In 2016-2018, a series of English language training workshops organised by VAB and conducted by an eminent linguist, Amin Rahman, with support from the Rotary Club of Wheelers Hill, Melbourne, Australia, showed good results and the teachers and students seemed to come out of their shell. Yet it fell short of generating the expected surge in their interest in learning English.

The experience and a subsequent field survey generated some ideas on what additional steps were needed. These ideas combined with other innovations, prompted VAB to develop a new in-house programme that would promote and sustain efforts among the learners themselves.

Uniqueness of the VAB programme

The unique feature of the programme is in its implementation. The training is imparted directly to the students. The training is given interactively as a pathway for self-training by students. A leadership group in English is made with 50 students, with 10 students from each of the classes VI to X. After the training, these students are given a six-month period to hone their skills through work in groups and individually. VAB trainers monitor their progress, and the teachers provide support, guidance and encouragement. These students take ownership of the programme and become the trainers for their classmates. The programme was launched in 2019.

The beauty of the programme is the speed with which the skill get transmitted to the whole body of students. With enthusiasm and momentum generated, some of the schools were close to reaching the initial target of the programme within a year of launching the programme in early 2019.

The pandemic put a brake on the further spread of the skill. However, efforts continued to have leadership groups continue their skill development using the pathway in the training nodule.

Training programme

VAB developed a resource book on mastering the language skills through self-driven practice – 'Road to Learning: A Guide to Learn and Converse in English through Individual and Group Practice'. A booklet on Limericks, composed by an English enthusiast, Mushfiqur Rahman, was also made ready. The shortness, the interesting rhyming scheme, and the humor make a limerick a useful tool for learning English pronunciation. A DVD was also compiled, containing various resources in pronunciation, spelling, listening, reading and writing. VAB trained its own staff on the use of the guide and other resources. All members of the leadership group were provided with the books while the DVD was given to the school for use by students.

A demonstration of the training methodology was given in every class in the school by VAB trainers. The leadership group of 50 students in every school was then trained in a day-long session with presence of the teachers of English. The training was done in a participatory mode that enabled the members of the leadership group to take over the responsibility for skill development on themselves.

At the end of six months, each member of the leadership group demonstrated their skills to VAB trainers and then each of them was assigned a group of five to seven students of the class on how to enhance skills through self-training - solo, in pairs or in groups. Thus, English language skills spread to the whole school. The programme was launched in 50 schools in the districts of Satkhira, Jashore, Kurigram and Nilphamari.

Two messages are made clear in the training:

❖ Students need to learn English for their own interests

❖ Students can learn only through concerted practice

The training covered all the elements of learning a language:

· Vocabulary, Pronunciation and Spelling

· Listening

· Speaking

· Reading

· Writing

All these elements are emphasised in the curriculum; the textbooks are designed to cover all these elements. VAB methodology complements NCTB guidelines and provides additional motivation for the teachers to help the students learn the language along with coverage of the curriculum.

Strategies for success

The programme proved successful. On the whole, the following strategies in the design and implementation are the reasons for success in the programme.

● The primary responsibility rests with the learners –the students. The responsibility of trainers/teachers is to be promoters, catalyzers and providers of quality assurance

● Consciousness and understanding of self-interest are stoked by the Guide itself and by the VAB trainers

● Responsibility to learn is made easier when students understand that learning is in their self-interest. Learners become “owners” of the learning process

● The students of the Leadership Group will have a strong motivation to learn well before they can take the responsibility to train other students. The student trainers become “owners” of the training process

● The guide consistently relates to curricular materials, synthesizing techniques in curricula with techniques developed in the guide, at the same time conforming to the curricular materials which are mandated by the government

● Linkage to curricular material assures students that conventional exam success can also result from better learning of the language

● Teachers and schools are engaged in the goals and methods. Teachers take a supervisory role monitoring that the students are learning correctly without diminishing the students’ leadership in the learning process

Regular follow-up on performance evaluation is held, and excellence in performance is encouraged with performance-based rewards. To keep the momentum going and to ensure that the command over the language is enhanced and sustained over time, the following programmes are undertaken in the following two years.

With students as trainers, this is a very cost effective and time-effective method of propagating English language skills. This has the potential of overcoming the perennial deficiency in English skills in the country

English conversational skill for 100% of students

The immediate goal of the English language programme is to attain conversational skills for 100% students. Random tests for students for all classes is undertaken by VAB. The components of testing include ability to converse for five to ten minutes between two students or with an external examiner. The test at cluster level is conducted in presence of external examiners and government officials. With progress in conversational skills, other elements in English learning like Spelling Bee and Limerick recitation are introduced before moving to more advanced levels.

English conversation with university students

In order create excellence in communication in English, and to generate additional enthusiasm among students, VAB has undertaken a programme of conversation between rural high school students and urban university students. The students are enthused talking with a university student. It provides an inspiration to them to meet their own dreams to be in a university.

Under this programme, a university volunteer talks to a school student twice a week, about half an hour each time, over eight-week period with a total conversation time of 480 minutes. The volunteers are given a general guideline on the topics of conversation, with freedom for adjustment to meet conversational needs of the student and mutual interests. The volunteers provide a feedback on the impact of the program and the student’s current standing in conversation. The volunteers are generally from English departments of the universities and so have the capability to guide and mentor the students.

Student volunteers from universities find the experience well worth their time. They gain an experience in knowing about rural students and enjoy the satisfaction of having been a part of a much needed skill of the rural students. There is a growing number of these volunteers who are committing to be connected with VAB. They are being enlisted as 'Life-Long Volunteers' for VAB.

English language skill proficiency

English proficiency skill is driven by the leadership group with regular training among themselves and other interested students. Each member of the leadership group will develop proficiency in all the four skills of language: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. The group members follow an agreed schedule of training. The group holds internal competitions at different times to hone their skills. A proficient group of at least ten students is expected to spur interest and enthusiasm of many more students in each class.

English proficiency test is conducted by every school; VAB conducts interschool competition at cluster level and inter-cluster competition at regional level with the best performing students at school level and cluster level, respectively. Winners at all levels of participation are given certificates of achievement and rewards. The best supporting teachers are also rewarded.

In conclusion

The programme achieved significant success within a short period of launching. VAB has been able to keep working on the progress of the leadership groups in different schools. COVID19 impeded progress at ground level, but is expected to take off as soon as the schools reopen. There will be no delay in implementation, the close connection of English as a subject and English as a language is now well accepted by the students and the teachers.

With support from philanthropists and the government, the programme can be extended to additional schools. With students as trainers, this is a very cost effective and time-effective method of propagating English language skills. This has the potential of overcoming the perennial deficiency in English skills in the country.

* Professor Dr. Jasimuz Zaman is a former professor at BUET and was the Country Director of VAB