Teaching English In India


Teaching English in India is a lot different from teaching in the US. Although English is a part of the curriculum in most schools, almost 70% of the students still struggle to speak and write in English fluently. In most parts of the country, especially in rural areas, people only speak in the local language, with little or no knowledge of English.  

I have had the privilege of traveling to India and teaching students there. My guide told me about the city vs. rural culture. He said that I’ll find many international schools in big cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Pune, etc., and these students generally have a good command over the language. However, that is not the case with students in smaller cities and towns. As a teacher who loves to teach English to non-native speakers of the language, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

My holiday turned into a new learning experience that I could incorporate in teaching my Indian students back at home. I was in Mumbai and I did my groundwork by visiting a school and an NPO to understand student behavior. I spent 30 minutes to an hour everyday at a school for a month to interact with the students.

Here’s what I learnt from my short stay in India.

The Language Barrier

There are vast differences in family background, financial status, and even languages spoken when it comes to dealing with Indian students. I was surprised to know that there are over 50 languages officially spoken throughout the 29 states in India. The language barrier exists within each state, city and even within a particular community.

As a teacher, it’s a challenging task to overcome this linguistic barrier with another language. But that’s what makes you a good teacher, right? In many places, English is still considered the language of the elite that separates students in bigger cities from those in other remote locations.

It’s also interesting to know that the English accent and pronunciation varies with the local language that the students speak at home. So there’s not just one Indian accent that we see on television, but many variations of it.

Cultural Diversity

As I said, India has a diverse culture that varies in each of its 29 states. The developed cities are highly influenced by western culture and the students there are well versed with English. However, in the smaller interior cities and rural areas, students don’t have the necessary exposure to the language. The problem arises when these students travel to the big cities and are unable to cope with their peers due to the cultural mismatch.

The lack of fluency and a weak grasp of the language (or none at all) creates an inferiority complex among these students. They sometimes are discriminated by other students and are too shy to even ask for help. As teachers, we must track them in the class early on and make them feel comfortable and work harder on improving their English skills.

Study Style

The academic system in India is divided into four major curriculums.

  1. Central Board Of Secondary Education (CBSE)
  2. State Board
  3. Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE)
  4. International Board (IB)

I noticed that the students from CBSE, ICSE and, especially the IB schools are easier to teach and understand English a lot better when compared to students from the State Board (just my personal observation).

One common trait among Indian students that binds them beyond the cultural diversities, language barriers, and the Board of Education is their study style.

Students are driven by the concept of rote learning or as they call it ‘mugging up’. They memorize answers, concepts, passages, formulae, and even research papers word to word. Once the exams get over, they barely remember what they had studied. Apparently, that’s what helps them score maximum marks most of the time.   

There’s nothing wrong with the students out there, but there are problems with the system that demands students to replicate the answers from their textbooks to score more marks.

How can teachers be effective?

As a teacher, if you really want your students to perform well you must understand them first and vary your teaching style accordingly.

Ask them questions like: Which part of India do they come from?, What’s their cultural background?, and Which syllabus did they follow? It’s your added responsibility to help them open up as they tend to be reserved and shy by nature.

Once you have understood the challenges that you will be facing, put together your plan of action. Come up with interesting and hands-on teaching and learning techniques, so they gradually reduce their dependence on rote learning. For instance, back in India, I introduced the Leitner’s method of studying with Flashcards using Cram. It was difficult initially but within two weeks, the students started to enjoy this style. I also got them hooked on to using Google and learning by watching online tutorials to better understand the concepts rather than by simply reading. This was no easy task, since many students did not have access to the necessary technology and internet in their homes.

Next, you must work on their diction and pronunciation, which may vary with their cultural background. Teach them to break the syllables and pronounce words in the correct way. Teach them about online tools like Grammarly that make it easier to remember the grammar rules.  

Indian Students vs American Students

American students are more free-spirited and independent. They get into colleges but don’t hesitate to move around and explore what they really want to do. That’s not always a good thing. I don’t mean to exaggerate but the US Department of Education reported that 41% of Freshmen dropout of colleges, making us ‘The Dropout Factory’. (Not proud of it!)

Indian students take studies more seriously, and can be rather rigid about their techniques of learning. But they are passionate about what they learn and focus on doing well in examinations. You as a teacher can use this passion to introduce new, interesting and interactive learning styles that’ll help them become better students.

About the Author

Ethan Miller is a private ESL teacher who also works as an online tutor. Apart from his passion for teaching, he loves to write and holds a degree in creative writing. When he is not teaching or writing his book, Miller loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. You can follow Miller on Facebookand Twitter and check out his blog.