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The proof of the pudding

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Speak and the world is full of singing :)

When I am asked, both by students and by colleagues, how to begin speaking, how to overcome the language barrier, I usually give the same answer. The proof of the pudding is in its eating. Or, to paraphrase the famous charmingly ungrammatical quote from “Winnie-the-Pooh” by A.A. Milne, “one can’t have spoken without something having been said”. If one wishes to say something, one should say it. It sounds simple; why then is it so hard to really start speaking in a foreign language? I am sure any psychologist would produce a zillion reasons. None of them help us EL teachers, because we have to teach the four major skills to our students “whether they want to or not”. And today, more than ever, we are dealing with situations when children and adults are fatigued due to the pandemic and the restrictions, the lockdowns and the uncertainty about tomorrow we all face on a daily basis. Here are a few techniques that I found helpful during the continuing switch from face-to-face, to online, to blended teaching.

Younger learners. In the classroom, I always use various props. Toys, pictures, recorded songs, video clips all come in useful. A clear well-thought-out plan is needed. How do we start, what comes next, how many minutes per exercise? Which props are good in the classroom and which are easier to use in an online lesson? I would bring in smaller toys as well as larger inflatable ones into school; if working from home, I use larger ones. How well can this or that toy be seen on screen? I am lucky to have a huge soft toy, a blue striped tiger which my husband won for our kids at a Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park while tossing tennis balls into a receptacle, and which I knew at once we’d have to lug back home from New York to Siberia with us. It survived our Transatlantic flight, all the Customs checks (you should have seen the customs officials’ faces!), and a quarter century of numerous kids playing with it. I show it to any audience and tell them this story, then ask them to comment. Even if the comment is very short, like “It is HUGE!” or “Why is it blue?!”, it should be praised. Usually the following home task, to choose a toy and tell the class its story, is greeted with enthusiasm. We may then “introduce” various toys to each other and suggest that young learners say at least a sentence for them, helping out if and when necessary.

Teenagers are notoriously hard to stimulate. They seem to use but a few words in answer to any questions, “Nobody, nothing”, or just shrug their shoulders and keep silent. We need to think about their interests, their worries. We can ask our class if there is a topic they would like to discuss. We can also try to talk to a teenager in our own family, or to someone we know well. While showing a funny sketch to my two god children, I noticed that while the younger one, aged 9, laughed and repeated everything easily, then asked me the meaning of a couple words he did not know yet, the older one, 15, listened and clearly understood enough but said nothing. I asked her why she did not comment or repeat anything, and got a rather amazing reply. Their teacher, it turned out, had stopped trying to conduct their online lessons in English and used only their mother tongue. “Read a paragraph, translate, do exercises… boring!” I asked why she did not try to speak English with her friends, outside the lessons. She shrugged: “Laziness”. I would say inertia, lethargy, restrictions are all factors we have to somehow conquer. Though not a specialist in modern pop music, I take care to learn who the most popular singer is among my group. I play a portion of a song and ask them to mark every word they really hear or just recognize as a familiar one. Fill in the blanks is a staple; we just use the lyrics, not a “boring” text, as the basis for our exercise. Once we have 4-6 lines, we can start asking questions which help activate the vocabulary. “Why does the singer use this word? What do they mean by this phrase? Would you use the word or phrase in your speech?”

Building up dialogues or group talks while fulfilling their home work online is not easy. Frankly, I don’t think any of us can have much control over students’ own activities in this area under the present conditions. But we may suggest that they record themselves while working and share the results at our next lesson. Surprisingly, after the initial resistance, many students enjoy doing that. We may rely on their habitual use of communication devices; remind them that they leave voice messages as a matter of course. Why not do it in English? Naturally there should be the traditional incentives, like an extra point, an excellent mark if they make no mistakes, or if their utterance is longer than one sentence.

Since I have a lot of experience working with adults, with EL teachers, I am often asked the same question: how do I overcome the language barrier, how do I really start speaking? This question crops up even among teachers who have been working for 20 and more years! You are a professional; you have a great vocabulary; you know grammar really well. Your barrier comes from lack of practice, and from a deeply seated fear of making a mistake. Try this simple exercise: think up any sentence in your own language. Translate it into English. I am pretty sure you won’t find any mistakes in it. Then just say it out loud. And never stop speaking English.

Nina Koptyug.