Let’s use all the planned and unplanned opportunities for learning!

It’s the New Year! 2019 is upon us, and we got wonderful new topics. The very first one made me smile, and my fingers started itching at once. I mean, is there anything really strictly planned in our work? Don’t we always come against unplanned situations and expect the unexpected? When working with children this is rather the rule than an exception, isn’t it?

One such opportunity, regardless of the age, level, ethnicity, cultural background and religious upbringing of learners has been happening to me throughout the years time and again. Teaching for me means sharing; I am ready to share with my colleagues, and to compare my experience with others. Let us take a very simple familiar phrase in English: Last Man Standing. Amazing but true: it is next to impossible to produce an equivalent in my native Russian. We begin our unplanned little discussion whenever the situation crops up, and continue throughout the academic year. I suggest just one stipulation to my students: write it down. Compile a list and learn it gradually so that you can use the new vocabulary confidently. With the younger students you may turn it into a game; even seasoned world-weary teenagers thoroughly enjoy it.

For me, the signal arrives when a student says something like, “A cup is standing on the table”, “A book is lying in the shelf” or “My Grandmother sits at home”. Today of course we click on any dictionary site or Google. Young children literally stare goggle-eyed, speechless, when they discover that a cup is often sitting, not standing. Books may also sit, to lie, and grandmothers stay with young kids, not sit all the time. What else sits and not lies or stands in English? They start by taking the verbs sit, stand, lie, the very familiar basic verbs which they learned in first or second year of studies, the ones which always seemed to be the simplest basics of their vocabulary, and begin searching for word combinations. They surf the web, read magazines and books writing out and marking down new unexpected groups and descriptions. The absolute champion is this one: “money sitting in the bank doing nothing”. In their native language, the money lies in a bank or purse. To continue this type of linguistic research we can make lists of nouns that go with those familiar verbs. Who or what can stand, sit, lie in English? Who or what can stand, sit, lie down in your native tongue? Imagine “drinking a pill”. Of course one takes it, in English, but in another language? Let us check! Naturally the same kind of unplanned learning and side-tracks may occur in various situations.

Besides purely vocabulary exercises we can pause briefly in our planned lesson to touch upon the cultural differences. Holiday season provides ample opportunities for comparing the various customs and traditions. For instance while I saw students and teachers in Europe running back to school on January 7, eagerly greeting each other after the holidays, the same day is Christmas in the Orthodox church and thus a holiday for us. The winter term usually continues until December 30. We EL teachers have a tradition of having a special lesson or a tea-party with our students on December 25 to observe the Western Christmas. And every year we have to explain why the same holiday falls on different dates in different countries. This of course is easy as compared to explaining why, say, the Chinese New Year happens in February and not in January, or any similar theme.

The new technologies per se provide a whole vast field of unplanned activities. Practically every day brings in some new developments, new apps, new gadgets. The simplest trick we can use to help our students activate their vocabulary and to ensure their interest is sharing. Choose carefully, nothing of a personal nature should be shown. In a class of future young IT specialists who spend their final two years learning how to use the ICT and turn it into their profession after college, anything new your iPad or smartphone produces may be enough to excite their curiosity and reciprocity. Teenagers love it when you ask them questions and especially if you inquire whether they are familiar with the innovation. I got quite an enthusiastic response when I told them that my iPad created new memories without my participation. In fact I received a short lecture on AI, Artificial Intelligence. Though the young IT students speak a language of their own, in any country, they take care to activate their EL vocabulary to make the subject understandable for us simple mortals. I listened patiently and then shared the tidbit which made everyone collapse with laughter: the new memory is called “This Person over the Years”. It is devoted to my granddaughter aged one. This is the new year, and she was born last year, so technically it is indeed “over the years”. The opportunities are endless, all we need to do is recognize and use them to mutual benefit.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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