Last week I was on tour in Switzerland, where I had the pleasure of not only witnessing ‘Chocolate Box Scenery’ in the country where it was invented – but also of meeting a large number of great teachers with a variety of interests and backgrounds.
The workshops I ran were equally varied – covering topics from grammar to functions, task based learning to motivating teenagers. Diverse though the sessions were, one recurring theme was that of helping students to communicate in English in the classroom in readiness for using English in the outside world.
Many teachers commented that with a group of monolingual students getting students to complete group speaking tasks in English can be tricky, and I agreed, but some tips and ideas worthy of sharing did come out of discussions at a number of the workshops. Briefly, here they are:
Some students dominate an activity; Quieter students say nothing.
Some suggestions for dealing with this included
- grouping all the dominant students together (using the logic that eventually someone will have to let the other speak…) and similarly putting the quiet students together. This can have the effect of removing the perceived threat of the livelier ones (sometimes seen as the ‘better’ ones) and can provide a less threatening environment for the shy students to contribute.
- in situations where a chairperson or a secretary is needed in a group activity, quieter students can often respond well to this. They remain equally involved in the activity, but in a way that suits them better than having to say too much.
It is worth remembering that quiet students are sometimes quiet in their own language too, and that our job is not to change their personalities. We can create the right conditions for communication, or to quote the ancient metaphor: ‘You can lead the horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.’
Another (more controlling suggestion) was from a workshop in St Gallen: Give each student a limited number of sweets, and each time they contribute to the discussion, they have to eat one. When they have run out of sweets, they have to wait until all the other group members have eaten all theirs before they are allowed to join in again. Make sure your students all like the kind of sweets you are giving them tough, or the whole idea will have the opposite effect!
Students doing the activities in their own language when they are meant to be done in English.
I’m sure that every English teacher on earth has experienced this at some time. One comment was that our coursebooks have such exciting speaking activities that the students (especially at lower levels) get carried away with the content of the activity more than with using English! It was generally agreed – and quite comforting to a number of teachers - that beyond ensuring that the activity is achievable and that the students are given adequate linguistic preparation and planning time, we have limited options when dealing with this.
- One comment was that we shouldn’t stop doing speaking activities because of this problem, but firstly rationalise the activity with the students in terms of what it is meant to achieve. Secondly, and importantly – always remember that as with anything in life, practice makes perfect, and as a student moves up from one level to the next, so should the amount of English they use in class.
That’s all for this month. Join me next month with an update of what Great Teachers are doing in Ukraine and Russia.
Until then, Happy Teaching!