My teaching approach
Learning through teaching, teaching through learning
Whereas it is certainly possible to have an approach as scientific and precise as possibile to language teaching, this is, however, not an exact science. So many are the variables that are involved in the process of instructing and, consequently, being instructed towards the acquisition of a new linguistic system, that it is almost impossible to provide a universally valid model for teaching or learning it. Despite this, once enough information about the students and the environment they are surrounded by has been collected, prepared teachers should be able to arrange an effective learning experience using both tested and successful methods and their own knowledge and sensibility.
In my opinion, great attention has to be given to the need to customise the methods and lesson plans according to the students' needs, goals and skills, either in individual or group classes. A learning process should always start keeping in mind where the learners are aiming to, so that the proper skills and areas can be exercised (so, for example, travellers can focus on survival vocabulary and speaking, while academics would want to practice structure, specific vocabulary and writing), and also thier level has to be taken into account in order to grade lessons in a way that allows them to improve without facing excessively difficult tasks.
Besides this "technical" part of the assessment of students' characteristics, there is also the emotional side to be considered. This is by no means less important, as the right motivation and a positive, proactive attitude towards learning can definitely determine the success of the teaching/learning process, as much as the lack of such attributes is very likely to lead to obstacles, if not to failure. Also, the mental state of a learner influences significantly their disposition, so, if becoming their confidant may seem excessive, the teachers should at least be always aware of their students' struggles or distress, as this can allow lessons of while courses to be structured in a fashion they can feel more comfortable with.
All these things considered, it appears clear that the teacher's role, and similarly, though on a different basis, the student's, is supposed to be flexible, adapting to best suit the situation and the needs of learners. It may be required to change even through the duration of a single class: a teacher must be, in any case, a reliable source when it comes to the target language itself, a facilitator whenever there are problems to be overcome, a manager of time and activities in class, an evaluator of students' skills and necessities, and so on. On the other hand, students should never be passive and limited to repeating or proving their preparation, rather they are supposed to be the protagonists of lessons, participating to the building of their own proficiency actively and positively, testing their abilities without the fear of being judged, even proposing, if they feel confident enough, their own activities and expressing their own opinions without constraints.
Of course, much of the management of these roles depends on the level and the age of the learners. Though students must be always given the same attention and the same opportunities, it is obvious that lower level student still have to develop autonomy and fluency, so they require special guidance and more cares than more skilled speakers, who at that point should be able to sustain more complex and less controlled studying plans. A teacher should try to grade their language and the activities they propose so that these become more natural and less forced as the students progress in their acquisition process. Similarly, the needs and goals of younger students differ substantially from those of adults. Aside from the proved fact that the ability to learn a language drastically changes, mainly becoming harder and less immediate as age progresses, children and teenagers have different interests, aims and motivations, and they may learn more effectively by other means than those used for older people. This is true especially if they are not learning by their own will, which happens more commonly than in adults. This demands them to be stimulated with pleasant activities, such as games or creative tasks, and to be given specific reasons and stimuli to successfully turn their interests on and facilitate learning. This does not mean motivations and encouragement can not, and should not, be addressed when teachers work with older students: they just require a different approach based on specific tasks related to their goals (usually determined by their jobs or other practical necessities) and on more "serious" objectives, without leaving aside levity and the possibility to develop a friendly, mostly informal relationship with them.
Just like teachers themselves, syllabi for each course and plans for every lesson have to be flexible but reliable, being adapted on the type of students and finalities the courses have. It is essential, though, to have in mind, and on paper, a well structured outline of every activity, notion and goal that is going to be dealt with in a series of lessons. The best would be having more than one type of syllabus to be able to choose when considering the characteristics that a course should have, or at least a modular syllabus, in which contents can be reorganized, added or removed. Consequently, single lessons must be carefully planned to meet the requisites of the course, and similarly the can be modular, with topics and activities being adapted each time on the situation. By no means this prevents improvisation or sudden changes of plan: structuring syllabi and lessons means making sure the contents and the objectives are well defined, but leaving time for questions, explanation, discussions or any other kind of activity could arise, as long as it is productive in terms of acquisition of language skills, is something to be welcomed, if not encouraged, especially if it comes from students' initiative, showing their interest in the subject they are leaning.
Structuring a syllabus, once having studied the frame of a course, could be a relatively easy task: choosing what to teach, how to do it and what to accomplish this way is surely an important and delicate job, but it may be more generic and straightforward than preparing single classes. Each one of these is influenced by the outcome of the previous ones and has to be designed every time in order to follow the syllabus and to ensure students' accomplishments.
The activities presented in classes need to be varied enough to keep the interest alive, as many as it is necessary to cover every topic and skill, and as effective as possible in explaining their content. This can be achieved by keeping instructions simple, insisting on relevant issues, using thought-provoking subjects and captivating aids, encouraging the students and demanding intensive practice.
Since to different learners belong different ways of learning (as visual or kinaesthetic intelligence, for example, directly determine the approach to studying), it is crucial the use of materials and methods of different nature in classes to support every type of student, also considering that, in general?, this allows any kind of person to strengthen their knowledge and favours memorisation and awareness of their capabilities. Teaching with the aid of pictures, audio-visual material, gestures, texts in natural target language (such as books and newspapers) is not something new anymore, and its effectiveness is well documented, whereas other methods and materials, that may look too alternative or recreational, such as playing board games that require constant communication or using food to cook following a recipe, are often overlooked despite their potential validity in being stimulant and effective aids, that is, after all, what teachers should look for.
Among the questions that naturally teachers ask themselves when preparing classes, one of the most common is what language to use: speaking the learners' native language could facilitate understanding, but it limits the use of the target language, while speaking only the latter might be too hard, especially for less skilled students. The most reasonable solution seems trying to use the target language as much as possible in order to maximize exposure to input and output production, and, without stigmatising it, employ the native language whenever it is perceived as strictly necessary or actually favours communication or the relationships among teacher and students.
Another question that arises is how to evaluate and assess the students' progress, and how to deal with their errors and failures. As for errors, their are greatly informative for the teacher since they are the most evident indicator of someone's level of competence, and thus they are a resource rather something for the learner to be blamed on. In no way they are to be condemned, but systematic errors and all those that undermine comprehension should be corrected until they are overcome, making learners feel that they are not wrong but just growing as speakers. Evaluating them, as the next step, is a useful process to plan the work that has to be done subsequently, and should be shared with the students to learner be aware of themselves, rather than to give a sense of punishment or reward, and assessing them is better to be expressed with judgements rather than marks, to avoid mechanization and giving a false sense of purpose.
In conclusion, there is no right or wrong way to be a student, as much as there is no right or wrong way to be a teacher, but there is a way to make the teaching/learning process successful, and this changes every time a new course is created and a new class is attended.