December 2005
Volume 9, Number 3
Contents  |   TESL-EJ Top

Classroom Focus: India

English Language Teaching Strategies Used by Primary Teachers in One New Delhi, India School

Bonnie Piller
California State University, San Bernardino

Mary Jo Skillings
California State University, San Bernardino


This study investigated teacher behaviors, lesson delivery and sequence of content and learning expectations used by K-5 teachers at one school in New Delhi, India. This research brings broader understanding of strategies for teaching English reading and writing to students whose first language is not English. The rationale for the study stems from the need to gain greater international perspective of the teaching of English learners. Results reflect analysis of classroom observation field notes, face-to-face interviews with thirty three teachers and administrators, digital photo journaling, and artifacts. The theoretical framework for this study draws from Collier's Conceptual Model, Acquiring a Second Language, explaining the complex interacting factors students experience when acquiring a second language, and the work of Dorothy Strickland outlining effective literacy instruction. Emerging from the data are nine effective teaching strategies that teachers of English learners can add to their repertoire.


"English has become the medium of all relevant social interactions and the ability to use English effectively is considered an absolute essential for honorable existence."

--Quotation from a retired Army Colonel,
now working as a New Delhi textbook publisher

Many teachers in the United States are faced with the challenge of teaching children to read and write in English when the students have a heritage language that is not English and they are not yet proficient in English. Making this a more critical issue, several studies (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2003; Southeast Center for Quality Teaching, 2003) suggest that teachers are not receiving adequate professional development in effective strategies to address the English learners' literacy development. Thompson (2004), in a recent Title I Communiqué Special Report that reviewed the current research related to quality literacy instruction for English learners, concludes that classroom teachers urgently need to know more about effective strategies for teaching English learners.

As part of the effort to learn more about quality instruction for English learners, educational researchers and teachers in the United States have looked at instructional practices in other countries. When those countries are faced with the same challenge of teaching children in English to learn to read and write in English, there has been greatest transfer of best practices (Clay, 1991; Holdaway, 1978; Frater & Standiland, 1994). Research and close observation of the teaching of reading has been conducted in Australia and New Zealand, and a smaller amount of study in England for the obvious reason that English is the language of instruction.

Literacy instruction in India has not received the same attention, perhaps because English is not the first language of the majority. There are studies that compare and contrast educational practices in India to those in the United States with respect to the goals that teachers have for student learning, the way teachers approach the curriculum and the textbook, the way knowledge is communicated to students, and the way teachers interact verbally with their students (Clark, 2001; Alexander, 2000). There is however, very little literature that reveals current methods and practice in Indian primary classrooms for the teaching of reading to children whose first language is not English.

Interest and curiosity about reading instruction in India leading to this research came about as a result of observation and conversation with two graduate assistants working in a university department of Language Literacy and Culture. These very capable and well-educated young men, after graduating from college in New Delhi, came to a southern California university for master's degrees in Computer Science. They both told of starting kindergarten knowing almost no English, and immediately began to learn to read and write in English. While this experience was limited to observation and interviews with only two people, it stimulated a need to know if their experiences were similar to others, particularly, when it has become noticeable that young people graduating from Indian universities are being recruited to work in the United States. This is most apparent in the field of technology.[1] Responding to demand for Indian technology workers, the United States Senate increased the quota of visas for skilled workers from 115,000 to 195,000 in 2000 (Alarcon, 1999; Saxenian, 2000). Even though obtaining a US visa has become increasingly difficult, Indians still receive nearly 45 percent of visas each year. Furthermore, Indian students are increasingly in demand at universities in the United States (Creehan, 2001).

Several authors (Hakuta, 1990; Tucker, 1999) discuss the need for research studies that develop an international perspective for the teaching of English learners. A number of international studies, such as the one by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 1989) and the comprehensive review of research on the use of first and second languages in education, carried out for the World Bank (Dutcher & Tucker, 1994), have shown that the United States is not alone in experiencing major changes in the linguistic and cultural diversity of its student body. Indeed, many nations of the industrialized world are facing similar issues and hold similar beliefs related to learning a second language. Additionally, we need to go beyond merely describing programs or the start up of programs and instead examine the instructional strategies used by teachers as they help students to acquire a second language with ease and fluency. Toward this goal, this study looked closely at teacher behaviors, lesson delivery and sequence of content, and learning expectations used by teachers of classes K-5 at one school in New Delhi, India. The focus of this work was to build a broader understanding of strategies for teaching English reading and writing to students whose first language is not English.

In this study, questions were constructed to reveal not only the instructional practices but also to learn teachers' beliefs and gain insight into which principles guided their decision making. The following questions provide a more precise statement of the research problem:

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework adopted for this study draws from two areas. Considered first was Virginia Collier's Conceptual Model for Acquiring a Second Language (1995), which helps explain the complex interacting factors that students experience when acquiring a second language. The model has four major components: sociocultural, linguistic, academic, and cognitive processes. It is crucial that educators provide a socioculturally supportive school environment that allows natural language, academic, and cognitive development to flourish. That growth is developmental is a central precept of the model. In addition to considering Collier's model--suggesting the parameters for the learning environment--the research was also guided by the work of Dorothy Strickland (NCREL, 2003), which outlines effective literacy instruction as an integration of the following five factors:

  1. the construction of meaning from different perspectives,
  2. the acknowledgement of context in literacy learning,
  3. the use of language for real communication,
  4. the use of relevant literacy materials and
  5. a focus on higher order thinking skills and problem solving.


The research site was a primary level school, kindergarten through level V, with approximately 1500 students, located in New Delhi, India. The primary school is part of a senior school that follows the 10+2 scheme of education or what in the United States would be called a K-12 school. The school is affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education, meaning middle school students and high school students must take and score well on the exam to be able to continue on to university. The medium of instruction is English. Hindi is a compulsory language from third through level X and a third language is introduced from level VI and continued onwards.

The school follows the National Policy of Education for India. The National Curriculum Framework for School Education, India Department of Education (2002) outlines the curriculum for kindergarten through level III to have three components:

  1. teach the regional language/mother tongue,
  2. mathematics, and
  3. Art of Healthy and Productive Living.

The recommended curriculum for Classes IV and V continues these three components and adds a fourth area, d) Environmental Studies. The national policy does not require English to be taught until middle school. While the curriculum of this school reflects this standard, it does include more. Starting in kindergarten, instruction is delivered in English and students are taught to read and write in English. Reading and writing in Hindi begins at Level III. In kindergarten through level III the school practices what they call "the mother system." This means that students stay with one teacher through out the day. In Class IV and V teachers have specialized expertise, such as math or environmental science. Students also have additional instruction in music, dance and computers. Class size ranges from 38 - 42 students.

This particular primary school was chosen because it is a feeder school to one of the highest achieving schools in New Delhi. The measure for this is high performance on the All India High School Exam of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). In 1995, this school received the Best School award from the Delhi Chief Minister, and has continually been ranked at the top by various community and government groups. Many graduates have distinguished themselves in science, industry, and the military.



Teachers and administrators at the primary school, middle school, and high school levels participated. There were 31 teachers and 2 administrators interviewed. A total of 25 teachers were observed. Those teachers observed were all teachers in the primary school. Table 1 shows the instructional level of the teachers and administrators that were observed and interviewed.

Table 1. Teachers and Administrators Interviewed and Observed at Each Level
Level 144
Level 244
Level 364
Level 446
Level 544
Middle School English1 
Middle School Media1
High School English2 
High School Arts3 
Primary Headmistress1 
High School Principal1 

The selection of teachers to be observed was a three step process. The head mistress assigned the resource room teacher to be the host. She in turn introduced the researchers to the lead teacher at each level. The lead teacher had arranged a schedule that included thirty minute observational time in classrooms and 20 - 30 minute interviews. Most interviews were with two teachers per session and the interviews were with the teachers that had just been observed or would be observe in the next hour.

Procedures: Data collection

Data were collected through observation, interviews, digital photo journaling, and collection of artifacts to do what Fetterman (1998) and Shank (2002) both describe as qualitative method that provides sufficient detail for thick description. The researchers spent all day at the school site for one week, starting at 9:00AM and ending at 1:00PM when the school day ended. Each day was carefully planned so that interviews were scheduled to occur during passing time and breaks for children to eat. Each day had a minimum of four classroom observation sessions and four interview sessions. Field notes of observations provided descriptive data and recording of the teachers' exact words, as well as dialogue between teacher and students. Interviews followed a semi-structured format that provided a conversational tone but stayed focused on the research questions. The researchers, even when asked to compare what they observed to their own teaching experiences, resisted the temptation and did not at any time change the focus to comparisons of educational practices in other places.

The researchers collected over 300 photos.[2] These photos were filed as Day 1, Day 2, etc., through Day 5. A corresponding log was kept so digital photos could be coordinated with the field notes. Douglas Harper (2000) notes that the underutilized qualitative method of using photos to construct visual narrative adds a layer of complexity that also illuminates. Few actual artifacts were collected. A few teachers gave their written lesson plans and samples of student work. This included poetry writing and structured paragraph writing. After doing what Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) referred to as exploring issues of entry and rapport, the decision was made not to videotape. In a school setting where resources are very few and where digital cameras were novel, the researchers decided to minimize the use of technology by not videotaping. The setup of microphones and tripods seemed intrusive and time-consuming.

Observation Protocol

Both researchers observed in the same classroom at the same time. Researchers took notes and photographs, focusing on the teacher behavior related to instruction. Student responses were recorded not to analyze student behavior or learning, but to reveal the teacher response in developing concepts, modeling, and elaborating. In addition to recording the teachers' words, notice was also made of gestures, body language, and motions. Drawings and diagrams, both in poster form and on the chalkboard were recorded. When teachers used props or objects, these were photographed. Only at the end of the day did the researchers compare notes and attempt to clarify where their notes varied.

Interview Protocol

The interview protocol was constructed around seven questions. The questions were designed to learn about the teaching of the various components of reading and language arts instruction. Open-ended questions that allowed teachers and administrators to elaborate on the technique and clarify the process of instruction were used. Both researchers took notes during all interviews. The time and date of the interviews, as well as the teaching assignment of interviewees, were recorded. In the development stage, it was agreed that researchers would be sensitive to the interviewees' desire to explain or go "off on tangents" as this could provide unexpected insights.

Finally, the textbook series was collected as a significant artifact. The selection of the text is a local faculty decision. Before the beginning of the school year, a textbook fair is held and teachers together select the textbooks. Several teachers explained their choice: Because the author is a retired Delhi University educator, he had used his knowledge of the real life experiences of children in Delhi to create passages and exercises that are of interest to the children. The researchers noted that the instruction closely followed the content of the textbook. They decided that collection of the reading and writing textbooks would likely provide more explanation related to teaching techniques.[3]

Data Analysis

The analysis involved searching for basic themes for meaning-making in the collected data (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The research questions guided the selection of instructional techniques that are discussed, but did not limit the reporting of what was observed and what teachers reported. In most cases the instructional strategy that is reported is told as it was delivered by one teacher. In a few instances the strategy reported is a combination of what two or more teachers did. When this occurs, it is noted. Explanation is given about variation or adaptations. Because the purpose of the investigation was descriptive, the report does not make comparisons between levels or groups of teachers related to effectiveness or perceived effectiveness.



Limitations of the study

The present study has certain limitations that need to be taken into account. Certainly, a limitation of this study includes external validity, or the generalizability of the study to other contexts, since it was conducted in just one school. While the school enrolled over a thousand students, unquestionably, this is a small population of students. Another factor that limits the generalizability of this study is the interaction between instruction and culture. While the researchers did not make any attempt to compare similarities and differences of the school to schools in other places of the world, it is recognized that the culture influences transferability.

Summary of findings

This study has revealed some evidence to support the idea that effective instruction for English learners does the following (1) develops proficiency in natural language or conversation through activities that are related to the children's everyday experiences, (2) provides ample opportunity for learning, even over-learning, through recitation, repetition, and practice toward automaticity of knowledge and skills, and (3) scaffolds for understanding and development of thinking skills through the methods of demonstration, modeling and questioning.

Future research needs

Relatively little research has been conducted that examines the teaching practices of elementary teachers providing instruction in English in India or other countries where English is the official language, but not necessarily the first language of the majority. This study does reveal some promising practices but more research is needed. Peregoy and Boyle (2000) point out that it is critical that research address reading acquisition and instruction for English language learners, not just reading instruction with students that already read connected text. Looking at reading acquisition and instruction in English in various locations outside the United States can inform instructional practices.


[1] Today, approximately one in three Silicon Valley engineers are of Indian ancestry and Indian CEOs lead seven percent of Silicon Valley high-tech firms as founders of a wide variety of companies, ranging from Sun Microsystems to Hotmail.

[2] One obstacle had to be overcome regarding the digital photo journaling; the high temperatures and high humidity caused the camera lenses to fog over. The researchers soon learned to take the cameras out of the cases while traveling in taxis and before arriving on the school grounds so that the lenses were ready to go when classroom observations began.

[3] On the Monday morning following the weeklong school visit, the researchers sought directions and traveled to Old Delhi to the publishing company of the textbooks. At the end of a narrow street hidden away in a crowded publishing house district, and after pushing passed cattle, food carts, business men and shoppers, they found the tiny shop, a shop not much bigger then a hotel room. The publisher, a retired air force major, graciously presented them with a complete set, Levels I through V of both the Sparkle Multiskill English Reader and the writing workbook, Sparkle Multiskill English Activity Book, as well as a complete set of Teacher's Manuals. The publisher explained that in India today, English has become the medium of "all relevant social interactions" and the ability to use English effectively is considered" an absolute essential for honorable existence." He further explained that the books are designed on a holistic approach, meaning topics are of urgent present-day concerns like the conservation of eco-systems, the promotion of social harmony and promoting human value.

[4] The Whole Language movement has at times embraced the idea of "holistic." Although Kenneth Goodman made the connection between whole language and the theory of constructivism (Goodman, 1992), many practitioners would explain "holistic" in one of two ways; 1) as the reading and writing connection or 2) the emphasis on whole to part, rather than skills taught first and separately (Daniels et al., 1999). There was nothing said at this primary school to indicate that teachers' beliefs were related to the Whole Language movement.

[5] These photos included the following: Tenzing Norgay of Nepal, who climbed Mt. Everest in 1953, Bachendri Pal, the first woman to reach the summit in 1984, Santosh Yada who climbed in 1992 and 1993, and Dicky Dolma, the youngest woman to climb Mt. Everest at age 19 in 1993.


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About the Authors

Bonnie Piller is an Assistant Professor of Language Literacy and Culture at California State University San Bernardino. Her scholarly interest in teaching English as a Second Language began when she taught in East Africa. She is continuing this international comparative education focus with research in Belize and Thailand.

Mary Jo Skillings is a Professor and Chair of Language Literacy and Culture at California State University in San Bernardino. In addition to her research interest in English as a Second Language, she is an author of several award-winning children's books.

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