Ross McMillan

My teaching approach

Of the seven or eight established methods of teaching English as a foreign language, I feel that those with the most to offer are The Berlitz Method, developed by Maximilian Berlitz in 1878 and The Communicative Approach. That is not to say that the other methodologies or schools of thought do not have important things to add to the teacher’s repertoire. It would be foolish and counterproductive, for example to dismiss James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) method, as mime and hand gestures are clearly bed-rock communication tools, not to mention the fact that a willingness to stand up and “get physical” could very well become a valuable asset to the beleaguered teacher who needs to reinvigorate a flagging student or class in times of apathy, boredom or lethargy. Calleb Cattegno’s Silent Way method also incorporates several techniques that will prove beneficial as we move forward into ever more “productive” based methodologies with a focus on Low Teacher Talking Time (LTT).

Having studied Spanish sporadically for several years with a limited degree of success, I have garnered some insight into the difficulties and challenges faced by students wishing to learn a foreign language. The majority of the lessons I attended had a large written content and much of the study material was sourced from outdated textbooks often consisting of gap-fill, column matching and multiple choice exercises. It was, generally speaking, a 70/30 split between an approximation of the Grammar Translation (GTM) method and something akin to the Berlitz method. There were of course students who progressed at a faster pace than myself; necessity, external pressure and brain size cannot be underestimated, but I feel with a more modern, “productive” approach we would have all progressed at a greater speed, both as individuals and as a group. The teacher too, I believe, would have benefited greatly from the increased capacity of her students to grasp, and correctly use, ever-increasing amounts of vocabulary. In my opinion the increased knowledge of the students goes hand in hand with the teacher’s ability to add variety to his or her classes.

The aim of the modern English language Teacher should be to focus on the student’s “productive” knowledge of English, as this is where true fluency is attained. If the student is able to produce (speak) the necessary vocabulary in the correct situation, as opposed to having a vague notion of what a particular word means when he or she hears it (or sees it written down), then the student is infinitely closer to attaining fluency. In practical terms this means that the teacher cannot rely on grammar books and just sit back and watch as students silently fill in the blanks, nor can the teacher just move systematically from grammar point A to vocab point B to structural point C, from class, to class, to class. The Teacher must be constantly adapting him/herself and the class itself, the Teacher must remain flexible and able to strike out on different tangents in order to keep a student or class engaged, and crucially; talking. This does not mean that the teacher should throw out the rule book and “wing it,” it simply means that the rule book need not be carved in stone. As the jazz musician must first learn the basics of musical composition before he can experiment and improvise, so too must the Teacher learn the basics and lay the foundation (preparation, planning,) before he or she can improvise in any meaningful way.

Along with preparation the other vital factor in being a good teacher is attitude. What do we mean by this? The Teachers attitude has a powerful effect on the atmosphere in the class room and therefor on the student’s ability or desire to learn. The Teacher must be a guide, a master of ceremonies, a counsellor and an occasional entertainer. The Teacher must keep the moral of his students high and keep their attention and interest. It is vital that the Teacher correct frequently, but do it in a way that is gentle, reassuring and constructive. The Teacher should always be quick to praise and encourage the student as confidence is vital to learning.

If the key to, or necessary ingredient of, a successful language student is the desire to talk, then one of the main responsibilities of the teacher is to fuel and nurture the students desire to talk. This can be achieved in a several ways, but preparation, a good attitude, flexibility and a creative, alert mind are the ever present tools a teacher needs. These attributes will fuel the students desire to talk and therefor learn. The most successful ways of achieving this is through the setting of communicative tasks. First the Teacher must have a clear idea of the goal or purpose of the lesson, that is, what he/she wants the students to have learnt. Then the Teacher must find varied, stimulating and fun ways of making this new knowledge stick in the heads of the student. The goal should always be getting the student to talk, if that happens then the teacher is in the best possible position to correct, praise and guide the student.

“Receptive” forms of language learning such as reading newspapers or books, watching films or television and undertaking short writing exercises should not be completely side-lined; rather they should be encouraged as homework activities when the teacher is not on hand to prompt conversational learning. The ability to read and write in the desired language is off course important but those skills will come much easier when the student has a strong ability to communicate verbally in the desired language, rather than the other way around. Confidence cannot be overlooked when considering one’s ability to learn a new language and I feel verbal communication, with the teacher and other students, is the best way to build confidence.

Analysis of student progress is another vital element of preparing lessons and to helping students reach their goals. With the new productive methods discussed, student’s will be speaking, or in the worst case, not speaking; either way their level will be immediately apparent. Whereas students in the past have often been able to slip past the teacher unnoticed and never truly benefit from the hours they are putting in, now the whole class should move forward in a much more uniform fashion. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule but at the very least reassignment of students to higher or lower levels will be infinitely easier.

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