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There are basic best practices in learning just about anything. If you want to lose weight, you should burn more calories than you consume. If you want to save money you need to spend less money than you earn. If you want to maximize the effectiveness of your English classes, here are four key components to think about.
In order for learning to take place, language targets have to be at a level appropriate for learners. The key is to use English that is just beyond your students ability to challenge them to push forward and learn new things. Stephen Krashen calls this idea ‘Comprehensible Input’ while Vygotsky called it the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD). You may have also heard it as ‘Language Plus One’ (L+1). Basically, it is what students know now plus a little more.
This concept is integral to effective language acquisition. If English targets are too easy then students do not learn anything new. If targets are too difficult then students will not comprehend anything and will just get demotivated. Finding the right level for each class is essential. …
Most English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers start teaching with very little training and often end up making it up as they go. I know, I was there. I made all the common mistakes and I didn’t even know I was teaching ineffective classes until I started studying more about teaching and had a chance to visit classes of more experienced teachers. Not only novices make these mistakes, but many long term teachers also haven’t really had the opportunity to observe quality English classes and have less than optimal lessons. Here are some activities and practices that I believe to be ineffective.
1. Focus on the Activity Rather than Student Needs
It is easy to get caught up in a popular game, song or craft activity without ever really considering if it is in students best interests or not. The goal of English classes is to help your students learn English, not pass the time as quickly as possible. Make sure you are focusing on games, activities and stories that are giving your students the English exposure they need. In once a week English classes, extended crafts, inappropriate songs and pointless activities should be avoided. There are many great chants, games and books that are appropriate for the ability of your students. Spend the time to find or develop activities that will facilitate your students’ learning.
2. Communicating at Inappropriate Levels
Novices teachers often come into English classes and talk just like they would to a native English speaker. It can take a long time to learn to simplify language and speak at a level appropriate to students. Experienced teachers know exactly what students have previously learned, what language targets they are weak at and what new targets are coming. By offering regular review and slow introduction of new targets teachers can maximize learning. This really is an art and I believe it takes several years to get good at it. If you are interested in researching more this is often referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) or “L+1” (previous learning plus a little more).
This is one of the primary reasons I avoid textbook-based lessons for children. It is impossible for teachers to get a good understanding of all the targets in a textbook if you are just going to the next page in the book. Can you name all the key language targets in the textbooks you are using? Do you know which areas your students are having difficulty with? Do you know what is coming up and have you been slowly introducing those targets in advance? It is very hard to answer yes to those questions if you take a linear approach to teaching.
3. Not Teaching What Students Need to Learn
What are the most important language targets your students need to learn next? Is it shapes? Do they really need to say, “rectangle” and “diamond” in the near future? If not, then don’t waste time teaching it. Do they need to learn animal sounds? “Chick, chick, quack, quack, oink, oink.” Will that help them communicate more effectively in English?
Teach what students need to learn, don’t just pass the time with silly activities. If your students only had one more class in English, what would you teach them so that they could communicate something, anything? Start with simple expressions like, “please, thank you, here you are, bathroom please.” Then move on to vocabulary that they need to know like, “food, toys, school supplies, verbs, etc.” After that, start introducing grammar and longer sentences. Always think about the next most important language target that your students need to learn. I can bet it isn’t going to be the “Alphabet Song” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Every language target can be made fun with the right games and activities. Don’t settle for ineffective lessons just because you haven’t thought about the needs of your students.
4. Inadequate Preparation
It drives me crazy when teachers show up to class without any idea of what they are going to cover. Making up lessons as you go is a waste of your students time and money. It is also more stressful for the teacher. Take some time to think about what you are going to teach and how you are going to teach it. Think of the vocabulary you will cover. What games will you use? Take out all the materials you are going to use in the class and lay them out in order so that you are not searching through drawers in the middle of the class. Make sure you have extra games on hand in case one activity bombs or you run out of time. It doesn’t take much longer to properly prepare for a class, but the quality of the lesson will be substantially better.
5. Speaking the Students’ Native Language
Classes are to teach English, not for you to study a new language. Proficiency in the native language of your students can help you understand students needs more, but that doesn’t mean you need to be using that language in class. Virtually everything can be communicated in English. You don’t need to explain games, just play them and demonstrate.
Teachers new to a country frequently try to use the little language they have picked up in class. The problem is that students will most likely understand those easy targets in English so there is no need to use the students’ language. Never say expressions like, “thank you, here you are, what’s this?, yes, no,” etc. in the students’ first language (L1), they will know or will soon learn these words in English.
6. Racing Through the Textbook
In order to really acquire language targets, students need multiple exposures in a variety of contexts. Many teachers just read through the pages in a textbook without much review or evaluation of whether or not students are able to use that English.
Remember that you are teaching what students need to learn, NOT the next page in the textbook. If students don’t understand, do the same target again with different games or activities. If students forgot an old target, and they often will, go back and review. If it is too easy, then don’t be afraid to skip sections, but the criterion of difficulty must be evaluated on students’ needs.
When I first started teaching, I often thought that particular targets were so easy that they were a waste of time. However, what is easy for the teacher isn’t always easy for students. This is particularly a problem when teaching adult students. Teaching basic English to beginner students gets boring fast so teachers want to bring in newspaper articles or talk about current events. Sure those activities are interesting for the teacher, but they are seldom in the interests of your students.
7. Little Communication in Class
Many teachers get up to the front of the room and talk at the students like they were giving a speech. In order to learn to communicate in English, students have to actually communicate. They need to ask questions, express their own opinions and talk to each other. Effective teachers try to get out of the way as much as possible. Students don’t need to listen to you talk or drill vocabulary. They need to be able to use the language in real contexts. Even beginner children can be encouraged to speak and ask questions if they are taught key expressions in the beginning.
Don’t stick to one drill pattern. Constantly vary the pace and try to personalize everything to your students particular interests. For example, don’t do long repetitive drills like “What is it? It is a dog. It is a cat. It is a bird. etc.” Those types of lessons bore students to death. Introduce appropriate questions that your students can understand. “Do you have a dog? What is your dog’s name? What color is your dog? How many dogs do you have? Do you want a dog? Where is your dog? Where does your dog sleep? What does your dog eat? Does your dog like chocolate? etc.” Even boring drills can be made interesting by introducing relevant questions. This is also a great way to review previous targets or introduce new ones. Even better, get your students to ask each other questions whenever possible.
The Key Take Away Point
If there is one lesson that you should take away from this post, it is that you should always be teaching what your students need to learn. Don’t let your materials, textbook or biases control the classes. Try your best to accurately evaluate students’ abilities and then deliver suitable games and activities to teach the most appropriate language targets. There are dozens of effective ways to teach any target so constantly experiment to make your lessons as memorable and fun as possible. If you are teaching young children and even beginner adults, English flashcards with pictures can make your classes much more fun and help you focus on what your students need.
Learning a foreign language is easy. All you need is lots of repetition at a level appropriate to your understanding. These two key factors; repetition and comprehensible input, are so important to language acquisition that they are also the greatest mistakes that foreign language teachers make.
English Teacher Mistake 1 – Teaching at a Wrong Level
It can be difficult to teach at appropriate levels for students. This is particularly troublesome in mixed level classes. Teaching at too high a level will make lessons too difficult to understand. Novice teachers naturally start speaking to students as if they were native speakers. It takes skill and experience to accurately judge the level of students. …
I have personally shifted out of using textbooks in most of my classes, from children to adults. There are many reasons for this which I will mention in this article and in future posts. Textbooks have been the central focus of education for so long that even experienced teachers have trouble imagining any other way of planning a lesson. This is the age of the internet, global communications, inexpensive video and mass collaboration, there has to be a better way to teach. In fact, I know there is a more effective way to get your EFL students speaking English with more confidence.
Most teachers have never created their own complete teaching curriculum with original teaching materials, so for many a non-textbook approach simply translates as having no plan. However, I am certainly not advocating no curriculum. I am just suggesting that there are approaches other than the traditional textbook-based lesson style. I know of several teachers who have taken the time to create their own comprehensive curricula suitable to their personal teaching styles and I assure you they would never go back to textbook lessons. However, that is best saved for a another article.
English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) are NOT the same. Many schools, teachers, authors and other professionals use these words interchangeably, which wouldn’t be such a problem if it were merely a lexical error. The real problem stems from the fact that most teachers continue to adhere to TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) approaches within TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) environments. This is especially noticeable in Asia, where I feel the deployment of inappropriate TESL techniques play a key factor in the general lack of English acquisition, particularly amongst children. Despite the increasing use and popularity of the term TEFL, and a heightened awareness amongst teachers of the way in which it differs from TESL, language lessons have not changed much to meet the needs of students who are learning English as a Foreign Language.
English as a Second Language (ESL)
English as a Second Language refers to those studying the language in an English speaking country. Anyone living in an English speaking environment will be immersed in English, regardless of whether or not they study in a formal classroom setting. Television, school, books, newspapers, movies, daily conversation, everything is in English. This is important for two reasons. First of all, they have the advantage of considerably greater exposure to English in their daily life, which can amount to 60 or more hours in an average week. This comes though natural interaction with friends, colleagues, teachers, service workers, casual conversations in social settings and, in the case of home-stay students, communicating with family members. Then there is the more indirect exposure acquired from television, radio, reading menus and timetables, or simply over-hearing the conversations of native speakers. Students are learning, using and reviewing huge amounts of English everyday, and doing so in way that is totally natural rather than being artificially created in the classroom.
This leads us to the second major advantage that ESL students have over their EFL counterparts. If they also study in an ESL classroom, they can use this time to “fine tune” their English skills. They can ask grammar or vocabulary questions about English they have picked up elsewhere. Students can get clarification on grammar, vocabulary or expressions they didn’t understand. They also benefit more from deeper examinations of grammar and language usage. This is basis for most English textbook series where language targets are taught on a one per lesson basis, in a linear fashion. This works very well in an ESL environment because students benefit from having real opportunities to review and implement the English they have learned, outside of the classroom.
The importance of students having a real need to communicate in their daily lives should not be underestimated. For ESL students, it is not simply some esoteric subject they have to read in a textbook. Living in a country where you don’t speak the local language is extremely difficult. Even simple interactions like taking public transportation and shopping can be very frustrating. ESL students are impelled to gain at least a cursory understanding of English, just to make their lives bearable. Motivated students always learn much more.
English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
In a typical EFL setting, however, targets covered just recently are often quickly forgotten, because students invariably lack the opportunity to apply what they have learned in everyday situations. This is because English as a Foreign Language refers to studying English in one’s home country; where English is not the native language. EFL students typically have only an hour or so per week of total English exposure, with virtually all of that happening in the classroom. There is little or no outside contact with English in their daily lives. If English is only used in the classroom, there is little incentive to study and learn, especially for children. Not surprisingly, it is often the case that the only English that students can reproduce on their own initiative comes from the teacher talk that is used repeatedly in class. One hour per week is almost inconsequential. Without outside study and constant review, students will retain very little of what they have learned. Consider how slowly you would improve if you played a musical instrument, played baseball, or studied mathematics for only one hour per week. Mastering a foreign language is not so different from becoming an accomplished musician or professional athlete. Advanced English ability requires many thousands of hours of study, review and implementation through communication.
I don’t think many people can disagree with what I have said up to this point. So far I have simply been stating the facts and most English educators would agree on those premises. Contention arises, however, from what those facts mean in the EFL classroom. How should a TEFL approach to English language acquisition differ from that of TESL, if at all? I would argue that, as things stand, most EFL classes are not substantially different from those found in ESL settings, and that is the crux of the problem. Although the deficiencies in applying TESL techniques to TEFL students are well recognized, they have largely been ignored.
What are the implications for EFL classes?
1. Teach Useful English First
Students need breadth before they need depth. Give students the basic expressions and vocabulary they need to start communicating in English, in a useful way, from the outset. Most textbooks get into repetitive grammar drills very quickly. “It is a pen.” may be an easy place to start, but unless they are answering a question from someone with lower English ability than themselves, it is unlikely that they will have any immediate need to use this phrase. It doesn’t help students find the bathroom, ask for a pencil, or say that they don’t understand. Teachers should always be asking themselves, what are the next set of expressions or vocabulary that students need and want to communicate.
Spending a month on shapes like square, circle and triangle, might be fun for four-year-olds, with all the opportunities for crafts and creative activities, but will kids ever need to communicate “square” “circle” and “triangle” in a real life situation?
How about making sure they can express wants, likes, possessions and greetings first?
Students also want to communicate with YOU. This fact is often ignored, or it’s importance underestimated. It is rarely necessary to use the local language in the classroom, though many teachers do just that because it is easier, or simply to improve their own communication skills. The students, however, derive no benefit from this whatsoever. Teach them phrases like “I don’t understand.”; “What does that mean?”; “Here you are.”; “Stand up.”; “Be quiet!”; and “Take out your pencil.” from the very beginning. In this way, it quickly becomes possible to create an English-only environment in the classroom. Not only that, but this ‘teacher talk’ soon becomes second-nature to the students, and will naturally become language that they are able to reproduce on their own.
EFL students will not get the repetition and review opportunities they need outside of the classroom, so language recycling has to be an integral part of each and every lesson.
Focusing on a single target per class works well in TESL settings but is not very effective in TEFL. It is far more efficient to cover a specific language target over 12 classes, using spaced repetition techniques, for five minutes each class, than to cover something once for 60 minutes. As students get more advanced, the more focused style of TESL can be employed, but for children and all beginners, covering many targets repetitively is the only way to get students comfortably and naturally using English.
Textbooks are not designed to teach in this way. Each chapter has to focus on a narrow target and subsequent chapters progress in a linear fashion. This is not how EFL students acquire a language. Unfortunately, in some situations, using a textbook might be unavoidable. This might be due to an inflexible teaching policy in the school where you work, or perhaps because other teaching materials are simply not available.
If you have to use a textbook, and want to see real communicative progress with your students, start teaching several grammar and vocabulary targets in each class, but repeat the same targets many times with increasing delays in repetition. If this is hard to imagine, consider a textbook with 10 chapters taught over a year. In each class, teach a little of as many chapters as you can. Ensure that the language being learned becomes progressively more difficult by adding vocabulary and grammar difficulty.
At the end of the year students will know and be able to effectively communicate all of that English because they have practiced each target dozens of times. With a traditional textbook approach, early chapters are all but forgotten by the end of the year. It is near impossible to provide the required amount of repetition within the pages of any textbook. However, by employing this modified approach to using the textbook, with constant recycling of language being learned, students acquire the habit of using English effectively, and will therefore speak more confidently, and more often.
Are you an EFL or ESL teacher?
Regardless of whether you are teaching EFL or ESL, it is highly likely that you are using TESL approaches. If you are teaching in an English speaking than great, your students will be progressing quickly. If you are teaching in a country where English is not widely spoken, then different teaching approaches are needed. The linear textbook based approach of teaching limited grammar targets in sequence does not work. By the time you finish the textbook, students will have forgotten most of what was covered. TEFL requires a different approach with a focus on communicative English and massive amounts of repetition. Great EFL teachers do this intuitively, but a more systematic and simple approach needs to be developed. That is what I hope to provide with ABCfrog.net.