Building confidence in English Language learners

Ever wondered why students who score well in written exams find it difficult to articulate the simplest of ideas? In this article, the author looks at how English, as a language, is taught in schools.

In my thirty years of teaching I’ve come across students who have completed their MBA, but still have difficulty speaking in English. When I opened their MBA text books, I was overwhelmed at the high-flown language in which it was compiled and it surprised me that they could pass the examination without any difficulty when they were diffident in speaking the language fluently.

Like many other teachers, when I started teaching Spoken English I was unaware of the differences in teaching written and oral skills. The following article has been written after a thorough study of the way English, as a language, is taught in school and looks at why many students score well in written exams but are still uncomfortable when it comes to speaking it.

Essentially, there are two Languages children need to learn other than their mother tongue.  Learning the mother tongue happens in the following order:

  • Listening – Surely everyone knows that this comes first.
  • Speaking – Listening is followed by speaking.
  • Reading – Reading comes much, much, later after the child masters the ‘look and say’ letters and words, and begins to read.
  • Writing (This comes last) – It starts only after the child is able to hold a pencil and manage a book.

It is unfortunate that in our country we seem to place a lot of importance on writing even before the child is thorough with her listening, speaking, and reading skills. A child learns languages phonetically and not grammatically. How they become fluent in their mother tongue is because no one places emphasis on grammar. There is no need for it either. There is no point in bombarding the children with grammar before they start speaking and reading.

The regional language or mother tongue is different from our National Language which is Hindi. Children who speak English and other languages at home are more confident while speaking them too. What happens in school is a different story altogether. Teachers are anxious to see that each and every child can read and write the various alphabets correctly. In many schools, English is taught in the following manner, which, I believe, is not the right way to go about it.

  •  Writing – children start writing ABCD without knowing their link to the vowels.
  • Reading – How does a child read matter if she has learnt only the alphabets first without the phonetics of the consonants and vowels?
  • Listening – Of course, all children have to compulsorily listen to the teachers whether they understand her or not.
  • Speaking – It is rather sad that this comes last.

There are some pre-schools that do take the effort to teach English in the phonetic way:

A -- अ ಅ அ,

B -- ब ಬ ப,

C -- क ಕ க,

D -- ड ಡ ட, etc.

(I have shown Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil alphabets being used to teach English. All Indian languages can be thus equated to teach the English alphabet.)

 This is actually the best way of teaching English, especially in our country where languages have more than just 5 vowels.  To learn consonants, each one is clubbed with a vowel to give it a phonetic sound making it simpler to learn how to spell a word.

To use the English language one has to learn the vowels and the consonants and put them together to spell a word. The language is also peculiar in that it has a whole lot of complicated spelling structures that cannot be learnt and can only be imbibed by exposure and practice. In this melee of learning the alphabets, vowels, consonants, and the grammar of the language, the speaking aspect goes out the window. Unless everyone around you speaks English from childhood, it becomes difficult to get a hang of how to speak the language.

This, I believe, is the reason why many people who have learnt English in school have little confidence when it comes to speaking the language.

English is in demand everywhere because people have realized that knowledge of English can lead to a better career and higher income, and provide greater opportunities to communicate with the entire world. English is also learned for the literature it possesses, and for the variety and rich experience it provides.

The English taught, spoken, and written in our country is often far from plain, simple, and straightforward. It is derived, more often than not, from the English style spoken and written a century ago. We certainly need to emphasize grammatical correctness in learning English, but it is equally important to cultivate in our learners a sensitivity and skill to use natural, simple, and straightforward English. Indian newspapers in English and the radio and TV news broadcasts should take the initiative in simplifying the usage.


When reading, writing, translation, and the conscious learning of grammatical rules becomes the primary goal in teaching English then alas! The love for the language gets lost. We must keep in mind that we teach English for usage as well and not just to develop literary mastery of the language. Many English teachers have finally started shifting the focus off rule-based grammar. Students are being taught ‘functional’ grammar that can be practiced easily. A noun need not be ‘the name of a person, place or thing.’  It can be just a naming word.  A verb can just be an ‘action word’ and an adjective a ‘describing word’.

 Since children learn naturally to speak before they read, oral speaking should precede literacy. As already mentioned, learning English should happen in the following order:

1. Listening

2.  Speaking

3. Reading

4. Writing

Writing must come last of all. Like the child in his home, the student has to be immersed in language and be encouraged to formulate his own generalizations.  Instead of forcing children to repeat “My name is..., My father’s name is…..etc.,” as it used to be when we were children, teachers can encourage conversation  and exchanges of questions and answers. A great deal of pantomime should accompany the talk. With the aid of gesticulation, attentive listening, and oral expression, the learner comes to associate certain acts and objects with certain combinations of sound, and finally reaches the point of comfortably reproducing English words and phrases. 

The phonetic method emphasizes oral expression as the basis of instruction, stressing on pronunciation, avoiding focus on grammatical rules, and seeking to impart a practical mastery of the various language forms. Teachers should read a passage aloud explaining unfamiliar words to the students. After discussing questions on the passage, students may paraphrase the story aloud. Written answers to questions and graded reading should come later.

It is necessary for English teachers to create a natural learning environment within the classroom. Instead of explicit grammar instruction, the major emphasis should be on communication. Classes should be carried out completely in the language that is being learnt with absolutely no reliance on the first language or on any form of translation. The expectation is that through question and answer sessions, the language will gradually be acquired. However, teachers can use contrastive analysis of the native language of the learner with the target language and have a good knowledge of the phonetics of the language they teach. Teaching of receptive skills, like listening and reading rather than skills like speaking and writing, should be encouraged as the first step.  The main goal is to develop a native-like speaking ability in the learners. Translation and reference to the first language should not be encouraged.

It is not enough if children produce grammatically correct sentences orally and on paper. A communicatively competent person must also know how to produce an appropriate, natural, and socially acceptable utterance in all contexts of communication.

“Hey, dude, hand me your lunch!” – may be grammatically correct but is socially not so.

“May I share your lunch?” – is more correct in the social context.

Some kind of sensitivity in the use of language should be maintained in relationships. The teacher can first concentrate on teaching students simple commands in the language that is being learned. Students later, become more actively involved, verbally and creatively.

It is believed that children have the inherent capacity to learn a second language without jeopardizing their native language expertise. Encouraging the instruction of all subjects in the second language, including physical education and extracurricular activities, will help students develop a sense of confidence when using the language.


sancochin's picture

Excellent article. Your observation is simply true. We try to learn the English language (or any other language except our mother tongue) in an inverted manner and there exists the hurdle! Most horrible part of any language learning is the grammar part and the student will surely drift away from the learning cycle.

Could you please share some materials on phonetics based English language teaching?

-Santhosh Kumar Gopalan, Cochin University

gayatri.kiran's picture

very accurate account of what is happening at the ground level in our school system. We are NOT preparing children to benefit from the language, and are focussing on the less important facet of the language. Unfortunately English is big "selling Point" right from the preschool years- whether it is Rural India or Urban. Increasingly, langauge is being taught as a "subject" rather than as a language- a dynamic system of communication, which is also an important life skill. thanks for sharing.

Dr.Santosh Mudgil's picture

An informative and educative article indeed for all.English has proved to be a ghost rather for all school and college students.The reason thereby is teaching methodology adopted by the teachers.In rural areas,especially in Hindi belt of the country, English is taught through Hindi.The learners develop the habit of translation of the content in their mother tongue.They require the translation of very easy lines or paragraphs even.It creates a big problem for the learners and obviously for the teachers too. The learners are simply interested in cramming,not learning.Thanks a lot for sharing such a good article with us.

rawatseema's picture

there are two elements of a language-intutive and logical. while learning the mother tongue,its natural that the intutive element(understanding and speaking) comes first and with formal training the logical element(reading and writing) is learnt. but the case with second language is not the same,the child is make to learn the logical element of a language first and most of the time only this element.thats why the fluency in speaking a second language is never attained as its in mother tongue.

Aman's picture

I truly agree with you. Emphasis should be on making the child speak English fluently and not on whether the child is speaking grammatically correct English or not. English is a complicated language and by giving emphasis on the grammar we way confuse the child and thus hinder his/her speaking abilities. In our schools more emphasis is laid on writing grammatically correct English than speaking. This is the reason that people generally are able to write properly however they are not confident when asked to speak in public. One thing which I learnt at inlingua when I was a studying there is that they generally emphasise on speaking. They made us speak more and more so that we develop a habit of speaking and become more confident. Then gradually then started to point out my mistakes which I made while speaking and over the time my spoken English improved a lot making me more confident in dealing with people and speaking in public. 

Thahir's picture

a good article , but our education system ends up giving too much emphasis on written skills which often retards language learning

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