Archive for Tag: teaching methods

Sunday, January 25, 2009

3 Things I Learned From a Dreadful Teacher

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

My early excitement about learning English was extinguished in a flash. I was nine years old and eager to learn English, but my teacher was dreadfully uninspiring, bored with teaching, and oblivious to the effects of his sarcasm.

The French teacher described in David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is, I imagine, the female equivalent of my teacher.

After my first English class, I was convinced that:

  • I should be ashamed of every mistake I make. (Yes, my teacher would sigh and roll his eyes at our mistakes.)
  • My errors are funny to others, so it is better to be quiet than to make a fool of myself. (Yes, my teacher would comment sarcastically on pupils’ errors and the class would laugh.)
  • I have no talent for learning languages. (My teacher would explain grammatical structures and I wouldn’t be able to use many of them correctly the first time.)

Many language learners feel vulnerable or mentally limited when their communication skills, so essential to adult life, are reduced to simple sentences, single words, even gestures. I find that learners’ apprehension can be lowered if they are made to feel genuinely comfortable in the classroom, but also if they are informed about the ins and outs of the learning processes that they are experiencing.

In my classroom, I do three things to create an atmosphere conducive to learning:

  • Instill a sense of safety. I try to give my students senses of safety and confidence so that they feel free to experiment with language.
  • Turn errors into welcome learning opportunities. I try to get my students to view their errors and mistakes not as failures which should make them ashamed or which deserve ridicule, but as clues to their unique language abilities.
  • Instill a sense of progress and accomplishment. I encourage my students to be patient with their own learning processes. I create activities that will allow me to demonstrate to students that by the end of every class, they are capable of expressing themselves a little bit better, and that their efforts have paid off.

Luckily for David Sedaris, his French teacher’s comments–“Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section” and “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain”–turned out to be motivating for him. Entertaining as it is, his story, as far as I know, presents a rare picture.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lessons Learned in the French Classroom

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

It’s not that I have never studied another language before. As a Canadian, I was forced to spend years conjugating French verbs that I never used outside class. I have also had the pleasure of living abroad, both in Russia, where learning the language was a completely organic experience based on the need to communicate, and in Korea, where I traded English for Korean lessons, but could not really speak beyond ordering in a restaurant. But, after 12 years of teaching ESL and EFL in a variety of contexts, I recently moved with my husband to Belgium. In addition to teaching English here, I also immediately signed up for elementary-level French classes. After years of being on one side of the desk, I am now on the other, and I am continuously surprised at my own reaction to violations of what I have long held to be teaching “truths.”

Lesson 1: English Only?
Interestingly for me and frustratingly for my besieged French teacher, the target-language-only rule that dominates my English classes loses clout the minute I switch roles and enter my French class. Sometimes, if I don’t understand a grammar point the teacher is describing, or if I don’t remember a certain word, rather than laboriously try to negotiate meaning In French with the English speaker sitting next to me, I simply ask in English, “Does she mean …?” When students have done this in my classes in the past, I have reminded them to speak in English, but now I can see the benefit to quick, quiet explanatory conversations in the first language. My French teacher even speaks in English (insert gasps and shrieks of horror) sometimes to explain a particularly tricky grammar point. Although this would have certainly garnered my disapproval as a teacher-mentor six months ago, now, as a student, I am less horrified and more relieved at finally being able to understand what the teacher is trying to explain. Sometimes, when possible, I believe that a grammar explanation is better delivered in the students’ native language rather than in the target language, even beyond pre-beginning and beginning level classes. It is simply the easiest way to move from the French subjunctive to the next activity.
Lesson 2: Letting Go of English

As a teacher I know that grammar does not necessarily directly translate. I encourage my students to “think in English” as much as possible and let go of their native language grammar rules. Like following my own rules regarding the use of target-language-only, I have also found this theory easier to swallow on the “teaching” side of the table. I am surprised at how often I have to remind myself that there won’t always be an exact English equivalent to the French lesson on the agenda. For example, just the other day, we were learning how to speak about time. In English, we would use since with a point in time and for with a length of time. I am comfortable with this. However, I had the hardest time getting my head around the fact that the French time word, depuis, is much more flexible than our since. Even though I am consciously aware that it is important to avoid trying to translate grammar concepts, I have to repeatedly remind myself to let go.

Lesson 3: Writing First … Sometimes!

As an ESL and EFL teacher, most of the activities I plan for my students tend to focus on oral production. We spent class time learning new concepts and practicing them in conversation or with communicative Grammar games. Writing seemed to take too much time and was better done alone and at home. In addition, I argued that since real life does not allow for much preparation time, why should students have preparation time before speaking? So, you might imagine my surprise when I found myself looking forward to the times when my French teacher instructs us write our dialogues out in pairs before delivering them. My vocabulary is so much richer, even without heavy reliance on my dictionary, and my grammar is markedly more accurate when I am given more time to plan, though in retrospect this seems obvious to me. More interestingly, though, I was surprised by how much I truly enjoyed having time to think, and how much more I actually retained from the activity. As a teacher, I would have worried that this activity was too boring. In addition, as inundated as we have been with notions of communicative competence, I would have worried that this kind of quiet work would have actually hampered my students’ efforts to communicate. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I now believe that a mixture of activities that prompt spontaneous output and activities that allow for a more thoughtful approach to the target structure is wise.

Again and again, I have had experiences as a French student that call into question several long-held beliefs about teaching and language acquisition. I can only hope that, as I develop as a French speaker, I will also continue to grow as an English teacher.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Does Method Matter?

By Lida Baker
Los Angeles, California, USA

A wise colleague of mine once said, “It doesn’t matter what method you use to teach a language. The only thing that matters is whether your students like you or not.” I don’t think he was advocating the total absence of any method, but my own experience partly supports the importance of having a teacher you trust and respect.

I learned Hebrew as a child in Israel. My family lived on a kibbutz and there was not another English speaker in sight. I was 8 years old and within two months I was speaking Hebrew fluently. Back in the U.S., I started learning Spanish in 7th grade. I had good–and a few great–teachers all the way through college. In middle school the teaching method was pure audio-lingual. By high school and college it verged into the direct method. In the advanced college classes we read literature and talked about it (in Spanish). I learned successfully using all these methods.

In college, besides Spanish, I studied French, Italian, and Arabic using the direct method. I was successful with French (great teachers at UCLA, small classes, well trained teachers), unsuccessful with Italian (evening course, 40 students, unskilled teacher who spent the whole class talking “at” us, no pair- or group work), successful with Arabic (fabulous, enthusiastic, skilled teacher who had us talking within weeks). Then after grad school, wanting to continue Arabic, I enrolled in a night class. A disaster! The teacher blatantly favored students who could speak a little and left the rest of us in the dust. It was so insulting I dropped the class and that was the end of my Arabic.

Then I took Dutch. It’s my parents’ native language and I was super-motivated to learn so I could speak to my cousins in Holland. But the teacher was dreadful. His method was a mix of Grammar Translation and telling us about his personal problems–in English. He made every female in the class squirm. I dropped that class as well and never studied Dutch again.

So, what does this rambling account prove? Method does matter, but so do other factors. Of the seven languages I’ve studied, I dropped three of them because the teachers were unskilled, inappropriate, or failed to motivate me. I think I can learn using any method, but the teacher had better be good!