By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
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.