Monday, May 10, 2010

Should Learning English Be Fun?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

It’s a hard question, isn’t it? Saying “yes” might imply your classes aren’t serious or useful; but who wants to be teacher who says “No”? That’s not going to be a popular answer with your classes (or perhaps even your colleagues or your boss). It’s not really a yes/no question, though; maybe it would be better expressed as “How much fun should learning English be?” A better question, but no easier to answer.

What is the question, really? The one question you should be asking about learning, and by extension, your teaching? To me, it’s “Why are my students learning English?” Although there are many different answers, depending on the students, I am going to guess that the answer most of them would give, were we to ask this directly, would not be “To have fun.”

My high school-aged son is in his second year of learning Japanese in an American high school. I heard him exclaim, one evening, that he really liked his Japanese textbook. Since I write language learning textbooks, I naturally wanted to know why, and to take a look at his book.

It’s frankly not a very exciting textbook, at least visually. It looks like ELT books from 20 or 30 years ago. Black and white, with no photographs. The line drawings are simple and are only used for exercises, not as decoration. The exercises are pretty straightforward—here’s a model, here are some substitutions, now get in pairs and do it over and over again. There are no celebrities and no references to current TV shows or movies. There are no crossword puzzles.

I asked my son what he particularly liked about his book, and he said, “It’s easy to find the vocabulary in the unit—it’s all in a list.” Was that the most exciting feature? I asked, and he said yes it was, because that made it easy to study for tests. Were the dialogues exciting? He had no opinion. Did he wish there were color pictures? No opinion. Did he find the exercises fun? “Who cares?” was his answer. I explained that when I wrote textbooks, I was repeatedly asked to design exercises that were fresh yet relevant to students’ lives, that presented the material in engaging ways—that were, in a sense, “fun.” He laughed at me. “Mom, when I want to have fun, I play the XBOX, or hang out with my friends. I don’t study Japanese. What I want is a book that explains things clearly so I can study as efficiently as possible, because I don’t have a lot of time. I just want to know the stuff and get a good grade.” When pressed, he did say that he would be happy to learn Japanese from a modern attractive textbook with fresh engaging topics—but only as long as he could learn it as well and as quickly as he could do it with his current book.

To put it another way: You’re turning 11 years old. For your birthday, would you rather have a party with pony rides and a clown who can fold balloons into whimsical shapes, or would you rather have an ESL teacher come and give a rousing lesson on the present perfect? If you’re an adult, would you rather go to a jazz club with your friends, or have a little study group that examines the way transitions are used to connect paragraphs in an essay? How about learning the proper way to cite sources using APA formatting? No? Our students, for the most part, are not trying to have “fun” in class. They’re trying to learn English.

Now, certainly there are some students who are learning English because of a strong affinity for literature, who will go on to become poets and craftspeople who work with English because of a pure love of the language. However, I think most students want English to do well in school, or get a job, or travel, or interact with other people with whom English would be the common language; and for those students, what is going to make them happiest is success. Knowing the language. The extent to which an enjoyable activity leads them to this success is what should drive our choice to use this activity, and not whether the activity is a fun game in and of itself. Fun in the classroom now with no appreciable achievement in their learning goals will give you a class of students that laughs happily in every class and is ultimately unhappy and angry at the end of the term—and rightfully so. Activities that might seem repetitious or mundane, if they result in students learning the language, are actually going to please them more.

As stated before, though, “Should learning English be fun?” is not a yes/no question. It’s not that simple. Of course if you can assist students in their goal of learning the language quickly and thoroughly, and you can do so in an enjoyable way, you should by all means do so! There is only a problem when those two goals conflict, and a teacher chooses enjoyable over useful.

The question, therefore, that you should be asking yourself when selecting textbooks and exercises and games, when designing your own activities and worksheets, is not “Is this a fun activity?” but “How is this going to help my students learn English?” Once you are sure that the activity is worthwhile in the sense of being practical, then you can refine it or spice it up or dress it up as a game. Go ahead and be entertaining—once you are sure that you are meeting the needs of students as learners of the language. Ensure that your classes are useful and efficient, and your students will be grateful and, yes, happy.


Comment from Jeanne
May 10, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I know it’s hard to decide between fun and practical but for me, it has to be fun. The content needs to be there but how you present it is vital. I remember hearing, “Don’t let them see you smile until Christmas” and I understand this but I like the smiles. I like when my students joke with me. I like using real life experiences to send home grammar points. Knowing your students well means you can create authentic learning experiences. I choose to make it fun. It’s so hard to study abroad and to know that you made a fun connection in a sometime boring grammar class can encourage students to continue. Or at least to come to class on time!
Great article-thanks!

Comment from Thomas Donahoe
May 10, 2010 at 5:34 pm

A version of question was once asked of me by a friend of mine, named Mike, who teaches history at the high school level. He said, “Why should learning always be fun? Shouldn’t it sometimes be _work_?” (There was a near sneer at the word fun.) I am of the opinion that both are possible, and that there is a time for both. That said, fun is important. It reduces academic anxiety thereby making learning easier. I once taught a group of Brownies (2nd-5th grade girls) how to count to ten in Italian. This was done in the context of a game. Had I done drills, clozes, quizzes, etc. they may have learned it, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as engaged and open to the learning experience. They had fun (important for kids of that age on a Friday night) AND learned the target material.

Comment from oriel ortega
May 11, 2010 at 7:57 am

I realy appreaciate your articles.They are very helpful and interesting. Can you give me information about Using Games in the classroom. I am taking a Tesol master degree.
in Panama.

Thank you

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
May 11, 2010 at 11:34 am

Now, I think it’s important to emphasize that I am not against fun! And I think my students would support me in that. BUT–the usefulness really has to come first. That is the purpose of English class. We’re not babysitting, or entertaining, or distracting. We are teaching. And what is the class called? “How to Have Fun”? No, it’s called “Learning English.” So… that has to be the primary goal.

I would have thought my son, being 15, would want more “fun” in his classes. But the clcasses he loves the most are the ones that work him to death and he learns something. He doesn’t even like the subject of math–but when he really “gets” the topic, he looks so happy! Pride, sense of accomplishment, recognition of abilities, the security in knowing that he really *knows* something–that’s what *really* makes him happy.

So as long as all that is happening in your English class, then the jokes are great (or if the jokes themselves are teaching, then they’re great). But all the jokes in the world wouldn’t make up for not really learning English.

Fortunately, we very often can have both at once. I’m only cautioning–make sure the most important goal is being met.

Oriel, I actually am a huge fan of games in the classroom (because I think they’re useful!), and I would be happy to write on that topic.


Comment from David
May 11, 2010 at 6:52 pm

I cannot help but wonder how many of the people who claim that learning a foreign language is “fun” have ever actually done it themselves. I learnt Japanese as an adult, and I remember it being frustrating, confusing, and at times, incredibly hard work. Of course, it was also stimulating, challenging, rewarding, and motivating at times as well, but “fun” is not the right adjective at all, and I think it is misleading for teachers to use it.

Of course, that is not to say that you cannot have fun while you are learning a language, but that fun comes from the social interaction. I have never heard anyone talk about having fun whilst studying English by themselves.

Saying that you can have fun doing something is not the same as saying that it is an inherently enjoyable activity. I used to have huge amounts of fun picking potatoes with my friends on a local farm when I was a kid, but I would never suggest that crawling around on your knees in a muddy field for 8 hours is an enjoyable activity.

As teachers, our responsibility is to maximize our students’ chances of reaching their end goal, and one big part of that is being honest with them right from the start about the nature of the task that they face. Let’s try to make classes engaging, motivating, and interesting, and by all means, let’s try to give our students a sense that they are really making progress, but let’s also remember that “fun” is something that teachers do not need to worry about. As Dorothy’s son said, “fun” is not what students expect when they come to an English lesson. Most of them are quite capable of arranging that for themselves after they have left our classroom.

Comment from Sally Zimmerman
May 14, 2010 at 9:59 am

I saw this site on my nephew’s Facebook page this morning and, ironically enough, I had been thinking about this very issue today on my way to work. I was an English teacher for 20+ years but now work in communication at the CDC. Yes, teaching became burdensome to me in so many ways, and, frankly, one of them was the necessity to make everything “fun.”
I have had some experience in tutoring ESOL students and working with ESOL students who were too quickly moved into grade level English classes, so I know that teachers of ESOL have a somewhat different perspective on the task of teaching English. For many of their students, learning English is essential to their future success in school, in preparing for the job market, in landing a job and in functioning in an English-speaking environment. Therefore, they can be really motivated learners.
Unfortunately, many native English speakers in high school English do not see the need to learn more about their language. They feel that they can communicate quite well, thank you, and see no need to learn standard or effective English, to broaden their vocabulary, to learn to write, or to study literature. Some of them do want to make a good grade, of course, or to prepare themselves for college entrance exams, and are motivated by that prospect. But in today’s schools, at least in my experience, many students cannot see beyond what is happening today to consider planning for their futures by preparing themselves for college or the workplace. So, we are left with fun as the supreme motivation.
Although of course I tried to make my classes as interesting and engaging as possible, there are inevitably times, as others have already commented, when learning is work. And during those times, one of my students would sometimes comment, “This isn’t fun.” Occasionally, I would go into a semi-tirade on the subject of fun, but usually I would just try to get back to what we were doing, or what I was asking them to do, to facilitate their learning. When I began teaching a million years ago (okay, 40), teachers did not worry so much about fun. In fact, I do not remember any emphasis on fun in my education courses. I do remember, however, learning how to create interesting and engaging lesson plans and practicing their presentation. And I remember the hopeful attempts to apply what I learned when I began teaching. (And, yes, I know that education theory has changed in the last 40 years, that what we learned was all wrong and that no one likes to hear references to the “good old days.”) There was always some element of enjoyment involved in my classroom learning activities even if only to keep students paying attention so that they could learn. But the focus was learning—always learning. I wanted the learning to be fun.
I think that the current focus on fun has created students who don’t understand what it means to work or to achieve understanding or to master a skill, and therefore do not know the genuine sense of accomplishment, and, yes, pleasure that comes from doing so. In fact, current child development experts have noted the valuable self-esteem that comes from actually accomplishing something through personal effort, rather than the meaningless self-esteem that comes from building up egos with false praise. The last few years that I was in education, we as teachers were always hearing about (and being blamed for) young people entering the workplace with inadequate skills and no real sense of responsibility. What a surprise! Where were they supposed to learn these qualities? Of course, the first and best place to learn them is at home, but the school should definitely reinforce character traits and foster skills to move them closer to the goal of productive adulthood. We, however, were too busy trying to make them happy and having fun.
One more thing—whatever happened to enjoying work? Don’t most people want a career that provides pleasure or at the very least, a sense of accomplishment in the work they do daily? I know what it is like to begin each work day with dread. For the last 8 years of my teaching career, this was all too frequently my experience (having nothing to do with the actual teaching of students and everything to do with unrealistic expectations, unresponsive and unruly pupils, and unsupportive administrators and parents. Can you tell I have issues with the current educational establishment?) Anyway, I know the difference between doing work that you enjoy and just working for a paycheck. And I know it is possible to actually enjoy your work. I can also remember taking real pleasure in writing research papers, reading and understanding challenging literature, studying piano and learning French, the same way others enjoy learning advanced math, computer programming, automobile repair or construction. I know it sounds cheesy, but learning really can be, if not technically fun, an enjoyable experience.
Is it possible to somehow incorporate engaging lessons and comfortable classroom environments with the work of learning and learning to love that work? In today’s school systems, I really don’t know—obviously I gave up on the process. But, to me, it is the ideal and I absolutely believe it is one of the keys to improving the educational system in our country–and to making it work.

Comment from Parveen
June 10, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Thanks for all the wonderful materials.You have been doing an excellent job.They are very helpful to create great interest among students. it has been a pleasure teaching grammar because of the materials provided. we would be glad and really appreciate if worksheets based on themes are provided. We are teaching IGCSE English as a second language where comprehensions and notemakings play a pivotal role. Hence we would be thankful to receive materials based on that.
Thank you once again.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
June 10, 2010 at 9:11 pm

@Sally: It’s taken me a while to get back to you, sorry! But you raise an excellent point, I think–that somehow the definition of “fun” has come to mean something like “as exciting as a circus.” Can’t it also be “fun” to actually learn something? To start from not knowing, and get to knowing? I think students need to see *that* as pleasurable, and not just look for a lot of laughs. If they can be shown that achievement and satisfaction and acquiring tools that will serve them for future goals are what’s truly special about education, then it will be easier for them to work hard in (and out of) class. And… once I know how to teach everyone that in a few days, I’ll let you know. 😉

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
June 10, 2010 at 9:16 pm

@Parveen: I sympathize with how much work it is for a teacher to create her (or his) own materials! May I suggest this: Have your students create your worksheets.

Now, the first time you do this, it will serve as a review. That is, once your students have some practice with the structure–let’s take for example, the simple past and the present perfect–then have them work in groups or pairs to create exercises to practice this.

But ask them to create the kinds of exercises you want! If you want stories or paragraphs on a certain subject, then assign that to the groups. If you want dialogues or short skits that they can also read out loud or even memorize, then ask for that. And so on.

Creating the exercises will force the students to really know the points deeply. Of course, you will have to correct the exercises. But once they’re done… why, then you save them for next term’s class! Share them with other teachers, and ask those teachers to collect and share exercises from their classes.

In a few terms, you will have a nice collection of worksheets on topics that are interesting to your students, are on the grammar points you’re teaching, and are at just the right level!

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