My teaching approach
The Significant Topic Method
The aim of this essay is to describe my own personal approach to English language teaching. I will draw inspiration through critiquing existent teaching methods and physical demonstrations of teaching I have witnessed personally. I will also outline the type of materials and in-class dynamics that would support my vision of teaching. The first section of this essay will explain the theoretical side of my teaching method; the second section will outline the method’s practical implementation and classroom challenges.
I believe the ultimate learning goal of English language students is to express themselves coherently and without any verbal restriction. Whether the students are learning a new language for a specific purpose or just for general usage, they must primarily acquire the ability to translate mental responses into articulate verbal responses. My teaching method strives to help students acquire this ability through participative conversation, debates and topical discussion. The more emotionally connected students feel to what they are discussing, the more likely they are to push themselves mentally. Therefore, each individual class should be analysed in terms of shared student interests and significant topical connections between individuals.
The key to this learning method is to discover which topics (specific or non-specific) activate the highest level of student enthusiasm and involvement. For example, one class may have a highly passionate response to discussing fashion, whereas another class may have a highly passionate response to debating left and right wing politics. Whichever topics provoke the uppermost level of emotionally fuelled discussion will form the main syllabus structure for that particular class. It is the teacher’s responsibility, as the sole preparer of the class, to discover which topics are the most significant and ensure they focus on these topics. Whilst teaching classes the teacher should constantly try to uncover new significant topics to keep enriching the syllabus.
Much like The Direct (Berlitz) Method, my method gives priority to vocabulary-based speaking activities above written and grammatical activities. My method also shares a few other similarities to The Berlitz Method: Use of realia and hand gestures are encouraged, the syllabus is based on topics as opposed to linguistic structures and grammar is taught inductively instead of by introducing strict rules. Unlike The Berlitz Method, my method doesn’t completely disallow translation in class. In order to allow students to be fully expressive without any boundaries, they will be allowed to give an answer in L1.
However, if this happens the teacher must ensure that all students receive a full explanation of how to construct the answer in L2. The teacher must also discourage from L1 usage by penalising the guilty student with a task to complete outside of lessons or deducting their points from a reward based system. This form of ‘translate and penalise’ system should also be applied to interlanguage usage in the classroom; if a student uses some L1 whilst speaking they should not be corrected mid-flow. Instead, they should be allowed to finish what they are saying and then receive the correct translation and appropriate penalisation.
Content-based learning is a major factor in The Significant Topic Method. Content relating to the topical focus of an activity could be used to further promote discussion and provide new viewpoints and concepts to the students. For example, if a class is very responsive to music-based topic matter they could be shown a short music video and asked to debate whether they think the song is good and whether they find the visuals aesthetically pleasing. The subjective nature of the question itself would provoke a highly varied array of responses, presumably concerning how one can possibly define good or bad music. Students should always be prompted to delve deeper into their answers and expand on everything they say, this will unlock new vocabulary and further increase their capacity to express exactly what they are thinking.
The two main principles of The Grammar Translation Method are that literary language is superior to spoken language and that the ability to communicate is not a goal. The Grammar Translation Method focuses on reading and writing as the primary skills. The main criticism I have of these principles is that they lack an emotional connection between the learner and the content. Even the most kinaesthetic learners, who may excel at correctly filling in the gaps in sentences, will not engage with studying if they do not feel emotionally connected to it. Students will only grasp the ability to articulate a complex sentence when they feel driven enough to announce it within a personal standpoint. The GTM also gives little attention to pronunciation; I disagree with this approach and feel it is vital to correct pronunciation from the very early stages of language. This will ensure no bad speech habits develop which could hinder future communication.
The main role of the teacher when using the Significant Topic Method would be as a playmaker. Similarly to The Oxbridge Method, the playmaker quietly directs the lesson all the time so that the students score their best goal. TTT would vary depending on each activity and should be considerably less than STT. However, if the need for a long translation occurs then more TTT will be necessary to guarantee a thorough understanding from all students.
Another essential role of the teacher would be as a psychologist. When behaving as a psychologist the teacher must interpret learners’ reactions and responses to stimuli. The reason this is so important with my method is because student stimulation is the key to the entire approach itself. If a student is not interested in the topic matter and is clearly disengaged, the teacher must take immediate action to alter the topic and expand its boundaries to include them. Questioning the student on their interests and assembling a link between their answer and the topic at hand can achieve this. For example:
Teacher - “Don’t you like fruit Diego?”
Student - “No, I am bored by this activity”
Teacher - “Well, what food do you like?”
Student: “I like pizza“
Teacher: “Well, did you know tomato is a fruit?!”
Another likely classroom challenge is the emergence of a dominant student. The conversational focuses of my method allow a lot of potential for dominating students to takeover the lesson and hinder the learning of shyer or more introspective students. In order to address this issue the teacher should use their role as a playmaker to make participation equal. Stopping the dominant student and saying “well done, now could someone else add their thought’s” is the best way to do this. Politely asking the student to let someone else contribute allows them to realise they have been dominating but does not embarrass them. Saying “well done” promotes positive reinforcement and stops them from feeling like their learning is being capped. Positive reinforcement and praise is another key element to my method as it encourages future participation. The more times you praise a student for contributing, the more likely they are to do so again. Constant positive reinforcement is more important for low level learners such as S1 and S2 and can be reduced with more advanced students, nevertheless, advanced students still require recognition that their ideas are correct and worth adding to the discussion.
Here is an example of a vocabulary activity being taught using my method, it’s aim is to introduce new target language to students:
(Level - P2, Topic - Football, Target Language - Racism, Gang, Colour, Chant, Ownership.)
Lesson Pattern - The teacher starts by explaining the topic that the activity focuses on (the topic has already been confirmed as significant through past observation of the students), the teacher goes around the room (in random order) and asks each student to give their opinion on the topic, then the teacher reveals the target language, the students are then asked to expand on their views using the target language.
The hope of the activity is that the target language will alter the nature of the previous discussion and create new viewpoints. The goal is for students to stay actively involved and express themselves using the newly introduced target language.
The biggest reliance within The Significant Topic Method is on the teacher’s ability to observe student personalities. The method would only truly excel if the same teacher taught the same students for a long period of time. Good rapport is absolutely essential because it determines how well the teacher knows the personal interests of the students and therefore how solid the syllabus material is. The students’ age determines some aspects of the method because all syllabus material will have to be graded. Some topic matter that is suitable and appealing for adults would not be for children or teenagers and vice versa. Grading how appropriate the topic is should be considered alongside language grading. The teacher must carefully prepare syllabus material and additional content whilst bearing in mind it’s suitability language-wise and content-wise.
If employed correctly and devotedly my approach would encourage teachers to create a syllabus of tailor-made material. This tailor-made material could then be shared amongst teachers in a collaborative effort, thus providing the most engaging teaching activities possible to all classes.