Geoff Richards

The death of General English

And if it isn't dead, it damn well should be


General English? Dead? It should be!

Let me begin by defining what I mean by ‘General English'.

The approach is adopted by many schools and most private language centres in SE Asia, and here it is.

Students work their way through a series of textbooks, New Interchange, et al, and start as beginners and work their way up to upper intermediate level.

Beyond this lay higher level textbooks that native speakers would be expected to study in their final years of school before moving on to university. These books and this level are not the subject of this article, so let's take a step back to the beginning.

As most of you know, there are two types of beginners: beginners and false beginners, the latter being those who have already had some exposure to English.

What I'm saying here is that there are also false pre-intermediates, false intermediates and false upper-intermediates. And all of them are products of General English.

So what's wrong about this?

"What's wrong about this?!!"

‘What's right about this?' is the question that should be being asked.

And my answer to that is that there is very little right about this.

Students study English with local teachers or native English speakers (NES), or both, but what they're ultimately looking at is a textbook, many of which were never published with Asian markets in mind.

And how are students graded? Through walled-garden tests: gap fills and multiple choice questions. The fact that too many students can't actually use this language in conversation should be setting the alarm bells off, but it doesn't when the onus is on the completion of a textbook and ‘guess tests', hence ‘false' applying across all levels.

Yes, there are quite a few schools where NES's are required to build on the textbook work that is already being delivered by the local teacher, but all they're actually doing is giving students more grammar and no proper conversation.

And if a student is unable to verbally communicate in any language, then they won't retain what they're being taught over the mid- to long term.

This is why illiterate people don't become mutes: they have to regularly and actively use their language.

Hence the rise of international schools, English Programs and after school/weekend tuition, all of which are ideal for the minority of families that can afford them.

Through my own personal experience and after chatting with other teachers, both off- and online, what I'm seeing emerging though is an excellent approach that I referred to in my ‘Short and Sweet' blog: whereby, skilled local teachers handle the ins and outs of grammar and qualified and experienced NES's top it off with listening and conversation.

And this works infinitely better than ye olde General English.

RIP




Comments

It's not General English coursebooks that are at fault - most of the well known books are excellent. The problem lies with the testing and the motivation that the test engenders. If a test is multiple choice or cloze based, then succeeding in multiple choice or cloze tests is what teachers and students will work towards. This is especially true of schoolchildren, most of whom are learning only because they have school or national examinations to pass. Likewise, it influences teachers who get judged on their students results. And pretty much all these examinations are cloze or multiple choice based.

So if you want students and teachers to apply themselves to other skills, then the testing needs to be re-designed accordingly. Otherwise you're just pissing into the wind.

But there's a reason that most testing is multiple choice or cloze. Listening is not so hard to test - although even then, testing multiple batches of students in different venues can skew results because of variation in the quality of sound production or acoustic environment.

But the real difficulty comes with large scale empirical testing of student's productive skills. It's notoriously hard to do. How are you going to test the speaking skills of a couple of hundred thousand school leavers over a short exam period? Who would administer the tests? How would the tests to be validated? Likewise, who are you going to find to mark a couple of hundred thousand writing scripts? And again, how are you going to ensure that the examiners are sufficiently well-trained and/or impartial that they award valid and consistent scores?

These problems arise wherever language is taught - not just in Thailand. And that's why, outside of the specialist examiners like Cambridge, the BC or ETS, multiple choice tests are ubiquitous.

By Nodrog, Middle East (11th October 2012)

@RDF.

Yes, you are 100% correct.

If you can't teach (stimulating) conversational English, then you're just a 'net-downloading grammar bore.

Period.

(Oops, punctuation terminology. Zzz.)

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (31st July 2012)

I am enjoying the entries here crucifying teachers for not learning English with notes filled with poor spelling, grammar and punctuation. Perhaps they should learn their own language, first.
Which English should we teach? American? British? Liverpool? The argument about South Africans teaching is quite pitiful and pointless. No country owns English. If you can communicate in a clear manner to other English speakers, you are speaking English. China has the most English speakers in the world and I doubt they are speaking BBC English.
Thais need a motivation beyond the government telling them to learn it. The US has many programs to get people to eat better, not drink and smoke, and drive carefully. How many people are taking that advice?
The problem I see with teaching here is that too much is focused on grammar and not enough on conversation. Why? Because conversation is more difficult to teach. Grammar can be taught from textbooks. In fact you can learn a language entirely from textbooks and never speak a word of it. That is the problem here. Not enough people get the kids to actually talk other than spouting out rote memory passages.
I am still new at the game and I get very little direction from the school which turns me loose to try different things. Sometimes they work and sometimes they fail. My kids tell me they can read just about anything I give them but few can understand my American accent. Thus, I have to be patient and persistent.

By RDF, Chiang Mai (31st July 2012)

Aaron, sorry , I did not realize that your comment as to lesson planning time was a quote , and I'm sorry for stating " no planning needed," I later stated that a few minutes at most , so , yes like anything in life some planning is needed , however , just like when teaching one should do so according to the level of the students , so too should I have been commenting here , Eg according to the level of the average teacher, as such , yes planning is very much needed , I was incorrect to be stating according to higher levels.
Look at all the great teachers in history, they tought by way of discussion , IE discourse, no blackboard DVD , VDO , prepared notes etc , their most powerful tool besides knowledge was their creative minds , many would start the discourse by asking the participants what they would like to discuss !! Extemporaneous being the key word, until education in general starts re adapting to this style education will be found wanting simply because teaching by way of instruction precludes comprehensive thinking . yakity blaah yakity.
Geoff , thanks for the link amusing and true indeed, experience does count , but TALENT is supreme.!!
Yours in Education,
Kieran

By Kieran, Nakorn Sri Dhammarat (31st July 2012)

@Kieran

Ditto!

I think you'll enjoy this guy's highly amusing but horribly true blog. I most certainly did, LOL.

http://www.ajarn.com/ajarn-guests/articles/people-without-formal-teaching-qualifications/

:o)

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (30th July 2012)

Kieran - I was not talking of double or triple prep time. I was quoting another here on this site for this discussion " ... " and responding to something I did not agree with. What I said was:

But, the problem and real question is, the concern is: what happens when textbooks are used instead of teaching? What happens when they no longer supplement curriculum and lessons/but are the curriculum and lessons and teachers read verbatim out of a book and students who memorize the book progress to the next level??? what happens…hmmmm… Well, what happens is you have teachers who don’t know how to teach and thus students who, although they can remember how to say stuff for a test from the book, have no real idea how to use English and if the questions deviate beyond the textbook lesson, they look at you with wonder because they really don’t have a true understanding of the material in the book - because they did not learn it - they learned it for a test to go to the next level of the private language school course…

But, what you speak of is also a problem - no prep = poor teaching even without books. A good, professional teacher knows you do not just walk into a room with students unprepared and somehow just figure it out and be creative in a split second. Creativity comes with questioning practice and spending time to develop creative and thoughtful curriculum and lessons. Nor does one only use a book... A teacher must use appropriate lessons and curriculum = texts, self-designed and creative material, multi-modal resources, etc, etc. in combination with books and depending on the students. The book should only be one resource. As well, one should not just wing it...even if it is listening and speaking only one needs more than a mere native voice walking into a room and speaking in English. One needs someone to prepare and then teach...

Thanks

A

By Aaron N, USA (30th July 2012)

Geoff, thanks for the well compiled link ,true , we are not negative as to textbooks in general, but negative as to the manner many teachers utilize them as Phil so lucidly pointed out. The basic problem is not the books , local teachers , system,etc etc, , the problem is the poor teaching skills of the foreign teachers ! ! In this regard the first problem is the lack of creativity, the majority of us are employed to teach listening and speaking skills only, right,? so what on earth is a text book then needed for . ? ? Should we be employed so as to teach ''general English" and the school requires that teaching from a book is needed, simple , be CREATIVE, I realize that this is difficult for the majority of us, but like, like get a grip guys, ! Aaron speaks of double , triple prep time .? ? ? I mean get a grip, grip gripity grip grip guys. Like , like to CREATE a lesson needs no prep time, please understand the word CREATE, I have never spent more than a few minutes on prep time for a lesson, start demonstrating to your students that you appreciate each and everyone of them their uniqueness . . I've had many students mention to me that they learn more from me in a lesson, sans a textbook,than an entire course from a previous teacher with a textbook.
A major problem with this inability to create is that, and I speak here mainly of teachers at government schools etc where listening and speaking skills are primary, most teachers are simply not sticking to teaching these skills , very very few teachers even touch on listening, as such they are basically impinging on the duty of the local teacher , little wonder then that these teachers are less than happy with us.
Get a grip guys , get creative. . !.

By Kieran, Nakorn sri Dhammarat (30th July 2012)

@Philip.

I couldn't have put it better myself!

LOL

:o)

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (28th July 2012)

Yesterday we did pages 11 and 12. Today we will do pages 13 and 14 and guess which pages we'll be doing tomorrow? We used to call them 'textbook trawlers' - teachers who did every exercise and every shitty shaded box on every single textbook page in the order they were presented - and followed every suggestion in the accompanying teachers manual, regardless of how irrelevant it was to the students they were teaching. It is, was and always will be a horrible way to teach English. And every time you would supplement your textbook exercise with an activity or something from your own brain, these same teachers would look at you as if veering away from the textbook was an admittance of homosexuality.

By philip, (28th July 2012)

@Baffled.

There isn't a negative attitude towards textbooks, there's a positive one towards the axing of General English, which IS what this blog is about.

Here are some thoughts that I blogged on textbooks a couple of years ago. And they're very much inline with your thinking: http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/geoff-richards/those-damn-textbooks/

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (28th July 2012)

"I don’t get the negative attitude towards textbooks. Surely good teachers are able to adapt, skip and supplement if necessary.
Would you rather write lesson plans for every lesson and teach without a book? Double or triple your unpaid prep time and toll be working for less than peanuts.
Use textbooks, but don’t be a slave to them."

Yes - I do not refer to poorly constructed texts and teachers who know how to utilize them to teach and allow students to learn. But, the problem and real question is, the concern is: what happens when textbooks are used instead of teaching? What happens when they no longer supplement curriculum and lessons/but are the curriculum and lessons and teachers read verbatim out of a book and students who memorize the book progress to the next level??? what happens...hmmmm... Well, what happens is you have teachers who don't know how to teach and thus students who, although they can remember how to say stuff for a test from the book, have no real idea how to use English and if the questions deviate beyond the textbook lesson, they look at you with wonder because they really don't have a true understanding of the material in the book - because they did not learn it - they learned it for a test to go to the next level of the private language school course...

Thanks for your comments

A

By Aaron N, USA (28th July 2012)

I don't get the negative attitude towards textbooks. Surely good teachers are able to adapt, skip and supplement if necessary.

Would you rather write lesson plans for every lesson and teach without a book? Double or triple your unpaid prep time and toll be working for less than peanuts.

Use textbooks, but don't be a slave to them.

By Baffled, Bangkok (28th July 2012)

Yes, Aaron, sadly there are too many textbook pushers out there.

One private language centre chain I worked for when I first came to Thailand had a beautiful progress chart in its reception area(s) that showed how a student could start with phonics and finish with TOEFL.

After 6 months of working there I pointed out to the manager that according to his chart and the way that students were rapidly forced up to higher levels, that it should be possible for an 8 year old who had been studying at his outfit for 4 years to sit an IELTS test.

He wasn't at all amused and we parted company shortly after my observation.

LOL

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (26th July 2012)

Thank you for this. When I taught at private language schools in Bangkok, they were so hyped up about the textbooks but that did not actually acknowledge learning. It merely gave a reason to give a certificate and get more money from parents - it in no way assisted in monitoring learning or comprehension or success or whether a student should or should not move to the next level. At those schools, I was paid to pass them and let them move on to the next level even if they didn't deserve it and would not succeed in the higher level...they modified it to allow them to pass anyway according to bank payments as far as I am aware. Needless to say, none of this has anything to do with true learning or teaching.

Phil / ajarn.com - PLEASE DO NOT MENTION THE NAMES OF SCHOOLS OR COMPANIES IN COMMENT POSTS.

By Aaron, USA (26th July 2012)

Thanks, Kieran.

Yes, tailoring is definitely one of the main ways to go.

The other, as I see it, are role-plays and simulations.

You might find this link useful. Ignore the business English focus and just think about how you can apply it to the everyday classroom. Most students of all ages love it!

http://www.ajarn.com/blogs/geoff-richards/being-a-business-english-teacher/

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (26th July 2012)

Geoff , You are correct .Textbook teaching here totally ineffective !! Tailoring the way to go Geoff, problem is the majority of NES teachers are lost when it comes to creativity .
I found it hilarious when I first started teaching, my P.C skills were very poor , and fellow teachers and agents where at loss as to how I could design , plan a lesson without " consulting" the net. Duh uh with my CREATIVE mind was always my answer , I've never and never will use someone elses idea.
Games ? ? a big no no , they breed a people who will only do something if they get something, and what of the ''lesser'' student , ?? and the winning student , who as he grows up starts losing ?? .

By Kieran, Nakorn sri Dhammarat (26th July 2012)

@Ben.

Yes, making your own lesson plans and materials is most certainly the way to go. It's called tailoring.

Whereas making students 'fit' into the latest free download is most certainly not.

:o)

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (25th July 2012)

Totally agree with this article, most language centers textbooks are complete rubbish. I am lucky that I have the freedom to teach my students what I want in my school, reaching for the I.E.L.T.S book or looking at the British Council website is a privilege and yes, reading ajarn.com gives me heaps of ideas (no more freebies, alright one more, daveseslcafe). Making your own lesson plans and worksheets is the way to go. I teach M. 5 and 6 so that’s why I use this type of material. I am also lucky to work with two other teachers who do all the lesson plans via internet research and their own ideas.
As a teacher I know the students and we as teachers know the students, this surely gives us the freedom to teach in what needs to be taught.

By Ben, Bangkok (25th July 2012)

@Charlie.

Good man, hang in there!

You're doing the right thing.

All the best to you. :o)

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (25th July 2012)

All those books suck! Our Thai teachers do like you mentioned and it's ridiculous. I teach with no books - give target language and vocab., drill and demonstrate through example or video. After this they practice through role playing in pair work. It's quick and effective. My only constraint is that I have to follow the school's unit plan

By Chris, Bangkom (25th July 2012)

I have the advantage at my school where the Director lets me get on with things. Many Thai teachers have tried to push textbooks onto me. I have managed to get away with not using them, as the Director has the same train of thought as I do.

I am teaching conversation. Stuff that the students would expect to use everyday. I am having some success with this and some students are starting to come out of their shell and speak.

By Charlie, Boonies (25th July 2012)

@Matthew.

I excluded that part because most students never PROPERLY reach such an advanced level.

I wrote this article with the masses in mind... the same masses who are permanently at least one level behind the level that they're actually studying because they never actively speak the language.

:o)

@Philip.

Yes, Headway was a pain to photocopy!

I worked at one place in Phnom Penh and the guy in the copy room had the patience of a saint, bless him. I used to slip him a can of beer whenever he had to photocopy Headway for me.

Maybe the publishers did it out of spite to stop copyright infringement. Whatever, serves them right for overpricing their books in developing countries!

LOL

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (24th July 2012)

I should add as well that Headway was always a bugger to photocopy from. I think Liz and John Soars did it on purpose. They didn't know the meaning of putting one single article or exercise on one single page like any normal person would.

They knew that EFL teachers all over the world would have to slide tentatively up to the one member of admin staff that they really hated and say "can you photocopy half of this page and then a third of the next page and staple them together and I need 20 copies by lunchtime. By the way, your hair's looking nice today"

By philip, (24th July 2012)

"Philip, I believe you are referring to the Interchange series which was/is written by Jack C. Richards"

My god you're absolutely right sir. How could I ever confuse Headway with Interchange? Shame on me - but it's been a few years since I stepped into a conversation class with one of those hallowed texts under my arm and a tape recorder machine with the cassette compartment door missing.

I wouldn't mind a pound for every time I sat down and said "right class, open your Interchange textbooks to page....."

Headway, now that was a completely different animal. I worked at a school where we only used Headway for upper-intermediate and advanced levels. Parts of those books were brilliant, other parts - a five-minute interview with Noel Coward on London in the roaring twenties and a mad scientist whose name mercifully escapes me talking about kinetic molecular structure - were always a step too far for your average Thai student.

I preferred Jack Richards asking any of the students if they'd ever dug their car out of a snowdrift.

By philip, (24th July 2012)

"Beyond this lay higher level textbooks that native speakers would be expected to study in their final years of school before moving on to university. These books and this level are not the subject of this article, so let's take a step back to the beginning."

Geoff, I was confused by this bit. You're saying that above upper-intermediate level (say, the Interchange blue book) students start using..what? "These books' are...what books?

I know this is off topic (though you did bring it up)..but I was hoping for a bit of clarification here.

By Matthew, United States (24th July 2012)

Philip, I believe you are referring to the Interchange series which was/is written by Jack C. Richards. The Headway series is the toil of Liz and John Soars, probably a blast as a couple on a double date. I'm assuming you've got the author right and the name of the books wrong here, as Interchange 2e is indeed a bit Jackie Chan-heavy!

By Matthew, United States (24th July 2012)

Ha! I remember Headway very well, Philip!

And good old Jack C Richards must have made a small fortune from New Interchange.

What I've always found in T'land is that many students struggle with contractions and prefer the longer format, so I've never really pushed them on it.

It's, or rather "It is", very interesting to see that the Thai educational publishing house, MAC, excludes contractions from most textbooks.

Back on topic, I've yet to see any General English students enter local/regional/national speaking competitions or go on overseas exchange programs. Why? Because they can't speak English!

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (24th July 2012)

I haven't picked up a Headway textbook for about ten years, but I remember that back in the day, Jack Richards (the writer) made a special effort to make sure the books appealed to Asian readers because in fact Asia, and Thailand in particular, was Headway's biggest selling market. So there would be more references to Jackie Chan than Sylvester Stallone.

It was a long overdue move. I was sick of teaching students with the old Headway series and asking them if they'd ever been snowboarding or dug their car out of the ice.

By philip, (24th July 2012)

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