Anyone who approaches ELT as a career inevitably reflects on their own development from time to time; many of us take active steps towards becoming better, more versatile, more ‘enlightened’ teachers. Some of us have moved on to positions in ELT that involve less direct teaching of English, e.g. educational management, teacher training, materials writing, while others have remained full time in the classroom. One things is certain: Each of us has our own perspective on further development, and all of us can benefit from sharing our individual perspectives. That is the aim of this blog series.
We heartily welcome comments on this and any of our blog entries, and if you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This guest blog was contributed by IH Budapest CELTA ‘graduate’ David Juhasz. Since completing his CELTA with us in 2010, David has earned an MA in English and an Honours degree in Applied Linguistics as well as the Cambridge DELTA, has taught and done teacher training in Hungary and in the UK. He is currently pursuing his PhD in TESOL / Applied Linguistics and is on Fulbright scholarship at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. - http://linguistics.
Language skills use vs. development -> From safe recipe(s) to á la you?
I always liked the idea of comparing teaching to other creative professions. After all, we plan, execute and if something misfires, we try to save what we can. Ultimately, we learn from previous mistakes and develop ourselves. Let’s take cooking for instance. There are novice cooks, intermediate sous-chefs and accomplished master chefs. They work at home, in restaurants and finally, they find their own places, voices and tastes in the world in Michelin-star institutions. My TEFL-cooking career began quite early, without any experience. The results were not surprising: sometimes the lessons got burned, overcooked, too spicy or I just felt that something was missing…
Doing the Cambridge CELTA course in 2010 was a revelation; it gave me tools and lesson shapes I could instantly use in the classroom. For instance, I felt like I was given the ultimate recipe for a perfect reading or listening lesson. It all seemed easy:
Sample recipe for reading / listening
(Recipe for 6. Preparation time: ~15 minutes. Time to cook: 45-60 mins. Level of difficulty: */***)
- Take a more or less exciting topic and think of what introduction it might require and the discussion it might generate.
- Include a gist / prediction task that will get learners interested and involved (then check it in pairs or in open-class feedback (OCFB).
- Continue with a task that requires a bit deeper understanding of the text / recording (e.g. True or false / sentence completion / scanning, etc.) and check it in pairs and/or OCFB.
- (Optional: Highlight some structures / items in the text / recording: vocabulary, grammar bits, etc.)
- Relate the text to students’ interests or need and generate a discussion to take up the rest of the class, e.g. role-play, information gap activity, short problem-solution tasks.
- Boil till topic exhaustion / bell ring. Serve with handouts, role cards, vocabulary list. Enjoy.
(For further description of this kind of lesson, consult Harmer, J. (1998). How to Teach English. Pearson: UK.)
However, after a few years of following the same recipe one inevitably starts to wonder what is next. I did get better at delivering simple meals and lesson plans; I have polished them over the years and even experimented sometimes (with varying degrees of success…). My mentor at one of the languages companies told me I was doomed to mess up numerous courses before I find myself in the profession. Just like cooking..
So there I was, years after my initial training, wondering what the Gordon Ramsays of ESL/EFL do to spice up their teaching. The Cambridge DELTA course gave me the flavor I was looking for: learner autonomy. Though this “special” ingredient tends to get thrown around in the ESL world as one of those buzz words along with ICT, motivation, ideal selves and what-not, it was a revelation for me. Instead of telling learners what English tastes like, how it works and offering ready-made or pre-cooked ideas to them, why don’t teachers challenge them to come up with their own way of thinking and help them find their own method of digesting this language?
I looked at the available literature on skills development (as opposed to merely using skills in the classroom), and found methods everyone can pull off in their own ESL kitchens. Here are five hints you might consider in order to improve the quality of your planning and teaching and your students’ autonomy and approach to learning English:
- Instead of stuffing your learners with tasks they can already do (display tasks), find activities and tasks that relate to their everyday jobs, interests and personality and give them a go at those. You’ll be surprised about the amount of material they bring into the classroom ranging from series, through recipes to lyrics, songs and new mobile apps you have never heard of! (Recently one of my students told me that as he was driving his son to school, they were listening to a song on radio. Good luck with explaining to a 5-year-old what it means “to get some and I’m about to get lucky”).
- Ask learners what they learned during your class and how they could use that knowledge in real life. If you have trouble coming up with practical, real-life applications for your tasks, so will they!
- Another idea could be to video or voice record your students’ classroom performance. It will be weird for the first time, but learners will forget about the devices soon. What better feeling is there than students identifying their own lacks and correcting themselves? Also, recording allows learners to spot their own difficulties and recognize where they are in learning and what other skills / vocabulary they need to perform the task better. What’s more, you will have your own benchmark of keeping track of student performance and development!
- Devote time to planning some of your lessons a bit more if you have more time. I know that it might be a difficult thing to do with a full teaching schedule, but it will do wonders. Writing a lesson plan can be tedious and seemingly never-ending work, but… It will let you anticipate problems better, allow you to see whether your class is structured well and what exactly your learners will be able to do (differently) after your class. You could also ask your learners to do a bit of research and think about how they would teach those structures and what might be the best way to explain those items to beginner learners.
- Ask someone to come and watch you teach. This might be the trickiest thing to do, but once again, compare teaching to cooking. You might’ve found a way to cut up an onion without bursting into tears, but there might be different approaches worth considering. Your colleague’s attention can also be focused on areas you feel to be weaker, e.g. sequencing of tasks, setting up activities or devising ways to improve interaction in the classroom (don’t be afraid to ask). You could also ask your more experienced colleague to teach a point in your class. How will this affect learner autonomy? Learners have to realize that knowledge can come from a variety of sources and they could learn a lot from each other too! Peer-teaching can be more effective than you teaching your students: they can explain the difficult parts to each other in terms (and sometimes a language) they can understand and relate to.
A question I would like you to remember while planning your next is lesson is this: if you teach your students to only eat fish fillets, how will they learn how to remove fish bones?
This article does not wish to criticize pre-service courses. They are great to get started and provide a solid base for further career in TESOL. However, practice and teaching experience will lead to chewy problems you have never encountered before or considered important. How will you approach these? That is take-away food for thought.