10 Things Teachers Should Never Forget

My flatmate recently decided to sign up for Spanish beginner classes and his experiences on it shed light on the language learning processes that students go through, and reminded me of certain basics that perhaps might have got buried within our discussions of methodology and language teaching. Basics that might have been taken for granted in our quest to get learners communicating and using the languge in this era of
communicative approaches.

But first of all, a little learner profiling.

My flatmate (Let’s call him Rod) is British, in his 40s, and has never learnt a foreign language. Nor has he ever been taught English grammar when he was back at school. His wishes to study French in Secondary school were squashed when he was told that he was ‘too stupid to learn a foreign language’. Those words inevitably still have an effect on him,
as he continues to think that the ability to learn a language is connected to an intelligence that he didn’t think he had. Upon encountering lots of expert speakers of English as a foreign language in London, he started wondering if he too could expand his view of the world through learning a foreign language himself, and attempted to study some Spanish since it’s one of the most widely spoken modern languages in the world.

The Spanish learning experience was filled with lots of frustration and anger and by lesson 3, he decided he dreaded every classroom minute too much to contiue. I spoke to him throughout the experience, and remembered the importance of the following:

1. Meeting new classmates can be a scary experience.

We teachers know the feeling of trepidation when meeting a new class for the first time, especially back when we were new to teaching. That feeling must be a 100 times more intense for students who have never been in a language class before. While sussing out the different characters in the classroom, Rod also knew his classmates were making
judgements on him, and for someone who didn’t like performing or being the class clown, the short getting-to-know-you activities were really more about not showing up oneself as an idiot.

2. Having the teacher chat away in a foreign language is confusing and intimidating.

This myth that the teacher should never use the learners’ L1s and should only speak in the language being learnt really needs debunking. When Grammar Translation methods became the common evil, we swung so far towards the other end that we have forgotten the usefulness and inevitability of translation. Useful because it can make the understanding of language explanations and instructions so much more straightforward and clearer. Inevitable because learners (especially beginners) will translate what
they hear into their own langugage anyway, whether this takes place vocally in class or in their own minds. But most importantly, having some L1 being used makes the learner feel secure and more confident. For beginner Rod who could not even say ‘How are you?’ in Spanish, having to sit uncomfortably while the teacher yabber on in what could have been gibberish for all he cares was not at all confidence-building.

3. It can be even more difficult for people who are confident in their own language.

Perhaps it has to do with an ability to be tolerant of ambiguity. For the high-flier who has been confident in his own language and secure in his predictable surroundings for over 40 years, being plunged into an environment where everything is confusing, unpredictable and incomprehensible is a nightmare. This is compounded by the fact that he has never been in a language classroom and does not know what to expect.

4. Being nominated to answer questions is also scary.

Added to the feeling of being lost, getting pulled up to answer when you didn’t even understand the question can be extremely intimidating. Then there is a feeling that the whole class thinks you are a useless git who really shouldn’t be there slowing the class down. I understand the need for nominating students in open class stages, but there’s a fine balance between giving shy students an opportunity to speak up and putting
someone on the spot. This leads me to my next point.

5. Fostering a cohesive and friendly classroom atmosphere is crucial.

The leader of a group or manager of a department often serves as a sort of ‘energetic antenna’ for their team. They set the atmostphere and in a way, allows the forging of relationships amongst the team members. Think back to a time when you experienced a change of management and how that impacted on group morale, on how members of staff related to one another, and on the general staffroom atmostphere.

In similar ways, the teacher serves as the ‘energetic antenna’ of the class, and if your students get along marvellously, gossiping, joking, sharing personal stories, whether it be in their L1 or the L2, you should definitely take some of the credit for that. In contrast, if
students spend their classroom time sitting in silence, afraid of being judged by their fellow classmates, it’s time to put language aims aside and do some team-building.

Meanwhile, continuously encouraging students to make mistakes everyone can learn from, praising students openly for good language that everyone can imitate, asserting that students are not expected to produce new language instantly, and sharing the odd classroom in-joke could do wonders for boosting confidence and motivation.

6. Clear instructions is the first step to a successful task.

Being a beginner at Spanish and having the instructions to class and homework tasks written in Spanish and not properly clarified was nothing short of frustrating. In addition, there is also being unfamiliar with the kind of language tasks that we teachers take for granted.

Here’s a typical example: Rod was given a ‘jumbled words’ task as homework, and
although the Spanish instructions stated that he should unjumble the letters to
make words, he had never encountered such a task before, and proceeded to check
the list of words given in a dictionary. They, of course, weren’t really words as such, and when he couldn’t find ‘afec’ (cafe) or ‘uqaotn’ (quanto) after searching through all the online dictionaries and translators, he lost heart and decided that he was indeed too stupid to complete the simple task. (I never understood the point of these unjumble-the-letters exercises anyway. What is it supposed to practise?)

We stress time and again on teacher training courses that trainees should ask ICQs (instruction checking questions) and do a demo or example when setting up tasks, but some are still embarrassed when doing so, worried that they might come across condescending to learners. But such instruction checking procedures are necessary for learners who might be too shy to ask or who were momentarily distracted (it is impossible to be 100% attentive in the classroom all of the time) so that they are able to follow
what is going on. Perhaps the issue of sounding condescending has more to do with the tone of voice and the paralinguistic features used when checking those instructions.

And for beginner/elementary learners or learners new to the language classroom, what’s the harm of delivering instructions in their L1 alongside the L2 instructions?

7a. Jumping from context to context, exercise to exercise can be highly confusing.

7b. We are not here to transmit information. Pick judiciously.

Sounds almost common-sensical to us language teachers but in our attempts to ‘cover the syllabus’, ‘transmit’ as much information as possible during the short classroom time we have and justify the huge amounts of money our students are paying for the course , are we sometimes guilty of doing the above?

In Rod’s first 2-hour lesson, he was introduced to making introductions (How are you? I’m fine, thank you. What’s your name? My name is Rod. Where are you from? I’m from Britain. What’s your surname? My surname is Smith. How do you spell it? S-M-I-T-H) which led them to learning the Spanish alphabet and then the masculine and feminine singular and plural names of countries and nationalities. Rod had never encountered the concept of masculine and feminine nouns but there was simply no time for the teacher to

In Rod’s second 2-hour lesson, the teacher looked at a whole range of classroom language (How do you say it in Spanish? How do you write it in Spanish? Can you repeat it? I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Louder please. Slower please. I don’t know. – Rod made sure he remembered the last one so that he could give it as an answer whenever
nominated) before going through about 10 lexical items to do with food and drink, and then 8 useful phrases used in a waiter-customer dialogue in a cafe. The lesson ended with learning the numbers 1-20 in Spanish.

In Rod’s third lesson, the teacher plunged right into saying the numbers (1 to 100!), asking for the time (it’s quarter past, it’s half past, it’s twenty to, it’s 27 minutes past), doing some
pairwork/roleplay regarding asking for the time at a train station, learning nearly 20 verbs and how to conjugate them, then doing a guided discovery task labelling the different parts of the Spanish verb (La Raiz, La Terminacion, Verbo Infinitivo, Verbo Reflexivo, Verbo Conjugado, Verbo Regular, Verbo Irregular…) For someone who did not even know what a verb was, every second of the lesson did nothing but confirm his suspicions that he was indeed not cut out for learning a language. By the end of this lesson. Rod had lost the will
to live.

…And 7 c. We can only guide learners to discover what they are ready to discover.

8. Every learner in the class is different and some having more difficulty following does not mean they are less capable.

Rod’s class was made up of about 6 students. One was Italian, another two spoke French and another had learnt Spanish before. Having knowledge of the Romance languages had a huge influence on how easy it was to follow the grammatical explanations in class, but also the language learning experiences the other students had also helped them understand what language learning entailed. Rod’s idea of language learning had been a very bottom-up one where he needed to understand every word of a phrase before feeling
comfortable in using it. When encountering ‘Como te llamas? Me llamo Rod’ he instinctively seeked to understand which part of the phrase was ‘what’, which part was ‘are’, which part was ‘you’ and why ‘called’ was different in both phrases. The Lexical Approach may state that language is learnt in chunks and we should not encourage learners to string individual words together to create meaning, but perhaps our knowledge about Second Language Acquistion and the language learning process needs to be made explicitly clearer to learners instead of carrying on about tasks in a mysterious ’I-know-why-this-is-good-for-you-even-if-you-don’t’ sort of way.

When I tried to comfort Rod, he exclaimed, ‘Telling me the others have a headstart over me is not going to make me feel any better in class when I am stumped by the teacher’s questions. I still feel like an idiot.’

I don’t believe in pitching the class to the lowest common denominator, but a better understanding of each learners’ background and the obstacles that face them in the learning process is key to providing the ‘+1′ for every single student of the class. Although ‘acknowledging students’ previous language learning experiences’ is a phrase found in both CELTA and DELTA criterias, how much attention do we give to it on teacher training

9. Just because some of the students understand (while the others sit in silence) is not a green light for the teacher to move on.

Along the same lines as the above point, the teacher tended to ask the taboo question ‘Do you understand?’ and the Italian student would cheerily nod away and/or shout ‘yes’. The teacher took this to mean that the whole class was now ready to move on to the next
exercise/language point/context. Many might not insist the teacher spends more time clarifying because they might (a) think they understand but they don’t, or (b) are too shy/embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. Admitting such a thing requires bravery and a large dose of self-awareness, and should be met with patience and encouragement. Of course, a relaxed and non-judgemental classroom atmosphere can also lower inhibitions and allow students to voice their feelings of confusion more openly (see point number 5).

10. Repetition Repetition Repetition (Drilling is not just about pronunciation)

I’ve left this for last because I’m so passionate about this that I could dedicate a whole blog post to this point alone. We all know the importance of repetition but in practice, we sometimes worry that repeated drills could be boring for the students and too reminiscent of the Direct Method. I am unashamed to admit that I came from the Callan School of
English, where drilling was the only method of teaching. Although I am a strong believer that one single methology should not dominate one’s teaching, I have taken away lots of good drilling practices that I still use in my classroom today. I have found drilling to be necessary in helping learners get used to getting their tongues round the language and absolutely useful in terms of aiding memory and retention.

Rod’s teacher simply provided lists after lists of lexis and 1 or 2 controlled practice exercises of the language (like the jumbled-word exercise) and never offered the chance or time for the learners to actually learn them. And learners were never explicitly told that it can take up to 25 encounters with a new piece of lexis before feeling even remotely
confident in trying it out in spoken production. Repeated drills interjected throughout the lesson could have reinforced the idea that learners are not expected to remember or produce the language after just the first encounter. And to teachers who think it’s boring, I would say, it’s probably boring for you, the expert user of the language, but not for the learner. Pacey and snappy drills can be really invigorating and confidence-building.

Of course, drills are not the only way to get students repeating. Creative recycling activities like ‘Back to Board’, ‘Charades’, ‘Board Rush’, ‘Language Auction’ etc can all be used to increase the number of encounters learners have with previously taught language items. I
spend one of every three hour class I take purely on recycling activities, and the incidental language that goes up on my board every day is no longer incidental, but part of my learners’ lexicon.

I have indeed noticed that the length of this post is looking more like a dissertation than a blog and I hope Rod feels slightly more vindicated having his point of view heard and understood, albeit vicariously. But most importantly, I’d like Rod to know just this:

Language learning is less about intelligence and more about determination and perseverance.

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

49 thoughts on “10 Things Teachers Should Never Forget”

  1. I can symphatise quite readily with Rod, and, indeed, there’s nothing that can develop your teaching skills more than being a student again!

    I remember being in a Spanish class (like Rod) many moons ago, and being in a Spanish-speaking country means that the students were from all over the world. So, there’s no L1 as such. For almost two years I suffered, but persevered. I didn’t understand anything, including homework (like Rod). What made matters worse was the fact that most other students in the class had been living in the country for some time, including as long as 25 years!

    So, as you can imagine, I was the lone pure beginner in a classroom of false beginners.

    What made matters worse, and I vowed from then on to be different, was that although the class was great in that there was a lot of conversation, the young teacher was kind of a dogmetist, on retrospection, but her greatest flaw was having conversations with students who could speak. Those, like me, were ignored. Class after class, the same people would be speaking.

    It was depressing. But, being in the country, I had no choice but to persevere. And the perseverance bore fruit. I managed to finish the 5-year course, but not only that, I was among the top of the class!

    So, the moral of the story is…don’t do unto your students what you don’t want done unto you!


    1. You are definitely very determined and perseverant, Chiew. And definitely very brave too. And I’m sure such an experience has helped you relate to your students better and enhanced your teaching. Would it be rude of me to recommend that all ELT teachers try learning a foreign language if they haven’t done so already?

      1. Not at all: in fact, we generally don’t accept candidates onto our Celta course (regardless of their other strengths unless they have experience of trying to learn a foreign language as an adult (and we prefer that experience to have been partially classroom based). There is nothing like shared experience to engender empathy 😉

      2. That’s why I’m bringing back the Foreign Language lesson on my Celta starting this Monday. I’ll be teaching Chinese, so even those who have learnt one of the Romance languages as their foreign language could perhaps learn to sympathise with those who are learning a language that is very different from their own L1s.

  2. Really like this, Chia. as you say, none of this should really come as a surprise but these points do seem to get overlooked a lot of the time. A colleague of mine (highly experienced and a teacher trainer) recently took a refresher course in a language she was actually already very good at, just rusty. Lesson 1 was really good, but lesson 2 (different teacher) almost reduced her to tears. Her teacher was not malicious – just made a few of the “mistakes” you discuss here.

    1. Thanks Anthony. Isn’t it interesting that language is such a tool to communicating with the world and such a core to our identity that a bad learning experience can really make us feel deeply disturbed (and I have to say I’m not exaggerating here). : )

      1. Absolutely, being denied our voice is one of the most appalling things that can happen to a person – and what is sobering is the realisation of how easily it can happen to us in a language classroom, even with well-meaning teachers!

  3. A wonderful post Chia, full of good sense and lived classroom experience.
    Building the right atmosphere, ensuring (as Chiew emphasises) that everyone needs to be given the opportunity to speak, spending time on language that has emerged – all so important. I’m very much in agreement about L1 – you make the crucial point that L1-L2 transfer is bound to go on internally anyway – and about drilling, allowing for the motor skills to catch up with the cognitive ones. I’m sure they are interrelated and we shouldn’t forget the physical side of learning a language.
    Or the emotional one. So much of your post addresses the affective side of language teaching, the affective side of being someone with the responsibility to mould a shared experience based not on last year’s class, or even yesterday’s class, but on the people in the room today – I love the idea of the energetic antenna. Picking up on other people’s energy, transmitting your own.

  4. “This myth that the teacher should never use the learners’ L1s and should only speak in the language being learnt really needs debunking.”

    That’s an interesting point. In my current class I have German, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Uzbek, Romanian and Serbian business students. How can I speak to them in their mother tongues? The only ‘lingua franca’ in the classroom is English.

    1. You have got a really interesting mix of students, Lorna. I love those classes. There’s just so much to share.
      I teach in multi-lingual classes too, and although I do speak several of my students’ languages, there are of course always languages I know absolutely nothing about. What I said about L1s apply very much to lower level classes and to mono-lingual classes. But here’s what I tend to do for my multi-lingual classes.

      I sometimes encourage an atmosphere where students who speak similar languages e.g. Romanian and Italian are happy to translate for each other and negotiate what something could mean in their language.

      I also sometimes get students to think about how something is said in their own language. Quite recently, my class was looking at the phrase ‘What has A got to do with B?’. We looked at a couple of similar contexts and ended up with one where we were accused of something unfairly, to which we would reply ‘What has it got to do with me?’ I asked students to think about how they might say something like that in their language, and got them all to say it to each other in their own L1s together with the accompanying intonation, gestures and other paralinguistic features. After do it a few times and having the students get into the hang of it, I got them replacing the words in their L1 with the English words and they repeated the phrase while maintaining those paralinguistic features. In this case, the meaning of the lexis was made clear by the context, and the use of their L1s was mainly to enable students to use the phrase correctly and to get used to saying it and having a feel for it in English.

      Although I don’t use the learners’ L1s all the time due to the multi-lingual contexts I teach in, these little moments are my way of saying to students, ‘It’s okay if you need to translate it into your own language occasionally.’

      But there will of course also be times where certain concepts would be much more difficult to translate and the contexts are responsible for clarifying meaning. And there are times when I want my learners to stop being dependent on translations and start processing things cognitively in English. But this cannot be forced and although I know some teachers who tell their students, ‘Just try to think in English,’ it’s something that has to occur naturally. I tried to think in Japanese for a long time but it just didn’t quite work no matter how hard I tried. Then one day, without warning, I suddenly noticed I was doing it. It was an amazing realisation. I believe it’s simply about not making learners feel guilty if they need a translation once in a while.

      I hope this answers your questions?

      1. That’s interesting Chia – and of course, you didn’t say “speak the learns’ L1” you said “use the learners’ L1”!

        I have also thought for a long time that use of the L1 (and translation, as the “fifth skill”) has been stigmatised too long. To that end, it takes pride of place in a talk of mine called The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT, which I will be using to lead some teachers into temptation at the in Switzerland later this year (hope you don’t mind the shameless plug for the association! And I hope I’ve got the html code right in the link 😉

    1. Food often does solve many things, doesn’t it? ; )
      I reckon Rod should just go and live in Spain for a bit. His new found motivation might overcome bad teaching perhaps?

  5. Hi Chia, thanks for some great points.

    At the end of the day, if you don’t know how to it feels to sit behind the table, how are you going to stand in front of it and know what’s going on? It’s ok to translate sometimes? Why not?! let’s suppose you say they can NEVER translate. What are they going to do? Change the make-up of their brains? Try and un-wire themselves from their mother tongue? Unlikely… you’ll just have a group of learners in front of you feeling bad about translating because their teacher tells them not to.

    I’ve been thinking about translation and interpretation as the fifth skill for a while now Anthony. I wonder how and why it got stigmatized as such a bad thing? Who fired the first shot against the mother tongue and outlawed it?

    Anyway, I really hope Rod keeps at it. After that initial period of confusion, frustration, and disorientation comes a feeling of curiosity and fulfillment that only learning a second language provides.


    1. Thanks for your comments Dale. It’s good to see you on this blog! BTW I got those wonderful mini-whiteboards the other day and they are brilliant.

      Translation got its bad name from the old traditions of Grammar Translation, when Latin or Greek learners would translate sentences from L2 to L1 and vice versa in order to practise their analytical and mathemetical skills. Sentences were often random and de-contextualised, and the focus of translation was verb conjugation and transformation, and tenses. And I’m sure they worked wonders for one’s analytical ability.

      Unfortunately, these rigid methods were then adopted from the teaching of languages with the aim of spoken fluency. Of course, without communication as its main tenet, the method came under fire eventually and other approaches to language learning evolved. This is not to say that I would like to discredit Grammar Translation approaches. After all, an approach is usually only as good as the teacher who applies it. And the use of solely one approach to language learning would often have its shortcomings.

      But the swing away from Grammar Translation was so extreme that the words Grammar Translation started to become the evil nemesis of language learning. You are absolutely right when you say it’s impossible to un-wire oneself from one’s L1, and that translation really ought to be the 5th skill set in language teaching. Perhaps as with everything else, the two extremes will eventually balance out and we would start encouraging translation, albeit judiciously, back in the classroom.

      1. Hi Chia and Dale,

        I can think of two other possible reasons for the Translation Taboo / L1-only policy: language schools and publishers. In the case of language schools, I’m thinking of those mega-franchises that rely on itinerant teachers using their CELTA – or equivalent – as a means to work their way around the world. Being native speakers, they may rightly or wrongly be preferred to local teachers, but if they’re on short-term contracts they have little incentive, let alone time, to learn their students’ language. The publishers have to cater for this reality, and materials aimed at the international market will avoid translation for pragmatic reasons. Materials aimed at the domestic market may be different. So could it be that a virtue is being made out of a necessity?

        Most of my students are German (or German-speaking), working for companies that require them to switch regularly between languages. For example, they may be asked to translate their employer’s website, proofread contracts, take minutes of meetings in one language and summarise them in another, explain the dreaded German income tax form in layman terms to an Australian client, etc. It makes sense to prepare them for these tasks, and the more sensitive they are to false friends and other ‘interference’ problems, the better.

        Your word ‘judiciously’ is the key one, Chia – it all depends on context, needs, priorities, etc. And BTW – I like your blog!

        1. Thanks Stephanie. Some really interesting and lucid points you made there for reasons why language schools and publishers avoid the use of L1 like the plague. I think the use of L1 in the classroom is definitely an area to be explored.
          Also good to hear that you are helping your students with their translation needs. Vivan Cook mentioned in his book that such translation skills are part of using English for business and I suppose, in this age of English as a Lingua Franca, more and more of our students will be required in their workplace to translate as part of their responsibilities.

    2. One could blame Maximillian B@rl!tz, but one might be sued.

      Seriously, direct method plus behaviouristic psychology a la Skinner’s Verbal behaviour has a lot to answer for in terms of distracting teachers and learners from the uses of translation and contrastive analysis (for adults, that is). Combine that with an emergent business model for initial teacher training (back in the day…) which depended on convincing applicants that they can operate effectively anywhere regardless of knowledge of the L1 of their learners, and you can imagine how it was sacrificed on the alter of profit.

  6. So many excellent points that we need to remind ourselves of over and over.

    I completely agree with the suggestions from other comments that language teachers need to have been language learners themselves at some time. I’ve been in classes like the one Rod found himself in, and it’s not a good experience for the learner. However, it could be excellent training for potential language teachers to learn from an experience like this of what they don’t like as a learner, and could have a lot more meaning than reading something in a teacher-training text! When I did my TESOL quals I was surprised at the number of my fellow students who had never even tried to learn a second language (beyond some very brief experience in compulsory schooling, many years before). And yet some of these seemed to be the most dogmatic about how it should be done! Being a learner yourself, it’s also valuable to observe the reactions of other learners in the class, and chat to them after class to get a feel for different learning styles.

    Another recent experience I had was in an online course, about teaching online, when several students commented that they hated having to contribute to compulsory, assessible discussion forums, but in the next breath (paragraph) they talked in detail about how, as teachers, they would incorporate compulsory, assessible discussion forums in their own courses! Perhaps this shows that we need to make stronger connections for teachers of themselves as learners and their teaching styles.

    It might be interesting to follow up your post with an #ELTchat session, got any ideas for how to frame a question?

    1. Thanks Leslie @cioccas for your comments. With the huge demand for English teachers these days, many (teachers and learners alike) seem to think that being a native-speaker of the language is enough to make one a teacher. Of course, we know now that being native-speakers really doesn’t have very much to do with language teaching, that non-native speaker teachers often make better teachers, and that the experience of the L2 learning process is vital in helping us understand how we can help our learners.

      Yet, like your experience with your online course, even those with language learning experience often forget what it was like for them. They put on a totally different ‘hat’ and preach very different things when taking on the role of a ‘teacher’, not applying their knowledge of the learners’ standpoint. Perhaps it’s human nature to be slightly egocentric, and when teaching, we start to see things from a teacher’s point of view, even when we are trying to be learner-centred, adopting a ‘teacher-knows-best’ attitude. You will not believe the number of times I’ve heard teachers saying, ‘The students don’t really know what they want.’

      I am honoured that you are thinking of using this as a topic for #eltchat. I suppose a question could be ‘How does your language learning experience impact on your teaching?’ or ‘Do you think language teachers ought to have language learning experience?’ or something to that effect?
      I always seem to miss these chats because they take place at a time when I’m never online (what time exactly do they take place anyway?) but if I miss this one, could I possibly have a copy of the transcript? Or maybe you could post the transcript here as comments to this blog?

      I’m really glad to get this discussion going because as obvious as some of these points might be, I think we sometimes take them for granted and forget how important they are…

      Thanks again Leslie.

  7. Hello , I have heard and read good comments about this post, unfortunately I haven’t had time to read it yet, but I’m going to read it tomorrow and I think I will enjoy it…

  8. To be honest, if the class was really like this then the teacher should be sacked on the spot. They are making a huge amount of basic errors and messing the entire class up.

    Any semi-decent teacher who has received some kind of semi-decent training will not be making any of these errors. And any teacher who does make errors like this should not be teaching.

    1. Ironically, the teacher involved actually has done a Modern Languages version of the Celta, and does seem to be regarded as one of the more experienced teachers in the Spanish department. In her defence (God knows why I’m defending her), Rod thinks that she means well and was nice to the students, but perhaps has just forgotten how intimidating it could feel being a complete beginner of a language. Also, there was a syllabus which she had to cover in the 5-week course.
      I think there is also the issue of thinking about the learning process from solely one point of view.

      There have been many great comments on this blog about the importance of the teacher having some language learning experience themselves, but sometimes, it’s also easy to forget that not everyone learns a language in the same way as we do. Applying our own experiences to our learners is good, but we must not forget that they might learn in different ways to us. This Spanish teacher might have had a good knowledge of her own language prior to learning English and might have coped well with learning grammar in a de-contextualised and systematic way but had no clue what it must be like to be a British person who has never studied the grammar of their own L1 before and doesn’t know what a ‘verb’ or a ‘plural’ is.

      Nevertheless, I agree that something ought to be done about teachers who make these ‘errors’ and syllabuses that see language learning as transmitting information. Maybe that’s why I don’t use coursebooks…*wink*

  9. The “problem” here is that English teaching is by far and away the most studied, analysed and advanced language teaching around. Nothing comes close so any language teacher who isn’t teaching English starts off at an immediate disadvantage. Add to this the generally old-fashioned and rote-type learning done in many countries and it’s no surprise that learning a language other than English – especially when one is knowledgeable about ELT – is going to be tough going.

    A few years ago I was involved in writing an Italian language learning coursebook. We tried to construct it in a manner similar to English coursebooks (i.e. make it interesting, fun, communicative, etc) but the Italian publishers took one look and threw up their hands in horror. “Where are the verb tables!” they cried.

    I’d agree though that EL teachers can all learn from learning a new language every now and then. In the case of your flatmate, they will learn what NOT to do in their own classroom.

    1. You are so right. Research into SLA, for example, is led by the Anglo-centric countries and the teaching of other languages seems to have quite a long way to go to catch up. Perhaps with the use of social media to connect English teachers and industry professionals these days, we could try to make connections with the modern language teaching industry and we could share ideas and opinions more. You mentioned that you were involved in writing an Italian coursebook. Do you think it would be possible to forge stronger relations between our industry and the modern language industries?

      1. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s possible. In most cases the local teaching system is heavily in the past and the publishing industries in those countries are just trying to supply the market without being in a position to change it.

  10. I loved this post and got a lot out of reading it. I’m still finding my feet as a (very) new teacher and two points in particular really resonated. The first is use of L1. I realise now that some students just really need to hear a bit of L1 for reassurance, especially those who are fearful or timid (and there are plenty of those). Thinking that the teacher expects to hear only English can be a real barrier to some people and causes them to sit in scared silence. In some classes – particularly elementary ones – the odd throwaway comment or joke in L1 from me can really change the atmosphere for the better. (And to me, it’s better that a student feels confident to say “I don’t understand” in L1 than sits mutely trying to formulate it in English while the lesson rolls on!)

    The second thing that resonated was the stuff about drill. I’ve become a bit of a drill addict, I must say. I’ve realised that a bit of intense drill near the start of a lesson can open up the students’ ears to the sounds and the physical sensations of speaking English – almost like a ritual that moves the class from the “L1 space” to the “English space”. This appears to prime the brain for when we move on to grammar or skills exercises, and also seems to reduce inhibition. Drill is very “democratic” in a way, because it happens to everyone in the class. Results aren’t “right or wrong” so students usually seem happy to practice producing the sounds individually and as a group. Also, if students experience drill at the outset in a non-threatening and enjoyable way, it seems to take some of the “sting” out of any on-the-spot correction of individuals later on in the lesson.

    1. Hi Anthony, it’s so good to hear from you. Glad to hear of your adventures in the teaching world. I like your tip about making the odd comment or joke in L1 to improve the atmostphere of the classroom. It’s great when you can communicate with your students in their L1, and I think it probably increases their respect for you as well, knowing that you’ve learnt, or are trying to learn their language. Although I teach in multi-lingual classes, I often ask my students to teach me short phrases in their language and they find it amusing when I try to get my tongue round foreign sounds.
      Sounds like you’re enjoying teaching, Anthony. Have you got yourself a Twitter account yet? ; )

      1. I’m afraid I’d disagree here; there’s always been a strict English Only policy in my classes. The idea behind it being that students get such a limited exposure to English that every little helps – an amusing quip in English is better for them than an amusing quip in their own language IMHO!

      2. Am trying to resist twitter … Facebook has already eaten my life … :^)

        I have on (very rare) occasions told students anecdotes about my own “adventures” learning their L1. I just think it helps the empathy, however “unorthodox” it might be!

        I think it’s an understatement to say that I’m “enjoying” teaching. I am adoring it and am only sad I didn’t start doing it years ago. I find it hugely rewarding emotionally and intellectually. And I owe you a huge thank-you for making it possible.

  11. Hi Anthony,

    I like the way you referred to your adventure of learning your students’ L1. The fact that you see them as adventures provides a positive experience of learning another language from the teacher. It makes them think “hey, this guy’s just like me, he’s done all of this as well”, instead of “yeah what do you know about how it feels to sit THIS side of the table. It’s concrete empathy with what they are going through – very comforting indeed.

    Why can’t your experience as a language learner be used as a model for good learning behaviour too? I show my learners my vocabulary book for Italian all the time to show them the value of keeping one (I even get a few corrections from some Italians too). Giving a good example of how you use a strategy positively reinforces the idea. Last month, I made sure I listened to something in Italian every day before teaching my listening class, so that I could talk about it and exemplify how I use different listening strategies

    Get yourself a twitter account!


    1. Hi Dale

      Possibly because my experience as a language learner isn’t (shhh!) what I’d want to give as a model to my students! I’m a haphazard language learner at best (my CELTA taught me that!). But I do get your point.

  12. On the translation issue, I can offer some stats for anyone interested: In 2006 I carried out a study of what employers expect graduates to be able to do in English in the workplace. I sent out questionnaires to the companies that sponsor our business students and got 181 responses. As far as translating is concerned, more than half of the companies surveyed (many of them multinationals) expect graduates to be able to translate letters and faxes, and more than a quarter other types of documents such as reports, contracts, websites and emails (formal and informal). I don’t know where the need is greater – L1 to L2 or vice versa, but maybe some of you know of other studies that have looked into this.

    Whether these results suggest that we should be conciously teaching translation skills is debatable. On the other hand, a strict L1 policy is not always enough.

  13. After reading two of your blog-posts, i feel we are thinking on common wavelength.
    In India, English teachers believed under the impression of native teachers, that the target language should be the only medium of instruction. No Indian languages. Only English. Thank god, now people realised the importance of Translation and Mother Language in learning other language.
    Its true, conducive environment should be prioritized above everything in the classroom.

  14. Hi Chia Sun,
    Have just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check their for comments.

    Please feel free to post there whenever you’ve got something you’d like to share.



    1. Thanks for the post and the heads-up! Much appreciated! My full name is indeed Chia Suan, but most people in the UK call me Chia…so call me whichever you prefer! ; )
      You don’t know how much it means to me that you asked! I get really irritated when people list me as Chia Chong, or when I apply for bank accounts and the online forms would not accept Suan as part of my first name and insists on listing it as a middle name…hahaha…!

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