San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

English in Public Schools: The Shadow Has Fallen

(Part one in a three part series on the teaching of English in the country’s public schools.)PRIOR to 1994, English was taught solely in secondary schools in Costa Rica. Two months after his inauguration, former President José María Figueres (1994-98) fulfilled a campaign promise designed to make the country truly bilingual, and mandated the teaching of English in Costa Rican elementary schools.To date, all but the smallest public schools include English in their basic curriculum. Since that time, study programs for English at all levels have been developed by teams of experts in the field and issued by the Ministry of Public Education (MEP). Just this year, new course syllabi were introduced at all levels.The program, then, hasn’t been in effect so very long. How is it doing? Let’s take a look.The new curriculum constitutes a model of modern methods for language teaching. It advocates de-emphasis of the “formal component” (grammar, drills, etc.) in favor of the “functional component” (communicative competence: listening, speaking and, to some extent, writing). In fact, it explicitly states that “speaking is the ultimate goal in learning a language.Our program focuses on oral communication.” It encourages the use of games, role playing, physical activity (a method called “total physical response”), singing, dancing and “community language learning,” whereby the students participate in a group activity while the teacher circulates in the role of counselor and helper. ALL of this is very much in tune with the current philosophy of teaching languages.Sometime back in the 1960s or even earlier, cutting-edge teachers began to realize the ineffectiveness of teaching foreign languages through grammatical forms; that is, conjugating verbs, filling the correct structure in the blank, etc. After all, it was not the way children learned their native language, so why should anyone, child or adult, learn it in a different manner?Thus was born the so-called “aural-oral” method. To put it simply, students needed first to hear language, then speak it. Reading and writing and learning how it works should all come much later.Since that time, a great variety of methods related to this have been born. Many of the most effective of these were discovered by English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers who found themselves in classrooms full of students who spoke a variety of languages and thus had no choice but to speak English only, use a lot of body language and generally make wonderful fools of themselves to communicate. To everyone’s surprise, it worked better than anything ever had before. I once had the privilege of working with six other teachers in a two-week Spanish course that met six hours a day. We played games, gave plays, told fairy tales, did the hokey-pokey, took walks, worked with clay and put on a variety show. We laughed a lot. We cried some. Periodically, the students would ask for some grammatical explanations. We’d satisfy their curiosity, then go on with the games. When things got tense, two of the teachers would grab their guitars, and we’d all sway together and sing “De Colores.” At the end of the two weeks, nobody wanted to leave. The students all said they wished it could go on forever and that they had never learned so much or had so much fun. Not everyone, of course, has the fortune to participate in such an ideal program. Reading the MEP program, however, one gets the impression that the ministry certainly has its heart in the right place and that all over Costa Rica, public school English teachers must be busy speaking English to their students and getting them to speak English back. After all, this is what MEP is asking them to do. Or is it?The great poet T.S. Eliot once wrote: “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow” (Hollow Men, V). I regret to inform you that the shadow has apparently fallen on the English curriculum in Costa Rica. All over the country, students are sitting in square brown desks, filling in blanks in workbooks and copying from the board. They aren’t listening to English. They aren’t speaking English. Eventually, some of them learn to answer multiple-choice questions and fill in short answers based on reading passages.However, can we really say they are reading English when they are barely getting the gist and have no idea how to pronounce what they are reading?TAKE the case of a young friend of mine. I’ll call him Francisco. He went through a Costa Rican colegio (high school) as the star of the English class and passed all the ministry exams with flying colors. With great enthusiasm and an eye on a career, he entered an advanced English class after graduation and found, to his dismay, that he could neither understand a word the teacher was saying nor answer him in English. Francisco dropped out and is now working in a factory. I am trying to talk him into beginning all over again with real English classes, but he finds the idea rather depressing.I am also helping a couple of high school students with their English homework, and I am finding that they have never said a word in English and cannot understand a word of spoken English. I have, moreover, heard stories like this from all over the country.As the black folks in the Caribbean province of Limón, who do speak English, might say: “Wha’ happen?” How is it that MEP set its main objective as “oral and written communication” and, with a few exceptions here and there, the exact opposite is taking place?As it turns out, there is more than one reason. The principal reason, I believe, is a situation MEP itself has created, a situation known to be the bugaboo of excellent teachers everywhere. Stay tuned, and you’ll learn more.

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