When I first came to teach at school at the end of the 1990’s, I got three classes, 35 very eager eight-year-olds each, beginner level.

Yes, there was a coursebook, very old and very boring. The main exercise in it was, read a text in Russian and translate it into English. Children were supposed to memorize a number of words each week, and to write a dictation with them. No audio, no video, no colourful pictures. Looking back today, I can see that there were several important factors working for me. One, I have never had any discipline problems; when I come into any room full of people, be it young children or adult teachers, I am happy to see them and to share my knowledge. I believe they are happy to see me too, and this is how I start every lesson at any level: “Hello, children/colleagues! I am happy to see you”. It takes one or two sessions for them to respond in kind. And it definitely creates a rapport. Two, my own children are bi-lingual; all the kids in my daughter’s second form were fascinated by her ability to read, write and speak English, and all of them wanted to emulate her. Surprisingly, as I learned, having one such pupil in a class was enough to motivate others. Three, I had no idea how to work with young beginners, so my mind was not cluttered up with any methodological preconceptions. Not that methodology per se is bad, but rather that its absence worked for me. I figured that if I managed to teach my own kids, I should be able to teach all those classes.
I cannot draw if you pay me, but all my children are wonderful artists. I asked my very mature ten-year-old to make a large poster: the alphabet, with four-inch tall letters, and a bright picture of an object to accompany each one. Thus, a juicy apple next to the letter Aa, a funny plump bee next to the letter Bb, and so on. Within a week, all my pupils knew the whole alphabet, and all the words in the poster. We also sang The Alphabet Song, and watched “Muzzy”, an educational funny cartoon. Since my classes studied in second shift, from 1:30 to 7PM, I brought in some activities to help them stay awake during the latest sessions: read-along books, short videos, toys. Our first reports and discussions in English were about their favourite toys, each child brought in a doll, a car, a teddy-bear, and proudly said at least three sentences about it. “This is my doll. Her name is Mary. Her hair is pink. I love her”. At the end of the first term, after just two months of studies, the headmaster and several experienced teachers unexpectedly came to my lesson, which happened to be the very last one, at 6PM. I said with a smile, “Children, we have visitors, please say Hello to them!” My class responded in a chorus. As all of us teachers know, kids are funny creatures, they may react to any situation unpredictably. They may clam up, or exert themselves to their fullest. In my case, they surpassed even my expectations: they read aloud, answered all the questions, made a concerted rush to the board whenever I asked for volunteers, sand and danced. My visitors had very odd expressions on their faces, and I thought with a sinking heart, “Am I doing it all wrong?” After the lesson, the headmaster said to me, “It’s a first for all of us. Two months, and the kids can actually speak English! Haven’t you read an instruction manual? They are supposed to learn the alphabet, and that’s about it. I have never seen anything like that in thirty years… You do whatever it is you are doing with them, and we’ll have seminars and demonstrations organized for the city EL teachers”. I realized I was very lucky to have the school administration’s support!
Here comes the clincher. I was also working first shift, 8:30AM to 1:30PM, teaching seniors. Some classes had no textbooks at all, others groaned at the ones they had. I began to compose my own lessons and to take part in international projects, which required new lesson plans. Whenever there was an opportunity to take part in a trial run for the new British textbooks, I went for it. We used Longman books for various levels and ages, Oxford and Cambridge grammar books, and any other good quality authentic textbooks I won in various contests. Whenever I felt that something else was needed, I composed my own lessons and shared them with my colleagues. There is an old saying: the best course book is the one you have written yourself. This is true, with a modification: if you are willing and able to produce a new book every year. Any textbook becomes obsolete after 3-5 years. With the advent of the internet into every sphere of the human activity, with ICT becoming a part of the whole educational process, with many sites regularly posting lots of materials for teachers, it is indeed possible to teach well without a traditional textbook. Naturally the first person we should teach is us. As long as we teachers continue our self-development, we can produce high quality lessons, no matter whether we use a book or an eboard.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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