confused

wrong wayTeaching a language is different to teaching any other subject.  In any other subject, you use a language to explain the subject matter. But in teaching a language, the language is the subject matter.  It is the ultimate transferable skill.  This sets up quite a challenge for the teacher.  The question here is, “how relevant are my examples?”

This theme has cropped up here before. School coursebooks are brimming with subjects that don’t interest kids in the slightest but the authorities don’t care.  Until a couple of years ago, well over half the kids in my class played World of Warcraft, so I let them talk about it in English classes. I don’t play it myself, though I consider myself more than just an occasional gamer.  That wasn’t important.  they wanted to talk about it, so I let them.  I levelled up by challenging them about their tactics and motivation for playing so much, and non-players got the chance to suggest alternatives.  Recently with a new class I noticed a drop off in the numbers playing and asked why.  Most had changed to League of Legends (possibly because it was free!)  No problem – the language is the same.  You still have to describe processes, actions and characters.  They can talk about imaginary futures (Will the game remain popular? What might replace it?)  They can talk about past events (What happened in the game last night?)  They can talk about interactions and conditional events.  Frankly, what more do you need?  You could, of course, talk about an activity centre which no-one has been to, and activities that almost no-one wants to do.  The important thing is to offer the chance to practice the target language.  This works just as well in an industrial environment where a group of trainees are keen GTA V players.  Presentations were made regarding ideal car designs for the game.

This is not just popularism in teaching – I’m not pandering to the wants of my learners, I’m using their experience as a motivator to apply the language I need them to learn.

This applies all the more to teachers working in the online world, as they often have to create their own materials.  Obviously, the teacher can do a best practice analysis, by looking at printed materials and adapting them.  (Some people might call this “copying” but “best practice” sounds so much more professional, doesn’t it?)  Just bear in mind that the books might not be relevant!

An example:

An exercise was given to Year 10 kids at the A2 level in part of Germany recently as part of a year-end examination. I’m not going to post the picture, because there is presumably a ton of copyright attached to it, but it went as follows…  There was a rather unsharp black and white photo of a man (or maybe a woman) wearing a pith helmet and safari clothes sitting in front of a tent.  Very close to the person was a lion.  The exercise was to write a funny story in sixty words about the picture.

Sixty words!  You need about thirty words to describe the photo.  Even as a native speaker with years of teaching experience, I’m not sure how I would go about doing this.  Fortunately, there was an alternative exercise which involved writing a simple email, but some group of senior teachers, supported by a university academic department, thought that this picture was a good test.  Sadly, too many kids fell into the trap of choosing this exercise.  One or two managed a poor attempt at telling a joke.  The rest simply did a bad job.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Business English (or indeed any of the specialised forms of English teaching) show us that the subject material can be relevant, and even general English courses usually manage to include mare appropriate materials.  If we want the learner to own their learning, then at least a degree of relevance essential.  Certain topics lend themselves well to particular grammar and syntax, and the teacher should be looking to facilitate this rather than locking the learner into a vocabulary-based topic which focuses on terms which may or may not be relevant to the learner.

This is both good news and bad news for the online teacher.  The bad news is that an online course can often be far more diverse in experience and ability, and the backgrounds of the learners can be very different.  The good news is that the online teacher is not as restricted in material choice – the provision of materials is fully open.  The teacher needs to be focused on the language to be learned and not just the vocabulary.  That means a productive activity needs to be formulated in such a way that learners can bring their own interests and experience into the exercise and apply that to the structures required by the teacher.

This shifts the focus of the course design to recycling building blocks of the language, and away from the the grammar+vocabulary model.  It requires a more flexible approach from the teacher, but certainly has benefits for student involvement.

So what do you think?  Can this approach be applied everywhere? Or if not, where are the limits?  Let us know in the comments.

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