This question was one of the final topics for the #eltchat at the end of the summer semester of 2014 and has been running through my mind ever since. When I started teaching over thirty years ago, it was all new to me and was certainly more fun than some other jobs I had had. I worked with adults in the evening and discovered that providing entertaining instruction was essential to keep their attention and to encourage them to continue taking classes.
Several years after I started I was trained in the so-called ‘superlearning’ or ‘suggestopedia’ technique and was introduced to the idea of fantasy identities, language games and material appealing to different learner types. This method was the one I used for many years. Coming from a theatrical (opera) background, acting a part was very natural for me. By choosing names that German-speaking students had trouble pronouncing (Yvonne, Beth, David, Nathan, etc.) this gave the learners extra practice. In addition, because they had chosen these names themselves, they were careful in how they said them, an excellent way to make pronunciation personal and important. Taking on the fantasy identities also allowed them to create their own ‘English’ persona. They could leave their daily lives behind and be whoever they wanted once or twice a week. They also set up relationships with others in the group in an egalitarian manner, leaving aside the formal behavior which was often found among adults who were essentially strangers to each other. Many of them told me over the years that this made the lessons fun and also made them less inhibited as when a mistake was made, they did not make it themselves, but it was instead made by their alter ego. And, as we all know, learning a language means taking chances and trying things out.
I also had my own persona in class. My name was Theophilia, I was an actress, was on my third marriage to a rich man named George, lived next door to Tom Selleck, and had a mother-in-law named Thelma who came to visit regularly. In addition, I had a companion called Phil, a stuffed animal which was actually the mascot for a baseball team in the US. Phil played an important part in class; we threw him around in speaking activities, he featured in worksheets I wrote or in stories we told. And to add to the mix, I also had a pet gorilla named Richard who was Phil’s good friend. These two characters were so important to my students that one group sewed a new set of clothes for Phil and another group gave me a ‘Richard’.
Over time, this method began to be difficult to implement for a number of reasons. As we also used the relaxation techniques and the reading of vocabulary to special music at the end of the course, we needed a place to do this which became increasingly difficult. My students also changed over the years and using first names became more common so that the fantasy names were less necessary. But the ideas of making lessons fun has always remained.
Today I teach corporate clients in their workplace and some of them comment that the lessons can’t be considered ‘work’ because they are ‘fun’. I feel personally that this comes from having rapport with the learners, showing that I like them as people, and making them comfortable in the classroom. We all feel that we can tell each other jokes and, although the topics we deal with are serious, we can find the ‘fun’ element in them. When I come across interesting or funny videos related to business English I send them the link and they often comment on how they enjoyed them. At the university, where I work mostly with undergraduate students, the atmosphere is also ‘fun’. One of the first things I praise them for is understanding my jokes which encourages them as well to send me video clips they find in the internet or to make jokes themselves. I try to find activities in class which are fun – the drills for grammar and the learning of vocabulary is done at home.
In thinking about this for the last few months, I would also like to add that just because something is ‘fun’ it does not mean that it impedes learning. But in addition to being ‘fun’ I also try to make entertaining, relevant, lively, intriguing, fascinating as well as provide enough food for thought for learners to keep coming back for more.