Students come to classrooms with all sorts of misconceptions regarding learning. One of them is that:
(1) learning a language can happen a lot faster than it does.
When I ask my teenage (intermediate) students who are fluent in English to explain how they study the language, they usually say that they have never studied English. This sounds strange, but it is true. They’ve been immersed into the English language and culture for years watching Cartoon network when they were very young, and later on watching films on some other popular English/American channels (films were not dubbed into Serbian!), playing games and chatting with their foreign friends, reading e-books, listening to music on the Net… They’ve picked up the language as they’ve been exposed on a daily basis since a very early age to many Englishes (varieties/ dialects/accents).
It is really amazing teaching English to a new generation of students who acquire the language without learning its grammar rules first. Mastering English in reverse order – by starting with learning grammar rules first and practising language by using textbooks/workbooks – is more difficult, but still a common way of learning/teaching a foreign language in many schools all over the world even today.
Moving beyond the intermediate learning plateau to more advanced levels of language proficiency requires much more work and effort.
“Attaining this goal requires providing learners with a rich source of language learning experiences that allow for the gradual development of language skills across the different modalities of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. These experiences should allow learners to become successful monitors and managers of their own learning, aware of the limitations of their current level of language ability, but also aware of the means by which they can move beyond the intermediate learning plateau to more advanced levels of language use.” [Richards-Beyond-Plateau]
(2) Teachers are responsible for students’ motivation and learning
Motivation is one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second/foreign language (L2) learning. I strongly feel that a class of highly motivated students who are taught by not so good or experienced English language teacher will be more successful than a class of unmotivated students with a very good teacher.
“Motivation has been widely accepted by both teachers and researchers as one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second/foreign language (L2) learning. Motivation provides the primary impetus to initiate learning the L2 and later the driving force to sustain the long and often tedious learning process; indeed, all the other factors involved in L2 acquisition presuppose motivation to some extent. Without sufficient motivation, even individuals with the most remarkable abilities cannot accomplish long-term goals, and neither are appropriate curricula and good teaching enough on their own to ensure student achievement. On the other hand, high motivation can make up for considerable deficiencies both in one’s language aptitude and learning conditions.” [http://www.zoltandornyei.co.uk/uploads/1998-dornyei-lt.pdf]
I would like to point out that it is very important to provide our students with the skills required to learn more independently and take responsibility for their own learning. They should try to complete more tasks on their own and to manage their time and approaches with less support. This kind of work demands that students recognize what they already know that is relevant, identify what they still need to learn, plan an approach to learn that material independently, and monitor and adjust their approach along the way.
(You can read more about learning and metacognition – the set of processes involved in monitoring and directing one’s own thinking and learning in the book which is being made available by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology – [http://teachpsych.org/Resources/Documents/ebooks/asle2014.pdf]
(3) Course books are useful for students because they provide them with controlled practice and give them a sense of improvement.
Course books based on grammar syllabus become little more than grammar courses. Where grammar is given too much priority the result is predictable and well known. Learning grammar is a lot simpler than learning a language. Course books give students the feeling that they can control what is going on, they know the main grammar rules, they can pass tests, and may have the illusion that they know the language well. They can recite grammar rules, but cannot sustain a conversation as they lack vocabulary and fluency. [http://www.mikeswan.co.uk/elt-applied-linguistics/seven-bad-reasons.htm]
In my view course books are useful for students only if you use them in a way not intended by their authors. If you’re an imaginative teacher who enjoys experimenting (and of course if you are lucky to work in a school with intelligent/ innovative management) don’t stick to your teacher’s book, try to make your lessons more creative, for example:
- make a selection of grammar/vocabulary exercises, and focus only on those that can really improve students language skills (plan very thoroughly which questions to ask in order to get the maximum out of a very little material)
- ask your students to choose a topic/text/recording that is interesting to them and can provoke an interesting discussion
- get an idea/material from the course book to:
- design a project work, a role play, etc.
- ask them to create a poem/story from the unit titles
- get your students to change the text into a poem or a poem into a prose text etc.
- get them to make a test/quiz in order to practise grammar/vocabulary on their own at home
- give your students a text and ask them to change it in the way they like
- give your students a short paragraph from a course book and ask them to finish the story (then they discuss which story is the most interesting/gripping/imaginative)
4. If you have to use a course book, anyway, try to supplement it with some interesting and useful activities created by teachers online, like: FlashmobELT (a wonderful teaching resources bank).
(4) It is very important to write formal detailed lesson plans
Planning lessons is a very important part of teaching, and it does not mean writing formal detailed Lesson plans. The importance of writing formal lesson plans is based on the misconception that teachers can control what students learn. With lesson plans we can control what we teach, and how we teach it, but we can’t control what is learnt.
The most productive lesson planning happens after the lesson while reflecting on what happened in the classroom. My most successful lessons were those when I didn’t stick to the plan because my students’ stories or ideas were more interesting and made me divert from my lesson plan. Spontaneity is the most desirable quality of a lesson; and it means that you are focused on your students, their interests and their stories (e.g. my student’s story of his training martial arts, and the discussion that followed, was much more interesting than the recording I had planned to play that class; or, writing flash fiction was much more exciting than some boring writing practice in the course book).
The thing is that each class is different, students have different interests and goals, they are at different stages in learning, etc. You should only start the lesson with an interesting task, then help your students decide what they will be doing next and let them practise the language.
Writing lesson plans is ” completely unimportant if, having developed a set of effective management skills and teaching routines, having experienced what it’s like to think on your feet, having learned how to be resourceful with very little, and above all, having learned to trust your learners, you are ready to fly on your own – and without a detailed flight plan. It’s then that you’ll experience the (almost) unbearable lightness of teaching.” (Scott Thornbury)