30 April 2014

Putting Michel Thomas into practice

So I've finally found myself using Michel Thomas's techniques (or at least my interpretation of them) in the language classroom.

When I started my current job, I made the decision that I was going to do exactly what the school wanted of me, and stop worrying about the ineffectiveness of standard techniques -- after all, standard techniques are what the school sells, and therefore what the students have bought. Basically, I figured that I needed to start looking at teaching as a job rather than some kind of holy calling, so that I could go home at the end of the day and switch off, rather than beating myself up until bedtime for the day's errors.

It's ironic, then, that the student who's getting the most "me" in my teaching is the second class I started. I went in preparing to teach the standard course, and with only a couple of hours until the class started, I discovered that the method materials were aimed at large classes, and were inappropriate to a one-on-one class, so I went to the syllabus and wrote down the language features for the first few lessons. To be, to have, there is/are... OK, fine. The various things pointed in a direction I wasn't intending to head in, but there it was: Total Physical Response. For about half a dozen lessons we were putting things in a box, on a chair, on the floor... even on my head. I was lucky that I'd recently got in an online discussion about "Language Hunting" just before, as I had whole system analysed and fresh in my head.

The student was herself a teacher -- in fact, a headteacher -- and understood a lot about pedagogy. This was a double-edged sword, as while she was open to different ideas, she got kind of fixated on the "concreteness" of the TPR class, and was slightly reluctant to move on until I'd built up her confidence in herself and in me as a teacher. Once that confidence was there, it was time to switch, and switch we did.

Compliments from students are always welcome, but when they come from a trained and experienced teacher, they really feel good. Of course, at the same time, I recognise that it's the techniques drawing the praise, not me.

Teaching Michel Thomas style is actually even more difficult than I really appreciated. The last time I tried it, I wasn't teaching full-time, and I had enough space in my head to balance the repetition of the various language points, but in these classes I frequently find myself leaving revision of a particular word or structure late, and the student has forgotten it. She blames herself, when of course it's my fault. I'm trying to develop ways of notating and mnemonicising for myself to keep track of what to revise and when.

But overall, it's been clearly very effective, and it's reinforced my belief that Thomas's core methodology is constructed on sound concepts, and that there was nothing miraculous about Thomas as a teacher.

If there's a stressful element in it, it's seeing how much the lesson suffers when the teacher's on an off-day, something that doesn't happen as much when you're hiding behind worksheets and programmed materials. On the flip-side, though, this connection between teacher performance and learning eliminates the great existential angst of the teacher: "Are they learning because of me or despite me?"

26 April 2014


Back in December 2012, I wrote a post entitled "Too many cooks spoil the net". The basic gist of it was that people are so keen to share everything that the internet is flooded with redundant and suboptimal resources, making it very difficult to identify the really useful stuff. When I was prepping a lesson on sports a few weeks ago, I went onto the net to search, and I came to a lesson plan uploaded with the following blurb:
I have a lesson coming up tomorrow and I thought I would share this lesson that I have created over the evening.
This one sentence captures the problem beautifully: what we're looking at isn't a carefully considered, well thought out piece of work, but something basically thrown together the night before like any teacher can do. This is surely what much of the material on the net is.

Is such work really worthy of sharing? How much time does it save us as teachers to have such resources available? Is it worth it? In the end, we either spend as much time searching for something suitable as we would have spent writing our own resource, or we take the first thing we find without fully evaluating its effectiveness. Either way, we end up producing something that results in a worse experience for our students, and if we can't do the best by our students, why are we even trying?

So I have a particular beef with the site ESLprintables.com. There seems to be a fair amount of good material on the site, but I have never been able to use it, because the policy there is that you can't download anything if you haven't uploaded anything. Really, who benefits from that policy? Do you really want a bunch of inexperienced gap year teachers flooding you with poor quality worksheets and drowning out the good stuff in the process? And are the people who are capable of producing good resources really going to be interested in using other people's materials rather than the stuff they've been refining and improving over the course of their careers? The whole thing seems like an exercise in futility to me.

16 April 2014

All teachers lie (or "The myth of the target-language-only classroom")

So last time I was talking about the danger of  the philosophy of answer-in-sentences, but I mentioned the English-only-classroom in passing.

It's a commonly stated goal that we, as teachers, should be aiming to use only the target language in the classroom, and that we shouldn't be introducing "translation". In the guidelines of my school, translation is marked down as a "last resort".

However, most teachers kid themselves on. In a heterogeneous, mixed-mother-tongue class (foreigners studying in an English-speaking country), obviously you can't use the students' mother tongue as there is no other shared language, but once you go into a homogenous class, translation becomes a matter of course. I've observed other teachers doing it, and I've even had advice from teachers that has thrown in translation as a completely standard tool. (EG. a former boss in Spain who insisted that he taught in English only told me that the best way to correct Spanish kids saying "one car" instead of "a car" was to say "uno coche?" thus demonstrating that "one" was explicitly a number. He was completely unconscious of the dichotomy of philosophy vs practice.)

When I've witnessed this in observed classes, what I tend to experience is a careful, elaborate explanation of a task or grammar point in consciously graded English, followed by a very quick, concise summary in the students' native language. How are we to know whether it's the difficult-to-understand English or the exceptionally easy mother-tongue instruction that they're learning from? Common sense, perhaps? It strikes me as obvious which one would be more effective.

I've had three full-time jobs in different foreign countries, and in all of them, I've walked in and been told to pretend I don't know anything about the local language, and each time I've tried to do so. It has never worked. It's not a question of how well I grade my English, either -- it's simply that you cannot and will not stop the stronger students translating for the weaker ones, which means losing control of the classroom (particularly when the students doing the translation have failed to understand themselves). This translation problem is even more serious in a mixed-mother-tongue class where a large subset of the students already share a common language, where there is a large heterogeneous immigrant population (I'm told there are a lot of South Americans in Italy, for example, and they would have to learn Italian.)

An English-only classroom presents a huge psychological barrier, as the students see themselves as unable to communicate with the teacher. English should be a means of communication, yet we present it to our students in such a way as to make it an impediment to communication. That can't be right, surely....

05 April 2014

Answer in sentences: death to meaning!

After my injury-induced half-year out of the classroom, I made myself a promise: I wasn't going to torture myself by wanting to undo all the mistakes of teaching orthodoxy in one go. It's not something I'm capable of doing, and in wanting to, I have ended up hampering my ability to get on with the task as requested by the people writing my paycheque. After all, while the orthodoxy may be far from perfect, it's at least tried and tested, and people have learned from it.

I have tried my best to stick to this philosophy since the start of my new employment, with a few particular exceptions where suitable materials weren't available in time and I had to improvise. You can hardly be expected to improvise in a style that isn't yours, after all.

The real danger in doing something someone else's way is that you might start to believe in it. I was never a fan of "answer in sentences" as it always seemed unnatural, but it's something I've come to rely on in class, and I was starting to view it uncritically, until I came face-to-face with the downside...

I was teaching a class of primary-age kids, and I was integrating times with the past tense of to be. The worksheet presented a clock representing the time, and a little picture of a location, to prompt sentences of the form "at five o'clock, he was in the kitchen," following a model example at the top of the first page. Some of the kids latched on to the point fairly quickly, but most needed repeated explanation and demonstration. (This is because I'm trying to stick to the orthodoxy of "the English only classroom" even though these kids don't speak English yet -- but that's a rant for another time.)

One in particular was having difficulties, as he's afraid of making mistakes: you can only fail if you try, so he's naturally afraid of trying. I led him through several questions directly, breaking the task into two parts: the time and the location. The problem was, when I pointed at the time, he would say "it's five o'clock", as per his answer-in-sentences training; and when I pointed at the location, he would say "he's in the kitchen". These kids have been trained (by myself and by other teachers) to never say any noun or adjective on its own, so that little contracted form it's has taken on a life that is divorced from its meaning, and appears in the language of many of the learners as little more than a particle that precedes certain words.

Basically, it has reawakened a long-held belief of mine that the frequent repetition of words doesn't truly aid in their memorisation, as the students simply aren't required to consider the context, and the language forms are devoided of all meaning.

But language is meaning.