Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Happy Accident

I recently had an incredibly exciting and illuminating teaching / learning experience. I would like to tell the story and I invite you to share your reactions and responses.

One of my current classes is a Pre-Intermediate ESOL group of mixed nationalities - Africa, Middle-East, Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. I have the classroom arranged in small island groups, and usually encourage students to sit next to people of different nationalities, so that they can compare and contrast their experiences. However, recently, due to mis-communication,  I happened to spend 40 minutes with only four students who all came from Africa. There were two students from Somalia, one from Ghana and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were meeting that day to do some Guidance activities, so I had no 'lesson plan' or materials. We talked. I wrote on the board. The students answered questions, told stories and noted new vocabulary as it arose.

In that short time, we covered a range of topics including: (post-)collonialism, corruption, nepotism, meritocracy, political elites, and emergency aid to Africa. Bearing in mind these students are in a Pre-Intermediate class, I was amazed at how much they were able to contribute to and take from the conversation. Afterwards, we agreed that we would collaborate to write an article for the ESOL magazine about some of the topics we covered.

My admiration was tinged with embarassment for two reasons. Firstly, I felt I had previously underestimated the students' abilities to tackle more complex and abstract concepts, and secondly, I realised that I often allow the more verbose students in the class to dominate at the expense of others.

As a result I hope to introduce more complex subject matter with this group such as political systems, human rights, economics etc. This experience has also prompted me to reconsider the way I group students in class. Perhaps grouping commonalities has as much learning potential as seeking differences.

What do you think about teaching heterogeneous groups and tackling complex topics with 'lower' levels?

Monday, 16 August 2010

What's in a name?

"Learn yirsel' English!"
Teach yourself English!
I chose this title for my Blog because it alludes to what I feel are some of the most important aspects of learning about a language and how to use it:
Dialect: Pronunciation, Vocabulary and Grammar deviate from the 'standard'
Motivation: Where does teaching stop and learning begin?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Language Learning Experiences

I am 36 years old now and, I have had many different language learning experiences in my life. Some were more fulfilling and enjoyable than others.
At secondary school, I did German for one year, but studied French and Latin for four years. The german class was great fun and the teacher concentrated a lot on pronunciation. I can still say a few sentences with good pronunciation now, but I never got to grips with german grammar and my vocabulary was very small. The French and Latin were very different. In both cases, we learned in a traditional 'grammar-translation' method. Consequently, I developed a large vocabulary, understood grammar and could read, write and translate both languages up to an (Upper)-Intermediate level. With Latin being a 'dead' language, this was absolutely fine, but in French, the lack of speaking activity meant that when I visited France on holiday I could hardly string two words together.
A few years after school, I studied in Denmark for six months. Most people were able to speak English, but the majority of college business was carried out in Danish. By listening and watching and repeating, I picked up a little vocabulary and pronunciation skill. One of the Danish students took pity on us Scots and arranged informal classes where she taught us some useful questions and answers. By the end of my stay, I could understand newspaper stories, listen to conversations and understand information notices etc. Speaking remained very difficult because of unfamiliar sounds in Danish. A few years later, I returned to Denmark and stayed for 10 months. This time, I went to formal Danish lessons in a language school, but it was absolutely awful. The teacher faced the board all the time and drew up tables of verb declensions. I learned almost nothing in that classroom. There was no focus on pronunciation or authentic dialect and usage.
The last language experience I would like to mention is Italian. Three months before our honeymoon in Italy, I bought an audio CD published by the BBC. It was conversational/practical language for beginners. I listened to the CD in my car as I drove to work every day, and faithfully repeated the words and phrases. I did not look at or read the accompanying booklet until I had used the CD at least twenty times. When I looked at the book, I was able to notice spelling and grammar patterns, but the great thing was I could already 'speak Italian'. Admittedly, my vocabulary was narrow and I could only cover simple topics, but I had the confidence to speak to taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters and hotel staff during our holiday.
In conclusion, in my experience, listening/repeating and focussing on authentic dialect and pronunciation are the keys to successful language learning. Building vocabulary and analysing grammar are also essential, but must accompany (not replace) listening and speaking.

I would love to hear your stories of language learning: the good the bad and the ugly.