English is by far the world’s most studied second language. It is no wonder that the ESL industry has grown significantly throughout the globe. Learning English, teaching English and the corporations, colleges, and universities that all profit from ESL are the direct consequence of a vastly globalized Twenty-First-century world. However, the great contradiction in the ESL industry is that English is often taught incorrectly.
We all know that virtually anyone from an English speaking country can teach English in a foreign country or domestically. One usually only needs a bachelor’s degree in any discipline and a TESOL, TEFL or CELTA certificate. In some cases, only a four-year degree or even less will suffice.
So a person has a TESOL certificate and few years of experience. They must be qualified to teach, right? Not necessarily! In fact, I would estimate that at least 50 percent of people who teach English are rather bad at it. How can this be?
Teaching English or any language for that matter is all about the approach. Even individuals who have a few years of teaching experience under their belts fail to be effective instructors. It is not that these people are not capable of teaching English, but simply that they proceed with the wrong approach.
How should English be taught?
Let’s pretend that hypothetical teacher A is instructing a 60-minute class. What should be the outcome after one hour? First and foremost, during that 60 minutes, STUDENTS SHOULD BE TALKING FOR AT LEAST 60 PERCENT OF THE TIME while practicing the targeted language from that class coalesced with what they have already learned! Ideally, student talk time should be 70 to 75 percent while using the targeted language and recently comprehended vocabulary. Ok, no problem. Just get them to talk right! Actually, the majority of ESL teachers fail to reach even 40 percent student talk time. Why?
First, too many teachers simply do not know how to be quiet and let the students talk. Remember, class time is for the students. Learn to be passive and become a good listener. Every opportunity during the class for the students to speak must be provided. Don’t read the directions of an activity. Get the student to do it. Don’t immediately explain the meaning of a new vocabulary word. Have a more advanced student explain it to the class. Don’t begin the class by asking the students what they did last night. Get them to ask you what you did last night. Make up a story, tell a joke, get them to laugh. Create an environment where they want to talk and ask questions. Always be open-minded when teaching.
Second, too many ESL teachers forget that they are teaching English to a group of adults rather than social studies to a bunch of 12 year- olds. If I had a dollar for each time I’ve walked by a classroom only to hear an ESL teacher soaking up talk time while the students sat in complete agony. Remember, teaching English is not like teaching a group of middle school children. It is not your job to lecture and discipline, but rather to listen and coach. If you have control issues or just don’t know how to have fun, then you probably should not be teaching English. Maybe the state department is hiring. You may have a master’s degree in history or political science, but that does not equate into being a good ESL teacher.
Third, too many ESL teachers fail to be creative and try new things in the classroom. If you want to reach a student talk time of 60 to 75 percent, then it is paramount that your classes are innovative, dynamic and interactive. If you have a large class, get them to stand up and move around. Persuade them to work with different partners, groups and make sure the class is completely integrated. In addition, do not be afraid to use creative measures to practice the targeted language and maximize student talk time. Utilizing photos, artwork, music, creative writing activities, role play and acting are all unconventional ways to not only encourage your students to talk more but have a great time doing so. Always remember to inject some humor into your classes as well. Push the envelope a little bit, but be careful not to offend. Of course, it is necessary to have structure and use a textbook, but DON’T JUST RELY ON A TEXTBOOK!
What about the way English is taught at the big schools like Kaplan, Intrax, Education First, Nova, and Berlitz?
These schools are generally effective at achieving sufficient student talk time. The problem is the way they do it. These types of large, corporate institutes teach what can be referred to as ‘cookie cutter English’ in reference to the ‘cookie cutter’ houses of the American suburbs.
Like suburban life, these schools provide safe ESL instruction in that the student can expect to receive a certain quality of instruction and the opportunity to practice the targeted language during class time. However, the teachers in these schools are limited in their ability to be creative and try new things. Large and expensive institutes, such as Kaplan and Education First focus on drilling and repetition. Both of which are important, but English is also a uniquely creative, but at the same time inconsistent and capricious language. It is littered with idioms, phrasal verbs, slang, accents, word stresses and tons of grammar exceptions. Therefore, the pedagogical approach to teaching English as a second language needs to be creative, open and flexible. Furthermore, this argument applies to some extent to the teaching of all languages.
English schools, such as Kaplan, Education First, NOVA, and Berlitz are more keen on the bottom line. Consequently, the teachers at these schools are handcuffed and lessons are strictly centered on the textbook. Not surprisingly, these larger schools all follow a similar corporate template that is more or less led by Kaplan. While a typical lesson in Kaplan may reach a student talk time of 50 or 60 percent, the students are paying an excessive amount of money for often mediocre and textbook driven lessons. English Schools such as Kaplan, Intrax and Education First, which generally charge a tuition fee of $1100 to $2000 per month, are more focused on investing their profits into highly strategic marketing campaigns. As a result, students do not get the highest level of classroom instruction and overpay.
Being creative, open and interactive while reaching a student talk time of 60 to 75 percent that practices a targeted language during class is the best approach for teaching English as a second language. Structure and textbooks are essential, but flexibility ultimately leads to the best results.