Lessons Learned, Lessons Taught Part 2

Guest author: Mark Garton

And so eventually I grew up and got a job. And then, well, another one. The point is, I’ve been teaching ESL ever since, and I’ve come to a few conclusions that I’d like to share with you now:

Through all my experience and studies, I’ve found that there are about three basic ideas to keep in mind when you’re either practicing a language yourself or teaching it to others:

  1. Conversation is good.
  2. Reading is good.
  3. Motivation helps too.

Those aren’t too hard to remember. So now my question is: How can I help my students in these three areas?

Let’s look at the first one, conversation. What can I really say here? This is the whole point for most of us, isn’t it? This is why I felt like I was learning from Sheila. This is why I went to Costa Rica. I was talking. Ideally, we’d do this in a classroom too – just sit around a table and talk – because conversation builds fluency, and that’s what we’re after. Generally, though, you can’t do that because programs have outcomes (or something similar), and we have to assess student achievement of the outcomes, and how do you do that when you’re just sitting and using the language and learning a lot? So you get – you guessed it – books (or computer lessons now) chock full of “high interest topics” with dialogs and all sorts of other goodies, and you can listen and write and none of it really satisfies but it’s all measurable, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. Measure. Assess. So we practice listening, and the vocabulary is used systematically, and the voices are American, English, Australian, Chinese nonnative speaker English (diversity, you know), and various other ethnicities, and the quizzes are provided with the books and they’re easy to reproduce and easy to score so you can get your job done in time for the committee meetings in the afternoons. There’s even a teacher’s guide so you don’t have to think very much if you want to contrive a speaking presentation or some other assignment. This makes everyone happy, not just the administration because you’ve got enough grades on the course management system, but to a large extent it also meets the students’ expectations, so they’ll be more likely to give you good evaluations and that helps at faculty evaluation time if your school is being run like a business. But I digress.

The thing is, this still happens everywhere, but you can do a minimum of this and still have conversations. You can meet with students in the classroom and just talk, keeping the required stuff to a minimum. If you’re in a host environment, it’s even easier to do more: You can send them out of the classroom, get them conversation partners, anything!  But if you’re not in a host environment – and here’s the part that’s changed – you can access native speakers online or use other materials that, while not natural language usage, come fairly close. When I was studying, you normally couldn’t just have conversations if you didn’t live in a place where people spoke the language, unless you had a really good tutor like I did. No, you really had to go someplace, and most people couldn’t do it. Now though, you can connect with people from all over everywhere, and you can even have face-to-face conversations. You can even talk to people your own age who live in other countries. I figure, maybe if you can talk to people you want to talk to, you’ll be motivated to learn the language better? Seems reasonable to me.

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As for reading, research over the years has shown that reading tends to promote language acquisition, and not just in that one skill either, reading, but in general proficiency. I’m a lot like that. Most academics are. I really feel like I need to see the words sometimes, so I read whatever I can get my hands onto when I’m learning a language. In classes, though, there’s a problem, and it’s basically the same problem that hits conversation (or “Listening and Speaking”) classes: You have to have outcomes, you have to assess the outcomes, and so on. So we get similar books for reading as for everything else, and the students read about The Influence of Television on Children, and they probably write the requisite essay as directed in the exercises after this “high interest reading.” The reading takes about two pages, and the exercises fill about six. This is great if you’re a teacher just doing your job, but there’s a problem: It’s not reading.

A reading text should never have more pages devoted to the exercises than to the reading passages themselves. Ideally, the ratio would be at least 4:1 in favor of the reading passages; the exercises should be used mostly for discussion, not for flipping pages back and forth to look up stuff so you can write the answers down. If the ratio favors the exercises, then we’re spending too much time telling students how to read (“What can we infer about the author’s point of view in paragraph three?”) and they never get to read much. Flipping pages is not reading. Reading a story straight through is. Picking out details of a reading might look good to some people, especially if you’re under pressure to do “academic prep,” but building fluency is the best prep there is. For everything!

So conversation and reading build fluency, and with fluency you can do anything in a language. It’s the best academic prep there is, and it’s also the best preparation for everything else – learning about culture, working in a hotel, anything. I’ve already given my pitch for conversation, so now what can we do to help students read more? One idea is to get away from the usual textbooks. I still use them too much, I’m afraid, but I try to incorporate Penguin Readers and other, longer texts into my courses. (The students tend to like them better too; after reading from a typical text one day last year, a particularly frustrated student of mine blurted out, in perfect English, “I’m sick of global warming! Can I read something else?”) Literature tends to have more words that students can actually use, but there are those students who are all in for academics, so teachers need to work that in too. This is all well and good as long as they’re reading.

But once again, there’s a whole new online world out there, and you shouldn’t miss out on the opportunities available. Reading websites have a tendency to come and go, it seems to me, but there’s no shortage of material out there to keep up students’ interest. As much as possible, students should be allowed to choose their own materials; the assessments can involve summaries or presentations of the information presented. This generation of young people is more connected than we used to be, so sometimes teachers really only need to get them started and they’ll take off and read just fine. If you do this in the classroom, from time to time you have to make sure they’re not minimizing the reading and going shopping when they think your back is turned, but that’s their job in a way. They’re students. They’re supposed to do that.

As for motivation, the important thing to remember is that every student is motivated differently. They also have different abilities and learning styles, and teachers have to keep this in mind too. It’s not easy though, keeping students motivated. With someone like me, I suppose I was going to learn no matter what my teachers did to me, but most students aren’t like me. So how can teachers motivate students to learn, especially considering that almost no one really wants to be in language classes – they want to talk with people in the real world the same as I did, or they might want (or need, really) to read the language at a higher level. (Those students will need to write it too, and that’s a real bear.) There’s no easy answer here because different people are motivated in entirely different ways. The key here is to have a variety of lessons so that every student can have something to latch onto.

Many students like the computerized lessons, but there are others, often from what might be called “grammar countries,” who are perfectly happy to learn from books and to conjugate verbs. And then sometimes they’re happy but we know they’re not learning enough, so we have to give them more to read, or just something different, even if they don’t want it. I’ve had students who never responded to anything I did in front of the class suddenly brighten up and learn from a computer instead, but then I’ve also had ones who hated the computer lesson I had them doing and probably thought something like, “My teacher doesn’t want to teach me today.” If you’re reading this blog regularly, you’re learning about all the new possibilities already. Use them wisely! Some students can really get into this.

To wind up my story, I’ll just say that I don’t pretend to have all the answers for how to teach, but I know that we’re living in a new age. There are opportunities for us today that we wouldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago, so we might as well make the most of them. The usual books are fine, but we can give the students content that is high interest for them, not for me, and they can avoid some of the frustrations I faced. They’ve got the whole world to connect with. In fact, they’re already connected.

Meanwhile, my own adventure continues. I’m sitting here thinking about what I could do to contribute to the field of language teaching and learning. I’m getting a little older you know, and it’s time to give back. So, I could write more blogposts, I guess. Or a textbook! Good for vocabulary. I know! Dialogs. You can’t learn a language without dialogs. They need an update though. That’s a lot of work.

I wonder if Duran Duran ever made a movie?

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Mark Garton is the former Director of the Intensive English Language Institute at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa. He hold a Ph.D. in Linguistics.

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