“I’ll just teach but I don’t really desire to ‘know’ my students.”
Teaching is about entering into relationship on purpose (intentionally) in order to promote the development of the ELL’s English language skills. The operative word here is “relationship.” Human beings seek “meaning” and have a natural desire to relate. Language is the vehicle of exchange so that meaningful relationships can develop. In other words, if you’re not interested in developing meaningful relationships with your students, don’t teach. It matters much less whether or not you’re really great at relating or skilled in meaningful conversation – these are ‘skills’ (strategies) that can be taught and learned. While the focus of the relationship IS the development of language skills, full expression of a language cannot be limited to a discussion of linguistic items (verbs, articles, sentence structure, etc…), themes/topics are related to personal and interpersonal concerns, and student motivation is heavily influenced by the quality of the teacher-student relationship.
This MOTIVATION is one of the most effective predictors of language learning success. Desire (or motivation) is required for language learning. An unmotivated student is NOT a successful student. Motivation influences how much effort and time we put into learning, and how focused we are on the object/s of learning. The quality of our relationships is a primary determinant of student motivation to interact repeatedly or routinely; this interaction is the milieu in which our teaching can take place.
“A good teacher talks less and listens more – In a good class, you don’t hear the teacher talk; you hear students talking.”
Teachers model appropriate patterns for students and they ‘lead’ their students to learning. They ‘talk-aloud’ exercises so students can emulate appropriate responses, and hear the right words pronounced correctly. When a teacher talks and uses ‘ideal’ English, they provide visual and auditory input for learning purposes. Once again, the operative words here are ‘ideal’ and ‘for learning’ – Those who know ‘more’ regardless of the subject, tend to dominate relevant conversations and others listen. The ‘listeners’ gain valuable input and have time to form their own ideas before responding. They are receiving knowledge and input and then applying reason to provide feedback based on what they learn and process through the exchange. They generally “want” to listen and hear (the same way we do in a seminar) so they, too, can become more knowledgeable and proficient. If they are to ever aspire to greater ability, they choose to immerse themselves and to do so primarily by listening to and observing ‘experts’ in action. That’s why we go to demonstrations of teaching strategies, and that’s why we attend lectures, and read books. In these settings, learners want less ‘do-it-yourself’ than they want modeling and interaction and descriptive discourse that shows and explains.
Language is not about just using a tool in the abstract or ‘pretend’ arena. It’s not an abstract science (although it can be for linguists, etc…) – It’s an applied science. While applied science requires practice and review, it is developed through its use – and it’s used to provide meaningful exchange. In order to really use a word appropriately and with ease, we have to hear it repeatedly. Repetition is the mother of all learning. But repetition extinguishes learning (law of diminishing returns) as boredom sets in (the need for novelty in order to ‘pay attention’ to specific items). So we require repeated approaches to the same, targeted phenomenon from multiple angles (experiential settings). This is called “RANGE” – the many ways in which we try to get someone to understand a particular culturo-linguistic feature. An example might be conveying the meaning of something as simple as, “get out of”. To ‘get out of a chore’ is nearly the opposite of the question “What did you get out of that lecture?” Certainly, we can add more similar expressions that mean very different things – such as: “Let’s get out of here.” – and then there’s “What happens to a pianist if she gets out of practice.” While these items may be more difficult than teaching someone “how to read, write, and say numbers 1 through 10”, both types require repeated ‘showing’ and ‘explaining’ in order to be learned by someone who can’t speak our language.
So that’s the ‘not-so-short’ answer. You hear LOTS of ‘teacher talk’ both modeling and explaining the language and using it according to its purpose: to provide meaningful exchange. A good teacher who talks a lot with the purpose of engaging in relationship, has a good command of the language, and the ability to explain concepts – will naturally want verbal feedback and interaction. Students WILL be engaged either really listening and watching or they will be responding to cues and using the language to express themselves as they also focus on form – the precise targeted linguistic learning item.
“The sooner you get them talking, the better.”
What exactly do you mean by that? Yes, studies show (see the more ‘research-oriented’ section) that while producing language (talking) is necessary for our definition of “fluency,” forcing its production early on is often counter-productive to achieving full fluency. Why? Because it may well have a negative ‘affective impact’ (it might diminish motivation and exacerbate negative feelings related to self-perception and competence) – and part of what is known to be necessary is ‘removing the affective filter’ as Krashen puts it, or removing inhibitions and insecurities. The best way to encourage production is simply to ‘model’ it by providing lots of good, funny, interesting “input” (teacher talk) at a level slightly above the student’s current ability level (at the i + 1 level).
You don’t make them have to talk and you don’t have to make them talk – You make them read aloud, over and over and over again – and you add humor, explanation, pronunciation, and model the reading with enjoyment! You ask questions, model responses (Hi, My name is Nancy, what’s yours?) – and encourage active participation – and you quickly ‘step in’ to model and assist verbally when you see hints of faltering and/or embarrassment/pain. When you get right responses, you praise genuinely and with admiration. Good teachers do provide exercises that require verbal repetition and practice. Students will ‘naturally’ start taking the personal initiative to engage verbally if the modeling is good, and the relationship is healthy.
“Don’t embarrass students by making corrections while engaged in a language learning activity.”
It takes just as long to learn the wrong thing as the right thing; sometimes it takes less time to learn the wrong thing (usually because it’s the easier way). The magic number of average repetitions it takes to ‘automate’ items of language usage (or any small bit of information/skill) is 7. So, if you let a student pronounce something incorrectly (some of these common errors in Spanish include such items as failing to know when to say asked versus ask Ed, or especial instead of special) often enough, you will have a fossilized ‘bad habit’; an item of learning that is near-permanently embedded and extremely difficult to “fix”. The most difficult issues are not in areas where someone has “no knowledge” but rather when they have “wrong knowledge” applied incorrectly and repeatedly. It will be much like trying to get rid of an accent or slang that has become an integrated part of someone’s persona.
Make corrections the way you breathe air: naturally, routinely, immediately, and continuously. Breathing air doesn’t keep you from continuing to focus on your activities – and corrections shouldn’t stop or hinder the overall lesson’s goal nor do they need to be embarrassing. A correction only interrupts the overall objective momentarily – it is addressed to the whole class, and it happens all the time to everyone without diverting the ‘flow’ of the lesson. If you find yourself correcting everything all the time such that you can’t complete a brief exercise – then you’re engaged in an activity that is greater than i +1 or out of the range of ability for your class. If you’re in a mixed level class, then encourage the advanced students to do it for you by seating advanced students next to less skilled students. They won’t worry about stopping the class or embarrassing their neighbor because they know they are helping one another. If you have established a good group spirit and modeled good and helpful relationships, students will be eager to correct one another and to be corrected.
Caveat: If you yourself don’t use correct English, have a strong slang or accent, or are insecure about correcting others and embarrassing them – work on fixing these problems – because your students will emulate you, you are the role model, the leader – and they’re following you.
“Grammar should be taught only as a minor, separate subject – don’t bore students with it.”
Grammar is the poor stepchild of the modern world, abused, shunned, and mistaken for a bore. People who don’t like teaching it generally don’t know how to do so, and don’t feel secure about their own knowledge of it. Grammar can be fun and it should be for any teacher who enjoys language learning and teaching. Saying you don’t like grammar or can’t teach grammar is much like insisting you love math except you don’t like or do ‘formulas.’ Really. Then you obviously don’t’ know enough math to teach math to any but the least skilled or youngest students.
Grammar should be taught in small bits because it requires more critical thinking and deduction/reasoning than some other areas of language instruction. Left on its own as a pure explanation and practice – it can be made to be very boring. Pure grammar practice should be done as a regular, small part of every week’s agenda. It requires both clear explanation (so make sure you educate yourself about the item you’ll present) and practice (so find some practical exercises that you like or that you think work well). If you’re excited about grammar, your students will be, too.
Grammar should also be inserted into lessons whenever it is recognized as a need – and it should be relationship driven. Much like correcting pronunciation/reading issues, it should be addressed when the teacher recognizes some more or less ‘common’ problem. But since it takes a bit more time than just saying a word or two and having the student repeat your word, it should be discussed at the end of some logical sequence of activities – but not too far from the point where the problem was noticed, so the discussion is current and meaningful.
Once students understand the structure or framework (grammar) of a language item, they more easily speak correctly, read correctly, and write correctly. You can’t always ‘predict’ the sequence of grammar instruction even if you have a systematic text to guide you. One day, suddenly, you realize that everyone is reading, “I’d, he’ll, we’ve, and you’re,” but no one realizes they’re really reading, “I would, he will, we have, and you are”. What’s more, they think they’re seeing “your, weave, and hell” and it doesn’t make any sense to them. This becomes a teachable moment you can’t miss! You don’t have to go into a lengthy diatribe – just spell out the conjugation of the actual words and show how the apostrophe replaces parts of the words. That’s a good enough start for them to feel less lost, and you can move the grammar point onto your calendar for sometime in the near future when you can focus on it longer.
“Teach simple, segregated bits – stay focused so they get the point and don’t confuse it with related items.”
Teachers MODEL language learning….