Teaching – WTF?
Yikes! How I struggle with teaching English these days. I have no more clue how to teach listening than I do how to teach reading. I have next to no idea how to teach speaking and writing is the only rock upon which I believe I can build my church. Well, that’s not strictly true. I do believe that I know how to teach. It’s just that I don’t know how to teach English. Mmm. Perhaps a public forum like the internet is not the most appropriate place for such confessions. Let’s just say that today I am writing on behalf of a friend…
Teaching writing is easy. Writing is a skill that develops with time. As you can probably guess, I am a frustrated writer anyway. How many books would I love to have written?! I can’t say the name J.K. Rowling without spitting with envy. Luckily, my students want a very specific type of writing – one they invariably call the Eyelets writing. This involves teaching them about how to churn out a short essay that purports to describe some sort of table, chart, graph or diagram; it also involves teaching them how to churn out a longer discursive essay about some rather anodyne topic.
My approach here has been to hunt down a One Size Fits All template that I drill into them and then spend the rest of the course repeating enhancing and correcting. I don’t know if it works for the students, but they buy into it with a passion that is rarely seen in my classroom.
Teaching listening always has me reaching for John Field’s book. I bought it over a year ago and have yet to read it properly, but I sense that it carries within it the formula that I need to calm my nerves and provide me with a roadmap to freedom and wisdom. For now, I reluctantly turn towards TED and try to think of inventive things to ask students to do. Inventive for me often means difficult, challenging, uninspiring, frustrating. I try to think of the types of listening that students will encounter when they progress, as is their deepest desire, to a British university. This week I delivered a lightning speed dictation of one sentence at each of them. They had to write it down and then find the other sentences that went with theirs. Once found, they had to order them and then determine what was being talked about. They were given the audioscript at the end in order to facilitate their checking. Most fell away at the second hurdle. Four students out of eleven persisted until the end. I blamed them, of course, but my inner wisdom told me that I should really be looking within for the answer.
Teaching reading is a weakness that I have always resented. I loooooooove reading. If I am passionate about anything, it is reading. Oh. And my kids. Of course, the kids are lovely too. In a fire, I would rescue the kids first. Then I’d demand that they help me by running back into the flames to rescue some of the books that I treasure. While they were doing that, I would nurse my Kindle and reassure it that everything was going to be alright. But teach reading?!?! Can it be done? I doubt it. To help me explore my thoughts on this matter, I bought The Psychology of Reading (check out that price tag!). Needless to say, like most professional books of 496 pages, it remains unread. My strategy for reading has been to force the students to do lots of it. I treat texts as vehicles of language. Language that can be stopped and stared at; that can be chopped up and bits taken away, like Lord Elgin at the Acropolis. Intuitively, I think, the students will learn something from the experience. But am I kidding myself? I certainly am not the reader in L2 that I am in L1. If books are like cake, in L1, I eat like an untamed savage – eyes constantly on my dining companions, arms shielding my plate from potential attackers. I am ready to tear out the heart of anyone who tries to stop my guzzling and I hold the empty plate up to the sky, quizzically examining it to see if it will yield any more of this delicious substance. In L2, I am capable of leaving half of the cake on the plate as I pronounce with ennui that I have had enough. Teachingwise, I suspect that the clue is to build up the mental frameworks that underpin texts so that students have a working knowledge of the route that most stories, articles, yadda yaddas plod as they meander from the beginning to the middle to the end. Students don’t tend to love this approach.
As for speaking…I have not a jot of an idea. Short of saying that I suspect that the secret is as simple as giving students opportunities to speak and then screeching at them in faux incomprehension whenever they make a mistake: WHAT DO YOU MEAN? “SHE HAVE SISTER”?!?!?! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? DO YOU NEED A DOCTOR? DO YOU HAVE CYSTITIS? WHO IS SHEILA? Can it really be this simple? For years I have been looking for an answer to this question. Can speaking be taught?
I curse the bodkins who decided that language learning could be broken into skills. They brought down upon me wave after wave of indecision, feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and self-hate. Language is language I have come to believe. It’s not about reading, listening, speaking, writing. It’s about constructing and deconstructing meaning. No more than this. No less than this. Why don’t we teach students how to say what they mean and how to check what the others mean as well? In my syllabus, we’d have construction skills and deconstruction skills. Construction skills might include checking understanding, taking into account what the others already know, building from scratch, finding alternative ways of saying something, providing examples to help the other person etc. Deconstruction skills would include checking for miscomprehension, relating the received message to your own experience, breaking large amounts of text into manageable chunks and reassembling them.
Teaching on the other hand is simply the act of getting students to believe that you have something worth saying and something worth listening to. I used to be better at this. These days it is not uncommon to find at least one student who falls asleep in my class. I am no match for the allure of the [BLEEEEEEEP]ing touchscreen. I want to wrest their iPhones and iPads out of their hands and use them to beat the sleeping beauties to a pulp before tossing all offending parties out of the window and into the canal below. As I have a mortgage to pay, on the other hand, I restrain myself to a withering burst of sarcasm and the terrifying arch of an eyebrow. I look forward twenty years and ask myself how I will be able to compete for their attention when I am 20 years closer to the grave and they are but twenty years from the cradle. In my moments of despair, I reassure myself that English language teaching will have gone the way of the lamplighters, the beadles and the town criers by then. We will be interesting relics that children of the future will be baffled by (just as we are to the children of the present…).