My Approach to Teaching English
When it comes to learning English, as far as I can see, there is only one true learner goal; to be able to communicate in English. Whether you are learning the language because you are branching out your Law firm to the UK, you dream of being an A-list Hollywood star, you want to write a hit song in the US, your daughter went and married an English boy, maybe you want to marry an English boy or, perhaps, you simply want to be able to strike a conversation with a stranger on a subway train in New York City. Whatever the exact reason is, the root of that reason is the desire to communicate and converse in a second language (L2).
I have never had the privilege of being fluent in another language. Despite this, I have never found difficulty in getting my point across, or getting what I need. Whether through gesture, pointing or by gathering eggs, sugar and a cake and miming a whisking action to get a storekeeper to find the flour for me (true story). This practice of communication forms the basis of one of the key methods I believe in when teaching English. I do not consider allowing translation in a learning environment to be a particularly good learning method. In my opinion, it only allows for confusion and slightly broken English. The time taken to convert from English to the mother tongue (L1) and then back to English, is a lot longer than you would imagine. In a real-life scenario, this can cause the learner to just stop and revert to “yo no hablo inglés!” resulting in a sharp drop in confidence, which is detrimental to actually taking this gained ability in to practical use. My belief is that learning everything in English gives a learner much better results and gets us to a fluency level, far superior than other methods.
But how can you teach anything if there is no initial translation? How could someone just understand a new foreign word’s meaning? Valid questions. There may be some ‘Spanglish’ uttered to start with but it is a process, and it will become English with the right support and guidance. In terms of actually learning new vocabulary, the use of physical objects and visual aids is key. This isn’t my belief because I do not want to learn a new language and I’m too lazy to do that to teach English, actually for me, it would much easier just to say “gdzie jest to makie?” But if the student can form the connection themselves, they create a much firmer hold to that intelligence and the concept than if I were simply to translate everything. I’m sure that there is a shopkeeper somewhere remembering that crazy English man who wanted ‘flour’.
Of course, this is not an easy start to learning a new language and could potentially lead to a lack of student motivation. It is, for this reason, that adapting for each student’s own ability, and more importantly, their personality is imperative. The next step in this learning process is a little more traditional. I use repetition to further cement the newly obtained information. Repetition has been a substantial part in language acquisition, ever since man tried to learn other forms of verbal communication. This approach takes ideas from a number of methodologies. For example, the use of realia, gesture and visual aids come from an approach called Total Physical Response. This takes its own influence from a human’s first acquisition of language as child. Where the teacher (parent) will show the child an object, and name it. Through a process of repetition and a lot of patience, there is language acquisition. This is, of course, a very crude method to teaching, but we all speak at least one language and this is a very strong theory of how it was learned. The Total Physical Response approach works very well with learners beginning their study of a language, at all ages. This technique of repetition is prominent in the Audio-Lingual Method, that was used, to great effect, in WWII by American Military forces. These are perfect methods for most learners. Although this may be a great technique for learning, it certainly should not be the main aspect of lesson or syllabus structure. It is not inspiring and certainly not an enjoyable way to learn.
To further allow progression at the beginning of the student’s learning adventure, language should be graded. By that I mean the teacher should use a range of vocabulary tailored to the student’s ability – what is the use of talking to a student with basic skill as if they were an Oxford professor of Creative Writing? They will not understand and be left feeling despondent and demotivated. Once the key vocabulary and key elements of L2 are there, then the next step is to actually begin the main goal, conversation.
Conversation is where the teaching approach becomes more complex and better thought out. The desire to learn a language is non-discriminant: an eighty-seven-year-old war veteran is equally as like to want to learn a new language as an eighteen-year-old fashion student, or a fifty-year-old accountant. And no two students are ever going to be the same. Therefore, there must be a range of teaching approaches and focuses for each learner.
In teaching, there is only one responsibility for the learner: to show up. The rest is up to us, the teachers. We must create a comfortable environment for the learner; provide a blend of challenging content, to encourage development and, at the same time, previously learned content, to allow reinforcement of knowledge. We should give constant soft assessments so the student can clearly see their progression and see the areas in need of improvement. Most importantly we need to build the student’s confidence. This is a vital role for the teacher to play. To achieve this, we must be aware of all of the affective factors involved with learning, and gauge the student’s specific requirements. To assist in keeping motivation, we should make sure the content is relevant and interesting. To help maintain high self-esteem, offer praise and avoid giving negative feedback. To ensure a good attitude, provide our own positive attitude, and to avoid anxiety, give the student an appropriate amount of time in making answers, and offer support as if we were scaffolding, supporting the structure of the student’s ability before they become self-sufficient.
As I have mentioned, each student will have a specific number of needs and requirements from the teacher. Some people learn better from exercises involving repetition, outlined in the Callan approach, where repetition is the main (if not the only) method. Others may need to just be given time to make sense of the language themselves with a very passive teaching role. Although, I would suggest that the majority need a blend between the two. It is, for this reason, that my teaching approach would remain very closely tied to a Direct, Communicative approach. Where the emphasis on teaching is centred around the actual function of the vocabulary and grammar and allow the pupil the opportunity to express themselves – as that is the entire purpose of a language. When teaching grammatical rulings, show the rule in context, with examples, conversations, or sentences. Then once that has been looked through, then I would explain the ruling. The degree to which I explain this will totally depend on the students’ needs or interest in the subject. In regards to the structure of lessons, I think that opening the lesson with unrelated small talk or questions is a great idea. As it allows the student to feel instantly connected with the teacher and the language, and comfortable, and also gives me, the teacher, a chance to add humour and enjoyment from the very first second. Then I would move to the actual lesson. Unlike traditional L2 acquisition lessons, I do not believe that staying on one subject repeatedly for an hour is an effective way to maintain the student’s attention or motivation. Therefore, a range of topics and content is required: some vocabulary exercises, keeping the attention of the student so they are keen and involved in the learning process. Some grammar and pronunciation exercises and then conversational exercises. All brought together with the key learning goals for the lesson recapped at the end of the lesson, so the student can have their own assessment of the knowledge that they have learned. The same key roles of the teacher apply with an advanced L2 student. Adapt. Learners with a more advanced level will not need so much vocabulary or basic grammar, they need expansion of conversation topics, they need fluid speaking and they need a challenge. With lower level students, keep it basic. All of the exercises must be interesting in terms of topic and difficulty level. If these are wrong, again the student may become despondent.
No matter the need of the pupil. The key to the teacher’s role is to adapt their conversational method. The speed of speech, the range of vocabulary used, the amount of assistance given, the ratio between the student’s speaking time, and the teacher’s. There must be evident structure to the lesson and constant, reinforcing feedback and praise to keep all of the negative affective factors at bay. However, it is imperative we remember that no two human beings are the same, nor will they ever be. Therefore, it follows that the method used to teach them should be different. Yes, I believe in conversational teaching, with support and guidance from the teacher, a relaxed every-day environment, almost as if they were not learning at all. But the degree and real approach must differ to each student’s own personal requirements. Therefore, when approaching the question ‘What is your teaching style?’ I fear this may be the wrong question to ask. The question I think we should be asking ourselves as teachers is ‘What does this student need me to be to best advance their learning?’