In order to teach English effectively, the most important factor to consider is the students's experience. An effective teacher must consider why the student is learning a language, how they will use it, and what factors contribute to successful acquisition and usage of the language. The approach must be student-based and student-directed, even though this this direction might be implicit.
For every student of any language, the first aspect of learning a new language is listening skills, with the second goal being speaking ability. Only then may the students begin to communicate. Reading and writing are secondary for they may only be utilized once someone can understand and speak. In a non-phonetic language, it is helpful to begin to include reading skills in the beginning stages, so that the student may associate a word's spelling with it's pronunciation, to be useful when reading street signs, menus, etc.
Just as a child learns to speak by taking in information aurally, while interacting with their environment, students begin to grasp a language when they hear words and simultaneously see things, such as pictures, objects, and gestures. Therefore, students are engaging their awareness, listening to pronunciation, figuring out how sentences are constructed, and attempting to make sense of the words used. This practice of awareness is crucial, for once the student leaves the classroom and the teacher is not present to systematically teach the language, students will be accustomed to differentiating known words and searching for meaning, thereby enhancing the possibility of learning new words and structures without formal instruction. In a traditional classroom, where students learn through text, they are not activating their listening skills, and therefore have a harder time transferring learning in the classroom to learning in real-life situations.
The second step, and one which immediately follows the first, is emulation. Just as young children practice saying the words that they are hearing until they can be understood, students must practice until they can achieve correct pronunciation for clear communication. Accompanied by pictures, gestures, and objects, the teacher searches to impart meaning to the words that the students are hearing and speaking so that the student associates the sounds of the new language with the meaning of the sounds, without the translation step from the object to their native language to the target language that happens in a traditional setting. This will help students to avoid using interlanguage, as they practice learning a language directly rather than translating from their native language (L1) into the target language (TL or L2). Using examples in the TL is preferred to explanations of grammatical structure for this same reason.
Students should interact with their environment as they are practicing these steps, for they are learning to speak the TL for use in real-life situations, and it is rare that students will find themselves in quiet, seated situations, with paper and pen in hand, as they attempt to communicate. Therefore, it is important to incorporate gestures, for students to interact with objects, and practice moving, talking while walking, and changes in conversation. Learning a language is not a one dimensional speaking and listening exercise, but a constant interaction with others in the world.
Teachers must consider which words the student should learn first. Most language books focus on language specified for travelers, such as "Can I have a double bed?", or learning grammatical structures such as "I am tall, she is tall." The difference, however, between these and learning a language to use in one's life, is that the vocabulary content needs to focus on words that the student will not only use, but can aid in initiating conversations and having basic needs met, which will enable them to begin to communicate outside of the classroom in ways will add to their language skills. Class should not be where the student learns the entirety of a language, but where a student learns how to learn a language. Therefore, the vocabulary should start by focusing on small talk, expressing needs and making requests. This follows the same pattern that small children use when learning to speak; they learn to call for their mother, express emotions, ask for something to play with. A big difference, however, is that while babies communicate through simple language that lacks grammatical structure, people, of any age group, who have developed grammar skills in their first language, are ready to immediately form grammatically correct sentences in the TL. Therefore, while it is important that teachers simplify language for communication purposes, proper grammar should be maintained to reinforce proper grammatical patterns from the start. New vocabulary should also be included without previous explanation so that students practice understanding in context.
Another key is repetition. While babies have the luxury of listening for years before forming complex sentences, students want to learn the TL as quickly as possible. Most students have a hard time remembering new words, and often confuse them with similar words. It is crucial that teachers practice teaching through repetition within a lesson, and that repetition is carried between lessons. Words should also be used in various contexts so that students can practice differentiating meaning in different contexts. Continued and immediate correction is necessary so that the student learns correct structure and pronunciation before developing habits of speaking incorrectly. Because understanding and speaking are learned at different speeds, students must continually demonstrate that they understand the TL and can also use it.
The most critical aspect of learning, however, which differentiates the joy of communicating from tedious study, is play. Students retain more information when there is play involved because they will be at a higher awareness level and more fully engaged. Additionally, students who learn to manipulate sentences to generate meaning, to think of new ideas rather than simply emulate vocabulary, who relax enough to make mistakes and are therefore more willing to try and experiment, will enjoy the learning process and learn more quickly. Play also helps create contexts for memory whereby students, when attempting to recall a word or phrase, will not only associate a sound to the words, but will recall laughter, movement, color, situational factors, all of which aid in bringing the past (the learning context) into the present (the attempt to communicate). Teachers can include imagination exercises, role plays, kinesthetic activities, 'what if' questions, theatrical body language, etc. in the course activities. Getting students to practice listening and speaking in unexpected ways will prepare them for interacting in the world. A variety of materials, activities, and learning styles will help students be prepared for using the TL outside of the classroom in a variety of situations.
This method may play out differently with different age groups as well as depend on the type of situation in which one is learning. For example, younger students may be more willing to play and experiment. It may be harder to encourage adults to move around or be imaginative. People learning at work may be afraid of looking bad in front of their colleagues. These are all generalizations and so teachers must never assume what their students will be like but must instead offer a variety of learning tools, assess where the student is willing to start, and progressively challenge them to think creatively. Creating lesson progressions based on individual student needs is an important consideration in lesson planning and one of the benefits of working with the same teacher for an extended period of time. Alternatively, different teachers may have different insights into student needs, or different tools for encouraging play. There should be a balance between spending enough time with students to be able to understand their learning needs and plan lessons accordingly, and having different teaching influences. When switching teachers, it is necessary for the teachers to communicate their insights and understandings in order to maintain continuity in the learning progression.
Throughout the beginning stages of language learning, grammar and vocabulary are the necessary building blocks, with fluency introduced as soon as students have acquired enough skills to communicate ideas. At this point, more complex grammar can be introduced, but the focus will shift to fluency. Students should be encouraged to guide conversation topics, and learn pronunciation and vocabulary through fluency exercises. While it is important to introduce new topic ideas to students, it is also important to remember that teaching is not about what the teacher wants to teach, but what the student wants to learn. Based on the fluency exercises, the teacher should interpret what grammatical structure the students is lacking, add related vocabulary, and brainstorm future topics. The syllabus will progressively become more difficult but teachers must be aware of where students have structural gaps and regress in the syllabus where need be. Lesson planning must be guided by the student's interests and needs, as deciphered by the teacher as well as requested by the student. For example, if a student is keen to daydream about visiting their family in Argentina, the teacher can create a structure activity based on the auxiliary verbs would and could. Vocabulary can be introduced that includes cultural activities in Argentina or travel vocabulary. While it is the teacher's role to create an ascending structure of activities that are engaging, to maintain positive reinforcement, as well as an environment of ease, it is also crucial that the students have a level of authority to direct their own learning process.
This type of student-centered approach affect what type of materials the teacher uses, but will not be limited by the students desires. One of the teacher's key roles is to create a space for the students to be encouraged to go beyond what immediately feels comfortable. For example, students may feel uncomfortable trying, and sometimes failing, to speak aloud while learning new structures. This is a perfect example of where a teacher must meet a student where s/he is at, while encouraging growth, commending effort, positively reinforcing failed attempts in the pursuit of eventual understanding and success, and eventually, guiding the student to speak aloud while moving, interacting, playing, and attempting new creative ways to manipulate language in the search for communication.
The process whereby teachers can learn to implement these types of progressions, is by willingly putting themselves in student situations where they are learning something challenging that involves their own failure and successive attempts to try again. This will develop a teacher's empathy and understanding of the student process, patience with students, as well as springboard new creative ideas for skill acquisition. For example, although speaking practice is an important mechanism for learning a language, I know that I remember words, sometimes, when I can visualize their spelling. Acknowledging this, I can help my students decipher whether reading words when they are first learning a language is distracting or constructive.
These tasks are certainly not all inclusive and including every aspect within an hour lesson can be daunting. Collaboration between teaching, sharing teaching tips, resources, lesson plans and failure and success stories aid in teacher preparation as well as the continued understanding of language acquisition. Just as a baby learns to simply walk, as s/he grows, s/he can learn an infinite number of ways to walk, run, and dance, through emulation, trial and error, and endless teachers. The learning process is not only one that the student undertakes, but that the teacher must undertake as well.