Teaching students how to read and write in English is essentially about teaching them to THINK in a foreign language. If you ask them at the beginning of their studies how they envisage mastering any of those skills, how they actually read and write, you may often get the same response. “Of course I first translate everything into my native language!
Listening and understanding spoken speech may be quite a challenge for any student. They may read, write, translate and even speak fluently, but whenever they are up against a listening comprehension task they may freeze, hover in uncertainty or even stop reacting. There are a few strategies which have been useful to me over the years, and which I share with my colleagues at any opportunity. Sometimes an EL teacher with decades of experience, who is used to conducting most of the lessons in their own mother tongue, would ask me for helpful tactics to overcome their own problems.
The end of the academic year in Siberia can be quite exotic. While there are still huge piles of snow scattered around in May, including those up-to-the-first-floor-windows sagging mounds, the temperatures may reach +30C. Every short break between lessons, hordes of over-excited screaming children rush outside dressed in their T-shirts, shorts and sneakers (trainers) to jump gleefully on that soft “last” snow, at times going all the way down and being rescued by their classmates.
Assessment and grading are traditional indispensable staples of teaching and learning; it encompasses any subject and all the aspects of our work. Ideally it is supposed to show a student’s progress and our own ability to teach. In a simplified way, it goes like this: we “give” a topic, students do exercises and homework, regurgitate all the new knowledge in the classroom with various success. They get daily marks for every exercise fulfilled which produces an overall impression about the new material for us and for them.
We are waiting for our flight at the airport. My husband talks quietly to his colleagues discussing a scientific project while I check in with our children, then click on various favorite links like The Free Dictionary, Teaching English and a few others. All around us people of all ages and nationalities are engaged in similar activities, talking, listening, writing, using their smartphones, iPads and other devices. The number of languages spoken is very impressive.
When I first started teaching EL at the university, I visited several lessons conducted by my own former school teacher. Here are a few new insights which I learned as an observer.
• How to parcel out various topics; how much or how little we may fit into 45 minutes; how to stop myself from sharing ALL my own knowledge of a current theme at once so as not to overload my students. I appreciated how much she knew, and how effortlessly she doled out information so as to involve her class in the process but not overwhelm them.
My long experience with ELT at all levels and ages has led me to the following simple conclusions; One, to quote Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), is this: “Knowledge is power”. Two, we cannot change human nature.
Traditionally, the introduction into the world of other cultures happens at an EL lesson close to Christmas. The first mystery our students face is this: why is Christmas celebrated on December 25 in many European countries while in the Russian Orthodox Church it falls on January 7? I remember trying to understand the whole idea of different calendar systems that our EL teacher explained to us in second grade. In middle and high school today we can suggest that our students research the subject online and make their own short reports in the classroom.
When new acquaintances ask me about my profession, I often jokingly reply that I am a professional chatterbox. Indeed, after a quarter century of teaching I can deliver a ninety minute lecture on various topics even in my sleep so to speak. And naturally I have a stock of stories to fill in any lull in a conversation if needed. To wit, most of our work is indeed talking, but not all of it.
Writing is greeted enthusiastically by younger pupils because for them it is a new challenge. They revel in their ability to construct a whole sentence from the recently learned words, and proudly present their efforts to the class and to the teacher. In primary school three sentences are already a story or an essay. “The soldier walks to the palace. He wants food, drink and the princess. Three magic dogs help him”. Recognize “The Tinderbox”, a fairy tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, originally published on May 8, 1835, under the title “Fyrtoiet”?