I wonder just how many of us fell into teaching English as a second language as the only job option open to us on our arrival in a foreign country and how many had actually studied to become a teacher or longed to fulfill that role? I suspect the former largely outnumber the latter and without shame I would certainly count myself amongst the make-doers, but I also feel that with a little commitment, imagination and enthusiasm, even the most unlikely of English teachers warms to the task in hand.
I am relatively fortunate in that I have experienced language learning from both student and teacher perspectives. My recollections of good and bad experiences from my time as a student were invaluable when formulating lessons to teach. It is important to remember which aspects you found stimulating when deciding on an approach to presenting a language to others.
In my view there are three vital elements to remember when teaching any English class: relevance, honesty and most of all fun.
Relevance: I cannot stress enough the importance of relevance. And not just the grade of difficulty of the lessons taught with respect to student ability but also regarding the subject matter and forms on which lessons are based. For example, from my experience teaching English to Italian students, I noted that teenage language students tend to turn off their radar when faced with any type of literature. This is no doubt due to the long history of Italian school curriculums based on rote-learning the life and works of English poets from the seventeenth century and quotations from “The Killing of the Albatross” (no disrespect to Mr. Coleridge here but it is a proven fact that his epic does nothing for 14 year-old Justin Bieber fans). One way to get round this, or at least to "ease" people into getting to grips with elements they may not prefer, is to look hard for material which they can relate to.
My favourite examples of literature for teenagers are the works of the Merseyside poets, such as “Let me die a youngman’s death” by Roger McGough (please Google it if it doesn’t ring a bell: I promise you will find it enlightening even if by now you are only a virtual teenager!) and Adrian Henri’s “Tonight at Noon”. These pieces are proof to students that literature isn't always about fair maids with long gowns and provide great triggers for conversation on the point of life and other such themes leapt upon eagerly by high school students.
For listening practice, current popular songs are always good fire-starters. On the down side they are usually largely unintelligible even to native speakers (but you can cheat and download the lyrics from the Net!) Have some multiple choice questions ready in order to check comprehension rather than use the piece as a dictation exercise.
On this note, I once taught a (very unruly) class of Italian Police Officers from the Drug Squad and found standard listening exercises very tedious with them until I showed them a video of the UK TV police drama “The Bill”. It must be admitted that they spent most of their time noting down the more colloquial phrases such as “You’re nicked, son!” and “Fat chance!” (this last one provoked horrified stares and they fired questions at me “What did he just say, teacher? What did he call him? Was that a rude word? A fat what?!!!” ) but it got the ball rolling.
Next: honesty. When I began to teach English I had no formal training. I had a foreign language degree but English, my mother tongue, was not one of the subjects I had had to pass exams in to graduate and so although I believe that I spoke and wrote correctly, my formal English grammar skills had not been dusted down since primary school and I simply didn’t remember the rules behind most grammatical curiosities. If this concept worries you, do buy yourself a simple step-by-step English grammar book and read through it as if English was not your mother tongue. You will be surprised at just how many simple ways there are to explain sayings and rules we take for granted. And never be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question. Teachers are human too and we don't know absolutely everything. When faced with a student’s query which stumps me I generally adopt the following escape plan : admit my shortcoming, explain that it is due to me being a native speaker and so knowing automatically which version to use, promise to read up on the rule behind the query and explain it at the next class. I have found that this method earns me respect, and is needed less and less as time goes on as questions asked are usually always the same ones.
Lastly : fun. It is a proven fact that animals learn faster and more willingly when they are having fun. Likewise, if a student enjoys him or herself while learning, he or she will be more receptive. Of course, in a classroom setting there is a fine line between creating fun lessons and giving students an excuse to create havoc. But with a little common sense fun can be managed and is productive.
Debates, especially on controversial issues can be great for making shy students talk. I once taught a conversation class of mute 40-year olds and after three weeks of answering my own questions, initiated an on-the spot debate on all that was wrong with Italians. With hindsight it was probably a bit offensive but very tongue-in-cheek and it certainly got them talking! I questioned their use of the bidet as unhygienic (!) and pointed out that Italians are extremely unadventurous when it comes to trying non-Italian foods. The response was amazing! Students I hadn’t imagined to own a tongue pushed and shoved each other for the chance to rant in English about the UK’s greasy fish and chips and how we Brits probably washed our unmentionables in the kitchen sink when they itched! I wasn’t offended. Or at least not as much as they were! I was however smug in having found something that made them finally want to communicate. Fait accompli.
Another great idea is team games. Delve back into your childhood and blast your students with Hangman, I Spy, Guess the Fruit, team quizzes and anything at all that makes them use English. With young children use card games such as Memory and Snap. My very first pre-school students were two 4 year-old boys with super-short attention spans so we often played games and their absolute favourite was Woodland Happy Families. On their return from a holiday to England their father remarked to me that they hadn’t been able to ask their English cousins their names but that they had literally burst with pride when able to label the animal he had run over with his hired car as "Mr Hedgehog". Cartoons are good too. If you can find a DVD with a series of episodes of a cartoon this is an excellent filler in those 5 minutes at the end of the lesson when attention (theirs) and patience (yours) may be running thin.
Many English lessons are tedious as traditional methods treat language as a science. Of course, the backbones of any language are fundamental. English cannot be taught without pointers on grammar and pronunciation and in a context where a language is being studied for a specific purpose such as for translation or interpretation, then of course precision and grammar are of the utmost importance. But I can’t help feeling that those who truly need to speak, write and read perfect English are way fewer than those who will need it to chat with an Irish boy they met in Ibiza or to order baseball boots over the phone from the US. A controversial view, and one I am shot down for each and every day, but my vote goes to less perfection and more participation as regards teaching English as a second language. Better for a student to express himself badly but receive his shoes on time than hang back wondering which tense to use and be outbid on Ebay!!!!!
That reminds me........tomorrow’s lesson : "Coleridge or Converse: you choose!"