In praise of non-native speaker teachers part three: modelling

It’s a wet and windy Monday night – in June (!!) – and I’m sick to the back teeth of the ridiculous Jubilee nonsense that’s all over the TV, so now seems as good a time as any to pen my third eulogy in praise of the potential powers of non-native speaker teachers. As with the two earlier posts in this little series, what I’m trying to do here to lay out ways in which non-natives working in monolingual situations, teaching students with whom they share an L1, can outshine native speakers, especially those who do NOT share the same first language as their students and / or who have only recently arrived in the country they are teaching in.

I wrote in my last post about ways in which non-natives are perhaps best able to explain and get students to practise using new lexis by rooting it firmly in local contexts and today I’d like to suggest an extension of sorts of this idea: another way NNSTs can root the language more firmly in local contexts is through modeling. Now, modeling is often described and discussed as involving simply saying target sentences – especially grammatical ones – during PPP-based presentation stages, so that students can ‘copy’ the model and repeat, supposedly with better pronunciation that before. In this sense of the word, the non-native teacher is particularly disadvantaged – or at least made conscious of any insecurities they may have – as their sole role here is to model pronunciation of a structure – weak forms, elision, assimilation and all – and to then get students to repeat what they hear.

When I talk about modeling here, I mean something rather different – taking your own turn at a speaking task before students are asked to. This might mean, for instance, that before students discuss some personalized questions about lexis just taught, the teacher could ask the class to choose one or two questions to ask them – or it could simply be the teacher explaining a speaking task of some other kind and beginning by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . ”

Now, modeling is a good thing for a number of reasons: it helps to make clear to students what you want them to do; if well graded, it exposes them to useful lexis and grammar that may both help consolidate what they have learned already and that also suggests what may be useful for the turn they themselves will shortly be making; and it also shows that you as a teacher are also a human being. These reasons alone should be sufficient reason to consistently model speaking tasks for students, but in addition to all of this, what we choose to say when we model can offer a key way of rooting the language of the classroom in a local setting, thus making it more real for students.

Let’s look at a classroom-based example here to clarify what I’m on about! A couple of terms back, I was using Cutting Edge Intermediate one day a week with a class I shared with two other teachers. One lesson, we started a unit called Life Stories, which began with a list of vocabulary like leave home, start work, retire, move house, settle down, etc. that students had to sort chronologically. Once they’d done this, there was a short speaking exercise asking them to find four things which they’d done already or were doing at the moment; four which they’d like to do one day; four they would NOT like to do and four they could do at any time in their lives – and to then compare answers with a partner. Without modeling on the part of the teacher, these kind of ‘compare your answers’ tasks can often fall flat and result in students doing just that – comparing answers – and little more!

I started by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . I went to university between 1988 and 1991. I did my degree IN English Literature At Goldsmiths College in New Cross, in south London. It’s part of the University of London. Believe it or not, I graduated with a first-class degree, but to be honest, once I’d got my degree, I didn’t really have much idea about what I wanted to do. I never went to university with a career plan in mind. I just did a degree that I found interesting. In fact, after I graduated, I started working – and my first job was making sandwiches in a factory in Plumstead, right out in Zone 5 in south-east London: I worked a twelve-hour day, doing really dull and monotonous work! The money was awful . . . and all the other people there made fun of me and called me The Professor!”

Obviously, on one level, this could be seen as simply personalizing the coursebook, and admittedly, there’s a fine line between personalizing and localizing – and in some ways it’s not a distinction that’s really worth exploring as both acts help to make the book more real to the students. However, for our purposes today, the aspect of the above that interests me is the fact that the task roots the impersonal language of the book in a geography that is familiar to the students – and if this is true for me, with my multi-lingual students in the UK, then imagine how much more true it is for a NNST with mono-lingual students, most of whom will be studying in their hometown. These kinds of stories send subliminal messages: English is not just for talking about Britain and the British; it can also be a way for us to tell each other – and thus to tell the world – about OUR realities and our lives.

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2 responses

  1. Hi Hugh
    Did you know that most of the course books are about Britain? And that approx. 80% of the listening is British English? A lot of the TV series are in American and for some reasons – unknown to me – students seem to understand much more (or so they tell me…..). I often explain a speaking task by telling them something about me or how I would react. Students like that and don’t mind if my pronunciation is different from the one on CD. To have an accent is ‘normal’. By the way what about the Liverpool or Scottish accent? What IS the REAL English accent?
    Have a nice evening
    Corinne

  2. Hi Corinne –
    I think this is slowly changing, but I know what you mean. I know that what we’ve tried to do with OUTCOMES and what other writes like Lindsay Clandfield and Ben Goldstein are trying to do is to bring a more global perspective to coursebooks and classroom material, and that includes featuring a far broader range of accents – both native and non-native. As for what the ‘real’ English – or British – accent is, there clearly ISN’T one: there are many many different ones, and they’re all fine! Obviously, native speakers have different emotional relationships with different accents, depending where they are from themselves and the stereotypes attached to different accents, but they’re all normal and all need to feature more in classroom materials! I’ve certainly got my own accent, or so people often tell me!

    I think the US English thing is simply because of the power of American TV and students find these things easier to understand because they have more exposure to them.

    You sound like you’re doing some very sensible modelling yourself already, and I’m sure the human interest factor will always win out in these situations.

    Best,
    Hugh

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