Communicative language teaching in Bangladesh

27 December 2015
Communicative language teaching in Bangladesh

Mollah Mohammed Haroon-Ar Rasheed  :
University of Canterbury
This study explores the views of students, teachers and parents about the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach in learning English as a second language in Bangladesh. It further explores how the learning of English language could be improved. Though English is compulsory for fifteen years of schooling, public examination results indicate that students perform poorly in the subject, and that situation gives rise to this study. The study employs a mixed methods approach that includes qualitative interviews and class observations, and quantitative data from achievement tests. Four schools (two high and two low achievements) were selected from two divisional cities according to the public examination results. Findings confirmed a gap between oral and written language achievements and highlighted that CLT is not working effectively to develop communicative competence. Causative factors are examined. Finally the need to progress beyond communicative fluency is explored and practices for developing critical literacy within English classrooms are advocated.
If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a some what different world.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
The English language is learnt in Bangladesh as a foreign or sometimes second language. The most common reason for this is that it brings empowerment and better opportunities in life. But are we teaching it well enough for our citizens to be empowered? Does empowerment involve more of just language proficiency? And how well do we use the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach, Bangladesh's preferred second language pedagogy, to make our citizens empowered when learning English? This chapter examines these questions drawing on international literature and findings from my Masters research (Rasheed, 2011). Following this, it briefly poses and questions about the relationships between language and power, and how we may teach English in ways that will allow more engagement.
Bangladesh chose English as a second language (ESL) because of its global nature and made it compulsory throughout schooling. However, public examination results and students' observable communication skills indicate that students perform poorly in English, with a higher failure rate than other subjects.
This points to the challenges that both learners and teachers face in the mainstream classrooms, and these are explored in the following pages. It is important to find out what challenges those students and teachers have to cope with, and what strategies could make the learning effective in the classroom.
Through the case study of four schools and a synthesis of the relevant literature, this chapter examines a study that is more fully documented in my Masters thesis (Rasheed, 2011). In addition, the larger context of this language learning, and especially the degree to which the implicit goal of becoming a member of the global community is also critically examined. I have focused on international literature, as there are few publications on English language learning in Bangladesh.
In most instances, the students involved immigrants in English-speaking contexts, which is different from the Bangladesh context. However, there are parallels in Bangladesh where issues of poverty lead to minority status and create similarly disadvantaged groups, as I will examine later.
 (To be continued)
In a non-English mainstream classroom, the CLT approach is considered as an effective way to teach and learn second languages (TQI-SEP, 2006). The theoretical concept of CLT is based on communicative competence, which focuses on both accuracy and fluency in communication (Savignon, 2003). Communicative competence incorporates grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic use of the language in different listening, speaking, reading and writing. It teaches grammar in context and enhancing learning by doing, and focusing on many language practice activities such as dialogue, role play, interviews, games, pair and group work.
It is widely known that in Bangladesh the public examination results indicate that the English-language learning outcome for students is not consistently positive, even though the CLT approach has been used for nearly two decades. In a recent study (Rasheed, 2011), I carried out reading, writing and speaking tests drawn from New Zealand assessment procedures (Crooks, Flockton and White, 2007; New Zealand Council for Education Research, 2008 & 1991) with 20 students in four secondary schools. There was a clear difference between the achievements of oral (listening & speaking) and written (reading & writing) skill tasks. The level of written achievement was nearly double that of oral achievement in each school.
Likewise, the Bangladesh context also shows that CLT aims to achieve fluency in communication, but does not focus on developing critical thinking. However, as an educator and researcher, I believe that functional communicative competence in English in itself is not enough to fulfil the aspiration of preparing Bangladesh students to become global citizens.
My study investigated current beliefs and practice of the CLT approach in Bangladesh, using a mixed methods research design. In-depth semi structured interviews with 20 students from class nine and ten (age 14-16) and four focus group interviews with English teachers (total 10) and parents (total 15) were conducted. These were held in four randomly selected secondary schools from two divisional cities in Bangladesh, one in the north and one in the south. The students were initially chosen from a group of boys and girls based on achievement rates in school exams and performances. Then oral (speaking) and written (reading & writing) achievement tests were conducted with these students to look for the effectiveness of the CLT approach in communication. Four English classes were also observed to gain a picture of the actual use of CLT in classrooms.
Before entering schools, all ethical issues were addressed as required by the Educational Research Human Ethics Committee of the University of Canterbury.
In this part, I focus on the data derived from interviews, field notes, achievement tests statistics and observational checklists and their analysis. I am not attempting to describe an exact replica of teachers' and students' daily programmes. Rather I want to give a feel for what the English teachers deal with and how they manage to teach in big classes. I also examine how students learn English and the attitudes of parents. My focus is on the use of the CLT approach. I also examine the reality of English classrooms and the complementary roles of teachers, students and parents that impact on the success of learners.
As there were no suitable assessment tools in Bangladesh, selected New Zealand reading and writing assessment tasks were adapted for this purpose. Only reading, writing and speaking tests were performed. A listening test was intentionally omitted because the students were not familiar with these types of tests in Bangladesh classrooms and therefore had very little scope to practice listening tasks. However, speaking tests also involved a listening component. The overall mean scores from reading, writing and speaking tasks clearly indicated (Figure 1) that while students achieved well in reading and writing, they did less well in speaking. These scores could not be generalized across all Bangladesh students due to the sample size, but the finding is enough to question whether Bangladesh students are performing less well in developing oral competencies in comparison to written skills.
The findings of this study indicate that a lack of appropriate teaching strategies and insufficient resources may result in CLT being a less than effective approach in the Bangladesh context. Enhancing self-directed study, including more instructional materials, and furthering teacher training in CLT were identified by the participants as ways to improve student's achievement. It is noteworthy that the Ministry of Education in Bangladesh has already taken action to enhance on going teacher training and provide more resources for ESL classrooms (Ministry of Education, 2010). In this study large class sizes were often. cited as one of the major barriers for implementing CLT effectively and were described as a huge challenge by the participants. However, that is the economic reality in Bangladesh.
Student responses indicated the belief that learning English creates more opportunities in life. Students also talked about the challenges and strengths of English classes, and especially commented on class duration and the position of the class in the daily school timetable. In addition, English classes and teachers were generally the only resources students had in their learning and practice of English as few opportunities exist outside the class. Of concern, is that most students reported they were fearful of compulsory English classes and did not enjoy the sessions. They also stated that teachers used traditional methods to teach English: reading out loud, translations and direct grammar. Mostly teachers were not prepared for the session and no extra teaching aids were used except traditional chalk and textbooks. However, interestingly students liked the sessions, when they were taken through activity based participatory approaches.
Students also noted that in English sessions the focus was mainly on reading and writing skills, directed towards the passing of examinations. Teachers and students did not practise oral skills, perhaps because there were no examinations for them. Students mentioned that vocabulary, grammar and a lack of practice were the most frequent problems they faced.
From the way students described their lessons, it might be concluded that the CLT approach was not used in the way it should be. Although some teachers tried to implement CLT appropriately, others were ineffective because they did not follow the presentation sequences suggested in the teacher's manual. The students suggested that the duration of class time should be increased, their textbooks should be rewritten with more interesting stories, and there should be a greater emphasis on skills of listening and speaking. They argued that the examination system should include oral skills, and that more facilitation from teachers was needed. It was suggested that family members and friends also could play a more positive role in reinforcing English learning outside the classroom.
In addition, English classes were observed in order to substantiate student and teacher responses and to provide further data. English teachers were invited to demonstrate their normal practice in each of the four schools. Six teachers presented their sessions. An observation checklist was followed to investigate whether teachers were taking sessions following the CLT approach. It was observed that some teachers were trying to follow the sequences of the CLT approach and spoke English consistently, which was really encouraging. Students appeared engaged most of the time, and enjoyed active participation in the sessions. But some teachers' failure to follow the sequential stages of any activity and lack of preparation made their sessions largely ineffective.
Four focus group interviews that combined parents and teachers were also conducted to maintain a balance of responses between these two groups. It is considered that parents and family members playa major and critical role in student learning and what parents believe and articulate can make a difference in the development of their children. Overseas research also indicates that if teachers and parents form a healthy relationship, it can improve students' learning (Biddulph, Biddulph & Biddulph, 2003).
The findings affirmed the belief that learning the English language could provide better opportunities in life. All the participants in this study expressed similar views on this topic. This view is supported by Nesa (2004) who states, "English [is] the lingua franca of business, commerce, science, arts, literature of the whole world" (p. 8). The teachers and parents also placed high emphasis on learning English in order to obtain better life opportunities. Therefore learning English as a second language in Bangladesh is not only viewed as necessary for passing school examinations, but also seen as a pathway to higher study, and greater employment opportunities, either in Bangladesh or overseas.
Although English is sometimes viewed as a legacy of colonial and imperial influences from the past, whereby the language monopolised all others (Said, 2003), it is considered as the most influential international language at present time. Therefore, the overpowering influence of English has made policy makers and others introduce English as a second language in Bangladesh, similar to other developing countries.
As we know, the goal of the CLT approach is to teach English for successful communication with the rest of the world. But as the achievement test results (Figure 1) demonstrated, students are achieving better in reading and writing than in listening and speaking. This suggests that students fail to achieve successful communication in all the four language skills that are seen as necessary for effective communication (fQI-SEP, 2006). It can be concluded that the CLT approach is not working effectively to develop students' communicative competence; and there is certainly a gap between achievements in written language compared to oral language in Bangladesh. However, Savignon (2003) argues that such failure does not mean that the CLT approach is ineffective, but rather that the problem lies in its interpretation or practice or inappropriate application. She also suggests that some modifications, according to specific learning contexts, could make CLT more learner-centred. This study tries to explore the possible causes behind this failure when Bangladesh classrooms were observed.
One such cause can be identified from students' reports that teachers were generally reluctant to use textbooks and teaching aids and did not adequately prepare for the lessons. The topics covered in the textbooks that did involve activities failed to attract both students and teachers. Beside this, students also said that teachers tended to focus more on the able students in the class and ignored others. As Sirota and Bailey (2009) argue, teachers' preconceptions about learners strongly influence learning outcomes.
The findings also confirmed that classes with large numbers of students were one of the major barriers in implementing CLT effectively and caused other related problems. Teachers argued that it was very difficult to manage student interactions in a class where there were sometimes more than 80 students in a session. From class observation, it was also seen that some students did not want to participate and caused disruption in the class.
The students noted that, there was a lack of opportunity to learn and to use English in everyday life. They also added that the duration of the lesson and the place of the session in the timetable caused negative effects on learning. In a different context (USA), Machemer & Crawford (2007) reported that students' passivity and teachers' lack of meeting students' needs resulted in ineffective learning. The Bangladesh teachers agreed that class duration and positioning in the timetable slowed down the learning and added that excessive class load (more than six different sessions a day) and large number of students in a class ultimately made it impossible to provide quality learning opportunities for the students. Teachers also contended that the unsuitable physical classroom environment made this more difficult. Furthermore, teachers of English teach in other curriculum subjects, thereby diminishing their own focus on English. Limited teacher access to students due to fixed seating arrangements affected the delivery of the lesson too.
Although large classes are a problem, this is a major socio-economic reality in many developing countries such as Bangladesh. As mentioned previously, the participants of the study recommended a range of strategies that could improve the situation. They articulated that an increase in class time to 90 minutes, only four to five classes a day, and teacher assistants could be helpful. Two teachers in a session, with one teacher assuming the role of teacher assistant, could improve facilitation to make the session more interactive and effective with the same teaching staff. Some attractive textbook topics and multimedia or audio-visual resources could also support this process to make practice more engaging in large classes. It is the responsibility of the class teachers to plan and prepare more varied and communication enhancing activities within the confines and realities of their classroom context, in order to achieve better learning outcomes.
The wide ranging syllabus and examination system were identified by all the participants as a significant barrier for successful practice of CL T. They thought the syllabus was too demanding to complete in time, and as a result they concentrated on finishing all the topics and overlooking the real learning: communicative competence. They also identified a gap between the syllabus and the examination system. The objectives of the syllabus are to focus on learning four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing, but the examination system only focussed on two language skills: reading and writing. Therefore students, teachers and even parents did not perceive value in practising listening and speaking in the English classroom. However, participants did believe that without practising and learning to apply all four language skills, it IS impossible to become a successful communicator in the target language.
A syllabus that focused on various ranges of communicative skills could help to ease the above situation. Savignon (2003) suggests that such a communicative syllabus may include language arts, language for purpose, personal English language use, theatre arts and use beyond the classroom. Likewise, language should be learnt as an art to use in different contexts and in real life outside the classroom. A changed examination system reflecting the objectives of the syllabus could make a difference in this situation also, as, for example, when Japan and Botswana undertook curriculum reform and Hong Kong and Costa Rica changed examination systems (Savignon, 2003). Such reform may also help to motivate teachers, students and parents to change their attitude towards English language use outside the classroom. Other Asian countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, Taipei and countries of the European Union changed their pedagogical approach to teaching English, and as a result, developed a more communicative curriculum and more multilingual learning environments, suggests Savignon (2003).
In my study, it was found that the emphasis in the classroom was on teaching direct grammar, and vocabulary with 'Bangla' synonyms. Students identified these two aspects as key challenges in learning English. Vocabulary and grammar are the most common difficulties for language learners. Carlo et al. (2004) also assert that vocabulary is one key determinant of poor reading comprehension by ESL learners. There is a misconception among teachers that CLT means not teaching grammar (Thompson, 1996). But in reality, CLT may teach grammar in context more effectively than direct grammar teaching methods. Although there has been a debate over the last fifty years concerning direct grammar and grammarless learning and its effect on the learners of second language, only basic rather than in-depth grammatical knowledge is needed for most students. Internationally, the teaching-learning focus has moved away from teacher "covering" grammar to students "discovering" grammar (Thompson, 1996, p. 11). However, it was found that in the Bangladesh English language sessions, in-depth grammar was taught to all students, which may be the primary cause of apprehension about English language learning. A further contributing factor was that vocabulary was taught through Bangla translation and synonyms, and not through contextualising the targeted word.
While teachers are trying to implement CLT appropriately in the English sessions in Bangladesh, it is a concern that they do not follow the systematic, but flexible, CLT guidelines. A dominance of teachers reading material aloud was also observed. While this encourages listening skills, it does not challenge students to develop their own reading skills (TQI-SEP, 2006). In the observation results, it was also apparent that one teacher was creatively following the stages of CLT in a session and that students enjoyed that session.
Teachers contend that a lack of continuous in-service professional development training for them is a large cause of the inappropriate and contradictory use of CLT in Bangladesh. In my view, more training is needed for class teachers with intensive monitoring by the teacher educators. A regular meeting among subject teacher educators discussing new initiatives could also be very helpful in addressing this problem.
In addition, a positive relationship between home and school could prove to be an effective support for students' learning outcomes. Both parents and teachers play a critical role in the literacy development of their learners. It is a complementary process. As a practitioner, I believe student success depends on both the home and school environment, but the failure of one affects the other considerably. Likewise, parents reported that when they showed their apprehension about using English with children, it automatically and negatively influenced students' achievements. So the home and school relationship has a significant influence on students' literacy progression.
Internationally, achievement test results indicate a large difference between the achievements of students with low and high socio-economic status (SES). In low SES schools parents are often uneducated and the home environment is less responsive to students' learning needs. The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS, 2011) results of 45 participating countries indicated that one of the largest differences between low and high SES students is related to the educational resources available in the home (Mullis, Martin, Foy & Drucker, 2012). Students mentioned that there was little scope to practice English outside the classroom but occasionally, family members and friends helped them to improve by talking English to them. Similarly both teachers and parents agreed that the family has an important role to play to create English learning environments outside the classroom and emphasise the need to use English everywhere.
The interviews indicated that attitudes towards passing the examinations were one of the key barriers to positive home and school relationships and also to the successful implementation of CLT in Bangladesh. The emphasis on examination results caused disruption to regular class activities and results in low achievement for some students. As Zhang (1997) reports, the pressure-laden public examinations and attitudes towards passing, disrupts CLT practice and English language learning in China, even though parents and teachers agree that effective learning is necessary for students to achieve better examination results.
In addition, the interviews suggested that many parents and teachers in Bangladesh held a negative attitude towards watching English media programmes which can improve students' knowledge and use of English. Therefore, a positive attitudinal change that guides students' learning is needed to improve the learning environment in the school. Parents also explained that a closer relationship with the school could be very helpful in creating more learning-friendly environments for students at home. As the New Zealand Ministry of Education (MOE, 2005) school strategy document reported, parents in New Zealand wanted greater involvement in their children's education and positive support from the school. My own experience as teacher educator also suggests that a close relationship between teacher and parents can boost students' achievements because both teacher and parents share the ultimate goal of the student's success in future life.
To increase parents' involvement with the school, I propose that teachers invite parents into the English class as teacher assistants. This could help teachers to manage large classes while simultaneously improving parents' knowledge about English sessions. Both teachers and parents agreed that a roster of positively motivated parents could effectively assist in building an English friendly learning space for students.
This investigation uncovered the challenges students face and the supports they have or would like to have, to make ESL learning effective in school life and beyond. The findings indicate that students are quite capable of expressing their thoughts on this topic, and that both teachers and parents provide valuable insights into ways to make CLT more effective. Participants highlight the complexity of factors that influence the effectiveness of the CLT approach in Bangladesh. These include: the importance of learning English for better life outcomes, challenges regarding the implementation of CLT in Bangladesh classrooms, and the importance for positive home-school relationships.
From the preceding discussion, it can be seen that improvement of the effectiveness of CLT in Bangladesh involves a twofold approach. One is at the local level involving students, teachers and parents, and the other is at the national level involving policy makers.
Desirable changes at a local level include :
creating more opportunities to practise English, such as an English language corner or club in each school,
motivating students to practise English in and outside the classroom,
following the CLT approach systematically,
using critical pedagogy alongside CLT,
timetabling the English class before the lunch break,
ensuring English subject teachers use English consistently,
assigning English subject teachers to English teaching only, supplying more quality English learning resources,
heightening parents' awareness of CLT practice,
involving parent as assistants in classrooms,
improving home and school relationships.
Better communication and cooperation from school management and a changed mindset for interaction between teachers and parents could help to create a more attractive English learning setting for students without significant financial expenditure.
Desirable changes for policy makers and administrators include :
·    reducing the size of the English curriculum to allow a greater focus on effective practice of all four language skills,
·    changing the examination system to better reflect the content of the CLT approach,
·    selecting and re-writing English textbook topics to meet the needs and interests of students and the curriculum including attention to critical literacy,
·    focusing pedagogy not only on communicative competence but also on the
development of critical thinking,
·    increasing the duration of session time to 90 minutes per session,
·    having only four to five sessions a day in the timetable,
·    having two teachers in a session, one performing as a teacher assistant,
·    using media programmes with English subtitles,
·    allowing sufficient time for students to adjust to changes in the programme,
·    monitoring by specialist teacher educators (in this case English) of school subject teachers to better ensure the successful implementation of CLT,
·    holding periodical meetings among subject teacher educators to discuss new
research on the CLT approach.
Moreover, the policy makers and administrators need to incorporate a clearer and more visionary philosophy for schools. Students' needs and achievements should be viewed holistically rather than merely as statistics or in terms of financial issues.
All participants in the study believed and agreed that learning the English language would bring better opportunities in life. Therefore, it is important to have English as a compulsory subject. However, while the apparently main objective is passing the examination, there is question about how effective the learning really is, and how well it serves the broader life goals.
In the course of the study, it became apparent that textbook topics and pedagogy were focused only on communicative competence, not the development of critical thinking. The development of strong language competencies is not only needed to succeed within Bangladesh but even more internationally. It is integral to our national strategy for wage earning within a global market.
However, if, as a nation, we want to keep our own identity, our own ethicality and our independent balance within the forces of global economies, we need also to develop criticality - at a wide range of levels. Clearly that criticality goes well beyond that of literacy. Nevertheless, as we teach literacy, we have the opportunity to introduce critical literacy so that students do not just passively absorb text but learn to explore its meanings and implications (Rasheed, 2012). aturally we need to do this primarily in our own language, Bangla, but as we introduce languages of power, we also need to introduce criticality in that learning. '
This has implications at three levels. Firstly, at policy level, it asks curriculum shapers to be critically aware of the ways that a global language not only facilitates communication but also influences values and the way we think about the world. That critical awareness might translate into choice of topics, textbook materials and learning goals.
Secondly, at the teachers level (and teacher education level), it calls for the development of teaching competencies that include using strategies that promote student questioning, reflection, and creativity.
Thirdly, at the student level, it calls for the opportunity to play with text, to ask questions and experiment with language use, and gradually to develop an awareness that there is more to text than its surface meanings.
Critical thinking usually leads to the ability to think differently. It focuses developing skills of questioning. The existing context may not be the only lens through which the world is viewed. As Freire (1997) says, critical literacy is an alteration in the ways of thinking to recognize what is real and what is an illusion. Similarly Gramsci (1971, P 323) asked the question in his Notebooks: " .. .is it better to 'think', without having a critical awareness ... " Criticality challenges the existing values and issues and provides different views. Through this, people will be able to function actively in society and look for their own space within the complexities of the world.
The study shows that there are many barriers to applying CL T in a Bangladesh context, and the participants offered a number of suggestions for improvement. As a teacher educator and researcher, I believe that the objectives of the English sessions should include familiarising students with different ways of learning and encourage intellectual development, including that of critical thinking. This would encourage students to be questioning, and to be rational. It would also support them to examine their own roles and challenges in a fast changing world. I also consider that a trustworthy relationship between students, teachers and parents that welcomes a relational pedagogy is needed to generate a more effective learning environment for all.
To conclude, I want to reinforce that in this time of change, attitudes towards English language need to be adjusted to keep pace with the world. A positive rapport between students, teachers and parents is needed, and the CLT approach in classrooms needs to incorporate more critical literacy. Such development could produce citizens who would be able to operate in global contexts while upholding their own identity.

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