Valuing the person INSIDE the ESL learner before you START

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One thing that we ESL teachers so often forget is that our students when they come to us (particularly if they are adult learners 18 years old ++), have already successfully completed a whole 18 years or more of life with many life experiences and ‘learnings’. The only thing is, it probably wasn’t in English.

So this is where I think an ESL teacher is often surprised (particularly if you a native speaking teacher and you are teaching students from other nationalities). It is often very arrogant of us from the western world to think that our education system is superior to others, purely because we are from the ‘supposedly’ civilized world, but of course that isn’t true and there are plenty of intelligent capable people everywhere, it’s just that perhaps their English is not as good as yours.

How do we notice this ‘learning’?

I always love realizing how much life experience they have from their own cultures, e.g. understanding jealous people, popular people, arrogant people, troubled people, people with addictions, people with family pressures, people with dreams, boring people, exciting people and so on. I know this sounds strange to bring this up, because of course they will all have these experiences, but what we need to understand as a teacher is that the world we do with them in class from now on is really about matching the ‘learnings’ they have with the English they are about to master.

How do we do match the ‘learning’s with the English?

If you follow a prescribed textbook, e.g. Headway, Cutting Edge, Natural English etc, you will find that all the activities are there to get students to bring together their already experienced learning with their newly developed language. E.g. if you are teaching past perfect, it’s a really all about telling stories from the past. So students are encouraged to tell you about their past experiences in detail and why they happened and so on through this grammar learning.

If you are creating your own course of work using many resources, you will be tailoring very much the style of content to the experiences of the students. This is obviously more favourable as often there are some contents in the textbooks that are relevant for some but not for others. There are also certain contents that are suitable for an age group in one culture but not in another. E.g a teacher of ours who was teaching predominantly students from war-torn countries moved to Japan and was teaching Japanese high school graduates. The students were the same age but one would tell stories of how their family walked 500 miles to the border because their house was bombed, and the other would tell stories of how their families took them to Disneyworld for the summer break. Obviously some tweeking was necessary here.

So why am I saying all this?

I know a lot of you who are teachers are thinking – duh? This is nothing new. But there are still plenty of teachers out there who do actually forget, who get so engrossed in getting the grammar point across or getting the students to pass their exam, they forget that language is really all about communicating. If someone was an exciting interesting person in their own language, they want the English that will help them to be that in English too. If someone was a boring, tedious person, the English they learn will be just enough to help them be boring and tedious in English too. We are who we are no matter what language we speak and we have all have experiences that need sharing whether it is in English or their own language.

So I am saying here that teachers need to be aware of shifting the focus from being that person who is the ‘teacher of English’ to that person who is the ‘facilitator’ of bringing together the English and the students experiences.

This is one of the most fundamental shifts I think a teacher can make in the classroom, and this will impact the overall effect of the classroom atmosphere and the overall achievement. All the greatest ESL lecturers I have had the pleasure of learning from made it really clear. They simply said, ‘Keep all your activities in their world.’

So true.

What do you think?

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