Since the late 1980s language drilling has been looked down upon as being bad. They’d say its mechanical, boring and irrelevant for the students. Students aren’t automatons to be repeating meaningless sentences or vocabulary.
And it’s true that too much of a thing (even if a good thing) can be its own death. But as the old saying goes “don’t throw the baby with the bathwater”. Language drills have their very good value: by repetition they can help students identify their questions and problem areas while leading them towards specific language goals and targets, therefore, drilling can help students focus.
In the not so distant past, language labs were the rage. All the “respectable” language schools had their laboratories with those sessions inserted in their lesson grid where students would be sent to a stuffy room (no air conditioning then) and they’d spend 40-50 minutes listening and repeating to an outdated audio recording, while a teacher dozed off (sorry, listened in and monitored the students).
With the ubiquitous presence of smartphones now students have a language school and lab in their hands but their needs are still the same, including the need to practice.
Spaced repetition – reviewing words over a sequence of days will work wonders on vocabulary retention, concentration, and patience.
Practice makes perfect, but only if you practice in the right way.
“How you practice and what you do matters more than how long you practice”, Jeremy Harmer has said more than once.
If you get your heart involved you will get better chances of learning.
Drilling should be genuinely communicative, psychologically authentic, focused, and follow a regular pattern.
We have amazing computers disguised as phones and it’s time for the teacher and students to feel smarter than their phones. You can use Siri or other voice assistant apps to practice and even learn a language.
If you have an iPhone, Siri can be your language practice partner. To ask Siri a question, you have to pronounce the English words correctly in order to get an answer, so you get a chance to work on your speaking skills. Through Siri’s answers, you’ll hear proper or standard pronunciation and learn the right ways to respond to certain questions.
You can ask Siri:
what’s the weather today?
How’s traffic now?
Set an alarm / Set a timer
Send an email to … / call …
You can also have some fun with Siri’s pre-loaded messages such as
When is the world going to end?
will you marry me?
can you teach English?
I’m fed up.
Just dictating a word if Siri gets your pronunciation correctly.
You can also say:
show me images of a “porcupine”
Although technology is extremely helpful when you’re learning English, real-world, human interaction also matters, but no question Siri can have more of a say in your language adventure.
This week, Patrice Palmer asked me on Twitter if I was a “teacherpreneur” and if I would be interested in answering an interview. To start off the conversation I wasn’t even sure what she meant by that but a quick Google search showed me the following definition:
“The teacherpreneur merges the image of the innovative classroom teacher with the risk-taking and entrepreneurial leadership that we commonly associate with those who create their own place in the professional world.
Teacherpreneurs are, first and foremost, imaginative teachers. They have created a classroom culture of creativity and reflection. They think beyond the classroom in terms of how to make lessons meaningful, and in so doing, might see a need elsewhere in school that their innovation can address.” (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/era-of-teacherpreneur-heather-wolpert-gawron)
So … I guess I’m a “teacherpreneur” after all. Thanks, Patrice for teaching me one more thing this year.
Here’s my interview:
Teacherpreneur: Moacir Sena (aka Mo the Americanoid)
Can you start off by telling us where you teach?
I’ve been teaching English and Spanish at banks, law firms and other industries. (99% of the time it’s been one-on-one basis) and the students usually came from managerial positions up to the CEO). I’d say 60-70% of the students have been upper-intermediate to advanced (B2-C1+)
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching since 1986 – started teaching at a small language school near where I lived and from then on I moved to other language schools until starting my solo career back in 1998.
Can you describe a typical teaching day?
In the past I’d have classes early in the morning -7:30-9am / break / 12-2pm/ break/ 6-8pm (with the occasional class starting at 9-10:30pm) During those windows I’d work on translations.
Considering that I am wholeheartedly a morning person, now I’ve managed to keep my mornings pretty busy – (7:30 to 11am) and (12pm-3pm). The odd student at 4pm. I try to close shop at 3pm. NO evening classes in the last 5-6 years. Hooray. 80% of my students have in-company lessons. 20% come to my home office.
What do you do in your spare time to relax?
As a man, I watch tv – often not paying much attention to what’s going on. But I love reading and taking long walks in the park in the late afternoon.
You took on the tremendous task of starting a solo career…
I decided to fly solo after having been a partner at a language school here in São Paulo, having to deal with teacher training, teacher and student prospecting, keeping the financial balance of the firm, making money but never seeing it. To keep good teachers you many times had to sacrifice your own pay. To keep good corporate clients many times you had to cut them a discount. So we came to a crossroads – either we would move to larger facilities with more classrooms etc., or shut down. My partner at the time was not interested in expanding so we decided to follow our own path. Being my “own company” I know where to invest, how to manage and control client satisfaction and teaching quality. And make more money than when I “owned a company”.
How do I get my students /clients you may ask? Word of mouth – 100% guaranteed.
Over the last 6 years or so I’ve dabbled in YouTube – posting video lessons using English and the Bible – ESL with Mo the Americanoid –
Here’s a sample: Episode 104: ESL with Mo the Americanoid: 6 Tips for Teachers One on One Classes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrOUmGofIso
Here’s the link to the playlist: (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLyyx8yztcz879R6iSGDLpIMfCBQWcj08Z)
Initially the videos were based on a book called ENGLISH LESSONS FROM THE BIBLE (BOOK OF MARK) by Glenda Reece. After a few episodes I felt more comfortable to develop my own material and content expanding to interviewing some English learners and teachers and presenting some Teaching tips.
Other social media I’m involved in…?
Intensely involved with Twitter – its immediacy and reach are amazing, even though I’ve learned that Twitter is not as much used in Brazil as in Europe and North America. I always follow #ELT #TEFL #ESL #TESOL threads. But I’m not very keen on Tweet Chats – I find them hard to follow live and to try to read a later compilation of the tweets is quite boring and many times senseless. Depending on the editing you’ll read 20 “hello this is…” tweets before getting any real content.
Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Also writing a blog – www.americanoidblog.com – An English Language Lover’s Teaching Adventures and other ramblings.
A dream I have is to produce a language learning program for the radio or TV. But still don’t know how to get there. Still beginning the process.
What skills did you gain from classroom teaching that have allowed you to excel as a teacherpreneur?
- Public speaking – if you can face an audience of rambunctious children or bored teenagers you can face the world.
- To adapt to different audiences and needs
- To be flexible and also know when to draw the line (sometimes ;-)
What advice would you give to teachers who are considering to go solo or start a language school?
To be self-employed can be a scary experience but also empowering. You feel the world on your shoulders knowing that you will have to provide for everything – from your health insurance to managing your pay so you can afford any sort of vacations – (no paid vacations or holidays). But it’s liberating: you can set your workday schedule (within certain limits) and explore the world (either literally or in your own town or neighborhood).
To those dreaming of opening a language school or franchise – remember you will be less and less of a teacher and more and more of an entrepreneur. So think carefully before you jump into the abyss.
All in all, the important thing is to do it with passion and remember that the world is not found in your bellybutton.
Quite often when people ask me “what is the fastest way to learn English or Spanish or any other foreign language?” I tell them that the best way would be to date and marry a speaker of that language.
Jokes apart, there are actually no shortcuts to learning a new language, but it helps to have clear objectives and discipline.
- Motivation – why do you want to learn English, or French or Spanish or Russian? Is it because you want to get better job opportunities? To travel on vacation? Because you want to read Tolstoy in the original? Whatever your motivation, it doesn’t need to be monolithic. It can expand and include other factors.
- Language Level – determine your language level – and be aware that the higher it is the slower your progress will be (or at least feel like that). It takes time and effort to break that “intermediate plateau”
- Goal – language learning can be infinite – you’ll always be learning something new but it does not necessarily mean you’ll have to hire a teacher for life. Take charge of your learning.
- Routine – develop language contact habits – no rush, but regularity. Remember the old proverb: “Slow and steady wins the race”. You can’t win a marathon race by sprinting all the time. You don’t need to be practicing the language for hours at a time: 10 minutes a day will work wonders.
- Diversity – Diversify your study methods and your exposure to the language – read books, magazines, newspapers online, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, change the language of your cellphone, listen to online radio in the language you’re studying. Sometimes I change my students’ cellphone language without them knowing it.
- Overcome your fears and shyness – beat that fear of playing the fool. Do you think your accent or vocabulary are still limited? So what? At least you’re trying. Usually the only ones who will look down on you are other learners who are not paradigms of language skills, either.
- Find people to practice – even if you don’t live near people who speak your L2 you’ll certainly have the opportunity to meet people online – via Facebook for example. Also large cities usually have communities – big or small who use that language. Visit their restaurants, or shops. If there are places of worship in English or Spanish, for example, near where you live, contact them and they will be mostly welcome.
Fluency in another language is challenging but it is not limited to a chosen few. The key is in following the steps above over and over again.
A difficult task is to help students improve their pronunciation not only of words but sentences as well. I’m not talking about accents but how intelligible the student is when speaking. Considering that all my students have smartphones and quite a few use iPhones, a simple activity that they could do by themselves over and over again is asking Siri questions.
Example: Can you tell me where the nearest bank is?
where can I find an Italian restaurant around here/ in this neighbourhood?
What English course do you recommend? ( many students will pronounce it as “curse”) getting hilarious results.
Eat / it – they’ll say: “I love skating – where can I do it?” They’ll say “eat” – and get tips on restaurants.
Chances are Siri won’t understand them at first and it will give crazy results or simply say I don’t understand.
So students will have to learn to enunciate well the words, intonation and not just isolated sounds. Some students resist this idea and won’t do it but those who are willing to give it a try will develop a much better speech, after the initial challenges and frustrations.
The New Year is finally here and getting old by the second. Preparing my first set of lessons for this coming week. The Idealistic Teacher (or dreamer) will make a resolution to prepare individual lessons customized to every single student. The Awful Teacher will teach whatever the textbook he has been told to use presents. The Realistic Teacher will create some lessons but will also take advantage of the abundance of material available online and adapt to his or her students’ needs. Ready-to-use lessons are a real blessing for every busy and tired teacher.
Take for example the lesson on New Year’s Resolutions from BreakingNewsEnglish.com (http://breakingnewsenglish.com/). The lessons always present excellent material for my classes. And they’re always free. Ok, sometimes students complain the audio recording is a little flat and monotonous but for this price… . As I said yesterday to another student – I was giving away some 200 CDs I’d had in my car which I don’t use any more thanks to bluetooth. (Spring cleaning fever in the middle of summer, go figure). And I told the students – feel free to get as many CDs as you wish. Then a student came up to me and asked – “but is it music or lessons? what sort of music? Will I like the songs?” I turned to him and replied: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. No CDs for you”. I instantly became a CD Nazi. Doh.
For this lesson on New Year’s Resolution I’d start with the picture above (a picture’s worth 1000 words) as a warmer:
Do you have any resolutions for the new year? Then I could share with the students a list of the top new year’s resolutions for 2015. What’s the point in making resolutions? From previous years students are 50/50 – yes / no to resolutions.
Even though the lesson contains 26 pages I usually only print pages 4 and 7 (let’s be environmentally aware) and I can give them the listening activity from Breaking News English as a dictation (I can use the British or American/Canadian recording) and also have students fill in the gaps.
Comprehension Questions or True & False are also great tools to make students speak. Of course when a sentence is false – they must explain why.
Synonym Match is a good vocabulary practice and the Phrase Match is great for matching sentences that make sentence even if they’re not the same as in the original text.
To wrap up I give students some answers about the text and have them ask me the question. It’s my favorite exercise – because questions are a big challenge to most students. They forget word order, auxiliaries, etc. I call this exercise “Yes, No, Maybe so”, I tell them “45%” for example and they have to come up with a question based on the text. Some samples of what they would ask:
“How much per cent of people make a New Year’s Resolution? There we have a good opportunity to clarify the difference between HOW MUCH and HOW MANY, for instance.
What I think is missing in the Breaking News English activities is a grammar point, if necessary I can quickly develop some activity related to the text, be it verb tenses, prepositions, phrasal verbs, etc.
As a final activity, if time allows, I can ask them questions on the matter studied and their own opinion. There. Now the teacher has a well-rounded lesson plan that will last at least 60 to 90 minutes and which mostly took him the time just to read the article. (Of course, some teachers will go to class without even having done that. Don’t get me started).
How about me? Will I make New Year’s Resolutions?
Well… I’ll try to be less anxious or afraid of new challenges or opportunities. Secondly, I’ll try not to lose my temper when I have to correct my students for the 10th time within a 10-minute frame.
Cheers and Teach Well,