ESL – Subject or Communication Tool?

What happens in a math class? There were so many rules, but only one answer. You sit there and listen. Maybe the teacher asks you to come up and work out some problems on the board. But, honestly, if you find math boring, then you probably just copy the homework off your friend. Exams are an exercise in guesswork.

And, you know what? You were right, and your teacher was wrong – this stuff really isn’t useful after high school.

Of course math is absolutely necessary for certain professions, and some people really love it. I have engineer friends who use it all the time. But for your average high school screw-up, math isn’t nearly as useful as, say, a foreign language.

I teach university in Mexico. I see the looks on my students’ faces on the first day of class – the dull glaze to their eyes, the fear of losing so many hours of their young lives in stuffy classrooms at the mercy of some bore droning on and on.

This learning method – teacher speaks, students listen, students do exercises, repeat – has been beaten into them. It sure was beaten into me back in my university days when I was forced to study Spanish.

How ironic. Back then Spanish was one of my most boring classes, right up there with math. And now I live in Mexico and study Spanish as much as I can. What happened?

While in university I zoned out in class and barely learned a thing. Now, here in Mexico, studying Spanish is a means to an end. That end is communication.

My Spanish teachers taught Spanish like how my math teachers taught math. Learn the rules and formulas. Listen to some explanation and then do exercises from the book. Sure, to her credit, one of my Spanish teachers put us in pairs to get us to practice, but it just didn’t work. We all had a common language, English – too easy to fall back on.

My point is, why teach a language the way math (or history, or science) is taught? Languages have much more in common with music or sports, and they should be taught that way. Practice is vital. Mistakes are normal, even to be encouraged.

You don’t learn piano or hockey by opening up a book and answering questions. You learn by doing it. Your students should spend the majority of their time in class practicing, usually by speaking. Explain the grammar, give some examples, and then give them plenty of time to speak, with corrections of course.

Have you studied the P-P-P teaching method: presentation, practice, and production? It really does work. The presentation part, where the teacher explains the grammar topic, should be as brief as possible, maybe only five minutes in a one-hour class. The other two parts, practice and production, are when the students use the language. Maybe they make a survey, give a presentation, or have a conversation. Remember, it’s not only practice, but practice with correction. Strive to correct every mistake. Make notes if you have to.

That’s the benefit of learning in a classroom, which is why ESL teachers still have a job in this Internet age. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, which isn’t the same as, say, studying to be a doctor.

Using Music in the Classroom

Nothing breaks up a long class like listening to a song or two. But don’t just hand out lyrics and play the song. A little preparation will help you get the most out of a music lesson.

First, it’s a good idea to remove some words. It encourages the students to actively listen. Put some thought into which words you choose. By removing certain words, you can introduce new vocabulary, emphasize phrases that illustrate some grammar point, or draw attention to something that isn’t sung clearly but can be guessed from the context of the song.

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Circle Time

“Good morning!” I say, just loud enough to turn heads, silencing all other conversations.

“Good morning,” answers the class. There are eleven students, from teenagers to 50-year-old retirees.

I look to my right and ask Carlos, “How was your weekend?”

Carlos sticks to just a few short sentences. “It was great. I went to Mexico City and saw a concert.”

I look around the class, silently inviting the other students to ask Carlos, “Who played?” “How did you get there?” “Was it crowded?”

Carlos then turns to his right and asks Cynthia, “How was your weekend?” She answers, and the class has a few follow-up questions for her too. “How was it?” “Why did you go there?”

The question goes around the circle. Every student asks and answers. Later I will ask them questions more related to the grammar theme of the day, such as “If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

My next class is for total beginners. “What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Do you like X?” “Do you have X?” We repeat questions every day, adding or changing a few at the whim of the students. Many of them make mistakes, which I correct immediately. If they have trouble understanding I’ll write the correct answer on the board, and then cold call the same question around the room.

When I first taught children in Korea we called this technique “circle time.” We sat on the floor in a circle and asked the same questions every day. Since then I’ve found it works in nearly every class – only advanced students don’t need it.

Students can study many parts of English at home – reading the newspaper, listening to podcasts, cracking open the textbook and doing grammar exercises. There’s no reason to spend a lot of time on these in class. Students want to talk and they need correction.

Though they don’t just want to talk, but talk freely with no rush and no interruption. Learn to relax during silences. After you ask a question – “Have you ever seen a ghost?” – allow that silence to hang there unpressured.

We’ve all been in a class (or a work meeting) where someone asks a boring question, then immediately rephrases or simply repeats it, and maybe eventually answers it himself. Don’t be that teacher!

In ESL there are concepts called Teacher Talk Time (TTT), Student Talk Time (STT), and Wait Time (WIT). Here are a few questions for you, the ESL teacher or aspiring ESL teacher:

What do you want more of in class, TTT or STT?

Do you want more or less WT?

Is there a maximum limit of WT, say a minute or more?

An awareness of how much you are speaking in class in comparison to the other students is a fundamental part of ESL. Please leave a comment with your answers and ideas. And thanks for reading!

Benefits of Computer Aided Language Learning

Old computerThe use of computer technology allows a lot of self-access work for students. For example, a lot of the repetitive drilling at lower levels in the class can be replaced by having students working alone on computers. There are many stimulus/response type programs on the market which can help students with basic structures in a lively and interesting context.

There are several programs designed to help students with their skills. Skimming or scanning reading skills will by aided by the use of time limits or by the setting of a particular type of question. The ‘storyboard’ programs are very useful at getting students to guess unknown words from context – another skill needed by successful readers. Word processor programs can help students in their organisation of letters, for example and the spell checker, imaginatively used, can be employed to give students an incentive for checking their own work.
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How To Do Listening in the ESL Classroom

Baby listeningWhat can be done at different stages of a listening activity to help our students?
It is helpful to divide a listening activity into three distinct stages: the pre-listening, the while-listening and the after-listening.

The pre-listening stage is vitally important if we want our students to get as much as possible out of the listening. Choice of listening is the first thing. We ourselves would not sit down and listen to a radio documentary on a subject we had no interest in and we should not expect our students to be any different. Teachers thus shouldn’t inflict on their students listenings they believe will be of little or no interest to their class as students are less likely to gain anything useful from it.

Once we have decided on a listening to use with our class, the next stage is to prepare them as much as possible. As in real life again, when we listen to something on TV, we are usually in the position where we know the subject area and can predict a lot of what is going to be said. In the class, we must try and prepare our students similarly.
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The Behaviorist Approach

Parent talking to childLook at the following extract:

Child: Nobody don’t like me.
Mother: No, say ‘nobody likes me’.
Child: Nobody don’t like me.
(Eight repetitions of this exchange)
Mother: No, now listen carefully; say ‘nobody likes me’.
Child: Oh! Nobody don’t likes me.

(McNeill, 1966)

The behaviourist approach to language learning grew out of the belief that students could learn a second language by being taught to produce the correct “response” to the appropriate “stimulus”. The student would then receive either instant positive or instant negative “reinforcement” in the shape of either correction or praise from the teacher.

The resulting methodology, audio-lingualism, was a very heavily teacher-centred approach consisting of a lot of “mimicry and memorization”. The linguist Leonard Bloomfield claimed that “language learning is over-learning” and this, in effect, was what audio-lingualism was based on.
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Using Songs In The Classroom

Yesterday Lyrics

Doing boring things with songs

If you want to bring songs into your class but are not sure what to do with them, the first thing you can do is all the boring stuff that students usually hate. If you just add the music element they will happily indulge in exercises that usually make them groan and learn language points that usually scare them off. This is also great practice for exams, for example the FCE Use of English paper. Examples of ‘doing boring things with songs’ are:

  • Gap fills (Open cloze)
  • Match the sentence halves
  • Error correction
  • Put it into order- Words and lines
  • Put words into the correct form
  • Dictation
  • Pronunciation work

Gap fills (Open cloze)

Remove single words from the text, by tippexing them out on the page or replacing them with gaps in a Word document. Students try to guess what the missing words are and then listen to check. DO NOT remove random words and ask students to listen to fill the gaps without having even read the lyrics through first. As popular as this ‘random gaps with random songs’ task is with students and some teachers, it has no actual teaching aim. To make sure your activity does have an aim, make sure that:
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Role Plays and Simulations


There is a difference between simulations (where students act out real-life situations, for example the student checks in at “the airport”, but students do play themselves) and role plays where students take on different characters. In a role play, for example, one student may be asked to take on the role of “an angry landowner” in a role play which is concerned with discussing the possible construction of a new road. Another may be asked to play the role of the “road company representative”. Role plays will thus require more “imagination” on the part of the student to be able to get “into” the role.

Some students will find being asked to play a different person in a role play quite liberating. Some students who are normally quite shy can open up considerably in a role play lesson. The teacher, though, must attempt to maintain the “pretend” part of the simulations and role plays: i.e. the students ARE in an airport and not the classroom. Teachers can aid this process by use of realia and other props. Students who don’t enter into the ‘fantasy world’ can ruin it for everyone else.
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