Students come in all shapes and sizes, with as many different needs and as many different reasons for studying English. As an example, at one extreme could be my student in Moscow, his name was Kirill and he was doing a one-month intensive preparation for his IELTS exam, so he could emigrate with his wife and child to Australia. He studied for 8 hours every day and for half of each night, and both he and his wife passed their IELTS exam with a very score and left to start a new life. The pressure of passing exams can condense and intesify the study process so that students cram a lot of knowledge into a very short time period. But much of what they learn while preparing for their exam can be forgotten soon afterwards, because it was learned specifically for the exam and each exam has a very specific set of skills which need to be learned in order to get a higher result. We all know Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare?
At the other extreme, (or as we say, “at the other end of the spectrum”), there were students like Galina, also from Russia, like most of my students over the past 20 years, and Galina simply liked to talk. About what? Anything. When she contacted me for lessons, she said ” I’m quite a simple person and I like English. I just want to talk about simple things, like the weather, like the TV programs I watch, like what I did today and what I had for dinner”. Gala became my friend, and our lessons were friendly discussions about life in general. She travelled a lot and enjoyed being able to practice her English abroad.
English children know all about talking , because talking and listening and copying is how they learn their own language. English children didn’t study grammar at school when I was young and as far as I know, still don’t. Unless they study linguistics at university, 99% of British people won’t be able to tell you what a Phrasal Verb is, or a gerund, or how to make the Past Perfect tense or even the Present Perfect tense, because they won’t even have heard of them. They will look at you blankly as if you had spoken to them in Sumerian. But ( and here is the magic ) , they all know how to use those tenses, and gerunds and phrasal verbs, and they use them perfectly, without any mistakes. How is it possible? Good question. Maybe it something like when you drive a car through busy sidestreets and highways, without knowing anything at all about the principles of physics and engineering which went into building the engine below you, or how it makes your car run? You can still drive, get from A to B, even drive in foreign countries. Children are soaked in language from an early age and their brains are like wet cement full of bird prints, absorbing everything that lands on them and leaves its imprint, stories and films and music and conversations which cause their neurons to spark and forge connections with other neurons.
Of course, my point is obvious and I am not going to patronize you by labouring it any more. I am also not saying that this is how foreign learners of English should learn, because most people don’t have the luxury of living in Britain surrounded by native speakers and soaking their minds in the living , breathing language around them. But my point is this – While learning grammar rules is important, just like learning your theory for a car driving test, you also need to get on the road and drive that car. Speaking and conversation allow those little bird prints to cement themselves into the brain and for those neurons to connect with others.
The art of conversation for a teacher of English as a foreign language, should involve a lot of listening and a lot of open questions. If the lesson ends with you having been the only one talking, that can’t be called a success. It isn’t about you ( I mean me). Students need to be given space to think and make their sentences. I have lived in Nicaragua for the past 5 years so I know how hard it is to learn and speak another language, in my case Spanish. It is not easy to make even simple sentences. Too many teachers jump in and stop their student speaking and finish their sentences for them. Back off..give them space to try, space to make mistakes and to do their best.
I don’t correct students while they are speaking. This is like correcting bad posture in gymnast while they are in mid-air above the trampoline. Give them a chance to land on the mat, for goodness sake. That gymnast will feel and know himself if he has done a good jump or not, he will feel it, because he will know if it corresponds to the mental image of the correct technique he had in his mind before the jump. We learn the grammar, we know the rules and the theory, but putting them into practice is a case of making grammar mistake after mistake, bad landing after bad, because speaking is not the same as knowing.
One thing I learned during my time in Russia, is that Russian people don’t speak English as well as Germans and Scandinavians. Anyone who has visited those countries will know just how fluently people speak English. A big disadvantage for Russian people is that Russian television shows usually don’t broadcast English language films in the original English, with subtitles, but use actors to dub Russian voices over the original actors. It’s tacky, it’s rubbish and it’s one reason why Scandinavians speak much better English than Russians, because they flood their TV channels with programs in the original English and add subtitles, so they are hearing English spoken around them from the day they are born. This paragraph should probably be in the ‘films’ section , but what the heck, I’ll leave it here. The two are connected by the idea that being immersed in the language, whether through films or by speaking to native speakers, helps us to learn it faster.
I will add more to this section later, but basically, role-playing is just pretending to be someone else. 🙂 It’s a fantastic way to experiment creatively and practice language. Some people are shy, so “being someone else” gives them the confidence to practice the language from the safety of a hiding place, by wearing a mask. It is simply acting, that’s all it is. Learning a foreign language is also like learning a role for a theatre production. Learning a language gives us the key to another stage on the globe, the chance to be actors in it, not just helpless observers. It’s like discovering another world.
Reading film scripts aloud
I will add to this section soon.