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Are we teaching languages the wrong way?

Are we teaching languages the wrong way?

A debate on language teaching in Tibetan refugee schools



In the last couple of years, probably for the first time in the history of Tibetan refugee education, Tibetan educators in India came into close contacts with education experts associated with the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), India’s apex educational resource organization. I have been involved in these conversations from the very start. These interactions started in May 2013 when two English language teaching workshops were given by the NCERT to more than 60 language teachers of Tibetan schools. Since I was the coordinator of these workshops and attended many of its sessions, it provided me with a rare opportunity to listen and observe these dialogues and exchanges, without the emotive compulsion of being a participant. Around the same time, Prof. Krishna Kumar, renowned educationist and the former director of NCERT, became a member of Tibetan Education Advisory Committee and attended its first meeting held in June 2013 in Dharamsala. Later, he became the chief advisor for CTA Department of Education’s Early Grade Reading Project. Likewise, Dr. Latika Gupta, chief editor of the NCERT’s graded reading series “Barkha” got involved in the same project, and they both facilitated the Early Grade Reading workshops to a large number of Tibetan primary teachers. I had the good fortune of attending some of the sessions as an observer. Most recently, Prof. Krishna Kumar interacted with the members of the TCV Education Development Committee (comprising of about 30 principals and headmasters led by the Education Director) on the issue of reading at the primary level.


I have been associated, either directly or indirectly, with these interactions between NCERT’s education experts and Tibetan educators. The privilege of being an observer, not a participant, in many of these dialogues has presented me with a unique vantage point to reflect on the issues under discussion without the burden of personal involvement. These interactions have raised some very fundamental questions about the nature of reading pedagogy and culture that exist in the early grades across Tibetan schools. In this short write-up, I attempt to present a summary of the dialogue for further reflection and deliberation. I must confess that I have no professional education, training, or experience in the area of language teaching or primary education.


What is language?

During the course of these interactions, one of the key emphases was on understanding what language really is. Is language just a school subject, like science or math? Or is communication the primary function of language? NCERT experts have spoken passionately that the language is much more than a ‘subject’ and that it is the key to the development of a child’s thinking capacities. Prof. Krishna Kumar said that ‘the child needs language to hold the world in his mind”. Language is seen as a part of human intellectual apparatus and important sense-making or meaning-making tool, besides being the medium of all learning.  This broader definition of language was a revelation to many Tibetan educators who were accustomed to treating language as a ‘subject’ and a medium of communication.


Phonics versus meaning

In Tibetan primary schools, teaching of language at early grades places a great deal of emphasis on phonics (sound). In fact, in Sambhota Tibetan schools where Basic Education Policy of Tibetan Government in Exile was first implemented, teaching of English as a second language begins with the “Sound Way Program” requiring drill and memorization of 45 sounds (phonemes) that comprise English words and the 75 ways there are of representing these sounds on paper (phonograms). It takes several months to teach the phonics. Though less rigorous, other school systems like Tibetan Children’s Village and Tibetan Homes Foundation also have a fair share of emphasis on phonics. However, the NCERT experts perceive this as a highly problematic approach. They consider this singular focus on phonics as a meaningless exercise, and argue that language is acquired when attention is focused not on language form, but on the meaning of messages. It is through regular exposure to comprehensible and meaningful inputs that children acquire language that is deployable or usable in real times. At some of the occasions, few Tibetan educators defended their current practices by saying it is working well with their children. It is at least good to see educators thinking, reasoning and engaging in a dialogue. But the question is how do we know if it is working well? Their defense was primarily based on ‘gut’ feeling, rather than any research evidence or data.


Generally, if we are to take into account the language competencies (both Tibetan and English) of Tibetan students graduating our schools, the situation looks rather grim. This means that there must be something wrong with the language pedagogy and other conditions that are necessary for development of language skills. Yes, early emphasis on phonics may produce deceptive fluent readers at the initial stage, who can decode or read fluently and ‘correctly’. But the question that is of far greater importance is whether the child is able to comprehend or find meaning in what he/she is reading. It is highly plausible that he/she may be just parroting. It is, however, important to add that most of the Tibetan primary schools use a variety of methods simultaneously like storytelling, independent reading, etc. aside from the phonic approach.  


This is an example of worldwide debate, which is sometimes described as reading war. The two sides somewhat represent the two dominant theories in education – Behaviorism and Constructivism. Phonic approach derives its logic primarily from the behaviorist thinking, which is now relegated to backyard with the advent of the constructivist pedagogy.


Culture of correction

NCERT experts have openly critiqued the ‘culture of correction’ that is widespread in many schools in the Indian subcontinent, including Tibetan primary schools. They argue that the ‘correction’ is highly problematic and destructive, especially at the level of early grades (grade 1 and 2). Children at this age are extremely tender, and to expect a certain degree of correctness from them is developmentally inappropriate. It is true that there is a predominant culture of correction in our schools, emphasizing ‘correct’ pronunciation, ‘correct’ spelling, ‘correct’ handwriting, ‘correct’ answer, etc. Correction and uniformity discourages creativity and development of free thinking. Such culture of correctness is widely prevalent in schools where performance supersedes the developmental aspect of child’s learning and growth. The NCERT experts argue that correction, in accordance with the dominant standards, can begin only in the upper primary grades. This is a major dilemma for Tibetan educators, many of whom seem to believe that early correction is beneficial. One of them wrote on our facebook group page: “aren’t we letting children to go in the wrong direction if we don’t correct them on time?” Here it is helpful to take a recourse to first language acquisition. Children perform this amazing feat of acquiring oral competency in the language(s) he/she is exposed to from the birth, without regular teaching or correction. This shows that if they are provided with comprehensible and meaningful language inputs, they will, in due course of time, correct themselves and acquire oral competency in the language.



After speaking to TCV EDC Meeting, on our way back in car, Prof. Krishna Kumar suggested few books to study these issues further. These books are - Frank Smith’s Comprehension and Learning, and Understanding Reading; James Britton’s Language and Learning; and Joan Taugh’s Development of Meaning, and Listening to Children Talking. It would be safe to say that there is no one correct approach to teaching reading to early graders. However, we need to rise above the current practices, and explore and embrace new ideas and approaches. Perhaps the best way to do so would be to read these books with an open mind.


Written by: Kalsang Wangdu