Practical English: Learning and Teaching

Notes for teachers

Refer to the general notes for teachers of English Proficiency Programme, regarding broad issues that span the entire English education of your students and children. Make note that four quarters of the MOOC course on Practical English are referred to as four "Modules" in the EPP terminology and are not to be confused with the term 'module' as used in MOOC, which we call as "Sessions" in EPP. The specific issues pertaining to individual sessions are arranged in the following.

Session 1

Ref: Knowing the meaning of every word.
Q: Should we advise the students to consult the dictionary to enrich their vocabulary whenever they find a new word?
A: One can comprehend a passage without knowing the meaning of some of the words. Looking up in the dictionary time and again to know the meaning of a word, sometimes, proves to be a deterrent to reading continuously. And continuous reading is important in order to augment familiarity in the new language. There will be phrases and parts in the piece which are reasonably easy to make out. Those help the reader to decipher the theme of the prose and many other associated ideas. Often, that helps even in figuring out the meaning and usage of some of the newfound words.
A dictionary can be consulted when there is an urge to pin-point the right meaning of a word, which is already somewhat familiar, or the right meaning is badly needed for interpreting a context.

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Session 2

Ref: Cursive writing.
Q: How to ensure adherence to writing cursive among students?
A: Adherence requires patience from both sides. The utility of writing cursive must be clarified to the students. Easier to inculcate such a habit at an early age. Since most children like to do things to earn appreciation, your insistence itself will impel a majority. After that, take the crafty step of giving the defaulters additional home-work on 'handwriting'. When they notice that improving the handwriting to your satisfaction exempts them from extra work, many sensible children will fall in line. Indeed, it will be important for you to set a high standard, and then insist, cajole and demand performance with an endless perseverance.
But, then, if that is not part of teaching, then what is?

Q: Is it a good idea to learn or teach a language through translation?
A: Well, translation can be a bit of a double-edged sword. If it is the only chosen path to learn a language then the limitations of translation will certainly affect the overall learning of the language. It may also become an impediment to thinking in the new language. But on the flip side, if that new language does not happen to be a native one to the learner then translation becomes a great tool to acquire the language. Basically, expertise in native language is utilized to lay a foundation in the new language.
Of course, one must know when to cast aside the crutch!

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Session 3

Ref: Word families.
Q: What should be done if the students are too young or too weak to grasp so many words together?
A: You can always improvise the collection of words in a family. For beginners in English, shorter lists suggested in later sessions or your own selection may have better effect.

Ref: Word families.
Q: While teaching a word family, would it not be better to list their meanings which the children can learn to enrich their vocabulary in an effective manner?
A: Memorized learning without a context is typically lost soon. Meaning of a word is relevant only for someone who finds it here and there, and gets occasions to use it. It would be a good idea to list out meanings of those words which you think your students should know, and then bring those words in circulation later in practice sessions.
Inculcate good reading habits among your pupils and encourage reading, writing, speaking and listening by all means. And, of course, encourage them to 'find out' meanings of words if they need - by asking and/or by consulting a dictionary.

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Session 4

Ref: The slide on "simplest" sentences.
Q: In what sense do you call these (imperative) sentences "simplest"?
A: In most of the types of sentences, one major issue for learners is the "Subject-Verb Agreement". In these sentences, there is no explicit subject, the implied subject is always "you" and it is obvious from the form of the sentence.
Further, in other kinds of sentences, the form of the verb may change with the tense. An imperative sentence has the verb always in its original form and therefore leaves little scope of mistakes on that count.
In that sense, these sentences are the simplest. And, their structure remains simple even after you add a number of objects and phrases to enhance the information content of the sentence.

Ref: The student's question on the use of "shall/will".
Q: With the use of "shall" going out of circulation, the option of reverse usage of "shall/will" for emphasis is apparently lost.
A: That is a good observation. Indeed, it is so.
In the old rules, using "will" in place of "shall" and vice versa was used for emphasis. While "I shall tell." was normal in the old rule, "I will tell." meant "I shall certainly tell." Similarly, "He will come." was normal, and "He shall come." meant "He will certainly come."

Ref: Shortlisted word family appearing for 'exercise', in the tutorial session.
Q: Why do we have two versions of every word family, the smaller being a collection from the larger, without anything new?
A: The idea is that the student needs to be exposed to a large collection of words, for familiarity and understanding, preferably up to their meaning (and some usage). But, we need not insist on every student knowing and remembering every word in the long run. Such an attempt is sure to delay the progress of the course and make it monotonous, besides being unlikely to succeed! However, there are some relatively simpler (or more common) words in (almost) every word family which a student must know well and, therefore, these should be brought in exposure more frequently. Particularly, when we ask the student to form sentences in a particular type or form, his/her mind should be left free on syntax and operating with well-known words is recommended.
We are following this 'recommendation' to the extent possible in the time-frame, particularly in order for demonstration to teachers taking this course. But, if a teacher starts implementing the present teaching scheme in her classroom (or a parent for a child), then his/her discretion will obviously be based on what her pupils need and what they can grasp. For example, in a class of beginners in English, whether too young or underprivileged, it would be a good idea to use only the short list of words as the 'word family'. Otherwise they will drop out, through mental fatigue if not by actual physical absence.
For more information, consult the links on Practice Sessions and Exercise Sessions in the document on Elements of Teaching Techniques linked at the top of this page.

Ref: Practice of words in the tutorial session.
Q: Up to what extent words need to be practised?
A: This also can be decided only by the teacher during class interactions. The practice of words needs to go only to the extent that students feel familiar and somewhat free with the supply of words for use. Quite often, an element of compromise is likely to come into play, since there is a lot to be taught in syntax.

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Session 5

Ref: Common Verbs: List 1.
Q: Verbs are words as well, and are appearing in the word families anyway. Over and above them, why do we have separate lists of verbs?
A: Due to several reasons. First, a reasonable supply of known verbs is a must for any activity conducted in English. Their forms need to be studied together in a connected manner. Next, verbs appearing just as words among a set of words may miss the coverage it deserves. Moreover, all verbs appearing in the early lists of words will not need equally serious treatment as verbs. On the other hand, some verbs which come much later as 'words' due to their vowel sound patterns may need early attention. Other verbs, in the early stage, may be treated as just a word and given passing coverage. It would be sad if a child is taught 'pick' much earlier than he is taught 'eat'! So, you see, a directed study of well-known verbs needs to be made during the foundation phase of teaching.
Order and adjustments of different items in the course are important, because the entire course may be given to children over a span of four years.

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Session 6

Ref: Practice sessions.
Q: When I ask a student to make a sentence with a word, will it be better to insist on a sentence with that particular word only or to allow its variants?
A: First, not allowing plurals of nouns, different forms of verbs or degrees of adjectives (like simple to simpler or simplest) would be extremely stifling, so you will obviously allow that.
The main issue is, if the given word is 'simple', then whether you allow 'simplify' or 'simplicity'. Why not do everything? If the student wants to make a sentence on a theme that uses 'simplify', allow him. Next, try to get a sentence with 'simple' itself, from the same student or from someone else. If time permits, you may encourage a sentence with 'simplicity' or 'simplification' and, over time, you and your students would be exploring and enhancing the boundaries of the capabilities of the class!

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Session 7

Ref: The slide with title "do".
Q: The verb "do" operates as helping verb, but it can operate as the main verb as well. Will it not confuse children?
A: Yes, it can. Therefore, it is important that the teacher makes a point to raise and clarify the issue. As the helping verb it takes the burden of changing to does/did/will according to the situation, but as the main verb it behaves as other verbs do. In sentences like "He/They does/do not do their work thoroughly.", in appears in bth roles. In such a case, the first "do" (as does/do) is the helping verb, whereas the second one is the main verb.

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Session 8

Ref: The context of vowel/consonant 'sounds', for example for article use.
Q: How do we make the idea of semi-vowels (w and y) clear to the students?
A: Well, these two are called semi-vowels, because their sound is a little 'fluid' compared to consonants, though not completely fluid like vowels. Just note it to them that, they sound like vowels at the end of the word.
Even 'r' has some kind of a fluidity. In many Indian languages (those with close connection to Sanskrit), these three letters (along with 'l'!) have been put in a special class of consonants.

Ref: Wh-questions and their answers appearing as details in a sentence.
Q: The answer to the question "who" seems to be treated in an exceptional manner!
A: Yes, the difference is that the answer to "who" (and at times what/which) would form the 'subject' of the answering sentence, and not some 'detail' in the predicate. So, in the 'question', the wh-word itself (who, for example) has to play the double role of the query-word as well as the subject! As such, the structure of the sentence changes somewhat.
Your question has come at a right time. The issue will appear in the next lesson.

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Session 10

Ref: Punctuation.
Q: Is the difference of a 'semi-colon' from a 'comma' just a matter of longer pause or is there a purpose of separating different units behind the use of a 'semi-colon' rather than a 'comma'?
A: Well, yes, you are right. The 'semi-colon' is for longer pause in two senses - one pertains to the time duration in speech and the other to the logical separation, the two being mutually related.

Ref: Punctuation.
Q: While listing out, some people write "Ram, Mohan, and Hari", while others write "Ram, Mohan and Hari" - which one is right?
A: The first one is according to the old (original) rule, but nowadays the second one seems to be popularly accepted. [Similar is the case of the gradual disappearance of the final comma before etc.] However, if the listing is not of just nouns or such small things, but of long phrases or clauses, then at times inclusion of the last comma seems to be needed.

Ref: Punctuation.
Q: In punctuation to a good extent, and to an extent in the case of articles and capitalization as well, one issue is the rules of grammar (which is important), but beyond a point is it not a matter of personal style of writing?
A: Indeed, it is, to an extent. But, while following any personalized 'style', the endeavour of an author should always be to communicate to the reader, to convince the reader. Any scheme of punctuation, among the grammatically correct alternatives, that promotes this fundamental purpose, should be preferred, because the value of any writing is finally in its readership.

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Session 11

Ref: The slide with title "letters".
Q: From which class cursive writing should be started?
A: Whenever the child starts writing English, cursive can be started. They need to practise block letters only to develop recognition and for writing things like headings etc, once in a while, not for writing at length.
Very young children have a difficulty in holding the pencil steady and manipulating it. But, when they can do that, writing cursive does not offer any extra difficulty compared to block letters, as many people think.

Ref: Lecture 11.
Q: Why is a 'recapitulation' included at this point of the course?
A: For actual beginners, the course may go very long - over months, or even years. Breaks may be needed. A logically convenient break-point is at the conclusion of the quarter 1, which was stated at the end of the previous session. In that scheme, the class is expected to 're-assemble' with session 11. The 'recapitulation' has been included at this point to signify to the potential teachers for a similar strategy in their delivery.
Even for students in a continuous course, a quarterly review of the covered grounds in a nutshell is a healthy practice.

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Session 13

Ref: Forms of verb "be" in past.
Q: Against the rule of using "I was" and "he was", there is a notable exception for expressing wishes and imaginary situations!
A: Oh, yes. That is a little advanced issue for the current stage of our course. For talking about grand wishes and far-fetched conditions, the plural form is used even with singular subjects. For example, in "I wish I were there in that spacecraft." or "If he were your grandson rather than your son, then you would not force him to study day and night like this."
But, make note that in such cases we are not really talking about any 'past' in the proper sense, but making utterances in an out-of-the-ordinary context.

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Session 16

Ref: Vocabulary building through word families.
Q: How useful will be the word families to build vocabulary at the beginning stage for children?
A: Well, in our current execution of the course, and in any execution with adults with some familiarity, the current two-pronged strategy is effective as it is. Other than reading, writing and getting the meanings, perhaps from a dictionary; the students are taken through one round of practice with the new word family - in usage, and through another round of exercise over chosen shorter lists of common words from an already practised word family - in dedicated syntax exercise.
However, this will not work well among absolute beginners, because knowledge of words and ability of framing sentences seem to 'depend' on each other! So, for very little children, if you introduce this teaching scheme and hence the word families as well, you will need to devise some special tactics. For example, you may frame nice-sounding simple sentences incorporating bunches of similar words (of the same 'family') together and ask them just to read them and, and perhaps write. Some particularly attractive sentences can be introduced even in the stage earlier than reading and writing. Children find such sentences worth hearing and repeating, slowly develop familiarity and more slowly develop meaning. Later, when they come to the stage of learning the language formally, this familiarity would give them an advantage.

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- Bhaskar Dasgupta