Knowledge is power!

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.

Why do people some go through a rigorous admissions process, take exams, win over dozens of applicants, only to skip classes, fail their examinations, and even get expelled? Why do parents pay for private schools and their children do not excel as expected? How do we teach our students that unless they really work hard they cannot achieve success? We are the givers, but it is not enough to “give” a topic or a grammar lesson. Our audience ideally should consist of eager takers who would first absorb the new material we teach, and then do their homework to consolidate the new knowledge. In essence we should be able to explain that until we overcome or just pass through a hurdle, conquer an obstacle, we cannot move on to new heights. If somebody failed a grammar test, did not pay attention to listening exercises, refrained from speaking, claimed that writing is too hard, it means that a lacuna, an emptiness is left instead of the solid new filling.

Provided that both the teachers and the students have the common goal of mastering a foreign language, I believe that success can be achieved. With younger learners parental encouragement also plays a great role. As long as all the adults remain on the same platform so to speak, children feel more confident and perform quite well.

• Step 1. Look at your class carefully. During the first couple of lessons try to create a mental portrait of every individual. List their strengths and weaknesses. Somebody is eager to talk even though they may make lots of mistakes; another may listen quite well even if they do not yet know all the words; one or two may tackle every and any text with enthusiasm; a dreamy-eyed person may be a future writer (or a lazybones).

• Step 2. Once you know who you are dealing with, try to come up with student-oriented tasks. Encourage everybody regardless of whether they show any talents! To help them gradually coalesce into a class where everybody has an important role to play, bring in separate tasks in the beginning of the course or school year. Let them work in pairs or small groups, with the leader in each one.

• Step 3. I always notice that it is better to offer some choice during the first weeks of the first term rather than making the whole class perform the same task at your command. Ask who would like to help the designated speaker, suggest that they compose a short talk together, with (at first) only the most confident student speaking in front of the group. Gradually make a transition, suggest that next week somebody else presents a speech, but make it clear that the small group is still helping to compose it.

• Step 4. Listening is usually quite difficult, be it the traditional dialogues or monologues. I read a report of the World Health Organization (WHO) many years ago. In it, this amazing fact was mentioned: many people have 98% hearing, not 100%, and never realize it. Specifically, the report showed that such young people may have trouble with any listening exercises at school! We cannot determine if that is the case but we should probably bear that fact in mind if we notice that some students struggle with recorded speech. If only one person can hear most of the recording at one hearing, you may designate them to be the sounding board, the leader for listening exercises. Be sure to bring in some extra tasks for them so that they are not bored while the class needs to hear the recording several more times.

• Step 5. Reading and writing may be neatly connected into a series of tasks. If your students level is low and they are not too enthusiastic about this part of the lesson, ask if they send and receive any messages on their devices. You may suggest that they compose a line or two each, if they wish with the help of or even exclusively with emoticons, gifs et cetera. Let them send those to each other and see if they understand every symbol or sign. You may pretend that you do not recognize a few and ask for help. Students usually love explaining things to their peers and their teacher!

• Step 6. To stimulate their output, you may use a few simple techniques. For me bout-rimes always work. This originally French expression literally means “rhymes at the end”, or “rhyming the last word” (in a line). How is it done? Let your writing leader write a verse line or two. Then they fold the paper and show only the last word to the next person. Their neighbor has to compose a line which rhymes with this word and also proceed with the next one, again showing only the last word to their partner. The process continues until everybody in the classroom took part. The teacher or the leader then unfolds the paper and reads aloud the resulting, most often nonsense poem which naturally produces laughter and provides relaxation at the end of a lesson.

Depending on our students’ level teaching the four basic skills may take a shorter or a longer time. Once we notice that the majority of the group contributes to all the tasks we may gradually introduce the same tasks to the whole class, always bearing in mind that there are some students who will always find it a challenge to show good results in everything. The most difficult task we face is teaching them that without their own hard work no real progress can be done. Remember the old wisdom: if you do not try, you do not succeed.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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