How many times have you felt that your language learning has stagnated or you’re not finding time or ways to stop from sliding back? Yes, language learning is not a precise science and if you love Math or Physics chances are you would hate learning something abstract with tonnes of rules and even more exceptions. But don’t lose heart. There is still hope. First stop considering language learning as one more academic subject. It’s a communication tool. Plain and simple. Here are seven steps to help you move forward in your language learning adventure. It’s no rocket science but it works. Try it.
1. Set specific goals – they can be as simple as learning how to use sentences in the past tense, or using the verb to be in the present (stop saying “you is“) to improving your pronunciation. But small goalposts will help you move ahead.
2. Create linguistic habits – my best time to be learning something is the morning, but you can choose any time you feel more comfortable with reading, listening, writing in your target language. You would like me to say that 15 mins would be enough but actually, until you settle down 5 to 10 minutes will have already passed… so set daily blocks of at least 30 minutes. The longer you practice the faster your progress will be.
3. Believe in yourself – yes, yes, it sounds like an old cliche but it’s true – if you try to learn something already thinking you can’t do it… what will your chances of success actually be?
4. Enjoy the learning experience – choose things you like to focus on… what’s the point in reading an article about something you hate or know nothing about? Do you like songs, for example? Focus on a song you like, try to get the meaning, the key words, pronunciation… of course, there are songs AND SONGS, if you get my gist, some songs are not suitable for language learning… that’ll depend on your common sense. Like movies? Ok, focus on a section to learn the vocabulary, pronunciation, practice telling the story (plot), rehash the dialog, even.
5. Use authentic material – read a book in the original language. Depending on your level you can buy bilingual books (those books with the text in English paralleled by a translation). In Brazil, the Folha publisher launched a whole series of literature classics in a bilingual format.
6. Join a positive learning community – one of the problems we have when learning a foreign language is finding opportunities to practice it. Today with the internet you can find virtual friends literally anywhere in the world – even language partners. Also every large city will have some places where you can practice your target language. For example, in São Paulo there is a weekly bible study class in English open to anyone interested in practicing the English language for one hour and a half and free (Unasp SP at 10:30 am – every Saturday)
7. Ask for feedback – we are always our worst critics – so it’s important to have someone who’ll provide some tips and even raise our awareness regarding some problem areas. I remember back in the 90’s I partnered up with a Canadian friend and asked him to correct me when he felt it was necessary. Most of the time he didn’t have to correct me, just the fact he hadn’t understood what I was saying would alert me to some mispronunciation or wrong vocabulary use.
This week one of my students was quite inspired – something one rarely comes across these days- that I felt inclined to ask him to write a 300-word essay about a weekend trip. He said he would. And he did. I’m quite used to students who would rather have their fingernails pulled than write a short paragraph, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Once he handed in the text I had to consider how to give him constructive feedback and the amount of correction to provide.
When checking ideas on how to correct his essay I came across the following:
“In academic writing, the end product is expected to have:
- A wide range of vocabulary
- Correct grammar
- Meaningful punctuation
- Accurate spelling
- Varied sentence structures
- Unity and coherence in ideas
- Well-supported and explained major points.”
- Source: CORRECTING AND GIVING FEEDBACK TO WRITING (bit.ly
We all have written papers for some courses to be checked and graded by
our instructors. We know very well that a paper that is returned with red
markings and notes all over is quite discouraging for the writer. Knowing
this, while giving feedback we may, of course, use green pens and put
smiling faces here and there on the paper but still we see the light in the
students’ eye fading.
If our aim is to win the student over instead of discouraging him, we should be looking for ways of giving feedback without losing the student. Otherwise they might think our “pen is pooping blood”.
The most important aspect while giving feedback is adopting a positive
attitude to student writing. While marking mechanically we may not
realize that we are showing the student only their mistakes and negative
points. If the student receives only negative feedback, they may easily be
discouraged from trying to form complex structures and using new
These are a few examples of error codes from the more “sophisticated” writing rules to basic Tense, Spelling and Word Order.
The trick is to find a balance between correcting “every single mistake” and “keeping the thought flow and meaning”, without discouraging the student.
A starting point is emphasizing the importance of spacing of lines, choice of font (if typing). If you feel that red ink is too shocking choose a softer color such as green or blue. Write the code next to the error but make sure the student has the code keys – any comments the teacher writes should be brief and clear aiming to provide positive feedback.
Not all students will write for a living or even for work. Many will use an instant messaging system such as WhatsApp or the odd email. However, feedback sessions can be a beneficial experience for the student IF the teacher shows the learner’s strong points as well as the importance of clarity and accuracy.
Very little is talked about nowadays concerning homework in the Language Teaching environment. Some may say it is something of the past – perhaps gone the way of the Dodo or the dinosaurs?
Some might argue that homework was just a way to threaten students with, in case they misbehaved – “give’em more homework”. Or maybe it was just a manner to keep them busy instead of idle – the “devil makes work for idle hands”. (Me and my Puritan upbringing).
But while watching a video presentation by Penny Ur (Cambridge University Press – “My top 30 Teaching Tips” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQvFGyD3b78) I was led to remember how important homework can be for the learner as a tool to review, practice and clarify points seen or to be seen during the lesson. Not to mention it is a great source of feedback to the teacher.
Ms Ur presented some key steps when dealing with homework:
- Don’t leave homework assignment to the end of the lesson, as if it was an afterthought. Tell students in advance what they’ll have to be doing afterwards.
- Define homework by apportioned time rather than quantity. Tell them to see what they can do in 20-30 minutes for example.
- Find ways to check homework without wasting half the lesson – that’s a tricky one. Today I spent 30 minutes (out of a 60-minute class) correcting the homework. Instead have students self-check; dictate the answers; check for problematic points; have pair correction; etc.
One key factor that we as teachers and students must always bear in mind is that Homework allows exposure to the language and consequently, it leads to practice and consolidation.
I remember the time I was learning how to play the piano and my teacher would assign me 4 or 5 easy songs to practice for the next lesson. The objective was to get me to practice daily and familiarize myself with the notes, the piano, the tempo, etc.
Yes, I know that some students will never do their homework, others will do it 30 minutes before class (and I’m talking about grownups), but as a teacher I know the value of a well-thought homework assignment and the benefits that it brings.
Much has been written and said about how technology has revolutionized and will continue to revolutionize the world of education and most especially the language teaching industry.
From the time I used a vinyl record which was upgraded to a cassette tape, then VHS and VCR to CDs and DVDs to online streaming, podcasts and YouTube, the means to expose students to a brave new world seem limitless.
But… how much has it changed for educators? Ok, I remember once I had to carry a portable record player on the bus to share a song with my very first English learners back in 1985/1986. Now I can carry the world in my mobile and so can the students. But what can we do with this amazing new world and how to access all this potential or at least some of it? Where can you find relevant material? How can you use it?
A study involving 240 MA education graduates in the US and Canada revealed that 50% of them received no form of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) training. And 70% were not prepared to teach the language using technology.
Being a teacher in the 21st Century involves much more than having the latest gadget: projectors, intelligent whiteboards, high-speed internet, etc.
Teachers have to keep up with changes in
- Student performance standards
- New teaching approaches
- How to make the most out of educational technology
There is still a huge gap between theory and practice with all the risks and problems that accompany the adoption of new technologies.
Technology today is broadly used for:
- Downloading relevant material
- Word processing
- Different data show /PowerPoint resources
- Voice and video recording
- Even the humble email /text messaging
- Exposure to authentic language
- Dictionary / translation tools
- Language practice using Siri or any other voice-activated personal assistant
- Waze and other apps (Waze is a community-driven GPS and navigational app which can be set to the language the student is learning and needs practice with)
Technology is still rarely used in:
- Mind-mapping, in case you’re wondering what mind mapping is (I had no clue either): According to Wikipedia “mind map is an easy way to brainstorm thoughts organically without worrying about order and structure. It allows you to visually structure your ideas to help with analysis and recall.
- Education blogs; and
- Voice threads (“VoiceThread is a totally web-based application that allows you to place collections of media like images, videos, documents, and presentations at the center of an asynchronous conversation“).
Why is it that most teachers are hesitant to integrate ICT?
Fear! Fear of what? Of losing control. Of making mistakes. Of “breaking” the equipment or program.
So, in addition to having access to technology teachers must be trained in how to best use the technology at their disposal, be offered technical support and troubleshooting solutions.
When given control, good teachers will be excited and curious about adopting the latest technologies.
Last Saturday we invited a new friend for lunch at home. Ivonne arrived from Bolivia back in February where she had been an English teacher and aesthetics consultant (sic) and had a dream to move to Brazil, where she would have more opportunities.
When she arrived she soon started voluntarily teaching English to a group of senior citizens at an NGO. “The experience was interesting”, she said.”But people don’t value things offered for free”. The students’ attendance was terrible and when they did come they wanted to chitchat and not really “study English”.
I warned Ivonne that getting paying English students in Brazil would be difficult in her case because despite her 5 years of English studies with US missionaries in Bolivia, she still had a very thick Spanish accent, including the infamous “Jew” when she means to say “you“.
She said, “Ay, Moacir, I need a job fast”. I told her she could apply at language institutes and private schools to be a teacher of Spanish as soon as she had her transcripts registered in Brazil. But any teaching at a language academy would take time for training. In the meantime she is selling honey sachets door to door.
But what Ivonne said about language teachers startled me:
“Ay, Moacir, Jew speak like an American and jew’re tall and white” – (anyone is tall to her since her height is less than 150cm /4ft) – I won’t get a teaching job here.” “In Bolivia I always wanted to have only native teachers for me. That’s how jew learn. Jew ask them a question they know the answer. A Brazilian or Bolivian teacher won’t know how to respond”.
“The same thing goes to teaching Spanish,” she went on. “Los brasileños think that Spanish is easy but when they start to see the grammar and the verb tenses they go crazy.”
I tried to reason with her “Come on, Ivonne. I’m not a native speaker of English, but I’m an excellent teacher, as you know (to hell with self deprecation)”. She nodded in deep admiration. “And for over 25 years I’ve been teaching English to high executives and people who’ve travelled around the world and it has never been a disqualifying point. I’ve also taught in Canada, the US and Ireland and it’s never been a problem. Yes, it’s true a native speaker may know more phrasal verbs but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to explain to you how to use them. He’ll pronounce a word his way which can be very different between US and British English, for example. More than once have I seen a native speaker not know how to pronounce a word or what it meant. And in addition to that, if the gringo doesn’t know the local language, he won’t understand why you find it so difficult to say girl, or world, whirlwind”. “Actually, many (not all) native teachers abroad have their own agenda and baggage: either they want to convert somebody, or see the world, or escape from their own world.” Believe you me, I’ve seen some native teachers (mostly from Oceania) that didn’t have a loose screw, they had lost that screw a long time ago. What makes a good teacher will be based on 3 very solid foundations:
1. Language knowledge (yes, you can’t teach English or French or Arabic if you don’t speak that language either), learning one’s own or adoptive language is an ongoing process; but that knowledge must be supported by
2. skills (natural and learned) – how many times have you attended a lecture or lesson by a renowned Professor who knows everything about, let’s say, quantum physics but he can’t teach it?
3. Finally, a good to great teacher will be empathetic. He will try to understand and seek for ways to best transmit his subject.”
Ivonne carefully considered all I’d told her, clapped her hands and cheerfully exclaimed:
“Jew don’t need to be a native to teach English. Now I got it. I’ll start applying to be a teacher of Portuguese!”
Good luck, Ivonne,
Growing up I often heard people saying: “if work were meant to be pleasant it wouldn’t be called WORK “.
Don’t know the origin of that saying but it’s quite easy to understand it’s meaning. Maybe it is inspired by the biblical curse God placed on man after he ate of the forbidden fruit:
Genesis 3:17-19 (NLT)
Yes, mankind would have food to eat by the SWEAT of our brow. But despite that curse it does help to choose a job or career about something that you like doing. The curse can even become a blessing.
Working as a language teacher has many positive features: I can “select” my students; I can determine my hourly class rates/pricing; I can develop a curriculum that best fits my students’ needs; I love speaking other languages; etc.
But one of the hardest “bones to chew” refers to Class Cancellations.
One-on-one teaching leads the learner to take the teacher for granted, at their beck and call. So they cancel their classes, try to reschedule the rescheduled classes – I’ve had students who rescheduled three times the same class – and if they don’t effectively have that lesson they demand for a refund or discount. The fact that the student must pay for his class cancellations should serve as a deterrent.
So let me enlighten both teachers and students:
When you agree on a day and time, that time is sacred… both students and teacher have entered into a covenant and will do their utmost to honor it. Now, when there’s a cancellation, can you make that time come back? No? What makes you think that your class time can?! Or that you’re paying for 24/7 English? Of course, there are reasons and reasons for a class cancellation. You had to go to the hospital or a funeral? Let’s accommodate that. You only had that day and time for a doctor’s appointment? Hmmm. Your sister is visiting? Uh, nope. You’re not in the mood? Is it cold outside? Not good excuses. Got it?
I’ve always tried to present very simple rules:
1. Any cancellation must be informed at least 24 hours in advance.
2. Cancellations within less than 24h notices, classes will be charged and not rescheduled.
3. Make up classes will be rescheduled if / when teacher is available (let us say the teacher and student have agreed on four 1-hour classes a month. Student cancels once. Will the student be willing to pay for a 5th hour? Uh huh, I thought so. What makes him expect his teacher should work a fifth hour for free?
Simple. Isn’t it?
Last week I came across this blog post where the teacher even went on suggesting she would record a short video and send it to the student as a “make up class” so that the student wouldn’t feel left behind. She added:
“So here’s my thing and a lot of teachers’: we don’t want students to miss class. We love our job. We spend our time preparing what to do and want students to succeed. It’s not productive from an educational point of view and, at least to me, it means getting paid without doing what I like the most. I want to earn a living teaching, not sitting around. Bearing that in mind, I came up with an excellent alternate solution, which I am now calling “The Substitutive Class”; feel free to rename it.” . https://www.lbenglishteacher.com/blog/substitutive-class“.
I make mine those words.
And no cancellations, please.😉