Eva Tandlichová: Is compulsory English a good idea?

20/04/2011 08:43

Prof. PhDr. Eva Tandlichová CSc. teaches at the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University, Bratislava. She is the author of several publications, English language text-books for elementary schools, but also for language schools and courses for adults. She is an internationally recognized expert in didactics of foreign languages and a member of international organizations for teachers of English, such as IATEFL and TESOL.


What do you think about the decision of the Slovak government to make the English language instruction obligatory from the third grade of elementary schools?

 Well, the answer is very easy and short: I disagree with it. It is not only me but also a couple of my colleagues, friends and even teachers. I have heard people speaking of an analogy to Russian, which my generation was learning as a compulsory language. First it was taught from the fifth grade and then in a couple of schools, where they introduced also English, French and German, also from the third grade. It was not like that in every school though, only in selected ones. Russian was not taught as a foreign language, we had to read literature and speak about the authors like we did in Slovak language lessons, and so, for example, we were not able to buy bread after finishing. We could speak quite well, but not about ordinary things, the vocabulary was not there. And so it happened that after 1989 the pendulum went to the other side. Yet I don’t think it was not a very good decision to remove Russian completely from curricula.

The key reason why I do not think that compulsory English is a good idea is that we don’t have enough teachers. I’m not speaking about qualified teachers. We don’t have teachers, either qualified or unqualified. Teaching English to kids of the age of 7-8 means that the teacher should be very good at English, should understand the age, the needs, the psychology, the developmental problems, and the characteristic features of the kid. Almost 2,000 teachers are unqualified, as we know from the project of which I am the guarantor. In the project we are trying to teach teachers English in order that they can use it as the language of instruction with the little ones. But still, they are mostly middle-aged teachers so the output will not be that good. Apart from that – why do we prepare teachers for German, French, Spanish, and Italian if these languages are to be removed from curricula because English will become compulsory? I think it is better to give students a choice, which is good for the schools that have more teachers of German. If they start with German in the third grade, they can continue with English in the 6th grade. It complies with the common European framework which requires students to master two languages by the time they graduate from secondary school. English will always be the choice because of parents, the society and the atmosphere around. English is the lingua franca. I agree it is an important language for world communication. The minister can argue that English is compulsory in the Netherlands, Finland or Sweden, but it is probably a tradition there. On the other hand, I suppose that the system of teacher training at the universities in those countries respects that need. But how many teacher trainees are there in a year at this faculty? Twenty? And not all of them want to go and teach. What has to be created is a system, a context for that decision… That’s why I consider it a bad idea.

What do you think will be the effects of this decision on the actual ability of the nation to speak English?

It is a good question, but it’s not easy to answer. The minister said that even a graduate from secondary school can teach a B2 level English. The problem comes when it is not a good B2. The other thing is, and I keep repeating this, that the teachers in our schools should be given more attention and more respect. If the status of teachers is not enhanced, there will still be situations when within a school year a class will have 3-4 teachers. They will continue coming and going. Every time a new teacher comes, the pupils say, “We haven’t done this, we are just at the beginning of the book,” and it starts all over again, even though they may have already gone through all that. I don’t think that the quality of the high school graduates’ English after so many years of compulsory English will increase. Can the standard be raised if most teachers are unqualified and many of them do not stay longer than half a year? 

And maybe one or two more sentences. I always say this in the courses I run with the students here or teachers: It is always the personality of the teacher. If the teacher is motivated in front of the class, happy at school, likes the kids he or she is teaching, likes what he or she is teaching, and is trying to develop his/her abilities, such a teacher can raise the standard, but not the teachers who are tired, overloaded, underpaid, who have no respect and are looked down on. How can they keep the student’s motivation for learning a foreign language?

Do you know of any cases where elementary schools will simply not have enough teachers?

Yes, just imagine schools in the eastern part of Slovakia, or central part as a border. Maybe all one-class schools will have problems. How can a teacher who is teaching three grades at the same time do English as well? Maybe this teacher is good at German, but if English is compulsory…

I have heard that retraining courses are supposed to be running at universities?

Nowadays an all-country project is running at universities. It aims to prepare teachers for elementary schools. The faculty that is involved is the Faculty of Education. But again the staff at universities will be overloaded. Because there are not many of them.

What does the retraining mean? Does it mean that a teacher of physics will receive a two-year training to become a teacher of the English language?

That happened in the 1990s. The teachers of, for instance, mathematics, physics or physical education, or even engineers from the Faculty of Economics who had some English or spent some time abroad, and were good at English, could apply for those retraining courses. We ran some of those here, for three years, but the graduates didn’t get serious graduation documents; just a confirmation of attendance and some exams or something. And again if they are teaching, they do it as extramural courses, so it means they come on Saturdays or Friday afternoons, twice a month. It’s up to them to study at home and if they have their teaching load at school, it’s not easy. I’m not sure whether that’s a good way to raise the standard. It would be good, and that’s what we try to persuade the minister to do, to create a teaching program at universities that would prepare teachers for the primary level. It means that those who want to teach little kids will study the general pedagogy, psychology or what they have there, plus the language to raise the standard. Because then when the graduate has the certificate of having passed the course, it means he’d be a much better teacher at elementary level than anybody else. We have experience with these retraining courses. It’s not a good idea. Some of those teachers can be excellent, but some of them somehow don’t achieve or haven’t achieved the standard we would expect them to.

The ministry of education in Georgia has come up with a project which has invited over a thousand of native speakers into the country to teach English. Do you think a program or plan like this would also be possible in Slovakia, or what would the result of such a plan be?

It was the case in 1991 onwards. Peace Corps came here, some volunteers who were unemployed in the States, Canada or Australia came up here. They were not teachers; they had no pedagogical training or studies. But they were native speakers. Some of them were quite good, even some of those who came through British Council as instructors and also lecturers at secondary, primary – ok. But the majority of them were housewives and people who were at school when they were little kids or students, but not as teachers. So it was all right, they could talk and practice English, but they couldn’t explain things such as grammar, vocabulary or cultural background of something, to make learners be aware of differences in cultures. By the end of the 1990s all of them had gone. Even they themselves found out that it was not that easy. And it was not what they had been told they were going to do. If those volunteers or recruited people have a pedagogical training or training in ESL (that means English as a second or foreign language), that’s fine. But if not and if anybody can apply, then it won’t work, I think. That was the experience.

What do you think about the results of the research done by the State School Inspection according to which the overall results of pupils taught by unqualified teachers of the English language are only slightly worse than those of the pupils taught by qualified teachers?

I don’t believe it’s true. We don’t know who was responsible, who was doing it and neither what kind of research it was, it is just a statement, and there is no documentation about it.

But still, Minister Jurzyca and Táňa Rosová stated these things. Do you think it somehow undermines the status of teachers or qualified teachers in the society?

It can. If you, for example, were an unqualified teacher and somebody said officially that it’s not a problem…It sounds to me like we think that even if there is an unqualified teacher who doesn’t teach well but he/she has some motivated learners in class, who might be motivated by something else such as their families, or they have visited a foreign country and had the opportunity to talk to someone there, that is motivation, so they do more at home with their English and they are much better in school than the rest who are doing just what the teacher says. 

In general, unqualified teachers are not good at speaking skills and their English is not good enough to imitate and the little kids imitate and even if there can be a CD with native speakers on, the CD is there only when it is switched on. On the other hand, the teacher is there all the time and because he/she is not secure enough in spoken language, he/she switches to Slovak (with unqualified teachers it happens very often). That’s why if the results are based on some serious research with statistics and everything, I think it is possible that the learners were having other lessons, maybe private ones. And they were doing something at home in order to be good at English because of their motivation.

How do you think the Slovak Republic could reach a higher number of fluent speakers of the lingua franca, the desired B2 level at their high school graduation?

First of all, qualified teachers and stable staff in schools are necessary. The stable staff in schools needs higher respect. And the minister or ministry should find ways of attracting young graduates from universities, teacher trainees, who are being prepared at universities for elementary and secondary schools. They should find ways of attracting these graduates to schools and motivating them to stay there -- not for one year but longer.

What has always been my wish and during my career it has not come true is that teachers in schools should have the opportunity to spend some time abroad during their career. We often look up to countries like Finland or Sweden as examples to follow, but the teachers in these countries travel, they attend summer schools abroad, etc. Even the Czech Republic offers courses for teachers. Our teachers are happy that they have a holiday; they don’t work on their improvement, abilities and skills. That’s what would help a lot. I am not against native speakers, alright, we can invite them, we are happy that we here at the department have native speakers (because we need them for our communication and our development), but it’s just the added value to what we should develop among our non-native speakers here. The authorities and experts at universities and we all have to create an atmosphere where teachers would be motivated to develop their abilities and skills, not just be tired of having to work more than the appointed time, for salaries which are very low.

Probably my final idea is, and I will refer back to what I said earlier, the teacher’s personality is the pillar of good teaching and learning and if the teacher is tired and unmotivated, he/she can’t do much in the classroom, or can but in a very routine way, which is very discouraging for learners as well. And then the result is a low standard of B2, for example. 


                                                                                                                      Katarína Koreňová