An argument about what students really need
Week in, week out on Ajarn Forum, I read about other teachers frustrations over their students learning abilities.
Most of us are faced with the same challenge: large class sizes. We can't do anything about this other than work with it.
What this article is about is how to improve the learning abilities of more of your students. Don't kid yourself though. You won't be able to do it with all of them.
It is only in my adult life that I have developed a hobbyist interest in mathematics. As a student I couldn't stand the subject. And no mathematics teacher could ever persuade me otherwise.
If your TEFL or CELTA was worth its salt, you'll have learned about the importance of regular review work. But do you really practice it? This is how I've come to define ‘regular':
Draw a horizontal rectangle across a piece of paper. Then draw a straight line from the bottom left-hand corner to the top right-hand corner. Write "Start of term/course" under the left-hand corner and "End of term/course under the bottom right-hand corner. Then write "New material" in the top triangle and "Review work" in the bottom one.
By looking at this simple model it's easy to see why so many students struggle to retain new material and score higher in tests and exams.
We all learned our first language through repetition and I would suggest that the same approach be applied to attempting to learn a second language.
The following is intended chiefly for primary school teachers, but secondary and private language centre teachers may also find it of interest if they are able to make teaching style ‘adjustments'.
Unless university students are majoring in English, I've come to the conclusion that this model can only be applied to reading and writing activities. Call me a defeatist, but I find it a sad but true fact. The most you can do is to help students improve their grades, not their spoken English.
Now, welcome to the engine room. Primary! The most important level too, as far as I'm concerned. This is where good learning habits can be created over life-long bad ones that are so easily formed and that are almost impossible to get rid of.
It's also where students form their earliest and ongoing opinions about whether they actually like studying English and/or are good at it.
Primary school teachers really do have the keys to the kingdom and bear a great responsibility to make sure that as many students as possible do decide that English is for them. Make or break so to speak.
It is why parents pay extra to have their children taught by native speakers and why the MoE created a budget to recruit native speakers in the first place.
P1 to 3 is fairly straightforward but you've got to get it right because P4 to 6 suddenly starts to become more complex and it is here where a lot of students die in the water. And they'll carry their negative and disinterested attitudes all the way through secondary and on to university. Game over.
On a more positive note, the best things about primary are that it's fun to teach, fun for students to learn and fun for everyone to be a part of IF you take your job seriously.
Fortunately, primary level student books, workbooks and worksheets are generally based around fun themes. I always shorten or strip out anything that is boring or irrelevant, i.e. cardinal vs. ordinal numbers, baseball, etc.
There are many reasons why students don't or won't read something and the number one reason has to be because they have no interest in the topic. Go on, read a newspaper article that you know will bore you senseless and see how it feels.
I use games and amusing activities in every single class. The Einstein equation of teaching... "enjoyable means retainable".
Phonics is an integral part of every class I teach. If students can read and pronounce words that they've never even seen before and/or don't know the meaning of, then it's easier for them to learn English. It's that simple.
I also start to introduce basic grammar at the P3 level to help prepare students for the shock that is waiting for them in secondary.
As your reviewing begins to grow, decrease reading and writing and increase listening and speaking. What may seem incredibly repetitive to you is very stimulating for students. Why? Because they're speaking a foreign language and they know what all of the questions and answers mean. And they're not coding and decoding between their first and second language, they're communicating. Nirvana!
I went through a brief phase of reading TEFL guru books but stopped when I became sick of reading academic citations and scrutinisations about what DIDN'T work. Most of these books are written by people that have long since left the classroom. I also already knew what they told me what DID work.
What I do read from time to time however are books by real teachers who are actively practicing what they preach. Here's a great quote from, oops I'm making a semi-citation here so I'm deliberately leaving out the publication date, "Reading Assessment" by JoAnne Schudt Caldwell. It was intended for English teachers in the US, but it contains some great thinking that can be readily applied to many situations.
"Spoken language and written language are much alike. They share the same sound system, the same vocabulary, and the same structure. For example, the sounds that form the spoken word dog are the same sounds that are represented by the letter sequence d-o-g. The meaning of the word dog is the same, whether we are talking, writing or reading. The structure of sentences in spoken and written language remains basically the same. The spoken sentence "I saw a big dog" will be represented in print the same way [I saw a big dog]. It will not be twisted or altered to another form, such as dog big saw I a. This means that if children are to learn to read and write their language, they must first acquire that language. They must learn the sounds that stand for meaning. They must learn the underlying concepts. They must learn how to string sounds together to form words and words together to form sentences. They must learn certain language conventions, such as adding -ed to what happened in the past." End of quote.
Don't aim for complex, long or grammatically correct conversations. Go for genuine communication and mutual understanding instead. Your improved test and exam results will prove that this method really works.
Ironically, I've found that the more students actively talk the better they become at writing. This is grammar falling into place the natural way. And that's the best way in my humble opinion. But hold weekly spelling tests and written quizzes just to keep this in check.
Next, the A to Z of English grammar. Secondary! Unless your students are specifically tested on grammatical terminology and/or free-form writing, you need to ask yourself if it is really necessary to teach them something that they will never actively use in conversation.
Can you, as a native speaker, name every single grammatical term without referring to a book? Very unlikely otherwise you would have been published by now. Do you have in-depth conversations about grammar with anyone other than fellow teachers? No.
A lot of the secondary tests and exams that I've seen are easy to mark multiple choice questions and gap-fills. Hardly the domain of dull and instantly forgettable terms like present simple continuous and modal auxiliary verb! Think about it.
"We know what's best for us!" MAC Education, a Thai publisher, has partnered with Mc Graw Hill and produced ‘Adventures in Reading & Writing'.
The series is far more accessible than anything I've seen from other Western publishers and there's not a sniff of grammar in it other than actually using the language correctly. And it was designed specifically for Thai secondary students. Beat that.
Your days are numbered you ol' grammar bores! ;o)
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