Friday, October 8, 2010

Narrative as a Pedagogic Tool

Dr. K.N. Anandan

I propose that the narrative as a discourse can be used to give the richest kind of linguistic input to the learners. A narrative is not just the parading of certain sequence of events. Nor is it equivalent to a conventional story (say, the story of the woodcutter and the goddess, or of the goose that lays golden eggs) which begins at some point, runs through certain sequence of events and comes to a natural culmination.
Task 1
Here follows a story.
A dove and an ant
A dove and an ant lived in a tree near a pond. One day the ant fell into the pond. It could not swim. The dove saw it. She dropped a leaf near the ant. The ant stepped on the leaf and reached the bank. The ant thanked the dove.
Q 1: How will we present the story in the class?
Q2: How can we help our learners make sense of the story that they are listening to?
Conventionally, a few steps will be followed.
1. Telling the story with the support of pictures
2. Showing appropriate gestures
3. Giving mother tongue equivalent for unfamiliar words
4. Explaining some part of the story in mother tongue
5. Repeating the story without showing pictures
6. Asking questions to check comprehension
Children may catch the idea of the story. They receive it as an assemblage of information as passive listeners without employing their thinking skills. While the teacher is telling the story there is no guarantee that corresponding thoughts are generated in their minds. The formation of inner speech does not take place by merely listening to the story if it is presented in the way mentioned above. In order to make it happen narrative has to be used to trigger inner speech in the minds of children. The text of the story has to be modified into that of a narrative.
Building up a narrative
The narrative aims at creating images in the minds of the listeners. It deals with human drama involving certain characters who the listeners can identify with, and get emotionally attached to. They start empathizing with these characters and share their thoughts and feelings.
Let us see how this can be materialized.
Task 2
Consider the set of questions in A and B.
1. How can we convert the story “a dove and an ant” to a narrative?
2. What are the mental images to be created?
3. How can we instil empathy in the listeners?
1. What are the events?
2. Where do these events take place?
3. Who are the characters?
4. What are they saying?
5. What do they feel?
The questions in A are related to the overall effect that we are targeting through the text of the narrative. Those in B point to the craft of developing the narrative.
In the light of the questions given above we can revise the text given in Task 2.
We will blow up the information contained in the first two sentences (i.e., A dove and an ant lived in a tree near a pond. One day the ant fell into the pond).
Narrative: A dove and an ant
On the wayside there is a pond. What a big pond! And how many water lilies! White lilies, red lilies! Big green leaves! How beautiful!
The pond is full with water. Of course it is clear water. Like on a mirror, you can see your face on it.
There is a tree growing near the pond; a mango tree. Not a big one and not a small one, too. It has several branches. Most of the branches are bending over the pond. Now there are no mangoes on it but only flowers. Bunch of flowers ... Not one but many... A fresh smell flow out from them. Ah, what a nice smell!
On the topmost branch there is a nest. A dove lives in this nest. A small, white dove, with beautiful, red eyes ... What a nice bird! How beautiful it is!
Somewhere on the tree there is a family of ants.
A father ant, a mother ant and their many, many children!
How many ants!
One day.
The father ant was sitting on one of the branches.
He felt the smell of the flowers.
“Nice smell,’ said the children.
“Yes, it is,’ said the mother ant.
‘Where is it coming from, mom?’
‘Of course, it’s from the mango flowers.’
‘I ‘m sure there is honey in the flowers,’ said the father ant. ‘But we can’t reach there now.’
‘Can’t you feel it? A heavy wind is blowing.’
‘Please, dad. Take us to the honey,’ said the little ants.
‘Little ones, how can I take you there now? The wind will blow us away.’
‘Please, dad. We want honey,’ said the little ones again.
‘Get it for them, will you?’ said the mother ant.
‘Okay. Let me try.’
With his tiny legs he started moving on the branch.
‘I must reach that bunch of flowers,’ thought the ant.
The branch was bending over the pond. While walking, the ant looked down. He saw the water in the pond.
‘What’ll happen if the wind blows now?’
‘If the wind blows I’ll fall into the water, Yes, I will,’ thought the ant.
The thought frightened him.
‘I can’t swim.’
He closed his eyes. And then…
The wind started blowing.
And the ant fell down into the pond.
We have got a sample of the craft of developing a narrative from the story. What are the things that we have incorporated into the text?
Task 3
1. Shall we blow up the remaining part of the story, too?
2. What are the details to be added?
3. What kinds of sentences are to be used?
4. What strategy is to be used to load the text with emotions?
Building up on the emotive aspect of language
Why do we focus on the emotive aspect of language? Recall our own experience of getting involved in interpersonal communicative situations. We may have met people at several places and may have talked to them about several things at several points of time. We are not likely to store these several pieces of conversation in our minds precisely because we don’t feel the need for doing so. For instance, we tend to forget the conversation that has taken place between the shopkeeper and ourselves the moment our business is over unless there is some special reason to retain it in our mind. The same is the case with the exchanges that have taken place on several other occasions.
Task 4
Here is a typical piece of conversation used for teaching English.
With the vegetable vender
Customer: What is the price of tomato per kilo?
Vender: Eight rupees, Sir.
Customer: And for bhindi?
Vender: Seven rupees.
Customer: Okay. Give me half a kilo tomato and half a kilo bhindi.
Vender: Here’s is your tomato and bhindi, Sir.
Customer: Thank you. Here’s the money.
Vender: Thank you.
1. Can you identify the vegetable vender and the customer?
2. Which part of the world do they live in?
3. What comments can we make on the text of this discourse?
4. How long these expressions will remain in the memory of our learners?
The point that we are trying to make here is only this: We cannot be complacent with the kind of mechanical encounters given in Task 5 in the pretext of teaching English. Here follows another task that can illustrate the point we are trying to drive home in this section:
Task 6
Examine the following activity:
The teacher displays a page of railway timetable and asks children to examine it thoroughly to see the details it contains.
She asks a number of questions such as the following:
• Which are the trains that leave from Chennai?
• Which train reaches Bangalore from Trivandrum
• What time does Chennai Trivandrum mail reach Coimbatore?
• How long does the train stop at Coimbatore?
• What is the departure time of the Chennai mail from Trivandrum?
• How far is Coimbatore from Chennai?
1. Will the learners be motivated to respond to these questions?
2. Do they have real need to answer these questions?
3. Is there any scope for generating divergent ideas?
In fact a large number of information can be pooled from the timetable by asking similar questions. A variety of structures can be invoked to pose the questions? (Suppose the train does not stop at Coimbatore how much running time can be saved? Which train takes the shortest running time from Chennai to Trivandrum?)
Theoretically speaking a lot of language can be generated using the railway time table. But it is a mechanical activity; the language that is generated will be emotionally void, and will not be emotionally registered in the minds of the learners.
Let us perceive this topic from a different perspective. There are certain encounters that will remain fresh in our minds so long as we live. This is because of the emotional vibrancy those encounters have created in us. Even then we may not recall syllable by syllable what we may have talked to or others may have told us on such occasions. Nevertheless we will have in our minds a “feel” of those encounters.
Why does this happen so? Note that experience, including linguistic experience gets sustained in our minds as emotional gestalts. It seems we do not have the parts but only the whole, though this may not be so. If we strive a little, parts can be recovered from the whole.
The point is that if linguistic experience is registered as emotional gestalts, then the role of a facilitator is to help learners develop such gestalts in their minds. This is possible only when learners can experience them. The role of a teacher in the constructivist paradigm is to transact experience, not to transmit information whether this is information about language or any other topic.
Since the narrative is meant to operate at the emotional plane of the listeners it makes use of an emotive language; it breathes life. The theme of a particular piece of narrative is decided by the plot that has to be specially selected taking into consideration the nature of learners belonging to a particular age group. For example, the narrative designed for small children will essentially make use of elements of fantasy which is not required for learners of higher age groups. Note that as a pedagogic tool the narrative is to be fine-tuned in such a way that it does not create any linguistic, cultural, or psychological barriers for the learner. Obviously it cannot deal with themes that do not belong to the experiential orbit of the learners. The overall aim of presenting a narrative is to create certain images in the minds of learners and to make them emotionally charged. It does not aim at creating situations for teaching vocabulary or certain structures and functions though learners might register certain vocabulary items and structures non-consciously.
Why narratives?
We have a few pedagogic claims on the narrative:
1. It allows a holistic treatment of second language.
2. It accommodates different discourses; we can incorporate descriptions, conversations and rhymes into the text of a narrative.
3. Note that any language makes use of different varieties of sentences such as declaratives, interrogatives, imperatives, exclamatory sentences, short responses, negatives, tags. Unlike the other discourse forms (for example, essay, poem, letter, etc.) a narrative as a discourse can accommodate all these types of sentences quite naturally.
4. While performing the narrative the teacher will have to make use of all possible prosodic features such as stress, intonation, modulation. In this sense also, the narrative offers a holistic treatment to language.
5. While presenting the narrative the teacher can pause at certain points thus creating certain “narrative gaps” which can be filled in by the learners by constructing target discourses.
6. Narrative can fruitfully capitalize on the emotive aspect of the language. This is of vital importance in the language class because experience is sustained in human minds as emotional gestalts.
7. It can channel the thoughts of the listeners so that they can perform the tasks assigned to them in a better way.
Integrating Skills
As we have already mentioned the new approach proposes a discourse-oriented pedagogy in the sense that the input that is given to the learners (irrespective of their levels) will be in terms of discourses and what we expect from the learners is the construction of discourses. We are familiar with the design of a conventional text book. It contains several reading passages covering a wide range of discourses such as essays, stories, poems, letters, and descriptions. Each unit of the course book will be focusing on certain vocabulary items, structures and functions. Since the material is designed within a skill-based approach the course book will be focusing on the development of receptive and productive language skills, and study skills for which a number of tasks will be suggested for practicing Why should we teach vocabulary, structures and other linguistic facts of the second language? We do this with the expectation that the learner will be using them in meaningful contexts. After teaching these items the traditional “brick-laying” methodologist will test whether learners have learnt them with help of some exercises where they will be asked to fill in the blanks choosing the right word from a set of words given to them. Perhaps he will also test whether the learners can ‘use the words in their own sentences.’ We have already seen that words or sentences in isolation have no independent existence; they are parts of some discourses. If the child is not able to construct discourses as and when they are needed what is the point of going for the drudgery of learning word meanings and their uses?
Providing slots for the listeners
How can we involve the listeners in the process of narration?
Task 5
Consider the narrative piece ‘The dove and the ant.’
1. Can we present this narrative at a single stretch?
2. Where can we provide slots for interaction with the listeners?
3. What kind of questions are to be asked?
Summing up
Discourse-oriented pedagogy helps us materialise the shift from fragmentary and skill-based treatment of language in terms of structures and vocabulary items to a holistic and knowledge-based treatment in terms of discourses. It captures the emotive aspects of language and can be adapted to suit to the needs of all levels of learners.

1 comment:

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