So here we go with the fifth and final installment in a series of posts initially inspired by a desire to counter the appalling Open English advert – and to point out the many potential advantages that non-native speaker teachers, especially those teaching monolingual groups with whom they share a first language, possess. Following on from the last post on translation, which generated a real flurry of responses and debate, I’ve been loath to wrap this series up for fear of going out with a whimper, rather than a bang, but here goes nothing.
The final way in which non-natives (or, of course, bilingual natives who’ve lived in situ for some considerable period of time) can offer students superior value for money – certainly when compared to rabidly monolingual recent arrivals – is through the way teachers tackle texts. All too often texts are included in coursebooks to convey facts about the world outside – and are treated as little more than factual entities to be analysed, ‘comprehended’ and processed, but not really responded to or related to the local environment.
In Britain in the late 70s / early 80s, there was a school of thought dubbed Critical Pedagogy, led by people such as Norman Fairclough, which advocated encouraging students to adopt a critical approach to the teaching materials and methods they were exposed to. Whilst I am not suggesting this is a realistic – or even desirable – goal for most teachers, there are aspects of this approach that can help us bring texts to life for our students, especially in non-native / bilingual contexts.
The most fruitful way to think about the role of texts in the classroom is to see them both as vehicles for useful or interesting language, and also as points of comparison with students’ own cultures and life experiences. Sadly, however, not all globally available classroom material shares this perspective – and this is where the local teacher can step in and help to bring otherwise neutral (or possibly even alien) material to life. Often texts can be fruitfully exploited with the addition of a few simple questions along the lines of: what do you think is the same and what’s different here? / does anything in the text remind you of any stories you have heard about? – and so on. As ever, the teacher who is most aware of the local context will be able both to frame these questions in a way which may well work best with local students, whilst also being more conscious of what kind of answers students might typically come up with, and thus what kind of language would be most worth feeding in.
Let’s look at a concrete example: earlier this year, I was using Headway Pre-Intermediate with a multi-lingual group in London and one particular day, I had the slightly dubious pleasure of teaching a text called Supervolcano – about the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: a perfect example of the kind of factual ‘global knowledge’ texts that dominate many books nowadays and that seemingly have little point of entry for students. Whilst the book does have personalized questions leading into the text – what famous volcanoes are there in the world? How many can you name? Are they active or extinct? What do you know about them? – and out of the text – Where do you think there might be other eruptions in the future? If an eruption did happen, what do you think you could do to try and survive? – there’s nothing that relates to students’ locale.
Simply asking students what they would tell foreigners about the most famous natural features of their own countries, any extreme weathers they have to deal with and any natural disasters that have affected their hometowns or countries serves as a far more meaningful lead-in and makes students more willing to then engage with a text about somewhere that may very well be outside their realms of experience. Of course, whilst students are chatting, you can wander round, monitoring, picking up on problem areas and using their ideas as a source of board-based input during your round-up stage, thus once again helping them to word their own worlds.
These small but significant localizing twists can be added in to classes time and time again – and all help the local bilingual teacher to bring the coursebook closer to the worlds of their students AND the worlds of the students closer to being realised through English.
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.
Here’s the second of what I’m hoping will be five short posts in praise of non-native speaker teachers. Following on from some of the comments on the first post I did here, I should make it clear that in a sense I’m talking about the IDEAL of a non-native speaker teacher here in many ways. What I’m interested in trying to capture is what I think NNSTs are capable of, what it is they can do in monolingual contexts that natives would find nigh-on impossible, and what best practice might involve in a predominantly L1-oriented situation.
Today I’d like to suggest that non-natives working in their own countries of origin teaching students they share a nationality with have a definite advantage when it comes to explaining and exemplifying new language as they will now far more about both the macro-culture of the country in which they work as a whole as well as about the many micro-cultural worlds their students reside in. This knowledge can – and should – be used to hang new language onto. Just as knowing about Japan helps me explain what right-wing means to a student from Nagasaki through reference to the ultra-right uyoku groups there and knowing about Hikikomori – Japanese kids who become bedroom recluses in their teens – helps me explain what a recluse means, so NNSTs can refer to local cultural phenomenon, characters, events, TV shows, musicians and trends to help their students find English more memorable. What this does is filter the classroom material – whether it be a local or global coursebook or some other kind of material brought into the class – through a local perspective, thus making the language more real to the learners and rooting it in realities closer to their own.
I’ll give you a more concrete example of how I have rooted my own classroom practice in my students’ shared reality of London to show you what I mean.
I was recently teaching an Advanced class and in the midst of a listening (from Innovations Advanced, as it happens) about tourism in Estonia was the sentence:
The food still leaves a bit to be desired – it tended to be quite stodgy and there wasn’t a huge amount of choice, but otherwise, I certainly had nothing to complain about.
Students asked about desired. I explained that if something leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a polite, mildly humorous way of saying it could be better, it’s not as good as you’d like it to be or as it should be. Given that we were in the middle of the worst and wettest April in living memory, I then added that the English weather leaves a bit – or leaves something – to be desired – a locally pertinent example!
The previous day we’d looked at the word bully, and two of my students had given me written homeworks to correct overnight, which I hadn’t yet given them back, so I then – in a mock dramatic way – explained that if I was a bit of a bully, I’d throw the essays back at the students saying Their writing left a lot to be desired – an example connected to the micro-culture of the class itself.
Once the explanations have been given, and the meanings have hopefully been grasped, the next way in which we can facilitate some kind of connection with the language is through our boardwork. I wrote up on the board the following examples:
The food there a bit
The weather here leaves something to be desired.
Your writing a lot
Once the explanation and the examples have been given, the way to encourage personalization is to ask students to think of other things that maybe leave a bit to be desired. For this group, multi-lingual students studying in England, I asked them to think of things about London / England and also things about their hometown / their own countries that fit the pattern above. I gave the group a minute or two thinking time on their own and then asked them to compare and explain their ideas in small groups. As they talked, I walked around and picked up on things they were trying to say, but didn’t quite have the language to do so – and used this as further input.
After two or three minutes, I stopped the group and drew their attention to the board, where we had the following:
Public transport here leaves a lot to be desired. The trains are a……….! Half of them are falling to ………… . Plus, it’s a r…..-…..! The cheapest tube ……… is four pounds!
The media back home leaves a bit to be desired. We like to pretend it’s free and ob…………., but we all know there’s still a lot of c………… and certain things are t………. / off-l……… .
To elicit the missing words, I basically re-told the stories I had heard students telling, paraphrasing their words and explaining the words in the gaps as I did so.
You might be thinking that this all seems a bit long-winded and will result in a lot of boardwork and a lot of time spent waiting for students to write things down. Well, obviously this WILL be slightly more time-consuming than simply writing up to leave s/thg to be desired on the board, but I’d argue that it’s time well spent. The longer examples make the meaning clearer, they allow interaction with the class – and this means recycling of grammar and vocab comes built-in to each and every class – and crucially they mean that what students then go away with written in their notebooks becomes a kind of record of the way the class manage to negotiate the content of the coursebook. As such, these examples are hopefully more relevant – and thus potentially more memorable – to students than the language found in the coursebooks themselves.
This way of rooting vocabulary in the realities of the class and local cultures also makes it easier when students forget things. Should anyone in the class, on later encountering this piece of lexis again, have forgotten it and need to ask what it means, I can simply say “You remember what we were saying about London transport? Or about Aziz’s writing last week?” Job done.
Now, if I can do this using my students’ generally fairly shaky knowledge and understanding of London and the UK, how much more effectively might a non-native speaker teacher steeped in the world of their students be able to manage this in a non-English speaking country?