A Personal Approach to Teaching Languages
The learning of languages throughout the world, until relatively recently, has been the preserve of priests, scholars and the aristocracy. In the western world languages were taught with the focus very heavily based on grammatical rules, syntactic structure together with the rote memorisation of verb tables and vocabulary and the translation of literary texts. Whilst reading and writing skills were considered important, very little emphasis was placed on oral communication, though in the case of Latin and Greek these languages were being taught not so much for communication but more for the sake of erudition.
This ‘Classic’ method of language learning, which eventually came to be known as the Grammar Translation Method, has been widely recognised and used as the preferred language teaching method well into the twentieth century, in spite of its somewhat limited capacity to enhance students’ communicative ability.
During the last century we have seen various new methods and approaches to language teaching expounded. As the learning of languages has opened up to the general population, the focus has shifted from the mental discipline and intellectual development derived from learning languages, to the more practical use of communication and conversation. With this in mind many methods to teaching languages now focus on the practical use of the target language and oral capability.
The Direct or Natural Method placed more emphasis on oral skills and the use of realia in the classroom. The Audio-Lingual Method employed drilling as a technique to teaching, however the repetitive and somewhat boring nature of this method gave way to other approaches to teaching.
The Silent Method, devised in the 1960’s, shifts practically all the teacher talk time to the students, the idea being that the teacher remain silent. The teacher uses specific materials such as coloured rods and charts consisting of strips of different colours that represent different sounds of the target language. The emphasis here is on pronunciation and whilst the students are doing most of the talking there is very little in the way of practical communication.
Around this time another teaching method, Suggestopedia, was devised. Here the approach to learning is based on the power of suggestion. With classical music playing in the background, the teacher reads a dialogue acting out actions described in the dialogue and then makes use of the dialogue for more conventional language work. In theory large chunks of dialogue would be internalised by students due to their relaxed and receptive state. Though one might consider this to be a somewhat fluffy approach to teaching, it does recognise the use of mime as a useful tool to convey information.
Other teaching methods such as The Callan Method and that of Michel Thomas use repetition to drum the target language into their students and The Communicative Approach places more emphasis on talking and listening skills to bring about practical communication in the target language.
With the benefit of so many tried and tested teaching methods and approaches already explored, teachers today are in the privileged position of drawing from a huge wealth of information. Depending on your aims and objectives as a teacher, as well as those of the student, one can take what they consider to be the best techniques from any number of teaching methods and apply them to create a more personal approach to teaching.
In order to achieve this I think knowing your students is of paramount importance. Understanding the affective factors that the student’s age, their motivation or obligation to learning and their needs and goals have, will influence the techniques the teacher choses to use in order to gain the best results. It will also influence the role the teacher plays, not just as a teacher but also as a manager, a guide, a monitor, a source of information, even an agony aunt or simply a friend.
For my part I think this is the key to successful teaching, the ability to adapt in order to fit the situation. Teaching children can be a challenge because they are not necessarily in the classroom by choice. However, nowadays I think it is fair to say the majority of people who learn languages outside of the compulsory education system do so in order to communicate and make conversation with others, and do so willingly. Some people may require specific language, perhaps related to their occupation, but the ultimate goal of communication remains the same.
With this in mind the emphasis should be on developing listening and talking skills through the practical use of the target language in real life situations. Teachers can modify the complexity of the language used in class and create syllabi and lesson plans to match the student’s level of understanding. Starting with very basic and direct language in the present simple tense for S1 beginners, the lexis and grammar covered in class will gradually expand and grow in complexity as the student moves through the scale of P2 elementary to P5 advanced.
A good teacher will take advantage of any and all materials available to him. This will include the use of textbooks, whiteboards, the Internet, realia and, of course, his own imagination and if his own imagination should fail him he can always ask for advice from a colleague. Asking questions and sharing information with other teachers can only enhance the individual style and approach one has to teaching. He can use these sources of information and apply materials in a manner to create innovative activities and exercises in order to maintain the interest of their students, as well as making the learning experience as enjoyable and productive as possible.
Whilst the emphasis may be on listening and talking skills to ignore reading and writing completely would be detrimental to the overall mastery of the target language. Therefore the syllabus should provide, to some degree, all areas of language learning. Perhaps the real art to successful teaching is striking the right balance between what you teach and how you teach it in order to accomplish the aims and goals of both student and teacher alike.
Taking elementary level P2 as an example, a typical lesson plan could take the following form:
Target language: Parts of the body, ailments and associated vocabulary
Objective: Use of the target language, listening and reading
Introduce target language
Draw a picture of a person and label the parts of the body
Correct any spelling mistakes and fill-in any gaps
Introduce the idea that something hurts.
Using advertisements for a doctor, dentist, optician, massage therapist, counsellor, etc, ask questions such as ‘Who do you see if you have a toothache?’ Students can pick out the correct advert.
Doctor–patient role play
Patient describes symptoms to the doctor while the doctor gives advice and a remedy.
Listening activity based around someone visiting their doctor followed by a question and answer exercise.
Reading a short text associated with the general theme of the lesson and discussing the issues raised in the topic.
Check for any new vocabulary and problems with pronunciation.
Recap on new vocabulary and new concepts covered during the course of the lesson.
Throughout the lesson the teacher will be offering encouragement, taking care to correct pronunciation where necessary and make grammatical and structural corrections at the appropriate moment.
Knowing when and when not to let errors go without correction is another balancing act as too many corrections may discourage the student whereas not enough correction may result in the interlanguage of the student becoming fossilized.
Lesson plans provide a framework for the lesson and the teacher can prepare in advance making sure all the required materials are to hand to ensure the activities and topics discussed flow smoothly from one to the other. As well as being prepared, punctuality and having a positive attitude will provide an excellent platform from which the teacher can proceed.
We have never had so much information made available to us, and for this reason I think the future is very bright for teachers and students alike. We can draw from the ideas of previous generations or new ideas and concepts that present themselves in today’s modern world.
I believe the use of modern technologies will become increasingly integral to the teaching and learning experience. We can see this happening following the recent wave in the dictionaries, translators and study aids available as mobile telephone applications. That said, where language is concerned, all you really need are two people ready to talk to each other and exchange ideas and information, in order to communicate and make conversation.