I promised to release some more of the bees I have in my bonnet. Here they come.

1. Doing things and teaching things At the end of an entertaining, fun-filled lesson, it's tempting to believe that the students must have learnt some English. Well, they may have done. On the other hand, they may simply have spent an enjoyable hour treading water, using what they have already mastered. Certainly, fluency practice is never completely wasted, at least in an EFL situation; but saying that you're doing 'fluency practice' can also be a real cop-out. At lower levels, we (or our materials) tend first of all to choose what to teach, and then find activities that will teach what has been chosen. But at higher levels, there is an increasing need for the students to practise using what has been learnt, so activities become increasingly important. And unconsciously, we can get into a situation where the tail is wagging the dog: we spend most of our time doing things, and not enough time asking what we're teaching when we do them. I think it's always important to go out of a lesson asking yourself 'What exactly do they know, or can they do, that they didn't know or couldn't do as well an hour ago?'

2. Being realistic Every now and then it's time for a language teaching revolution. The claim is always 'Stop doing all that stuff you were doing before. It has failed. Students do seven years' English and end up still making mistakes / unable to ask for a cup of coffee / ----- (fill in the blank). We now realise that for successful language teaching you need to do this clever stuff we have just thought of instead.'  All right, I'm caricaturing. But it's very common to hear the claim that 'traditional methods' have failed – the task-based literature is full of it. In fact, 'traditional methods' (whatever these are, exactly), haven't failed. They just haven't done very well. This is for a very simple reason: languages are complex and hard to learn, and in most teaching situations there isn't enough time for students to learn very much of them, whatever the methods used. We just have to do what we can. Good enough is good enough. And I think it's important to come clean with our students: we must make sure they too realise that in the time available they won't, for the most part, achieve a high level of accuracy, a very rich vocabulary, or native-speaker-like fluency. Certainly, under these circumstances we need to be as efficient as possible, but this means taking the best and most appropriate insights from all language teaching approaches; not imagining that earlier approaches have 'failed'. This is like a deranged dictatorship executing its Minister of Agriculture because yet another utopian five-year-plan has come to nothing.

3. Prioritising Following on from this: it's essential to set realistic, limited goals and not worry about what you can't do in the time available. I think many teachers, and many education systems, set out to do too much and then get into deep trouble trying to tick all the boxes – a lot of language is taught and tested, and not much of it is properly learnt. The key, in many situations, is to do more with less. If you have three hours a week, just teach what the students can really learn, and get comfortable and fluent with, in three hours a week, and throw out the rest. (If the examination system will let you.) It may not be much, but that's better than having half a grasp of twice as much. I taught for several years in a firm in Paris where the employees in my classes had English for one and a half hours a week, for thirty weeks a year, for two years. Ninety hours, total. I rapidly learnt to dump a lot of what I had previously regarded as essential, in the interests of just giving them a good command of a small amount of really basic material. It wasn't enough, of course, but it moved them forward from where they had been before, and, crucially, it gave them a lot of confidence. I had a more extreme experience of the same kind on a trek in Nepal with half a dozen French friends. They had all done years of English at school, and the perfectionist French system had left them all saying 'Je suis nul en anglais' – 'I'm no good at English'. They liked the idea of doing a bit of English during the trek, so I worked with each of them for fifteen or twenty minutes each day for three weeks, just bringing out some of their most basic knowledge, recycling it and consolidating it day after day. Here I had just one clear priority – creating confidence and minimum fluency. By the end of the trek they were all conversing in English with people from other countries that they met up with, and feeling terribly proud of themselves.

4 Giving bad lessons is OK (provided you don't do it all the time). I remember two colleagues, years back, who had sharply different views of their own work. Let's call them A and B. A would come bouncing out of a lesson one day saying that she'd done a terrific lesson; the next day she would crawl out of the classroom announcing that she'd failed completely and wasn't fit to be a teacher. B was a lot more balanced. If I ran into him after a lesson and asked 'How did that go, B?', the answer was invariably, 'Oh, fine.' One of them was a really good teacher; the other was actually quite bad. I don't need to tell you which was which.

Reactions, questions or disagreement welcome.

Cheers

Michael

 

Michael's now finished his period as our Guest Writer - many thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion on his blog.

Comments

Yes, yes, yes, yes!Thank you.

Dear Mr Michael Swan, I am really priveliged and honoured to interact with a scholar of your stature and repute. I would like to ask you whether Krashen's constructivism really works in the teaching of english as a second or foreign language. Are language acquisition and learning the same or different. Are behaviourism and CLT approaches outdated? I hope you read my 'Narrative as a pedagogic tool' and 'Learning and acquisition are different'. I am influenced by Krashen's constructivism. yours sincerely, JVL NARASIMHA RAO INDIA

Thanks to TeachingEnglish,
I am talking to the person whose books helped me design my Spoken English course. Your books have been self explanatory and exhaustive to people seeking to be familiar with english that is out side the courses dished out by the stuctured English pundits. It made us relaxed and confident in what we set out to do. Thanks to you we are here today.
It is sad that curriculum based English teachers hardly spend sometime reading your works. If they did many students would find English a pleasure rather than a pressure.
Finding out that there are not many good books for Spoken English students I set upon to write a book and stumbled upon a find, a new phase/topic that has not been addressed by any other grammar book, and in this regard I was planning to take my basic script to British Council for their help to let me know how to go about it to bring it to be examined by experts like you. Now as it turned out that you came to us through this site I request you to help me in going through the script and the new find and anything thereof. I know I am demanding a lot from your time and work schedule. It will be a dream come true if you will help me in this.
Thanking you
Sincerely
Pathi

Dear Michael , Thanks a lot for the bees .They made me look back on my teaching and think over some points. I agree with you we spend much time on doing the activities ( which is necessary) but rarely ask the question : Was it effective did I manage to teach what I wanted ? What should be done to make it easier for the students to remember and process the language? I noticed that reflection on techniques helping to conduct activities effectively and planning what to do at the next lesson to achieve your aim is essential. Another thing which is important is being realistic. I would add being patient   as well.  It is impossible to expect more or less perfect fluency and accuracy immediately.Neli KukhaleishviliGeorgiaBatumi

OH Thank you. Just some days ago I saw an interview with a Hungarian actress who has made it to Hollywood and to having an international reputation. She said that actresses, artists always have these emotional ups and downs about how well they have done their job and about the quality of their work. It wasn't the first time and first context when the similarity between artists and teachers hit me. I think it's not only about giving good or bad lessons, it's judging your whole career and rethinking it frequently. Teaching is art in many ways, and it's emotionally more demanding than being an actress because we seldom appear on the cover of magazines and the Oscar may never come or it comes 4-5 years after finishing the film of life, school language course.

Maybe I am wrong but from my point of view teacher B should think more carefully his/her lesson plannings, isn´t he? Please let me know because sometimes I feel like teacher A and I also think I wasn´t cut out to be a teacher, so if s/he is the bad teacher I am on time to do something else!!! Thank you I will really appreciate your consideration to this matter

Regarding the first point, I think that input is one thing that students can do a lot of on their own and therefore classroom time should not be heavily weighted on declarative teaching. Class time is where teachers need to be procedurally polishing what students already have. But, to get the best out of this the lesson must directly complement what they have studied prior to the class and I think this structuring is the forgotten part for many teachers and schools. I see a lot of class time spent on showcasing vocabulary but I think vocab is best gathered and learnt outside of a classroom. Vocab is the easiest part of language learning and overloading students with new words and explicit knowledge is a bigger cop-out than any class focussed on developing fluency.

thanx boglarkak for helping me! your words make me feel at a higher step on the confidence ladder. It doesn´t necessarily mean that I am in need of or looking for approval but your words really ameliorated my condition. Xhanti

Michael:
I am taking a TEFL certificate program and found this article very appropriate for what we were discussiong in our last lecture. Yes, I agree with you that we need to evolve in the way we teach a English because there are so many changes in technology, in communication and the way people interact now-a-days. I will recommend your blog for my class so we can add another thought to our on-going discussion. Thank you!

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