Over the years of working with a variety of learners in different settings (in-company, tertiary, private tutoring, teacher training) the aspect I feel appeals to all of them is making lessons personal. I realize that this cannot be done in every case, especially when we follow a course book with defined tasks or need to prepare students for exams in which they are judged on how well they understand reading, listening and writing tasks. But when we have the choice to add in a task or activity which allows them to tap into their inner feelings, opinions, and thoughts, this can be beneficial to both the engagement of the learner as well as helping their recall of the language at a later time.
In my lessons at the university I have created a number of activities in order to personalize the lessons. We are required to give homework and I use it to help learners practice the grammar points we cover in the course. But the input I give is general enough so that the output can be determined by the learner. In practicing the future I asked them to write out what they know is going to take place as well as what they think will happen in their own countries in the next 30 – 50 years and the texts I received (in a B1 multi-national course) were astounding. My students come mostly from central and southern Europe and their thought-provoking essays were not only fascinating to read but clearly provided them with practice of the target language. The next written task involved them writing about an important first event in their own lives. I got stories about learning to ride a bicycle and the trust they needed to have in the person who taught them, the first time they took a trip by themselves and that feeling of independence, the first time they cooked a meal and how it turned out, etc.
In class, we also do a number of activities which involve a great deal of student input. Even a simple ‘find someone who…’ activity requires them to talk to each other and get information from others in the class. In a worksheet I created called ‘All about me’ All About Me 1 they had to compare notes with another learner about things in the past such as their favourite colours, food or types of clothing, what they wanted to be when they grew up, what they were good or bad at doing, etc. This pair work got them chatting and exchanging information. They were not only interested in what the other person had to say, but also finding commonalities with others in the class which can help to build a positive atmosphere and make them more comfortable within a learning community.
Other possibilities to make lessons personal can make use of music or art as the impetus. You can give learners a replication of a painting and asking them to describe their feelings when they look at it or a photograph and ask them to imagine they are in the picture and have to describe what they see. A piece of music can be played and learners then asked to choose adjectives to talk about it. In these cases, they may have very different impressions leading to discussions in which they can explain why they feel the way they do, again lending a personal touch to the activity.
Of course we cannot only do activities such as these as we often have to follow a syllabus, prepare learners for assessment, train them to write for academic journals, present at conferences or run meetings. But adding such activities to a lesson can be motivating, fun and give them the opportunity to experiment with the language in a meaningful way.
And as a final thought: ‘Is there anything more personal than learning a new language to express yourself in?’
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.
After writing about our role in motivating our learners, I have been reflecting on what motivates me as a teacher. The end of the semester provided much food for thought and going through evaluations written by learners is always an enlightening process for me. The contrasting comments are to be expected – some love group work, others would prefer more individual tasks, more writing or giving presentations to the class – but the positive comments outweighed the negative ones, a source of extrinsic motivation for me. It is good to hear that learners find the instruction to be varied and fun as well as providing them with a safe and supportive learning atmosphere. Many also commented on how much language they acquired and felt that questions and preparation on my part were handled professionally. Helpful comments on the topics we did or suggestions for information to put on Moodle indicate involvement on the part of the learners and give me tips for the future. All of this helps at the end of a long university year to make me look forward to beginning work again in the fall.
It is interesting to note how this extrinsic motivation for me begins to move into the area of intrinsic motivation. Knowing that the large majority of my students were happy and that learning took place makes me determined to find new ideas to bring into the classroom.
What is it about teaching that makes it different?
In working on a plenary titled ‘Getting unstuck’ I began to think about our job and what makes it special. There are several professions I think in which people ‘are’ their jobs and for me being a teacher is one of them. When I hear a new word in English, I think about how to use it in class or teach it to my students, if I read an article I consider ways to present the ideas in it in class. Even on holiday, when I see something interesting, I take a picture of it or take a brochure and then often try to find a way to incorporate into a lesson if possible. In this way, my life inside and outside the classroom lend together creating a whole persona as ‘teacher’. For me this is also motivating – teaching becomes more than just a job I do – it becomes a way of life. It provides a sense of balance that I did not have in other jobs I have had. And when learners show appreciation for this, especially in such a creative way, it is icing on the cake.
To finish up with this post, I think that motivation for teachers is very connected with how we view our jobs. When we get a sense of personal satisfaction by opening someone’s mind, having them view things in new and different ways, finding ways to establish rapport in the classroom, creating an atmosphere that both learners and teachers want to be in and knowing that we have given them something which can be used in the future, motivation just becomes part of what we do. After 30+ years in the classroom, I feel it is still exciting, fun, and provides a place for a group of people (the teacher included) to broaden their horizons and gain new knowledge. Can any job provide more than that?