Image courtesy of Marcin Wichary

Yesterday, I was reading over a discussion happening on the #AusELT Facebook page about students’ perception regarding games / activities in the language classroom. I don’t think I am alone when I say that I have had similar discussions with students about teaching methodology in my classroom. I haven’t had it happen in a while, but that doesn’t mean that students haven’t been thinking it. I would agree with some others here in saying that I probably don’t do that many activities or games in my class anymore, but my approach to teaching is still quite different from what many of my students are accustomed to.

Language teaching is one of those things that most people have an opinion on how it should be done. Even those who have never stepped into a language classroom already have a mental picture, rightly or wrongly, about what that looks like. There is no way that we can please all of the students all of the time. Someone in the classroom is going to think that things should be more serious or fun or something in between.

Upon further reflections regarding this discussion on Facebook, my mind started to wander in a somewhat different direction (anyone who knows me understands that this is completely normal). One of the comments from Mike Smith was in regards to how to best use the time you have with the students in the classroom. He suggested that there is work that is best done by the student on their own leaving more time in the classroom for more interactive practice. I think Mike is onto something here. To flesh out his point a bit more, I decided to break down the various components of language learning into two camps: teacher guided or led and individual work. There really is two parts to the teacher guided or led, that is one-to-one tutoring and group or classwork, but for the sake of this post, I will clump them together into one inseparable group.

Teacher guided or led

The obvious first thought is that the student can receive feedback on their productive skills. From my own experience, my conversations with others in another language often is left uncorrected. As long as we can understand each other for the most part, there is no need for the interlocutor to take the step in correcting your pronunciation, grammar, or word choice. That would require them to take on a role that would likely make them or the speaker to feel uncomfortable. Also, most people don’t know how to give proper feedback or even know what the problem is. That is where a teacher can make efficient and proper feedback without making the student feel like they are breaking a social rule.

With writing, some of my students are also taking university courses while studying English. The feedback they receive from their professors regarding their writing is primarily focussed on content, as it should be, and any grammar, spelling, or word choice errors are simply noted. There is no feedback on how to fix their writing. Once again, that is where the language teacher can intercede. Students bring me their work and I am able to guide them on their productive skills.

For both speaking and writing, most students either have a bad habit (including myself while studying a language) of not engaging in the target language upon leaving the classroom. For the student working on their own, they must push themselves to engage with others in the target language, which isn’t always easy. Also, for students in foreign countries, this isn’t always possible. The classroom becomes a place for students to work in, manipulate, and test out their language skills while the teacher monitors and provides ongoing feedback. Students don’t always have to be talking with the teacher to grow in their language skills as long as the teacher is actively listening and targeting areas that need work.

Speaking and writing are not the only skills that are best worked on in the classroom, social parts of the language and even study skills are all part of the package. Students often come up to me and ask me when to use such and such or why someone looked a them strangely upon uttering some phrase. The cultural part of the language is not something you can just read about. Many times, there are conflicting ideas on what is best and a teacher can help sift out the wheat from the chaff. An example of this is with idioms. Some of my students were asking me about some idioms they had learned and I had to explain that a number of them were not used much any more. I don’t remember the last time a native English speaker said to me that it is raining cats and dogs. I guess I could say that it happens, but only once in a blue moon (another idiom I rarely hear anymore). Word choice is another example. Common collocations are often missed by students working on their own. It is with the guidance of a teacher that they can be explained and reworked.

Lastly, and I would say more importantly, a teacher is there to help students notice areas in which they need work. A proper needs assessment is difficult to do on your own. A language teacher can work with the student to find areas that maximize the time that student has with others in the classroom. This isn’t just a one time event either. It is ongoing, adapting to the ever changing needs of the student.

I think there are more things that could be added to this such as encouraging the students, the cultural interaction amongst the students, and so on, but these are what I think are some of the more prominent components best worked on with a teacher.

Individual work

Not everything needs to be done in the classroom. There is a part of learning a language that requires students to work out things on their own. At first blush, it would appear that  the receptive skills, reading and listening, could be done without the guidance of a teacher. I would argue that there is a real place for teacher-led listening or reading, but some of that work can also be done on their own. I am a proponent of intensive reading and listening and I have my students engage in these activities through the use of online materials collated by both the students and myself. On their own, students can work at a comfortable pace and can choose when, where, and what they will read or listen to. As long as they are engaging in this regularly, I give my students full marks.

Another area some students really want to do in the classroom, but I encourage them to do on their own is what we would consider ‘worksheet’ material. There are thousands upon thousands of sites where students can work on this on their own. I don’t see a great deal of merit in the material (although it does help certain students in certain areas), but it does make them feel like they are actively part of the learning process. I want students to take ownership of their learning (a phrase you will hear me say over and over again in my teacher training courses) and this is one way in which they can work on things related to their learning and can fine tune certain things that we would end up dealing with in class with little reward for some.

Lastly, and most importantly, I want students to practice what they are learning in authentic situations. Go to a shop and ask for help. Engage with others at the university coffee shop (aka the pub). Take the rules of ice hockey to a game and yell at the ref when he blows a call. That is what I want. They need to see the connection between learning and doing. That is where real acquisition happens.

To summarize a bit, here are some things that I think teachers should focus on in the classroom and things they should spend less time on:

  • Have students write something in class. Give lots of feedback.
  • Have students speak to others in class. Provide plenty of feedback.
  • Work on pronunciation in class. Impart a good deal of feedback.
  • Meet with the students one-on-one regularly about their language learning needs. Follow that up with loads of feedback.
  • Don’t waste time on activities or exercises that students can do on their own.
  • Work with students to come up with a way to have them actively engage in extensive reading and listening on their own.
  • Most of all, give feedback.

Well, that is my take on things. What’s yours?

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