Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
I taught for a long time but I can remember with cringing clarity many of the mistakes I made in the first couple of years. I don’t blame my early teacher self since the TEFL course doesn’t really prepare you for teenagers or one-to-one executive classes, let alone kids’ classes. It mostly prepares you for how to plan lessons in the kind of detail that’s not especially useful in real world classes with students who are nowhere near as keen and eager to please the teacher as the ones at the free teacher training classes.
So, I was spoilt for choice picking scenarios for the main character in my novel, Love Lessons, to mess up. Sophie Day is fresh off her course and just landed in Rome. Her first class is with top advertising exec, Marco, with his almost perfect English. Looking at where Sophie goes wrong might be a useful exercise for a newly-minted TEFL teacher.
It’s her second lesson and it’s a disaster. Sophie’s running late and doesn’t have time to prepare a proper lesson. So, knowing Marco has a business trip to America, she cobbles together a lesson on American vs. British English. Why do you think the lesson goes wrong?
1. She didn’t have enough time to prepare. But that’s not the mistake as it’s often the basic reality of a teacher’s life. Planning on the hop would be a useful skill to be covered on the TEFL course. What can you pull together in a bus journey that will work for your class?
The mistake is in making the lesson come from you and not from the student. So, the very idea of “preparing” a lesson can mean not meeting the student’s real needs, especially one you’ve only taught once. How can you know them well enough to predict their needs?
If I were Sophie in this situation, an ad exec at his own office, I’d get him to show me examples of ads online that he thinks are good and bad and explain why. Or, I’d pick up a magazine on the journey with ads in it and do the same. Failing both of those, I’d just start the lesson with the question “What makes a good ad?” and let him teach me about his area of expertise. I’d soon see linguistic gaps, if there were any, to base the next lesson on. And I think you could apply a similar strategy to any industry.
2. The myth that students need American/British English makes far too frequent an appearance in ELT lessons. Maybe at much lower levels, but then, ask yourself if the words are high frequency enough to be teaching in the first place. Students often know the American word from films and TV (if they watch in original version) so if you’re a Brit “teaching” American English, you might well find your students know it all — which is why Sophie comes unstuck. And if you’re an American, you probably don’t know half the British equivalents yourself so why on earth would your students need to know them?
Here’s the American/British English excerpt from Love Lessons that makes me squirm for Sophie. Things can only get better from this point, right? In fact, they’re about to get much more embarrassing …
‘Parking lot, sidewalk, nappy?’ He raised one eyebrow quizzically.
Pleased that there was one he perhaps didn’t know, she answered, ‘Yes, the white thing babies wear.’ He continued to look at her, an expression of weariness on his face as if to ask why she was wasting his time, so she quickly carried on, ‘In America they call it diaper.’
‘Yes, yes, diaper I know. But, I don’t hope for children when I am in America, not yet at least. I think I won’t need this word!’
Sophie mentally kicked herself. Of course, he was right and she should have taken it off the list when she was looking through it earlier. ‘Well, you never know when a word might be useful,’ she said, trying to save face.
He resumed rattling through the words as Sophie realized just how many other ‘useful’ words she had included. ‘Band-aid, cookie, French fries – we know American cuisine here too unfortunately – movie, zucchini and trash can. But this last one, what is this?’
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