As a student at Moscow University, I was part of an experiment conducted by the head of the English Department. After our first semester and examination session, she insisted that those who got straight A’s should be enlisted into the same academic group. Nobody asked our opinion. Thus when we returned from our winter break we learned that we were now members of an elite group of eight students.
This meant a number of important changes in our life. First of all the four first-year groups were reshuffled; some of our new friends were now in other groups. Secondly our whole curriculum was changed; we now had a weekly lesson with a native speaker of English. Most importantly, the second semester clearly showed that we still remained individuals with different abilities; after the summer examination session four of us remained straight A students while four received several B marks each. They bitterly complained that if they remained in their former groups they might have gotten A’s too, and yet they had no wish to change anything, due to the sheer prestige of being in that high level group. There was a healthy competition among us, and naturally some envy.
I believe the experience was my first inkling and later a clear understanding of this simple fact: we always teach multi-level differentiated classes. As a teacher, I followed my own family’s and my very good role models’ examples. When we come into a new classroom we should acknowledge the fact that every student has different abilities, interests and needs as a universal truth. The level does not directly correspond to age; the curriculum does not necessarily reflect the children’s and adults’ expectations. The educational authorities guidelines do not always help; sometimes (gasp) they turn out to be a hindrance. “At the final exams each student must show…” This is more or less what we teachers get from the ministry of education; they are very sensible rules and regulations, we understand the demands and the criteria. And then there is life. A British colleague of mine who teaches English in Japan tells me that each year, he needs to come up with one answer to the perpetual question: “Why do we need this subject? How useful will it be in my future profession?”
We exchange ideas on motivation and an individualized approach to teaching and learning.
Step 1. Know your class. Check the age, the level, the family situation if possible. Take a look at their grades in other subjects. Try to envision what their future may be like.
Step 2. Ask questions during your very first lesson with a new class. What do they expect? What are their interests? How much schooling did they have previously, if at all? Do they understand why they are to learn English? NB: it is better to take notes and not to provide answers at once.
Step 3. Make a list. Can your new students converse in English or are they beginner level? Mark each student’s skills; someone may speak fluently but find difficulty reading, another may hear well but not write coherently, and so on. If you identify at least one person who is confident in all the four skills, he or she may become your most reliable (but not the only one) member of the class.
Step 4. To ensure everybody’s participation, bring in a set of differentiated tasks and be sure to always have extras in your folder. Your best pupil will definitely need more exercises than the rest of the class; your weakest one may make a leap when you least expect it.
Step 5. To motivate all your students, use this simple trick. Think back to your own young years. Why did you choose ELT as your profession and occupation? What made it so interesting for you? Share with your class. Ask them if they agree with you, if any of them have the same motivation you had.
Step 6. Doing a project is always helpful. This may be a class activity; it does not necessarily involve any extra time or a venture into international internet projects. If you have a beginner or a very weak class, you may for instance suggest that you create a Progress Chart together. It may be presented as a poster calendar, with large squares for every day or week into which you may write various achievements. “Learned the new vocabulary”. “Did audio test with zero mistakes”. “Wrote essays”.
Step 7. Allow your students to demonstrate their abilities to the class by giving them individual tasks for a final lesson on any topic. Someone is interested in machinery? They may talk about the ways foods and goods are transported, or about airplanes and trains, or tourism. Another person likes animals. Let them talk about pets, or animal shelters, or safaris. The possibilities are endless. While not all your class may be interested in sports or music or movies, they will listen to their classmate explaining why he or she is.
Step 8. The simplest and the most complicated. If you have to teach a group of adults for whom learning English is a necessary requirement, simply tell them they must do it if they want to get a job or a status. You will notice that they may protest or even try to tell you that they cannot learn a foreign language. Sympathize but be firm. One thing always works for me: never criticize; always encourage.
Nina MK, Ph.D.