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An Overview of Rabindranath Tagore’s English Language Teaching Strategy


An Overview of Rabindranath Tagore’s English Language Teaching Strategy

Shankhapradip Ghosh

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Dewanhat Mahavidyalaya

Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India


Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English

Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University

Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India



Rabindranath Tagore was a versatile genius whose works touched every aspect of our life. He was keenly interested in English language teaching. He devised several strategies of teaching English at the elementary level, about which he wrote in the textbooks namely, Engreji Swopan (Steps to English), Engreji Sruti Siksha (Learning English through Listening), Engreji Sahaj Siksha (Easy Way to Learn English) and Anubad Charcha (Translation Practice). This paper aims to examine Tagore’s methodology, and how far his teaching strategies were in tune with the various Methods and Approaches of Second Language teaching.

Keywords:  Teaching Strategies, Translation, Listening, Speaking


Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is undoubtedly the most notable figure in 19th and 20thcentury Bengal. A versatile genius, his works touched almost every aspect of our life. In the field of education, his contribution is immense. Not only did he set up Santiniketan in 1901, he also wrote voluminously on education. For many decades he strove to find a better teaching technique for teaching English to students than what was prevalent in those days. His ideas found expression in many of his writings which I shall discuss in this paper.

Born in a notable Bengali family, Tagore was exposed to the arts, including music, painting, and poetry from a young age. His brothers, sisters and cousins were engaged in different cultural pursuits.1 Both his grandfather, Dwarkanath Tagore and his father, Debendranath Tagore were involved in social reform movements which helped to foster a liberal atmosphere in the family. The cultural richness of his family had a profound impact on Tagore’s mind and helped to shape his ideas on education.

From his childhood Tagore was critical of the formal education system. He found it very boring and stifling. He thought that the formal education system of the time did not encourage the development of the student’s creative faculties, nor did it promote aesthetic development of the senses. Tagore believed that education should cater to the all-round development of the individual. It should free one from all sorts of narrowness and help one imbibe a spirit of freedom to embrace all that is good in one’s surroundings. Being a naturalist, Tagore laid stress on the educative value of natural objects. His ideas on education focused on the development of the self in harmony with all existence.2

Tagore was quite averse to textbooks. He was in favour of a student-centric system of education, but he was against the idea of the student’s carrying huge loads of books in schools.3 He laid importance on the role of the teacher who would stimulate the student’s inquisitiveness in diverse areas of knowledge. A teacher, according to Tagore, should play the role of a ‘guru’ who would impart knowledge to the student or the ‘shishya’. This transfer of knowledge from the ‘guru’ to ‘shishya’ should take place in an atmosphere joyfulness.4 Thus, education should never appear as a burden to young minds. Rather, it would be a very joyful experience in which the teacher would no longer remain a mere instructor, but would become a companion, helping the student to quench his thirst for knowledge.

Tagore never thought that assimilation of information should be the goal of education. He spoke of the development of the creative faculties of the students. He thought that students should be exposed to different forms of art from a young age so that there occurs an aesthetic development of their senses. In Santiniketan he invited teachers from various fields and from different countries for the purpose of providing a holistic education to his students.

Tagore’s ideas in this respect align with the Theory of Multiple Intelligences which was developed Dr Howard Gardner in the later part of the 20th century. Gardner proposed that intelligence is not a single, fixed, and general ability, but rather it comprises of multiple, distinct abilities or intelligences. He advocated that there are eight different intelligences that individuals may possess to varying degrees, and that learning should be tailored to the student’s strengths and weaknesses. By exposing students to different fields of knowledge and arts, Tagore was providing students with opportunities to develop their innate talent and aesthetic sensibilities.

Tagore knew very well the importance of learning English for the students. He was not in favour of using English as the only medium of instruction, but he never disregarded the importance of English in education. His books on teaching English namely, Engreji Swopan (Steps to English), Engreji Sruti Siksha (Learning English through Listening), Engreji Sahaj Siksha (Easy Way to Learn English) and Anubad Charcha (Translation Practice) contains his ideas on teaching English and the methodology he adopted in putting them into practice. In this paper I have tried to explore the different teaching strategies that Tagore developed in teaching English as a second language.


The objectives of the study are:

1.      To explore Tagore’s ideas of teaching English as a second language.

2.      To identify the different teaching strategies that Tagore adopted to teach English as a second language.


In this descriptive study, Tagore’s books on English Language teaching have been used as the primary sources of data. Various research papers on Tagore’s theories on education and his ideas on teaching English as a second language have also been used as secondary data sources.


Engreji Swopan (Steps to English) consists of two volumes. Vol. I was published in 1904, and Vol. II was published in 1906. The ‘Forward’ to this book mentions that the book was written for his school, ‘Brahmacharjasram’ in Bolpur.5 In fact, Tagore mentions that the method of teaching English advocated in this book was successfully used in Bolpur’s school before he decided to publish it. Hence, this is a time-tested method which Tagore hopes would benefit both young learners, engaged in learning the alphabet, as well as adult learners who have decided to learn English.

The ‘Introduction’ to the book consists of what Tagore termed as ‘Language-learning Drill’6. In this section, students will follow whatever instructions the teacher gives them in English. This drillis designed to acquaint students with many new words, and their meanings, before they start reading English books. There are hundreds of sentences/instructions in this section which students are supposed to follow. The sentences gradually move from simple instructions, like ‘Sit down’, Come to me’, Stand on the Bench’ to more complex ones, like

Take this marble. Put it into your pocket. Take it out of your pocket. Throw this marble down. Throw the marble up. Throw this marble over the bench, across the room, out of the room. Catch this marble.7

Later, Tagore introduces ‘Yes-no’ questions, and also ‘Wh-questions’. An example would make the matter clear for the readers:

            Q: Have you stood there?

            A: Yes, I have stood there.8


            Q: Is Kumud walking?

            A: No, Kumud is not walking, he is sitting.9

Vol I. of Engreji Swopan (Steps to English) contains more Language-learning drills. Here Tagore introduces basic grammatical rules regarding the use of ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘are’, ‘what’, ‘who’, etc. He also asks the teacher to help students identify nouns and adjectives from the list of words written on the blackboard. The volume presents more difficult drills on ‘Yes-no’ questions and, affirmative and negative sentences.

Vol II. opens with a letter written by Brajendranath Seal to Tagore. It contains an excerpt from Seal’s Note on University Reform about English Language teaching. In this note Seal advocates for learning a language through conversation, and not through artificial exercises in grammar:

English should be taught in the same way as French, German and other Continental languages … We learn a language in short more by learning it spoken than by artificial exercises in Syntax or Idiom …10

Seal’s views reflect Tagore’s ideas on English Language teaching. In this volume, Tagore carries on presenting the drills which gradually become more complex. Here he introduces students to the use of tense, simple prepositions, like ‘at’, ‘in’, ‘on’ ‘to’, ‘into’, ‘from’, ‘with’ etc., participle, interchange of forms from active to passive and vice versa, and from direct to indirect sentences, which include Interrogative sentences, Imperative sentences, and Exclamatory sentences. Detailed instructions are given to teachers as to how these drills are to be carried out. In both the volumes students are asked to translate phrases/ sentences from English to Bengali and vice versa. However, the difficulty level gradually increases as the student progresses from Vol I to Vol. II. Thus, in Vol I. the student is asked to translate into Bengali phrases like, ‘On the roof’, ‘The tree of the garden’, etc., and sentences like, ‘The king has a crown’, ‘The boys have a ball’, while in Vol II., sentences like, ‘The queen walks in the garden gathering flowers’, ‘Either the master or the servant was present’, etc. are given for translation. The same strategy is followed in exercises of translation from Bengali to English.

Tagore’s Engreji Swopan is a book one of a kind. Here he lays stress on the development of the student’s listening and speaking skills. It is quite noteworthy that Tagore thinks that language is learnt primarily through listening and speaking, and hence he advocates the development of these two skills prior to the development of the reading and writing abilities of the student. For this Tagore adopts the conversational style of teaching where students are made to repeat the drills until they would become quite adept at them. Another important feature of these drills is that the exercises are written in English, while the instructions to the teacher are given in Bengali. This means that Tagore was also in favour of using the mother tongue in teaching English to students. This is further borne out by the fact that the book contains ample passages for translation from English to Bengali and vice versa.


The title of Tagore’s second book, Engreji Sruti Siksha (Learning English through Listening) makes it clear that in this book too Tagore continues with the same aim to teach English through listening and speaking. The book opens with an Appeal to the Teachers where Tagore outlines his method of teaching English. Tagore points out that this method should be adopted when students start learning the alphabet. He believes that after completion of the drills mentioned in the book, students would be able to read books easily. He instructs the teachers to first make the students understand the sentences/ instructions clearly, and then make them repeat them. In case any student finds it difficult to understand or follow any sentence/ instruction, the teacher may skip it. Tagore outlines his plan of teaching English in detail:

First, the teacher makes the student stand in a line, and then calls the students one by one.

                        Hari, come to me!

The student listens to the instruction, does as he is told, and then after understanding the meaning of the sentence, says –

                        Sir, I come to you.

                        Hari, go back!

                        Sir, I go back.11

The same drill is repeated for other students. Gradually, the instructions take the form of Interrogative sentences, using different tense forms.

Tagore’s Engreji Sruti Siksha is divided into two parts. The first part contains a series of instructions which contain syntactical variations, as in

                        Shake your head.


                        Shake that fountain pen.


                        Close your hand and shake your fist.12

Unlike in Engreji Swopan, the first part of this book contains little instructions for the teachers. Here the drills are intended to acquaint students mainly with the use of different verbs, like ‘push’, ‘put’, ‘touch’, give’, ‘fill’, ‘kick’ etc.

The second part of this book contains conversations between the teacher and students, which mostly take the form of question-answer between two. Here students will enact the instructions given by the teacher. For example, the teacher will ask the student to stand on the chair: “Hari, stand on the chair”. The student will literally stand on the chair, after which the teacher will ask another student, “Who stands on the chair?” In another exercise students are required to smell clove, camphor, rose, jasmine, lotus, etc. and tell in both English and Bengali what each item is. In this way, students will get to know the names of different objects around them.


In this book, Tagore gives an idea as to how students should be initiated into writing at the primary stage. For this he does not want students to memorize words and phrases. In the ‘Preface’ to this book, Tagore clearly points out that he does not prefer memorization to be the goal of this book.13 The teaching strategy that he adopts here is that the teacher would write words in the blackboard, seeing which students would try to frame sentences orally as well as in written form. Towards the end of the first part of this book, Tagore provides a list of nouns and adjectives which are used in day-to-day conversations. He wants students to frame sentences using these words. Here also he cautions readers by saying that these words and their meanings should not be memorized. Rather through constant use students should get acquainted with these words and their meanings.

In this book, Tagore relies heavily on translation in his teaching strategy. The second part of this book contains fifty-two lessons which mostly consist of exercises on translation from Bengali to English and vice versa. Through these exercises Tagore intends not only to enrich the vocabulary of students, both in Bengali and English, he also imparts grammar lessons to students on different forms of tense, transformation of sentence from positive to negative and vice versa, change of number etc.


Tagore considered translation to be a very effective way of learning a foreign language.14 He mentions in the ‘Preface’ to this book that a student should practise translating a small paragraph from Bengali to English and vice versa on every alternate day. If he continues this practice for two years, Tagore thinks that that the student will attain expertise in both English and Bengali.

In the ‘Preface’, Tagore lays down his plan of teaching the process of translation to students quite elaborately. At the onset of the class, the teacher should discuss all the grammatical rules necessary for that day’s lesson. The teacher would begin with a sentence, and it is quite likely that students would make mistakes, but gradually, learning from their mistakes, students would be able to translate difficult sentences.

Tagore very well knew verbatim translation from English to Bengali and vice versa is difficult and not always possible as the two languages differ in their modes of expressions and in their syntactical patterns. To bring home his point, Tagore shows in the ‘Preface’ how the use of adjective clause and the verb differs in Bengali and English. Here, he also concedes the fact that students may not be able to express their ideas properly because of their limited vocabulary. In such cases, Tagore suggests that students can use easier expressions at the time of translation. For example, if the student is not familiar with the phrase “in dismay”, s/he can use expressions like, “with painful heart” or “with anxious mind”. In this way, Tagore hopes students can overcome the problems of translation.


A study of the various teaching strategies developed by Tagore makes it clear to the readers that they were quite novel and much ahead of his time. Though he did not formulate any theory on Second Language teaching, his methodology shows traces of the Direct Method and the Audio-lingual Method, though Tagore was not aware of them. At the same time, he gave importance to the use of mother tongue and considered translation to be an essential element of his English Language teaching strategy. Moreover, he was not in favour of memorizing grammatical rules and using words and phrases without context. His grammar lessons were often interspersed with his Language-learning drills, which prevented the lessons from becoming boring. He wanted students to learn English as spontaneously as they learn their mother tongue. It is for this reason that he preferred developing listening and speaking habits of students before they are introduced to reading and writing skills. His technique of teaching English was student-centric and based on practice in life-like situations. The active participation of students in the teaching-learning process, no doubt, would make learning English an enjoyable experience for students. It can also be said that his teaching strategies have certain similarities with the Communicative Approach which was developed much later.



2.      ibid.



5.      Tagore, R. Engreji Swopan, Rabindra Rachanabali Vol. 15, Viswa Bharati, 1986, Kolkata, p. 191.

6.      ibid.

7.      ibid., (Part I), p. 196.

8.      ibid., p. 199.

9.      ibid., p. 204.

10.  Tagore, R. Engreji Swopan, Rabindra Rachanabali Vol. 15, Viswa Bharati, 1986, Kolkata, p. 231.

11.  Tagore, R. Engreji Sruti Siksha, Rabindra Rachanabali Vol. 15, Viswa Bharati, 1986, Kolkata, p. 275.

12.  Ibid., (Part I), p. 286.

13.  Tagore, R. Engreji Sahaj Siksha, Rabindra Rachanabali Vol. 15, Viswa Bharati, 1986, Kolkata, p. 308.

14.  Tagore, R. Anubad Charcha, Rabindra Rachanabali Vol. 15, Viswa Bharati, 1986, Kolkata, p. 375.