Teacher training seminars (February 2007)

Barbara Porter has returned from India where she has been running two one-week seminars for English teachers on behalf of HELP. As can be seen below, the participants (school teachers from local private and state schools) were overwhelmingly positive about the seminars. However, there are some issues that need sorting out before we do this again, including finding an optimum time of the year to run the seminars (when the schools can spare the teachers), and making sure that the seminars are advertised effectively. We were hoping to have 20 perticipants at both the Kalimpong and the Gangtok seminars, but in fact only 15 attended regularly in Gangtok, and 17 in Kalimpong. Attendance certificates were issued to all of these.

I think we can be pleased with what is our first venture into teacher training, and I should like to thank those organisations who specifically gave us grants to enable this to happen: the Community of the Presentation and Himalayan Kingdoms, both of which gave us £500. Thanks also to all those volunteers whose fees have gone into our general ‘donations’ fund, and to individual donors who have also given us money to use as we think fit.

Here are extracts from Barbara’s report:


Summary of first section of Questionnaires



very good

good/not good/bad

Course content




Teaching methods





Course content




Teaching methods





Course content




Teaching methods




I was very pleased with the response to the course which I think it is fair to say was overwhelmingly positive. In particular I would like to single out the following comments:

  1. Kalimpong. Geeta Chhetri: “Before this training, I thought that English will be improved by giving stress to the student, by scolding them, by beating them, but this seminar has changed the way of teaching. This course teach me that we improve English learning of student by an encouraging way.”
  2. Sabita (the teacher trainer in Gangtok) in the course of a conversation with Ms Targain (Principal of the Palyor Namgyal Girl’s High School) said that she knew a lot about pair and group work in theory and knew that it was supposed to be important but that she had always felt that she would be too nervous to contemplate approaching it on her courses with teachers. She said that she now felt completely differently. She felt that now she understood how to incorporate such work and that I had provided her with dozens of good ideas for this.
  3. Ms Targain held a de-briefing meeting with the PNG teachers who had attended my course. Again she reported a very positive response. She had asked them to identify specifically what would be the first things they would use. They replied:

· Using the picture bank

· Error correction

· Eliciting and pre-reading activities.

There were some negative comments. The 3 main negative points that arose were:

  1. Not enough grammar
  2. Didn’t like the error correction…
  3. Not enough time.

I would like to make the following comments about these points:

  1. Not enough grammar.

This is a common complaint in both General English and Teacher Development courses here in Edinburgh as well. Most foreign students’ language learning has been grammar based and they associate this with ‘proper learning’. However one of the aims of our courses, and this was true of the language learning element of mine, is to redress this balance. It was also something that I was very much talking about in my methodology workshops. It was interesting that when we did a survey of how much time they spent on the 4 skills, a typical result was:

Writing 25%; Reading 30%; Listening 45%; Speaking 5%.

Previous to this we had had a discussion about the different skills, and had agreed that the most important skills were listening and speaking for communication purposes, and that of these speaking the most difficult and therefore needed the most practice. I therefore had a bias towards activities that increased student speaking time, including strategies such as pair work and group work.

The teachers attending mostly had a good level of English. During the course, there were many occasions when I briefly revisited a grammar point. They were all very familiar with the rules. However the problems creep in when you are actually using the language in a freer situation. This therefore was what I was focussing on and to this end I included a lot of correction of grammar in context, though often quite subtly.

I would not include ‘grammar lessons’ as such in a future course. However I do think in response to these comments, and my observations, that I would extend the ‘Practising and Presenting Structures’ section and include more grammar based games and activities that the teachers could use in their own classes by way of extension activities.

2. Error Correction

This was identified by a number of teachers, especially in Gangtok, as a problem area in their own teaching. This was especially true when correcting written work when the main 2 problems are:

· It is very time consuming.

· Often seems ineffective.

I had planned to devote a session to error correction for both spoken and written work. With regard to correcting speaking, I feel that this was very successful. In the course of the week I was able to demonstrate a number of strategies that enabled them to correct students’ speaking in a more encouraging, supportive and less intrusive way. Such methods are less teacher-dominated and operate in a way that encourages students to think about the error and its correction. The student is therefore more likely to remember the correct form.

Correcting errors in students writing.

I had also included a number of writing activities that had introduced a variety of methods of correction, as alternatives to the usual method of the teacher having to correct every single mistake. These strategies included such things as narrowing the focus to the particular grammar point or vocabulary being taught in a lesson when correcting. However this is where the sticking point came. A few teachers responded positively to this (e g the Tibetan teachers) but most were very uneasy and resistant. I did not spot this in Kalimpong until afterwards, when I had a long discussion about it with Shrawan. In Gangtok I reduced this section and asked for comments in a discussion following the class. The majority felt that pressure from parents and school authorities would make it impossible to correct in such a way. They felt that they would not be able to defend their position with educational arguments. However in the course of the post-course debrief that Ms Targain held with the PNG teachers, one of them identified the new ideas about error correction as one of the first things she would incorporate into her teaching. Ms Targain is of course a highly supportive head teacher with regard to new ideas etc.

Therefore I think I would reduce the amount of time discussing correction of written work but not exclude it. I would also include discussion of the issues as part of the course.

3. Not enough time.

Timings were an issue. In Kalimpong, on day one, before we had even started they expressed horror at the length of the day. ….They said that due to outside commitments, tiredness etc they could not stay until 5pm. In my original plan I had thought to finish earlier but as I was preparing I felt I needed the extra time, hence the 5pm finish. They asked me to finish at 3.30pm but still include everything I had prepared. I pointed out this was impossible! We compromised by shortening breaks to 15 minutes and lunch to 30 – 40 minutes, in order to claw back some of the time. However it did feel rushed and I had to exclude some of the extra practice activities. Such short breaks meant that I was short on ‘gathering my breath and thoughts’ time, and time to do the small fiddly bits of preparation that lunchtimes are so useful for.

The same thing happened in Gangtok but this time Ms Targain …. told everybody that I would start at 9am and finish at 4.30pm and that any one that had difficulties would just have to make the necessary arrangements. She added that if we saw anyone leaving early their principal would be informed! I had felt a bit diffident about being so firm myself but would not now hesitate to be firm about it in the future!

ST PAUL’S PRIMARY SCHOOL, Namthang, South Sikkim.

At their request, when visiting St Paul’s, (the school where I had taught in 2005), I did a smaller version of the course spread over 4 afternoons. There were 9 participants:

Daniel & his wife Korona, Samuel and his wife Kamala; Ongmit Lepcha (who I knew from before) and 4 new teachers: Prasan Subba, Nirmala Pradhan, Suk Raj Rai & Sudip Sharma all new to teaching and none of whom have received any kind of training. They were all very keen and committed. Daniel closed school a little earlier than usual at 12.45pm and after a very enjoyable ‘bring & share’ lunch we worked for around 3- 4 hours every afternoon. I was impressed by, and grateful for, the high level of enthusiasm, concentration and participation.

The elements I included were:

  • Introduction to, and activities related to, the 4 language skills especially speaking.
  • Eliciting.
  • Using a Picture Bank, including a session creating the beginning of a picture bank for St Paul’s (cutting out suitable pictures from newspapers.) I suggested that this year’s volunteer could do further work on this and organise it into sections.
  • Using the library: reading records, reading activities for students, keeping track of the books etc. This session was tailor-made for St Paul’s to try and encourage better use of the 200 books that they received from the Carlisle Primary School, (where my friend Anne Summers is the Deputy Head).
  • Use of their Reader books (Gul Mohar), concentrating especially on pre-reading activities.

The course culminated in an open and interesting discussion for an hour and a half, with the whole teaching team discussing what they had learnt and the particular problems and obstacles to effective learning in their own situation. Some of the same issues came up as in the previous two courses, but there were other interesting points made that I would like to raise in such discussions on any future course.

Main points from the St Paul’s discussion:

  1. The need for preparation. It was apparent that this is not something that teachers usually do. They are very wedded to their course books, partly because of lack of training. Their usual practice is to come in, not necessarily before the students arrive, open the book and start. Daniel noted that many of the things I had been showing them required a degree of preparation. There is a need to incorporate discussion about this point on future courses especially in rural situations. This was not such an issue at PNG.
  2. How to increase fluency. There are many problems associated with using texts that are mostly too difficult for the students. They are using Readers where the proportion of new material to old is far too great for students to have a proper understanding of the texts or a fighting chance of learning the new vocabulary and material presented.
  3. Related to the last point, the problem of the pressure from parents, and school board examinations, to use books that are far too advanced was discussed.
  4. The problem for teachers and students posed by tests and examinations that are about feats of memory and regurgitation rather than skill acquisition and understanding.
  5. A desire for strategies for increasing teachers’ own fluency and language level when there is no native speaker available.
  6. The problems associated with teaching pronunciation.


  1. Decide which parts of the course could be left out. Some material I didn’t use at all and some was not so useful or necessary as other parts.
  2. Error Correction. Cut out final writing exercise but include the rest of the section. Include enough time for discussion of the issues.
  3. Update participant notes for games & activities. Remove the inappropriate ones and add in the extra ones that I used.
  4. Compile participant notes for using a picture bank.
  5. Extend the section on Presenting & Practising Structures by adding more activities focussing on grammar difficulties.
  6. Use their own course books and readers, (e.g.Gul Mohar, Our Way To English), more to provide more practice of inventing pre-reading and writing activities.
  7. Include some work on pronunciation.
  8. Include a session on strategies for increasing teachers’ own fluency and language level when there is no native speaker available.
  9. Include discussion about the need for preparation.
  10. Allow more time on the last day for discussion of the course content and their own school situations.”

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