My trainees’ 10 (+1) Maxims of Teaching…

I previously blogged about the importance of the foreign language lesson in the CELTA, and before that, wrote about the lessons we can learn from the bad experiences of a language learner.

Upon meeting my new Celta group today, I decided to make a few quick changes to the foreign language lesson. To start with, one of them speaks Chinese and so I had to make an emergency switch to teaching Japanese instead. However, the problem with teaching Japanese in the context of a cafe is that most cafe items in Japanese sound exactly as they do in English since most of them are ‘loan words’ from the west. So orange juice is simply ‘orenji jusu’, coffee is ‘cohee’, and ‘milk’ is ‘miruku’. After all, the concept of a cafe was a western one in itself.

So I decided to instead bring in some fruit that do not have western names and group the items into drinks and fruit. After making some changes to the dialogue, I thought while I am at it, I might as well change the format of feedback. Instead of only getting trainees to talk about how they felt, they were given the task of formulating maxims for their own teaching, in hope that it would contribute to feelings of ownership of the ‘maxims’.

The maxims that they formulated were impressively similar to the points made in my previous post about the foreign language lesson…(I did guide them and summarise what they were saying of course…) Here are their 10 +1 maxims.

1. Thou shalt allow lots of repetition. 

This was the first point that lots of the trainees mentioned. They realised how important repetition was and passionately stated that no matter how many times I allowed them to repeat ‘mizu’ (water), each time was precious to them and a chance to review and etch the word into their memory.

2. Thou shalt not make students feel bad for not remembering. Instead make them feel relaxed.

The phrase ‘energetic antenna’ is starting to make a regular appearance on my Celtas. The  teacher is the energetic antenna of the group in the same way a manager of a team conducts the energy and affects the dynamics of its members. The teacher is therefore responsible for fostering an enjoyable, friendly and relaxed atmosphere conducive to making mistakes and learning. After all, as I always say to my students, ‘if you don’t make mistakes, I don’t have a job.’

3. Thou shalt drill! drill! drill!

A more experienced trainee came to me during the break and asked if I was advocating the audio lingual approach or the direct method. Although I’ve had lots of experience with the Callan Method in my early days of teaching, it was important to get across to him that a multi-method ‘cream of the crop’ approach (where we select and pick the ‘cream’ or the best of each approach/methodology to suit the occasion and the student) was what we hope to encourage (and not the ‘Celta method’ which some cynics seem to complain about).

4. Thou shalt not overload students with too much information.

Although it is never wise to overgeneralise, I suggested to trainees that for a 40-minute Celta lesson, it is perhaps appropriate to introduce 7-10 pieces of new lexis (if lexis is the main aim), but it was also a good opportunity to highlight the fact that words like ‘orenji jusu’, ‘coca cora’, ‘cohee’, etc were easier due to their similarities to English, and therefore allowing us to include more than 10 pieces of lexis in that lesson.

5. Thou shalt teach lexis in chunks.

Several trainees were puzzled by the meaning of certain words in the phrases I taught them. When encountering ‘cohee o onegaishimasu’ for ‘coffee please’, I overheard some of them wondering out loud what ‘shimasu’ might mean. But ultimately, it did not matter for as long as they knew that the whole expression ‘onengaishimasu’ was one that allowed them to ask for favours in Japanese, our job was done.

6. Thou shalt train students to tolerate ambiguity.

A skill that is so important to every language learner – the ability to face unknown language items and not suffer a psychological block or a deflation of one’s self-esteem. The language classroom can already make the most powerful of business people feel like a child – one without control of his/her environment and not able to achieve what must be one of the most basic of human abilities – the ability to communicate. It is thus extremely vital that learners realise that there will be times when lots of words will be unknown and that is okay. We can still try to guess the meaning from context. And more importantly, for learners to understand that language learning is a long process. One of my trainees exclaimed today that we had spent 40 minutes and had only learnt a short dialogue at a cafe. Language learning is like a race with no end, a run where the destination is unclear…and we all know that these kinds of runs can be psychologically exhausting. That’s why it is all the more important that we enjoy the journey and the small successes that we achieve.

7. Thou shalt use visuals.

The trainees clearly found the use of realia was novel and motivating, and mentioned that it was important to cater to more visual learners. This also included the writing down of the dialogue on the board so that trainees were able to see the words and not just hear them. My co-tutor doing the session on learner styles tomorrow is going to have the trainees all prepped and mentally ready for that session!

8. Thou shalt motivate the learners.

Several trainees commented on the importance of the lesson being fun, and the trainer being energetic and engaging. The teacher of course does not have to be jumping around like they are high on an overdose of ADD medication. The teacher is not a performer and does not have to behave like mad ol’ me. A teacher can be calm, sedate and relaxed and still motivate and engage their learners all the same.

9. Thou shalt correct the students’ mistakes, albeit judiciously.

This seems obvious but I was once told that one of the most frequent complaints that students make to managers is that they don’t get corrected enough. Students pay to be corrected, so as long as you do it in a friendly, supportive and encouraging way, and in a way that doesn’t interrupt that fluency too much, correction should be a feature of the language classroom. And I encourage my trainees to do so from day 1 of their Celta.

10. Thou shalt set a context and present language in context.

Probably a cornerstone of the communicative approach to teaching, the context-based presentation creates a place in the brain for learners to ‘put’ the new language and this therefore helps learners to retrieve the new language more efficiently and effectively. But my trainee today probably gave a less-noted, but equally valid reason for presenting language in context : it is more fun and shows you directly how you can use the language. He claimed he was now looking forward to going to a Japanese cafe and putting the language he had learnt to good use.

+1. Thou shalt encourage lots of student talking time and only quality teaching talking time.

Okay, this is a +1 because it is the one I deviously slipped in so it actually came from me rather than the trainees…although some of the trainees did mention the importance of the use of clear and graded speech, gestures, and facial expressions to ensure understanding – a tenuous link to ‘quality teaching talking time’ I admit, but nevertheless useful. Related to the importance of increased practice in the language classroom, increased student talking time is achieved by encouraging pair/group work, and multiple opportunities to rehearse the language taught.

So there they are – the ten (+1) maxims that my trainees formulated all on their own.

Ten (+1) maxims that beautifully describes the foundation of the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) principles and the communicative approach.

Ten (+1) maxims that I will be holding them to throughout the teaching practice lessons on the Celta.

And here is a blog post to remind them that I will.

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.

9 thoughts on “My trainees’ 10 (+1) Maxims of Teaching…”

  1. Totally – and good to be reminded of the repetition thing – so easy to forget when students get all giggly if they have to repeat. Really useful. Many thanks for a great blog Chia.

  2. Thank you Naomi, Fiona, and Emi!
    Love the poster idea, Naomi! I’ll do it the next Celta course I run and put up photos of the posters on this blogsite!
    Fiona, I told all the trainees today about the blogpost and made them go home and read it carefully as a consolidation of what we discussed. *giggle*
    Emi, I come from a Direct Method background…although I’ve moved on quite a lot since (I certainly hope so!)…but I still strongly believe in the advantages of repetition!

  3. Great post Chia. I knew there had been something missing from the world, you weren’t blogging! I’m going to stick these on my ceiling so that I read them every morning when I wake up!

    This sounds like a valuable input session which accesses and shapes a lot of trainee’s beliefs about language teaching, especially for those who have never learned a language. Would you say this kind of session should be compulsory on CELTA courses? Was there any disagreement about the maxims when trainees were formulating them? Nice to see you’ll be holding them to them throughout the teacher practice, says a lot for teaching how you believe language is learned.


  4. Thanks Dale and Emily, and your lovely comments. I haven’t been blogging over the last couple of months because of my dissertation and lots of post-diss madness – am writing a few articles based on the dissertation, which is why I haven’t written about it on the blog yet…but it will come, I promise. Yes, I definitely think that the foreign language lesson should be compulsory for all teacher training courses. And no, there wasn’t disagreement as such, but there were points that certain trainees made that others hadn’t thought about…like in any class…

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