Communicative language teaching in Bangladesh

03 January 2016


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.
Introduction
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.
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.
 (To be continued)

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