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