Tuesday, February 7, 2012
How Champagne Changed my Teaching
By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
Two Tours in Champagne
Although neither my husband nor I are Champagne experts, we do like a glass of bubbly from time to time. So, over a recent long weekend, my husband and I drove to the Champagne region of France. Our first stop was at the famous Tattinger Champagne house in Reims. There, we took a tour of the caves lead by an English-speaking guide. We learned where the grapes for Champagne are grown, how the bottles are turned periodically, and how they get the bubbles into the bottle.
After our tasting, we left the city of Reims and began to drive along the touristic Champagne route described in our guidebook. It is a beautiful drive, peppered by plenty of smaller Champagne houses along the way. After passing a few of them, we decided to stop at the Bernard Chauvet et Fils Champagne house. Our experience was completely different at this Champagne house. The tour was shorter, the tasting was free, and the proprietor spoke no English whatsoever. The tour and demonstration was entirely in French.
Now, as you might know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have sporadically been studying French. However, my vocabulary is certainly not technical enough that I would have been able to understand what the proprietor of the smaller Champagne house was saying had I not seen a similar demonstration at the Tattinger house earlier that day.
My Teaching since Champagne
So, what does this have to do with language learning? Well, that day I had one of my long held suspicions confirmed; if a student learns about a subject in their own language, it will be infinitely easier for him/her to comprehend details about that subject in English. It seems so obvious when I write it, but it took my own experience before I fully realized how powerful knowledge in my native language can increase knowledge in a new language.
So, what impact can this have in our lesson planning? I currently teach English to students who are preparing to enter mainstream secondary school classes. For instance, after the winter holidays, one of my students is going to enter a year 9 Geography class. So, I need to make sure she has the language she will need to be successful in that class. In the past, I might have focused on teaching and reinforcing vocabulary and certain grammar, reading and writing skills. Since Champagne, however, I have decided to also include some time for her to use the internet and research specific topics in her language, French, as well. This will give her more ‘hooks’ upon which to hang the information she will get in English.
Another change I will make is with my students who are preparing for TOEFL exam. Many of the readings and listenings in this exam (as well as others like it) are academic and focus on subject specific topics. For instance, in the Longman Preparation Course for the TOEFL Test by Deborah Phillips, there is a listening passage about whales and echolocation. That listening is far easier for students who already know something about whales than for those who don’t. Of course, it is impossible to predict what subjects will appear on the exam; however, it seems to me that it is good practice to encourage students to read up on a number of different academic subjects in their first language, especially on topics they are not already familiar with.
Many of you may have figured long ago that when students are familiar with a topic in their language, it is easier for them to access the information in English. Our students come to us with a (long or short) lifetime of experience and information. It makes sense to use that to our advantage as language teachers. I would be interested to hear how this affects your teaching. How do you actively encourage students to make use of their native language knowledge in your classes?