How I would approach teaching English
“An ongoing conversation I have had with my children, Joseph and Ana, over the past year revolves around the question, “What is your favourite color?” Joseph, almost five years old, immediately responds, “Green,” and when asked why, says, “Green is the color of grass, trees are green, green is all around us, it´s the color of spring.”. Ana, who is three and doesn´t like to be outdone by her brother, replies that her favourite color is blue, because “the sky is blue, the ocean is blue.” Then both of them turn to me and say, “ Daddy, what is your favourite color?” Every time we play this game, my response is the same: “White.”
“But Daddy,” Joseph says, “you can´t choose white. White is not a color; white is not in the rainbow; you have to choose a color that is, like red or green or blue or yellow.” And I explain each time that I think white is the most wonderful color of all, because within it one can find every colour of the rainbow.
Architect Rizzoli New York (1984)
For me, as an architect, as well as the spoken and written word, language can describe materials, form, texture, colour, richness, volumes, space… I enjoy painting, and the language of expression, vibrancy, simplicity, expression, links with my passion for music and literature. Above all, my passion for language revolves around one objective: communication.
Teaching English can take many forms: there are numerous systems, formulas, exam tests, Trinity College Exams, Cambridge Exams, level tests, placement test, progress test, proficiency tests: the list goes on. What is it that is really important to a student seeking to learn a language?
Language is normally thought of as written words, literature, text, spoken words. How wonderful to extend language to the language of the arts, architecture, poetry … where does language really begin, and where might it lead us?
What function does language have for us as human beings? When we concentrate on the spoken and written language, we have a need, a desire to reach out, to extend, to develop: as we mature, our thirst for new expression takes us further into the richness of discovering new words, new ways of making ourselves understood, and understanding others.
When I was 18 years old, I went to Greece on an eight week trip with my girlfriend: we had a wonderful time camping in rural areas and beaches, and earning our living for the period working in the fields, factories, and village carpentry shops. It was my first time abroad. We knew no Greek, and through a mixture of sign-language, good laughs, lots of smiling, games, drawings and careful listening and practice, by the end of the trip we could make a basic conversation in Greek. I can still remember with clarity the base structure of “ hello, thank you, we are going to… please…”
When communication becomes the goal, learning a language becomes fun.The function of the language learning is understanding. There may be no short-cuts, but there are certainly key language focus needed which helps to speed the learner through the process of improvement in English skills. For me, the best thing that I can do for my students is to help each individual through the journey of language learning, and enjoy it.
The process of learning language needs to cater for a wide range of learning levels; there are many obstacles to overcome, many mistakes to make, many gaps to fill. However, the one objective has to be that the language learning works. In my introduction, I look at the consistency of language that Meier adopts in his work as an architect: in language training and learning, there has to be a consistency around how to go about learning. For me, this consistency should be based around a robust system of practising language function and meaning, and keeping this simple.“What is it that you are actually trying to express”? My role as teacher should be to lead the student to see “all the colors of the rainbow” when applied to language range.
Individual students will have individual goals and targets, and their own ideas of what they
want to achieve, and for when.This will depend on experience, age and specific objectives
in language learning. My goal as teacher is to be able to take the level that
the student is at, personalise a programme of study to their expectations, and practise with
the student through constant communication, correction and exposure to a wide range of
How this is organised, whether on a one-to-one class basis, a group class situation or in
an informal meeting point environment, each case will be different and need careful
assessment on how to best arrange classes to meet target needs and expectations of the
The student as an athlete
Just as a painter first learns basic drawing techniques, an architect the base
blocks of the construction of buildings, a musician the key notes in the instrument
range, the student of English should learn through a process of training that should be
The athlete, without a warm-up, muscles are not loosened: without realistic goals, a
race taken too early can be counter-productive, attitude can become demoralised, injury
can set us back. My approach to teaching students is to be alongside each individual as a
training partner, giving constant encouragement, training tips, movement guidance, and
protection form injury; small steps make big steps, make routine, make order, and
flexibility, and stamina. In the right moment, the student will realise that the fitness level in
language expression has been reached, and the “ magic moments” in the language
learning process will pinnacle and will repeat.
Different ages of students require different input; just as different ability levels require
variety in the complexity of learning material. Close attention to the student´s expectations
is key in staying true to developing a program that suits every language learning client.
System of monitoring progress
In my view the best system for learning is to concentrate on the meaning. If we concentrate on the meaning, then the form and function of the language construction will follow automatically. This should be studied and practised through structure-based activities, dialogue-based , lexical and situation-based practice activities.
There are many ways to bring meaning into focus; questions, topic discussions, structure practice, vocabulary range-building. Teaching methodologies are wide and varied: my objective is to keep the methodology simple and clear. Just as we imagine guiding a visitor through a new city, methodology must adapt to pointing out established safe routes, key paths, sign-reading and understanding of transport networks. All movement takes time, and the code for moving around a city can be likened to language training and monitoring. At the end of the day, did the student arrive at the destination safely and having had a good time? Lots of sights to see, new faces to look at, new sounds to experience: a language training syllabus should be lively, modern, relevant and useful. I would give more importance to understanding and form, than to traditional rote-learning methods of grammar and structure analysis. Clear pronunciation is important, however speaking should be natural, not robot-speaking, and encouraging the students to speak in a relaxed and flowing way would be my priority.
The student should feel at all times that communication is the key role in lessons. My role as teacher should be as trainer; standing at the side of the student to monitor and encourage in active practice of the language and to share the enjoyment of seeing the language ability extend and reach new levels of sophistication.
Each student level has its own particular plateaux and each one is to be celebrated.
Excessive corrections should be avoided in order to encourage flow of learning in the class, and very much a case of judgement. Although at every level careful attention should be paid to corrections, as it is not helpful to facilitate that a student picks up pronunciation errors as the base steps should be solid ones.
How can teachers develop and work together to develop new ways of teaching
In Joseph Rykwert´s introduction to Richard Meier, Architect (Rizzoli New York 1984) , Rykwert points to what is immediately striking about the work of the architect, whose buildings were always white since the beginning of his career; his work has a consistency of language that Meier “has always worked as if no possible alternative existed”.
As language teachers, we can work together to bring joy to students’ experiences in learning a language. From beginner level - the child of three expressing the love of the colour blue - to the astronaut describing the wonders of the planets in orbit; language is truly amazing, and our hero should be our student for taking up the challenge to learn.
"Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever-brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling.
It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Architect Lippincott's Magazine (March 1896)