Saturday, March 05, 2005

TEFL Priorities

At some point over the past few weeks I stumbled across a cluster of blogs written by young English-speakers in France (they mostly call themselves expats, but don't get me started on that). There's one that I particularly like called Dispatches from France I think it probably vaguely reminds me of my own first few months in France discovering and adapting to all the idiosyncracies of French life that now seem almost normal. Anyway, Vivi, the American who writes this blog hopes she's going to get a job as an English trainer in a language school. She's had an interview but the language-school owner has told her she will :

"absolutely have to brush up on English grammar. [...] He pointed out the in the states and UK, English grammar isn't taught in the same way that it is when it's taught as a second language. Because these students have studied English intensively, they understand the basics of English grammar better than many Americans or any other Anglophones do - because we take it for granted. Sure, we know that 'If I knew, I wouldn't have come' is not as good as 'If I had known, I wouldn't have come,' but can you explain why? Herein lies the problem."

This makes my hair stand on end: dispensing grammar explanations is not what teaching English is all about My own teaching career (did I just say that?) started in a now defunct private school here in Bordeaux, and although in my experience most private language schools are run by crooks, I have to admit that working for them is often the only way for a young English-speaker to get a first job in France. However, it's also a good way to be exploited mercilessly — dodgy contracts, unpaid salaries, off-the-wall paedagogical practices. Now if you had a prospective English teacher come and see you, what would you advise them to do? Order a few grammar textbooks? I deal every day with dozens of students who've had English grammar drummed into them for years and years and they still can't use the language in any meaningful way. There are many effective and creative ways of helping learners get to grips with English, none of which involve the ingurgitation of whole grammar books. One of the most important principles is to help the student become an autonomous learner. If someone asks you why you say 'If I had known, I wouldn't have come,' (which they won't here because it's exactly the same structure in French), the best response is to show them how to look the structure up in a good grammar book, or even better how to use the web as a concordancer, or search for an explanation on one of the many English learning sites (very like showing a hungry man how to fish..) I suspect I sound insufferably pompous and patronising (not to mention old)and I don't want to finish on that tetchy note. Vivi, I'm sure that your web savvy, your writing skills (respect on both counts!) and your drama experience will be much more useful to you in teaching EFL than memorizing a grammar book. There's a great big wonderful world of creative EFL paedagogy and didactics out there, it's just that lots of private language schools don't even know it exists. Hey, lots of us are even exploring the possibilities of BALL (Blog Assisted Language Learning).


Anonymous said...

You're right, Lesley, we need to focus on content. We need to find our voice. Moving from metablogging to blogging content is far from being easy. Keep on searching and posting. You're not alone. Kind regards.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the ability to use the language meaningfully needs to be emphasized, especially here in Asia, where a fixation on grammar and rules tends to obscure any real hope of communication in most pedagogical settings. Perhaps blogging is one possible way to encourage a positive shift from one mode to the next?
Aaron Campbell | Homepage | 03.06.05 - 6:55 pm | #

Anonymous said...

Gravatar Hi Lesley. Thank you for linking me, so I could find you. I'm very happy to open a dialog with someone who has so much experience in this area.

In fact, the very things you pointed out (my drama experience, etc.) are the reasons the head of the language department is interested in me. Also, please keep in mind that I haven't diagramed a sentence since I was in 3rd grade. I have no formal training in teaching anything. Even if he hadn't suggested it, I would have searched for tools like this. I didn't mean to imply that I would swallow these books and BAM: instant English teacher! I know very well that there is more involved.

The department head is interested in me specifically for clients who are business owners who have had X number of years with English, and wish to improve it so they can communicate with business contacts in the states. If I'm in a one-on-one session with a client, and he asks about (or has trouble with) a finer point of the language, shouldn't I be abl
ViVi | Homepage | 03.07.05 - 3:02 am | #

Anonymous said...

Ack, cut off!

Shouldn't I be able to explain that point? Isn't that, in fact, what they're paying us for?

Thank you very much for the compliments; they mean a great deal.
ViVi | Homepage | 03.07.05 - 3:03 am | #

Lesley said...

Vivi, I know, I know. That rant was the result of some sort of protective instinct towards a former me and a killer instinct when it comes to some exploitative language schools. So here are the "buts" that I should have included in the post:
a) It may be that the school that wants to employ you is one of the good schools.
b) You DO have to know a bit (or even a lot, to be honest) about grammar to be a rounded language teacher (although its not the N° 1 priority)
c) You might actually enjoy learning about English grammar and it will probably have a washback effect on your understanding of French grammar.
So, I'm sorry if I sounded negative and wish you the very very best of luck with the next stage in recruitment. If I can be of help in any way, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Lesley | Homepage | 03.07.05 - 3:02 pm | #