19 Jul 2015
Vulcan logic dictates that delving into the details of an approach on teaching English should always be done with the properly analysed goals, requirements, student level and age, or expectations on mind. As such, there is no universal or generic approach to English teaching, as the suggested methods, aids, contents, etc are varying with those characteristics of the school or course. Below I will try to compile my thoughts on teaching English with the idea of the English classes I witnessed in the public school system and the intention of how it could be reformed and improved. This assumes very limited expenses and resources, existing staff and classrooms, and a state driven education system we need to fit into. This is far from the ideal, requires a realistic approach rather than describing the best I could think of, so please bear in mind that under different circumstances I may go an entirely different way.
The original goal of the English language classes in a public school is to prepare the students for passing a language test defined by the ministry of education, which is part of the global curriculum. Advanced classes are aimed for preparing the students for an internationally accepted language exam. However, with the presence of multinational companies as likely employers, the availability of a broad range of student exchange programs across the world, and the free migration of workforce within Europe, the motivation of students now shifts towards the need for being able to take part in day to day conversations, meet new people and develop friendship with them, and to maintain such relationships across geographical distances. Also, they understand that working in an international environment they should be able to follow instructions, report progress (or the lack of it), discuss difficulties and solve problems in English. This makes reading, writing, speaking and listening skills equally important. And does not allow the courses to focus on one over the other.
I strongly believe that the most effective approach to achieve this kind of success would be a combination of grammar based and function based syllabus, where the units follow a natural order of tenses and grammatical structures with respect to difficulty and frequency of use, while each individual unit is built up from function based classes defining the vocabulary and the activities used. The general concept goes like this:
Syllabus: as the external structure of the units preserve the traditional grammatical chapters the old system used, the hierarchy of the new units can be built fairly easily and quickly. The contents of the units however require considerable work, which needs to be compiled by the staff or created by an external company and then purchased by the school. Considering the number of schools that will use such materials, a more likely and sensible solution is that the ministry of education secures the development of such content and provides these to the schools free of charge.
Technology in the classroom: is based on the fact that mobile devices are already in the classroom as every single student and teacher have at least one, and they bring these in to the class with them. These devices are capable of many useful things, but these traditionally act as distractions. The idea is to make these devices and their functionality a part of the class, converting them from distraction to learning tools. This way a significant portion of the lost time students would already spend fiddling with their devices anyway can be turned into useful time used in the process of learning. Recording activities, playing back video or audio, showing or taking pictures, or distributing messages and notes can be done using the built-in applications of almost every device. Additional functionality can be added by developing specific applications. One such use would be a dictionary application, which automatically includes the vocabulary of the classes already covered. For very basic level students this can be an L2-L1 dictionary providing the translation of the words and expressions to mother tongue, for later classes it can be an L2-L2 dictionary describing the meaning of each word or expression, listing synonyms and examples. Utilising the multimedia capabilities of the devices, such a dictionary could include audio samples demonstrating the pronunciation of the words. And we don't need much imagination to consider that it could also include the functionality to check whether the student pronounces the word correctly by recording what he/she says and comparing that to a set of samples stored.
Another everyday technology to take advantage of is the internet. This can allow one or two students to participate in the class remotely, in the same way video conferencing is done in business or the family. This can allow a sick or injured student to keep up with his/her classes, or can connect a student on an exchange program back to his/her home class building bridges between the local and the remote schools.
Another idea to consider is to record each class. The video recording can be automatically distributed to all enrolled students as podcasts. This allows the students to re-watch the class before the next one, to focus on a particular section of the class they need additional time with, and it also allows a student who missed the class because of a sport event or other engagement to watch and stay up-to-date with the progress. It also allows the teacher or faculty to review and analyse the classes, discuss issues and solve problems. The uses for quality assurance, training and advertisement purposes or record keeping are also worthwhile to mention. There is a usual concern about how students feel about being recorded and how that changes their performance in class. However, by always recording the class from the very first time, this becomes normal and no longer affects student behaviour.
An example after-school activity: The class is broken down to teams of 3-5 students. Each team is to make a video recording of one member (or a couple) making a room reservation for next month in a local hotel, in English. They are to fill out the form provided by the hotel (spelling). And bring it into class, which will then be used there as a realia for the other teams and other classes. A follow-up in-class activity can be to cancel this reservation via a phone call or an e-mail.
An example in-class activity: role play, where each team reanimates a dialogue from a movie they like. Other teams may guess which movie it is, and they make notes and will need to summarise what happened. Alternatively the team may select an English language song from a band they like, and role-play what the song is about while the music is played.
These sorts of activities are not only fun to do, but they also help to keep a healthy balance between how different types of students can utilise their advantage in the learning process. The above examples are equally effective for visual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, verbal, rhytmic and kinesthetic personalities. Combined with a grouping, listing or ordering task, a mathematically aligned student can also be motivated. This can generate intrinsic motivation in those students who were originally motivated by extrinsic factors only.
The approach described above does not reinvent the wheel. It borrows from multiple traditional and new methodologies using their beneficial pieces to create a realistic solution to a real problem while attempting to increase student involvement to achieve better results.