Why I brought back the foreign language lesson to the CELTA

Many Celta trainers I know have taken the foreign language class out of their Celta timetables in favour of other more ‘practical’ input sessions such as classroom management. But looking back at the times when I was training up to be a teacher, I realised how some of the most valuable lessons I had learnt have come from those demo foreign language lesson and decided to give it top priority by dedicating a good 60 minutes to it on Day 1.

But before looking at the reasons why I’ve chosen to do so, let me first outline the foreign language lesson that I usually deliver. And for those teacher trainers out there who claim not to speak a foreign language, I hope this brief lesson plan would serve to reassure you that you do not need to speak a foreign language well to carry this out.

I usually do the foreign language lesson in either Chinese or Japanese, depending on the profiles of the candidates. Evidently, I’d choose the language that trainees are most unfamiliar with.

Materials: 6 items of realia – A box of English tea, a tin of green tea, a bottle of milk, a jar of coffee, a can of Coca Cola and a bottle of mineral water.

Procedure: I greet the students in the foreign language, and set out the items on the table. I start with one item, say, the English tea, modelling, drilling chorally and then individually. I then do the same with the second item, the green tea, before moving back to the English tea and the green tea again. Every time I introduce a new lexical item, I go back and drill those that I had done previously.

When the six items are drilled sufficiently, I draw a chair and a table on the board with a customer sitting and a waiter standing. Because my drawing abilities are so bad, I mime the waiter with my scarf over my arm just to ensure understanding of the context. I then mime the following dialogue line by line, but with the introduction of each line, I drill the phrase and everything I covered before.

Waiter: Hello

Customer: Hello

Waiter: What would you like?

Customer: I would like some English tea/coffee/water/etc…

In pairs, students role-play the dialogue with the help of the dialogue written on the board.

I then add  the rest of the dialogue.

Waiter: Would you like anything else?

Customer: I would also like some milk/Coca Cola/ etc…Thank you.

Waiter: Thank you.

Again, in pairs, the students role-play the dialogue. Just before they swap roles, I erase the dialogue off the board and have students do the role-play from memory.

At the end of the demo, the trainees discuss what they think each phrase from the dialogue meant in English and how they felt during the lesson.

During feedback, I take the opportunities to unpack the stages of drilling (model, choral, inidividual) and get them to notice other features of the lesson e.g. my seating position during the lesson, how I monitored, the effectiveness of pairwork, etc.

But one could argue that these are features that could be highlighted in any demo and not necessary through a foreign language lesson, but here are some other points that I find the foreign language lesson making very effectively.

1. It’s scary being a learner. 

Some of my trainees have never had the experience of learning a foreign language before. But even those who have might need a reminder of how it feels to be a learner – After my foreign language lessons, trainees often say they felt insecure and anxious when placed in a situation where they couldn’t speak the language. It brings attention to how language is such a core tool of communication to the rest of the world that without access to it, they experience a sense of panic and a loss of control over their surroundings. Some are surprised at how it makes them feel like a child and are better able to relate to how the high status professionals might feel being taken far away from their comfort zone.

2. Context is everything.

Choosing to do my foreign language lesson as a situational presentation, trainees are able to deduce the meaning of the lexical phrases without the need for any translation. But more importantly, it is good chance to draw attention to the fact words and phrases are often remembered through the context they were encountered in and are not stored in the brain separately, but in clusters e.g. with other related lexis or in lexical sets. When attempting remember the lexis a few days later, trainees will quickly realise lexis is more easily retrieved when the words/phrases are given a context, ‘a place to belong to’.

3. Drilling isn’t boring… and it isn’t just about pronunciation.

The foreign language lesson is a good chance to introduce drilling, and to demonstrate the importance of drilling, not just for pronunciation practice, but for memory retention and getting their tongues round the language. Being on the receiving end can help trainees see that drilling is not boring for the learner at all, and is in fact confidence-building. It is often the teacher who feels bored because he/she already knows the language item well.

4. Pronouncing unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language can be frustrating.

Especially when trainees have not had the experience of learning another language, it might be hard to relate to how difficult it might be to first recognise and differentiate what might seem like similar sounds in one language but totally different phonemes in another, and then try to contort their muscles in strange ways to make sounds that don’t exist in their language. Repeated drills of more difficult sounds can drive that message home.

5. Language learning isn’t always about learning single words.

When covering the Lexical Approach and introducing language chunks like collocations later in the course, I refer to how they learnt the phrases in chunks during the foreign language lesson without necessary understanding what the individual words meant, and highlight the fact that it takes the brain the same amount of effort/energy to remember a chunk/phrase of words as it takes to remember a single word, and encourage trainees to present language in their chunks and collocations.

6. It can take multiple encounters with a language item before it is retained and produced.

Trainees get to have first-hand experience of how long it can take to remember a new lexical item and how quickly we can forget it. By asking trainees again a few days later for the lexical items they learnt (and having them admit they’ve forgotten quite a fair bit of it)demonstrates the difference between short-term and long-term memory and the importance of recycling language and how language acquisition is not a linear process. What is taught is not necessary learnt.

7. Don’t overwhelm learners with too much information at a go.

When trainees try to squeeze in too many language items into their 40-minute lessons, I often remind them of how many lexical items they covered in their foreign language class (6 nouns and 5 phrases) and how close to feeling overwhelmed they already were.

8. Don’t just say them, board those new lexical items.

Too often do I see trainees who attempt to deal with emergent language by simply telling the learners the word or phrase, and not actually bothering to write the words up on the board. This can be extremely frustrating for many learners who find it easier to process and to remember lexis when they can actually see how it’s written. This also gives learners a chance to copy the new lexis into their notebooks. In my foreign language lesson, trainees are drilled the lexical items first and are given the written forms much later. They often report feeling a sense of relief when they are able to see it written down. This is a feeling worth referring to in order to encourage the boarding of new lexis and keeping a column for emergent language on the board.

9. A tolerance for ambiguity is crucial to being a good language learner.

Trainees often see reading and listening texts as a mere conduit for new language and are often not aware of the different subskills and strategies used unconsciously when reading or listening in their first language. Very commonly, when reading for gist or specific information, trainees give their learners way too much time, resulting in the learner attempting to decipher every single word and feeling dejected when they encounter one or two unfamiliar words. Sometimes such a psychological block created by just a couple of words can lead to learners giving up and not feeling competent enough to carry on reading. This need to cling on to every single word and this intolerance of any ambiguity in the foreign language is a sense easily conveyed through the foreign language lesson. Trainees can then better understand the need to develop their learners’ tolerance of ambiguity and the importance of training train learners to skim and scan so as to enable the transfer of such skills from their L1.

10. This is what a beginner’s class looks like.

This is the only time they will see a beginner’s class. Arguably, when teaching English as a foreign language, there are very few real beginners, but nevertheless, learners will encounter elementary students when they go out into the ‘real world’ and need some idea how they might deal with teach the very basics, with the help of some realia and mime, while still maintaining a communicative approach in the classroom. Trainees get to see that it’s totally possible to teach such a low level class even when the teacher is unable to speak their learners’ L1.

Obviously, these points can still be made through the use of other demos and discussions, but aside from the fact that one demo conveniently embodies so many of the key issues surrounding language learning and acquisition, more importantly, I brought it back because I will never forget how much enjoyment we got out of the foreign language lesson back when I did my Celta.

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