Teacher friendly English classrooms
by Irum Butt
Most Pakistani English language classrooms (PELCs) use the traditional lecture method (Waseem, 2009), or teacherexplanation along with the whole-class teaching strategies. Though, the teaching of all four language skills is essential in learning any language in a formal classroom setting but a lesson plan designed for PELCs mainly focuses only on reading and writing. Uso-Juan & Martinez-Flor (2006) relates reading and writing skills as ‘navigating from a plan or a map’ whereas speaking and listening skills are like ‘navigating without a map’ (p. 160). While readers and writers can access a thesaurus or a dictionary or an expert to help in encoding or decoding messages, speakers and listeners are wholly dependent on each other’s immediate responses. They are not assisted by any source except immediate thinking processes, which access prior knowledge and guess-work. Nunan (as cited in Uso-Juan & Martinez-Flor, 2006) refers to listening as a ‘Cinderella skill’ in second language learning (p. 111), because it has been the most neglected among all the skills. Therefore, it is very rare that listening and speaking skills are included in the lesson plans designed for PELCs.
Even English Grammar is taught using isolated sentences in classroom practice as well as on exams, which raises Diane-Larsen Freeman’s inert knowledge problems which state that while students may be able to master the rules of grammar they can rarely learn to communicate effectively unless the grammar structure is encountered in context.
Being dissatisfied with these monotonousregularities of PELCs which according to Allen and Widdowson (1975) are “deliberately designed to kill the interest in the subject” (cited in Khan, Abdullah & Butt, 2017), I tried to bring a little change to my own teaching practice by personalizing my classroom activities with students’ interestsbecause their disengagement with the second language became noticeable in their low grades.
Teaching English Communicatively- the learner-friendly approach
My purpose in writing this teaching article is to communicate some of the adaptable ways, that I have learned through American English E-teacher program i.e. ‘Teaching Grammar Communicatively’ (TGC) offered by World Learning for motivating the learners in a second language classroom, while still maintaining control which in turn would help to improve the students’ language learning performance.
The best part of TGC is the language learning approach explained with the help of Nunan’s (1998) ‘brick wall & organic garden’ metaphors. Accordingly, I changed my language teaching approach from the brick wall to an organic garden. Instead of fostering perfection, I accepted imperfection while teaching ‘numerous things simultaneously’. For instance, while teaching English tenses, most of my students learnt present continuous and future simple tenses much faster than present simple tense where they were stuck at adding ‘s’ with a singular verb. I let them learn tenses at their pace because human brain has its uniqueness so is its handling.
TGC evokes an idea of 3-S Building Blocks
The performance of an English class is based on the formula of 3-S building blocks. Three variables i.e. the subject, the surrounding, and the struggle are very important for running an ESL/EFL classroom successfully. The subject is the language teacher/learner who comes to a classroom with some unique learning capacity. The important point is how to be aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Surrounding is basically the environment or the classroom space with which the subject interacts. If the surrounding, or environment, is not challenging enough, the subject will not become aware of his/her strengths and weaknesses. The last variable, struggle, is the effort that the subject makes for his/her self-discovery. This is how the phenomenon of 3-S works, which is described as a ‘tapestry’ by Rebecca Oxford in her article ‘Integrated Skills in the ESL/EFL Classroom’. I deal with the most important strand of her tapestry i.e. English teacher in my article with the help of whom all the other strands of the tapestry are strengthened by the skillful use of teaching strategies.
The first teaching strategy that I learnt about is the Integrated-Skills Approach. One of its advantages is over teaching English grammar in isolation. It offers a context that illustrates grammar in use, not for its own sake and enhances the learning process by addressing all language skills.
In addition, the Integrated Skills Approach offers more opportunity for practicing the four basic language skills. While looking at a lesson to determine the main learning objective, teachers can identify grammar form, meaning and use, not in isolation but in context, thus they can satisfy both the communicative application as well as the course syllabus. Addressing more than one skill in a given text reduces planning time and allows for more content continuity. Language tasks that are designed using an integrated approach can also take into account different learning styles. If a student has difficulty with one learning modality, he/she can relate better to another. For instance, in the language activity i.e. ‘running dictation’, if a student does not like reading the statement pasted on the white board, he/she can switch his role the next time with the partner who only listens and writes. This approach not only saves a teacher’s time who is teaching literature and language to the same class but also gives immense meaningful repetition to the students. The teacher can maintain the balance between language and literature teaching, using this integrated strategy so they could go side by side.
Students’ Thinking Time is supported by Inductive Teaching Approach
One of the fears linked with English teaching through inductive approach is being time-consuming. It is thought that teachers have to spare enough time for eliciting logical responses from the pupils. But I realized that with some careful planning, we teachers can manage time and syllabi while promoting reasonable thinking. After attending the online course, I started my grammar lessons with examples to ponder on the grammar structure as well as the definition. For instance, after reading a unit from the course book, I take help of the same unit to teach vocabulary or several grammar structures.
Seating configuration coincides with teaching objectives
Secondly, I had to redefine my seating configurations that were not fulfilling my teaching objectives. If an English teacher’s objective is to motivate students, give autonomy, and to develop their communication skills, the whole-class configuration where students are in rows does not lend itself to these ends. Since my teaching objective was to motivate and to provide collaborative learning, and to make my teaching more student-centered, I configured my classroom into quads, which allows for better interaction and collaboration among and between students. It is easy to set up by simply announcing the word ‘quad’. Less class time is wasted when the teacher’s instructions are clear and consistent. Students like sitting in quads because communication, collaborative learning and discovery are facilitated.
Teacher friendly English classroomshe third strategy is task-based instruction. A task should be interactive in such a way that all students can interact. In order to increase student participation and language performance, I added some practice activities such as walk to the board, running dictation and dictogloss.
Learning occurs when the surrounding is nebulous
Teacher friendly English classroomsWhen students are engaged in discovery, at first the learning focus may not be clear, focus, and can even be confusing, ut if we take on the challenge and try to figure out the hidden meaning by making connections to previous learning and prior knowledge, using our critical thinking skills or the problem-solving techniques, the situation will become clearer and clearer, and learning will take place, bringing new ideas into focus. On the other hand if what is set before us is black and white, there is no engagement in the thinking process, little learning will take place. Noonan (2018) endorses the same notion of language learning when the students are allowed to ‘wrestle with the language, make mistakes’. All the activities that I introduced in my English class endorsed that.
Walk to the board develops sportsman spirit
Run to the board activity is turned into ‘walk to the board’ for my class because I do not have sufficient space for my students to run. So they can hardly walk towards the whiteboard. The whole class is divided into two teams. They are given a marker to write their responses turn-wise on the white board. Teachers can play music in the background so the language learners enjoy thinking and writing at the same time without getting stressed. They can be given any grammar structure for practice. For instance, if they are weak in adjectives, they can be asked to write all the possible adjectives on the board without repetition. Team that writes the most adjectives will win. Their responses are marked on the board so they could learn from each other.
- They learn to understand instructions and to get disciplined.
- They learn to manage time and wait for their turn.
- They learn how to collaborate with one another.
Running Dictation is similar to peer-tutoring
Dealing with the monotonous routine of memorizing language material in English language class through repetition and drills, Thornburry (2010) proposes adding variation to these activities too. I found ‘running dictation’ as the best strategy to deal with the situation where teachers take charge of dictating everything. Instead, students can be involved in both the dictation and the writing. In ‘running dictation’, students are divided into groups with a leader. A short text is pasted on the classroom walls. The leaders read the text and dictate it to their group members.
I have used Running Dictation to help prepare students to take tests that require memorization. My classroom is not spacious, so I prefer pasting the text on three different corners of the same whiteboard. My students sit in six different quads. They help every member of their group with difficult vocabulary or spellings. Group’s members, who complete the text without any mistake, earn a point and their leader earns two points for dictating their group members. I have observed that running dictation keeps English language learners active. One of the biggest impacts is on the below average learner
s who earn the right to be a leader of even above average learners. If they lead well, others can be benefited too. Putting such responsibility on their shoulders gives them a chance to prove themselves in front of their peers.
1. Running Dictation also accommodates all four basic language skills. Students read the text themselves; share with their partners and in turn the group listens and writes accordingly. It was observed that the below average students took more time to read the text pasted on the white board than an average student.
2. Writing the same text from the board through ‘running dictation’ gives uniqueness to the traditional ways of dictation where the teacher dictates and the whole class writes. It addresses all learning modalities and the element of competition makes it fun.
Dictogloss activates their memory
I used dictogloss for dictating lengthy subjective-type answers that come in English exams. In dictogloss, the teacher reads a short text to which the students listen carefully and take notes. After listening to the text, the students reconstruct it. The teacher reads the text twice so students can proofread, but the students are not allowed to write the text while they are listening.
After my students reconstruct the text, four or five volunteers are asked to write their final produce on the whiteboard. After finishing, the whole class compares what they write with those texts written on the whiteboard.
Its advantages outweigh its disadvantages. English learners get a chance to write on the white board which traditionally is a very helpful teaching resource for English teachers. The peers critically think about the volunteers’ choice of words. Dictogloss brings equity by providing opportunities for even the lower level pupils. At times, even passive students take on the challenge and participate actively. Dictogloss gives confidence to the volunteers and freedom of error-analysis to the whole class, because they make comparison among all texts written on the white board. Language learners learn productively when they themselves find language errors in their work. This is how they are never discouraged by teachers’ red pen in an English class after they practise using it themselves at least on the whiteboard.
The journey from teacher-friendly to learner-friendly English classrooms is not at all easy, but it surely motivates learning. The students get excited to compete with others, but none of them ever feels discouraged if they lose, because they realize the one whose performance is better will be rewarded. Instead of writing lengthy statements about the rules of grammar on the board for the students to copy down, teachers can engage them in a task-based approach which makes the whole class active and responsible for their own learning. Flexibility in seating configurations allows the teacher to choose the best arrangement for the particular activity.
Quad- a seating arrangement for example, allows for small group discussion, collaborative learning and is more students centered than having the students in rows.
Addressing all learning modalities—auditory, visual, kinesthetic and tactile– helps to meet even the most active student’s needs, who otherwise may display behavior not conducive to learning and can be a disruption to the class. Students who are engaged in the learning process, and not lectured to, and who feel respected, are more likely to participate willingly and actively in class.
- Freeman, Diane-Larsen. “Memorable Encounters with Grammar-Mission Impossible? It doesn’t have to be!” Teacher’s Chronicle-Special Edition for AE E-Teacher.
- Khan, F.R., Abdullah, M., & Butt, I. (2017). Grammar teaching through games: A case study of OPF Girls College Islamabad. ELF Annual Research Journal 19 (137-162)
- Uso-Juan, E., & Martinez-Flor, A. (2006). Current trends in the development and teaching of the four language skills. Volume 29 of Studies on Language Acquisition (SOLA), Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter. (Freeman n.d.) (Placeholder1) (Freeman n.d.)
- Waseem, F. (2009). Teaching of English in the Elite Schools of Islamabad: A Case Study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad.