How I would approach Teaching English.
When approaching a class for the first time I feel it is necessary to assess what the students want to learn, distinguishing between what is important to them and what is important for them. There is an important distinction between what is important to the student and what is important for the student. For instance, it is important for the student to be able to understand grammatical rules to be able to coherently communicate. However, learning the technicalities of sentence construction is probably in itself not important to the learner. Whereas, talking to English speaking friends and colleagues about what they did at the weekend or being able to ask directions when lost in London is more likely to be important to students. This distinction highlights the importance of using a methodology that explicitly teaches students what they want to learn, for example, conversational skills around a chosen topic area like leisure activities, whilst implicitly helping students to acquire the grammatical skills which they need to be able to communicate. In this essay, I will argue that this approach, one which places emphasis on oral communication, will reap greater benefits and provide students with a learning environment which effectively assist them to acquire the necessary language skills to communicate confidently in English. This approach is based upon placing emphasis on oral communication and building the student’s confidence in speaking, whilst introducing grammatical rules through activities based upon students interacting not just with the teacher but amongst themselves.
When approaching a class for the first time, a teacher needs to invest time in building a rapport with the class and get to know the students. Elicit from students their motivation which underpins their desire to learn and also what their interests are so that topics for conversation in class can be adapted accordingly. Whilst eliciting information about the students the teacher can assess what levels the students have reached, and identify learners who may require more support and nurturing. Some students are naturally more extrovert than others, a good teacher should be mindful to ensure that quieter students, or students that are struggling, are not left behind. Should a student be left to flounder, there learning experience may become a negative one and this may result in the student not returning back to the classroom.
An English teacher has to fulfil a number of roles; this is perhaps even more likely when approaching a class for the first time. For instance, the teacher has to organise the direction of the class and maintain a focus on the learning objectives. The teacher has to assess prior learning, motivation and the objectives of the students. They need to think like a psychologist, identifying problems students may have, including inhibitions and obstacles to learning. This can include interpersonal classroom dynamics between the students, for example, perhaps a particular student has a propensity to dominate the class dissuading participation from other group members. It is better for the teacher not to dominate the class as this leads students to become passive learners. However, the teacher still has to guide the class and ensure the participation of the whole class. The teacher should conduct class interaction making sure the conversation in the class keeps ticking over and students interact meaningfully amongst themselves and with the teacher.
In this respect the goal of reducing teacher ‘talking time’ should be considered as important because it prevents students from becoming passive participants in language learning. Instead they are encouraged to collaborate with both the both the teacher and their classroom peers. Passive learning results from an imbalance between the talking time of the teacher in comparison with the students. When the teacher’s talking time dominates the class with instructions, he acts like an authority figure whilst the student passively accepts instructions. This approach reduces the student’s opportunity to express themselves in the target language. I think that passive learning is less rewarding for the student and consequentially successful retention of the target language in a given classis likely to be undermined. Having said that, when considering beginners, the teacher will have to be more directive with learners, this will include more repetition and modelling. This is because they will have to model vocabulary and grammar more explicitly and get learners to repeat their utterances. This is especially important with respect to pronunciation which is needed for students to progress successfully through the levels of proficiency. Incorporating the ‘Total Physical Approach’ towards teaching beginners can be especially useful because the non- verbal communication through exaggerated body language can assist with understanding.
This method is more consistent with the teaching methodologies identified with the communicative method. However, one should not focus exclusively on one approach as there are a number of other methods which can be used to compliment this approach including ‘suggestopedia’ and the ‘total physical response’ approach. However, not all methods rely on the teacher’s communication skills. For instance, the grammar translation method is an example of a method which reduces the student to the position of a passive learner. This method places more emphasis on learning linguistic structures rather than speaking the language. More emphasis is placed on reading and writing skills, whilst actually verbalising the language itself is neglected. This approach is very task based, with the teacher directing the activity in the classroom as an authority figure. Meanwhile, understanding is facilitated by translating from the native tongue. This method invites the likelihood of interference from the native language dissuading students from actually thinking in English. Meanwhile the text based syllabus used by this style of teaching prevents students from being active participants in their learning experience.
In stark contrast, I prefer using elements of the communicative approach, total physical response method and the Oxbridge method of teaching English. The communicative approach places emphasis upon what is known as the four communicative competences, speaking, writing, and listening. Lessons are undertaken in English, the native language of users is not used in class thereby preventing learners from reverting to thinking and translating from their mother tongue. It is also important to acknowledge that language acquisition differs from translation, acquisition based upon comprehension and speaking cannot be achieved through the translation of text alone. The communicative approach uses a ‘target language’ such as a tense and associative vocabulary as a means of classroom communication with the objectives of achieving familiarity and confidence. Games are often used to help develop skills whilst errors are considered as part of the learning experience. They should not be viewed negatively, students can learn from their errors providing careful patient attention is given to them by the teacher. A syllabus can be organised around verbal activities based upon grammatical points linking this with vocabulary. Activities are planned for the productive skills of speech and writing as well as the receptive skills of listening and understanding.
The Oxbridge method, although shares similar characteristics of the communicative approach, places emphasis on understanding and speaking. This approach assumes that it is not possible to write about something if the learner is unable to orally communicate. Therefore less emphasis is placed upon writing skills. Indeed, emphasis is placed upon verbal communication around a target language. The teacher becomes a playmaker in class keeping the conversation going and guiding the students around the target language with grammar learnt implicitly. I feel that this approach is more conducive towards building the learner’s confidence in expressing themselves in a second language. Moreover, this method is more productive in helping students to acquire the language rather than just learn about it. The Oxbridge method always concludes its classes with what is referred to as a ‘wrap up’, this comprises of concept checking questions which assesses whether the objectives for the learning outcomes have been reached. Indeed, this approach also places emphasis on interpersonal skills of the teacher and the importance of maintaining good eye contact which can also assist the teacher in assessing whether students understand class proceedings.
Useful materials in the class need to stimulate interest and be related to each topic in each class. It is important that the focus of attention is maintained upon the learning objectives, being aware of too much information may mitigate against learning. It is thought that the number of new words learners can successfully absorb is between 6-8 words. The vocabulary can be taught alongside a particular chosen grammatical function; this forms the basis for the target language for the class. Materials should be used to help guide the conversation and interaction amongst students in relation to the target language. Such materials can be found on the internet, or by using contemporary media reports to provide a basis for dialogue. The teacher must though think about what questions will make the students think and converse in the target language. Similarly, pictures and objects (realia) can be used to help build and maintain conversation around the target language. It is important that the teacher elicits understanding from the students to check their comprehension by asking ‘concept checking’ questions. This then provides opportunities to clarify lexical items and vocabulary that may not be understood by students.
A teacher also needs to be aware of the affective learning factors. This can include a multiplicity of interplaying factors which can either act positively or negatively upon learners. For instance, the classroom should provide an environment which is friendly and relaxed. A stressful environment provoking anxiety is unlikely to be conducive to language learning. In this respect elements of ‘suggestopedia’ might be useful, for example playing relaxing background music. Language learning can be assisted by feeling confident; it is thought that extroverts are more successful at learning a language than introverts. The students own emotional state and disposition can become an affective factor in learning with some students requiring more nurturing than others. This underlines the importance of the teacher building a good rapport with students. Other affective factors include language exposure outside the classroom and their domestic circumstances. For instance, in some countries the student’s exposure to English is limited outside the class. Hectic lifestyles involving a stressful vocation and raising children can make language learning difficult because the students are mentally tired. This further emphasises that the learning experience should be light hearted. However, although the learning style of adults differs from children, age should not be seen as a barrier to learning a new language. In this respect motivation and a having a reason to learn rather than for its own sake can be more successful. For instance, learning to communicate with a family member whose first language might be different to yours could provide the learner with the necessary impetus to develop new skills.
To summarise, my approach to teaching English would be use methods that promote student interaction in English to help develop confidence and fluency. Functions of the language should be introduced implicitly, and not in a way that leaves students passively learning from a text book based lesson. A collaborative approach to learning and teaching should be used to foster the students’ active participation and development of their own learning experience.