the least is really poor. Spoken
English has never been their forte. Hence, in collaboration with the BOI
(Board of Investment) we brought 14 private state-of-the-art English
teaching institutes from India to a ‘Business Mela’ where more than 400
of our tutors came and met them.
We were hoping that some joint English teaching business ventures
with Sri Lankan private tutors would grow out of the ‘Mela’ but we were
very disappointed. Only one venture based on a franchise model
materialised and even in their case progress has been frightfully slow.
Basically the business models presented by the Indian institutes were
clearly unacceptable to the Sri Lankan institutes with whom they
negotiated. For a teaching technology transfer to our private tutoring
sector I wouldn’t try this type of initiative again. We are now adopting
a different strategy.
The BOI has just about started discussing with EFLU Hyderabad the
possibility of having EFLU develop for our tutors a 150 hour English
curriculum with a strong focus on practical spoken English. BOI is
interested to sponsor the production of such a course as well as of the
supportive print and audio-visual teaching materials which they could
sell to the tutors at a subsidised price.
These teachers could be trained to administer the proposed course by
a panel of Master Trainers also to be sponsored by BOI. Discussions with
EFLU have only just started and there is still a long way to go.
Meanwhile City and Guilds Institute London and the Dharmavahini
Foundation headed by Bhikkhu Mettavihari are jointly producing a 200
module distance learning English course for TV. Both Rupavahini and ITN
will start hosting the course hopefully in about 3 months time.
2 modules or learning episodes of 26 minutes each will be telecast
and repeated each week and also hosted on the SLT server so that
institutions among others can download the learning episodes and use
them as state-of-the-art teaching tools for their students. This could
be a stop gap measure for upgrading the teaching quality in these
institutions till the more substantive BOI-EFLU programme takes shape
In conclusion, what in a nutshell are the critical factors that could
determine the success of this multi-faceted Presidential Initiative on
English as a Life Skill?
Factor 1, a national level attitudinal change in respect of English
pronunciation, diction and grammar and a national commitment to speak
English the Sri Lankan way.
Factor 2, readiness on the part of a new cadre of skilled rural
centred English teachers to come forward and confidently takeover the
leadership of the country’s English teaching enterprise.
Factor 3, the efficiency and speed with which we are able to train
the 21,984 teachers and the 3,027 private tutors in the teaching of
spoken English and provide them with new teaching materials.
Factor 4, self-confidence, determination and a belief in oneself on
the part of all those who are pioneering the paradigm shift of English
ideology and teaching method. Finally, Factor 5, the continued support
of the President and the Presidential Secretariat for the ideological,
institutional and methodological paradigm shift that is being made in
the English teaching enterprise of our country.
Courtesy: Business Today (Concluded)
English as a life skill
1. We are bringing in another kind of English ... It is English for
employment, English for reaching out to the external world of knowledge
and learning. English as a life skill in the same way that we learn to
ride a motorcycle or drive a car or use a computer. It is English for a
different epoch of our country’s future.
2. If the two basic building blocks, English and IT, were put in
place in all the nooks and corners of the country through a national
drive, we could in a matter of several years experience a rural-centred
quantum leap in the creation of wealth and employment across the
3. Where English is concerned we don’t want our people to remain
ideologically bogged down in the colonial past. We want our people to
pick up the confidence to ideologically challenge the sacred cow of
perfect pronunciation and unblemished diction.
4. It is not a big deal to learn to communicate in English if only we
successfully confront and destroy the psycho-social barriers and
attitudinal positions that the urban English speaking elites of our
country have erected.
5. Today, speaking skills are neither taught nor tested. This is the
crux of the problem. It explains why the average child leaves school
without being able to speak in English.
6. A complete paradigm shift in the English syllabus has been
mandated by the Cabinet. The country’s education authorities now have no
option but to follow the Cabinet directive and respond to the needs of