Teaching English is Not An Easy Job (1)

No stress, no hassle—is it possible?

Today I read about books that claim to make the work of a teacher extremely easy—no anxiety, no complications! For these activities students only need to bring pencils and paper to class and the teacher doesn’t have to prepare any worksheets. Most importantly, these activities require very little preparation time. For instance you go to class and ask the students to write "headlines" for events that have occurred in their lives. When their papers are ready, half of the students ask the others questions about these headlines. Naturally, after five to ten minutes they switch roles.

Another possibility referred to in such books is to ask a colleague or a friend to come to class. The students prepare questions and the colleague/friend answers these questions.The author in this last case even stipulates that the guest being interviewed need not speak English very well. But how well will these activities function?

"With what language?"

I do not mean to make fun of the authors of such resource books. Activities like those above may work with very good or highly motivated students, but the question remains: "With what language, i.e. with what vocabulary and structures will the students be expressing themselves?" And you may also ask yourself, "How do you make sure students are composing sentences that will be understood by others outside of the classroom environment in settings where the use of correct English is necessary to communicate correctly on important issues?" The answer to these questions lie in well-prepared exercises that help the student assimilate the grammar ("structures" or "algorithms") and the vocabulary ("building blocks") of a foreign language.

Speaking with correct usage

Our task as teachers is indeed difficult, because we not only need to teach our students a foreign language, but we also have to make them speak that language correctly. If the purpose is to have learners produce sounds that resemble English but are not necessarily correct, then I agree the activities of the kind mentioned above are sufficient. But if the goal is to get students to speak in complete sentences with comprehensible pronunciation and correct usage of standard English, i.e. the right tenses, the right prepositions, the right stresses, etc., then there is much work ahead for both the student and the teacher. Telling you the opposite is fooling you into believing a lie.

Making your teaching more effective

So the work of a teacher is time-consuming and hard, but there are ways to make it easier and above all more effective. First, work with others: colleagues or educators on the Internet. Look for good resources on the Web that you can customize to meet the needs of your students. Give your students exercises to do as homework. To make life less stressful for yourself, don’t correct their homework yourself and do not stand up in front of the class and ask them to do one sentence or part each in front of the whole class. This slows down the class and creates boredom. Instead, put the students in pairs, lend them "keys" to the homework assignment and ask them to "orally" correct each other’s exercises. This is called "intensive pair work", and it works wonders. I speak about it at length in my book, “QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book” and I have produced a 25-page booklet with samplings of pair work exercises that the teacher can customize to make it look like a "personal" workbook. You can download it directly from this site for a minimal fee. The digital book is too big to be downloaded (4GB), but if you order it, you will receive the DVD with 1,500 files in MS Word, PPT, MP3 and audio formats. Most of the files can be personalized.

Translations of difficult vocabulary—even common words

Another tip: Give students lists with the translations of difficult vocabulary in their native language—even words we teachers might consider quite common. I believe the teacher should only speak English in class (and even outside of class), but students need to know the real meanings of words, and you cannot expect them to look all unknown words up in the dictionary. They won’t do it (unless they are highly motivated), and if they do, they tend to choose the first definition—which is very often inappropriate. The exercises in the booklet mentioned above are in MS Word, so teachers can easily insert translations into the native language of their students (cf. 25-page booklet with samplings of pair work exercises).

In my next article

In my next article I will tell you where to find resources and useful information for your own personalized workbooks. Thank you for your interest in my work. I would like teachers to have easier lives, but I know too well all the obstacles that have to be overcome.

Marianne Raynaud

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