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April 19th, 2010

Recent forum threads at ELT World

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So, ‘which teaching destination will be worst hit by economic meltdown‘ asks Optimus, in a poll over on the ELT World forums. From the looks of it, early voting seems to suggest that TEFL teachers in North America are going to bear the brunt of it.

Join in the discussion here.


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October 7th, 2008

Are your students learning anything?


This question, perhaps the most subjective of any that we as teachers could be asked, was inspired by Justme on the ELT World forums. The answers proved to be varied, although the overriding conclusion seems to be fairly clear, as will become apparent as you read on.

So what, if anything, are students actually learning when they enter our classrooms? Let’s first of all examine whether or not we feel they are getting anything from our lessons at all. ‘Yes. Useful? Maybe not’ suggests Gordon, speaking for the not so silent majority. ‘I certainly hope so!’ exclaims Denise. ‘Ideally, in addition to whatever their course books are presenting to them, I’d like them to come away with some actual strategies and thinking skills. And just a general interest in learning. Or is that too ambitious?’ Ambitious it may be, but isn’t that what we should be striving for? Alternatively, should we merely be happy if they get anything at all from the time spent, be it with or without our particular input. spiral78 notes, ‘I think they’re learning something in almost every classroom. But, exactly WHAT may be out of our control.’ Should we face up to the fact that we may not have that much say over what students take away with them. Lozwich exemplifies this school of thought:

‘If mine are at the moment it has very little to do with me. I’m in the well-documented stage of the DELTA where your lessons are the worst you’ve ever taught, which is really saying something.’

Justme reiterates:

‘If they ever managed to learn anything, I rarely felt responsible. Many students were good parrots or memorizers, but I really doubt anything stuck for most of them. Occasionally I run into a former student. The ones who can speak English are hard workers and did loads of stuff outside of class, and continued to do so outside of my class. But I’ve run into several so-called upper-int students who could barely manage ‘Hello how are you teacher?’ Honestly, I don’t feel responsible either way.’

Teach English - courses in France and online

Perhaps a greater degree of realism with regards to what students will take from the class should be the norm, for both the students themselves and for the teachers involved. dmb indicates how such a policy of honesty works in IELTS course, ‘I started a class this week by saying ‘if you are here to learn English then you are in the wrong class’ It was the first lesson of a 4 week intensive IELTS prep course. Hopefully they can pick up a few tips.’ TheLongWayHome adds to the argument with a similar case ‘Are they learning English? No. Are they learning how to pass an exam? I hope so.’

The idea that we are perhaps deluding ourselves if we think we are successfully leading anyone on the great journey towards language mastery is reinforced by those who currently teach beginner English speakers, where results are easiest to spot. Yaramaz describes her situation:

‘These days I primarily teach Beginner adults, having somehow over the years convinced the schools I’ve worked for that I must be good at it. Super beginner. Like the Hello My Name is Alper beginner. The ones who are still super keen and do all their homework and try to practice their 35 words of English during the breaks. And to be honest, they are learning a lot. I know this because I start with them from almost zero and I can see very clearly exactly how much they have learned since starting. It makes me feel a bit less pointless.’

Justme elaborates:

‘The beginning of beginning English is okay because you can’t help but see results, and the students are indeed more eager. It’s when you have those same students 6 months later and they can still only manage ‘Hello, my name is Alper,’ and 16 of the 35 words they knew, and they’ve quit doing homework or anything else and they’re blaming it on everyone and everything besides themselves that the English hasn’t magically grown and flowered in their brains.’

So, if we want to view real progress, we should stick to teaching zero beginners who need that classroom environment to take those first few steps assisted by us, after which, any English that higher level students pick up will have little to do with us. Can this really be it? EFL Geek poignantly suggests that ‘there is no learning in the classroom. Learning takes place after the class in real life.’ So, if we can’t teach them anything, can we even facilitate their learning, or will those that learn well end up learning, while those that don’t won’t? JimDunlop Explains his situation:

‘I teach over 4000 students at 12 schools. Do some of them learn something? Of course! I often catch the kids using language I’ve taught them over the past few years. In fact, I even had a few stories come back to me, regarding lessons I’ve taught and how kids actually did take something to heart….

Once, last year, a Japanese father told me an interesting little anecdote… Because his family does have a certain degree of English knowledge, it sounds like they may speak it at home from time to time. Well, long story short, the father told me he got a real kick out of it when his son came home from school one day, walked up to him and (in English) asked him: “How are you?” so, dad obliged and gave the standard, “I’m fine, thank you. And you?” to which his son rebuked him and said: “No! No! That’s not what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say: “I’m happy or I’m hungry or something like that! Our English teacher told us that we should use more natural answers!”

Made me feel all warm n’ fuzzy hearing that. Obviously the kid was paying close attention when I taught his class about the dangers of “automatic” responses to questions. I make it a point to teach all my kids alternatives to the usual “I’m fine” response which becomes so ingrained into them, you get people saying: “I’m fine” even if you don’t ask them “How are you?” Honest to goodness, I’ve said: “Nice weather we’re having…” to someone and had them say, “I’m fine thank you and you” back to me. But… I digress.

In the grand scheme of things, out of the 4000-some kids, the actual numbers who really do learn something is probably very low. I can usually tell which kids are motivated and which just don’t care… I’ve got all sorts! So, yeah. Some kids learn. Some don’t. Just like real life.’

So, perhaps we need to be realistic and accept that students are part of a system, and that they will progress through the system by one means or another, and that we will, in many cases, not make as much of an impact as we’d like. justme again exemplifies with her experiences from a Turkish university preparatory class:

‘While most prep students aren’t very motivating for teachers, I did have one or two very good prep classes. It’s just that at the end of prep, they were almost exactly as good as they were at the beginning of prep.

And then there’s stuff like this (below), from a former prep colleague. The students who wrote these sentences are at the end of prep school, for the second time around after having failed once before.

A people is not food dead in three days. Peoples are general goal food make many. These world have necessary people a lot of kind food. Some people have expensive food difficult make many this time.

Food is essential for life. But unhealthy food stroggle in world. And a lot of people be unhealthy. Therefore people should eat food also be carefuly. That’s why we categorise food.

All people need to food. Because Food is require for life. Therefore food is valuable. But many people can not eat enouht food. Many people can eat enouht food.

They just can take by eat their in body that nutrition.

Cow, sheep and mandate life in the stable and they have to eat a lot of weeds everyday. [manda = mandate, but also, water buffalo]

Food is essential for life. Therefore, Many food have to kind of.’

With so many of you in agreement over the futility of it all, is there any hope for us? Are these examples enough to frighten the wits out of anyone fresh off a four-week TEFL course. Just when I’d just about given up all hope, I find MELEE has a positive outlook on things: ‘I think my students are learning things. How to take an exam is one of those things! English is another. I also hope that they are learning that different people look at the same situation in different ways. And that all the world (Languages and everything else) is part of the system, and it flows when you see it as a system, it jams when you don’t.’ So, again it may be just a case of everyone involved in language learning having to readjust their expectations about what is taken from the language class. Everyone will learn something from their experience, even if it is, as in the case of Sheikh Inal Ovar, that ‘my students learn pretty quickly that not all foreign teachers are push overs that pander to their excessive demands’ or in the case of Chimp Guevara that ‘my students have learned that they can distract me by talking about all the wonderful food they have at home. They can do this because they know I don’t usually eat breakfast.’ Everyone takes something away with them.

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