What I learnt about English teaching essentials in a basic foreign language lesson

Last week, I attended the first class in a complete beginners’ Hungarian course.

I was really looking forward to the lesson and being a student on the receiving end of some foreign language teaching: a nice change after being ‘the teacher’ for years and years.

However I’m afraid to say that the standard of teaching and the classroom methods were well below par in comparison to the methods that I learnt when I did my initial TEFL course qualification that I studied a long time ago.

In fact, the experience gave me a real-word reminder of the huge benefits to learning a foreign language when the teacher follows some basic teaching essentials, which are….

ENGLISH TEACHING ESSENTIALS

  • Get the students to speak the target language as much as possible: Keep ‘Teacher Talk Time’ low and avoid long, boring, uninspiring writing tasks
  • In a beginners or very low level class, give the students the language tools that they need to ask questions – meta-language of the classroom: increasing use of the target language by students.
  • Pre-task, give short clear examples of activities, rather than long-winded (or a complete lack of) instructions.
  • During tasks, monitor and note down errors and good language/performance.
  • Post-task, give some feedback on activity performance.

 

BACK TO BASICS

The constructive criticism that I make in this article is similar to the kind of analysis and advice that I received from my moderators during my 2-week practical teaching block on the Trinity TESOL diploma… a time when you feel like every single aspect of your English teaching is being taken apart, restructured and put back together again – Quite a valuable experience!
A good reminder of back to basics teaching that is so useful to a teacher who has been ‘in the field’ for a long time and may have wandered slightly from the essentials
LINK TO TEACHER REFRESHER COURSE

 

LATE!

The first thing that wasn’t ideal is that the teacher was 15 minutes late. Come on – 15 minutes!?! For the first lesson in an entire course? Not a great start!

 

L3 for L2?

The students were a multilingual group, mostly European and the class was given in English, So, not the L1 of the students (except for me), and not the target language of Hungarian. Why not Hungarian? If you can teach a foreign language properly, you can teach real beginners in the target language. In fact, some of the students had only weak intermediate capabilities in English!
When I did the month-long initial TEFL certificate course, we were taught an unknown language in the first week. We learned basic Russian phrases, no problem… because it was taught well (in basic “classroom” Russian), without using a single word of English as a crutch.

 

META LANGUAGE LAST?

We were given a handout 5 minutes before the class ended. It had pictures like ‘students in class putting up their hand with a question mark’ and a Hungarian sentence alongside. It was obvious to the whole class that this meant ‘Can I ask a question, please?’ The subsequent pictures and sentences were also as easy to recognise as the questions (in the target language of Hungarian) needed by students in a classroom situation. Why weren’t we given this information and allowed to practise with these essential meta-language phrases towards the beginning of the class?

What does —– mean?
How do you say —— in Hungarian?
Can you say it again, please?
Can you say it slowly, please
I don’t understand?
Throughout the class, all of these questions above were used frequently in ENGLISH by the group. They were all given in the handout as the class was finishing, without any time for practising them orally. Surely, it would have been better to do it the other way round and to get the students actively using these phrases and actually speaking Hungarian in a Hungarian class.

 

LONG, BORING WRITTEN TASKS

OK, so the hungarian alphabet has got 44th letters and they are essential to learn.

However, did we really have to learn all of the letters in the first 25 minutes of this class by means of a writing task without any speaking from the students?

Let me outline the activity: all the letters of the alphabet were written out in a table on a piece of paper. Above the table were the days of the week and months of the year (in Hungarian)

Students had to guess the sounds of the letters by writing either a day of the week or a month of the year that they thought contained that letter’s sound.

Students did not say out loud the months or days and we also had to work individually so yet again there was no hungarian being spoken.

I would suggest that a better option would have been to get the students to say the months of the year and the days of the week by repeating the teachers pronunciation. Then to have a game where we went around the class pronouncing the months or days of the week in order or backwards or something.

After we had had practised and obtained a basic idea of the pronunciation, we could have attempted to match the sounds of the alphabet….perhaps only with the first 10 letters, at first. The activity that we actually did was carried out in silence in the classroom and there was distinct lack of any dynamism.

Pre-task there was no example of how to complete the activity either. The teacher simply said ‘match the words to the sounds’ which leads on to my next suggestion….

 

 

NO PRE-TASK EXAMPLE OF SPEAKING ACTIVITY

When I did the TESOL diploma, I distinctly remember my SGI moderator, Stephen Bell saying that ‘modelling (an activity) is king’ when it comes to pre-task instructions.

He said that you can give in-depth instructions for 5 minutes to your students, but for all the good it does for the students, you may as well be quoting Shakespeare. A twenty-second demonstration/model/example of what is required, preferably involving a student/s will always be superior in terms of students grasping what they are supposed to achieve in the upcoming task.

In the Hungarian lesson, 10 minutes before the end of the class, finally the students got the opportunity to speak for the first time!

We had just read a basic conversation which was:

  • A: Hello
  • B: Hello
  • A: I’m (student’s name). I’m from (student’s country)
  • B: I’m (student’s name). I’m from (student’s country)
  • A: Pleased to meet you
  • B: Pleased to meet you, too

We had to replicate this conversation in a mingle activity, where all students had to stand up and say this basic conversation to each other and then quickly change partners so that you got to speak to everyone in the class.

But there was no modelling of this activity before we started. In fact, the instructions were, (believe it or not): “I think it’s obvious what we all need to do”

Well, as a language teacher, it was obvious to me, but was it so clear to everyone else?

In my opinion it would have worked so much better if the teacher had chosen one student before we started and modelled the activity by having the simple conversation (whilst shaking hands and using facial gestures to simulate real conversation) to clearly show what we were meant to do with a correct example of the required vocabulary and pronunciation.

 

NO MONITORING. NO ERROR CORRECTION. NO FEEDBACK

While we were doing the ‘simple greeting’ activity above there was no checking, error correction or monitoring being done by the teacher. So, when we had finished and had sat down again, we were just given the next handout (the meta language of the classroom which i referred to earlier). I was very surprised that there was no feedback whatsoever regarding performance, or pronunciation of that mingle activity. How could we tell if we had done it correctly or not?

The total absence of feedback would have been a basic thing to miss even at initial TEFL qualification stage and a serious, glaring omission at Diploma level.

 

SUMMARY

Did I mention before that this Hungarian course was taking place in the prestigious ELTE University in Budapest (the Hungarian equivalent of Oxford University), so I had been hoping for some really top level teaching!

The points that I have highlighted are simple teaching essentials that we were all taught in the beginning during our initial training and were definitely reminded of during higher teaching qualification like the TESOL diploma or DELTA.

In a way, I suppose it was a good experience for me too see everything being done ‘incorrectly’, as it was again another good reminder of the importance of foreign language teaching essentials.

All the students managed to achieve in this lesson was the most absolute basic ‘simple greeting’ conversation that you could find in any foreign language phrase book. With good teaching methods, you can far exceed this. I remember that in my first Russian ‘unknown language’ lesson (mentioned above) after 40 minutes, we were asking for prices about various everyday food items, being told the price (by another student) and saying, That’s too expensive/very cheap” all in Russian. Yes, there were mistakes galore, but we all had smiles on our faces because we were all having a ‘good go’ at the language and enjoying it immensely.

Solid teaching methods = effective, efficient learning and happy students!

 

 

Bren Brennan

About Bren Brennan

Bren initially trained here at SGI and then joined the staff in 2005. Since 2006, he has taught abroad in Budapest, Berlin and now at Mondragon University in Spain. He returns to teach at SGI London every summer and completed the SGI Trinity DipTESOL in 2011. He also regularly writes posts for students here.
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