Instructor Spotlight: Shailini Bhat, India
In this post, webinar presenter Shailini Bhat discusses her lifelong interest in English and experience creating and facilitating interactive lessons for diverse groups of learners in India. Shailini delivers Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking Pro webinars. Test takers (and instructors!) can visit our webinar page to register for an upcoming session.
How long have you been teaching English? How did you become interested in it, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I believe I have always been interested in the English language. I also have a flair for picking up languages in general. I think of myself as a born teacher because I started teaching English when I was just a teenager. Some of my older cousins who were educated in the villages had little exposure to the language outside their curriculum. What’s more, they didn’t have libraries or other forms of support for deeper learning. I used to teach English to them whenever we met during summer vacations. They were often in awe of how well I spoke the language. At that time, I just enjoyed being an important person or a teacher to cousins older than me.
On a more serious note, however, I started teaching communication skills in my very first job as soon as I finished formal education. After nearly a couple of decades of soft skills facilitation, I realized I could do even better if I specialized in English language teaching. So, I received qualifications from Cambridge University, went on to work with the British Council, and I’m still teaching today. I particularly enjoy reading about specific methods and approaches, like the Lexical Approach, TBL and Grammaring, and trying them out with my learners.
In what context(s) do you teach English? Which context do you think is most effective for learners and why?
I have taught one-to-one, in-person and online classes. Of all, in-person classes give greater opportunities for learners to interact with each other and with the teacher. From what I have noticed, this is also the best teaching-learning context for peer learning. The increase in opportunities for the teacher to monitor also results in easier identification of strengths and weaknesses, better error correction and clear-cut evidence of progress.
Having said that, online classes provide unique opportunities for both learners and teachers alike: learners can transcend border barriers and reach out to great teachers in other countries, and teachers can explore their teaching skills in a vast array of multicultural teaching contexts.
How is English typically taught in India? In your view, what are some pros and cons of these approaches?
Although English is supposed to be taught as a second language in most states of India, it is typically taught like a subject. So, schools follow a syllabus using a coursebook or textbook. Language elements like grammar and vocabulary are covered, but discourse, pronunciation and skills are hardly ever taught. The teaching and assessment system is only read-write intensive.
Most of the time, the only receptive skill that students are exposed to (but not often taught) is reading. Listening is ignored because textbooks are not accompanied by listening passages, and facilities and devices for listening are not part of teaching environments. The only authentic listening learners get exposure to is the teacher’s modelling of the language in the classroom.
Speaking as a skill is almost never practiced since most of the schools have large classes. Students are encouraged to use English in their conversations, but most of them are unable to do this without slipping back to their regional language.
For writing, especially in examinations, students are explicitly expected to respond to questions from the textbooks. While some task types include fill-in-the-blanks, there are others that tend to be more open-ended, but even those are limited to what is included in the syllabus. This leads to memorization most of the time, as they are only responding to what is part of the syllabus.
Unfortunately, I don’t see any pros of this approach, and it is followed in the majority of schools, where most students get their first exposure to the language. If English is taught like a subject and not as a language, learners will neither be able to use the language fluently, nor gain proficiency. Apart from serving no purpose for them after completing formal education, it can also undermine their confidence in using the language in workplace contexts, where it is often seen as an essential communication skill.
What are the most common first languages of the learners you teach? What are some aspects of learning English that they tend to pick up fairly naturally, and what are some challenges they commonly experience? Can you explain a couple of strategies that you use to help them work through these difficulties?
India’s diversity stems largely from the several languages spoken throughout the country and the culture that is tied in to it. While natives of every state have a language of their own, there are some states that are native to more than one, like mine, where five different languages are spoken, of which one has two dialects too. My country is also host to many expatriates from different countries. So, I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I have always taught a multicultural class.
Interestingly, Indian languages can also be syntactically different from each other. Needless to say, English is unlike any of these Indian languages. With no way to draw parallels between native languages and English, a bottom-up approach to learning English can seem quite complicated, and slow down the process of acquisition and assimilation. A top-down approach, on the other hand, is more realizable where opportunities for exposure to the language in the environment are greater. The larger English learning population in India is somewhere in between. That may be why most users of the language pick up basic vocabulary and simple sentence structures fairly naturally and quickly. They plateau after that.
Anyone aspiring to get to a higher level of proficiency in English can face multiple challenges as there are very few language schools that cater to such needs. As a teacher, I have been able to use some specific strategies to help higher-level learners further improve their use of language. Strategies that I often use are (i) consciousness-raising (using guided discovery to challenge and review their current state of knowledge), followed by (ii) reasoning usage and use (by placing emphasis on the importance of context and co-text in language use).
What I enjoy most is the interactive methodology I follow when I use these strategies in my adult classes to help them notice nuances of the language, like collocations and variety in sentence structures. It is nice to see most of them turn into children once again as they discuss, argue, and compete with each other to learn and use the language to the best of their ability. I am happiest when my learners come back to me with stories of how what they learnt in my classes has made an impact in their professional lives.
What would you say is the most common concern or difficulty that test takers express in your classes or webinars? What advice do you give them?
Since learners in India acquire English through a regimented syllabus in their school life, they often don’t know how to prepare themselves for the more open-ended tasks on a language test like CELPIP. For example, they often aren’t sure where to begin preparing and how much preparation to do before feeling ready to take a test.
The best advice that I can give them is to expose themselves to as much authentic content as they can for as long as they can afford. I also tell them to write brief summaries of what they have read or listened to and add their opinion or perspective as well. I tell them to engage in casual water-cooler conversations with colleagues or discuss this with friends to get their perspectives as well. This way, they will have recycled the language at least three or four times, reinforcing what they have been able to learn.
Can you recommend some resources local to your city or country where learners can work on their English skills?
There are several libraries in every town and city of our country where learners can gain access to resources in English. Apart from this, there are British Council libraries where learners can have access to graded readers. There are several English newspapers, dailies, and magazines that learners can get hold of both as hard copies and online. Every time a CELPIP webinar participant has sought suggestions, though, I have pointed to online sites like The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and MSN Canada. This exposes them not only to Canadian English, but also to Canadian culture, which will be useful both for the CELPIP Test and life in Canada in general.
What are some online or print resources that have helped you to establish your teaching philosophy, deepen your understanding of English, or prepare engaging language lessons?
Although there are several resources that have influenced my belief systems and choices of teaching methods, I am quite drawn to the notion that teachers must constantly challenge their belief systems and get out of their comfort zones for the benefit of the learners. One of my favourite quotes is by Penny Ur: “It has been said that teachers who have been teaching for twenty years may be divided into two categories: those with twenty years’ experience and those with one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” Early on in my teaching career, as soon as I saw this quote, I knew I would have to keep learning new methods of teaching, and reflecting on them to outperform myself. This has been at the core of my teaching philosophy all along, with a solid commitment to advancing learning.
My understanding of English, however, has been deepened by the nature and quality of questions that learners put to me when I teach, and the insights I gained over time and with experience to anticipate these. My focus on learner autonomy and learner training helps me prepare engaging lessons.