Teaching of English in the US: What can we learn from there?
Ganga Ram Gautam
I graduated from Galkot Secondary School in 1984 and went to Butwal Multiple campus for my Proficiency Certificate level education. Then I went to the University campus, Kirtipur and I completed B.Ed. and M.Ed. from there. After the completion of my Master’s degree, I got an offer to teach English at MahendraRatna Campus, Tahachal. In 1995, I went to the UK to do an M.A. in English Language Teaching (ELT) from Lancaster University. Since I came back, I have been teaching at the same campus. In the year 2010, I was accepted into the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program and I completed the fellowship as a full-time graduate student at Boston University (BU), USA.
The Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program was established by the U.S. Congress in 1978 in honor of the late Senator and Vice President. In the spirit of a world leader concerned with fostering international cooperation, the objective of the program is twofold: to permit mid-career professionals from developing nations to gain expertise in their fields as they have evolved in the United States; and to allow U.S. citizens in the business, government, and academic communities to profit from the knowledge and perspectives of professional counterparts in other countries and to establish lasting ties with them.
The Humphrey fellowship year was a rich professional experience for me. Expansion of professional network, meeting like-minded people, visit to the professional organizations such as TESOL, sharing information about my professional work, presentation about Nepal and her diversities and attending conferences in the field of education and English as a Foreign/Second Language were some of my key priorities. I also attended some courses in the School of Education at Boston University and observed the English language classes at the Center of English Language Orientation Program (CELOP), BU.
In this brief narrative, I would like to share my experience of observing an English language class at BU so that we can draw some lessons for our classroom implications.
The Class I Observed
The class I observed was the academic English course called English for Academic Purposes. There were 15 students from different countries including Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Korea, Kazakhstan and Bolivia. The focus of the class was to develop the English language proficiency of the students both in speech and writing so that they can use English at their work in the academic setting. My cooperating teacher was one of the senior teachers who has been teaching English for the last 15 years. I observed her class 3 days a week for about 3 months. Let me share what I observed in her class and what I learned from her teaching.
Syllabus and the Course
There was a prescribed curriculum in the form of guidelines out of which the teacher prepared the syllabus for the course. The curriculum presents the expected learning outcomes in all the four skills of language i.e. listening, speaking, reading, writing and vocabulary and grammar. The teacher collected the materials from various sources and organized the syllabus based on the curriculum outlines according to the needs of the students. My cooperating teacher said that she asked the students at the beginning of the semester what their learning goals are and she tried to fit in the students’ needs in the respective lessons that she had planned. So the syllabus was geared to the needs of the students rather than the prescription suggested by the institution.
Students’ Errors and their Correction
Errors are the ill-formed utterances produced by the learners. The errors are considered the inevitable part of learning. According to Corder (1967), errors are the evidence of one’s learning strategies and they are systematic. Teacher should consider these errors as the source of information to design the lessons so that the errors can be systematically addressed and gradually minimized. Reed (2010) mentions the four competence levels related to the learners errors beginning from unconscious level to the conscious level and “students cannot progress through these levels with no intervention, and this is where teachers influence learner progress. There must be some attention to student errors in order to mover students up the ladder, but these must also be an opportunity for students to self-correct (without intervention) (Level 3)” (pp. 86). This shows that the teacher should intervene in the students erroneous utterances right from the beginning with a principled approach in order to address the errors in a systematic manner. The students should learn from the errors they commit and if the erroneous forms go unnoticed, it will not only contribute to the fossilization but also the students will lose the opportunity to learn from them.
Regarding the errors, I had a feeling that all errors need not to be corrected. If the focus of the lesson is on fluency, we could ignore some of the minor errors so that the students’ speed and tempo of conversation is not impeded. After attending the course, I now feel that there are no major and minor errors and all errors the students commit should be addressed in a principled manner. The way the errors are addressed might be different from situation to situation but the teacher should notice every error the learners make and devise ways of addressing them in a way that the learners feel that their errors are noticed and correction opportunity is provided.
In my observation in CELOP, my cooperating teacher had the idea of the type of errors the students would commit and she would point out the individuals if she was talking something that the particular student would commit the errors. For example, in one class when an Arab student said “others students” she referred to the agreement distinction between English and Arabic and used this student’s error to explain the key grammatical item.
The teacher used various approaches to address the errors in that class. She said that the students should be taught explicit grammar from time to time and they need to learn the rules of language in order to be aware of the differences between their native language and English but at the same time she also said that the lesson should be over-focus on grammar teaching. Major techniques she used to address the learners’ errors were:
- Elicitation technique: during the conversation if the students commit errors she would use this technique
- Explicit feedback: if she felt that the students have problems in getting the shuttle differences between their native language and English and students tend to commit errors due to the first language interference she would use this technique
- Recast: she would use recast to remind them what they have just learned in the last few days and she would recast the utterances and reminded the lessons she had taught.
- Metalinguistic explanation: She would use it only if other techniques did not work.
In the class I observed, there was a systematic treatment of errors and the teacher was aware of the types of errors the students would commit but the students (when I talked about how they liked to be corrected) said that they wanted more correction. They wanted immediate feedback on the errors they committed.
Homework is helpful for the students to continue their learning experiences beyond their classroom. Students can review the lessons through the homework and it consolidates their learning if they go back to the lesson they were taught while completing their homework. Also, homework can be an extension of the lesson that prepares the students for the subsequent lesson.
In the class I observed, there was some homework but not on regular basis. The teacher would give them reading and writing homework. In case of reading, the students were asked to read the texts and make notes of the main points while in writing the students were expected to write some paragraphs based on the lessons they learned during the class. The reading homework was checked in class using various techniques such as discussion of the answers in the plenary, group work activity based on the assigned homework, writing a summary of the notes etc. The writing homework was usually collected by the teacher outside the class hours and return it in the following classes. There was not much in-class discussion about the written homework except a few words of her general impression about the students’ work. When I asked her why she did not talk about the written homework in class, she said that she would talk about them in her one-to-one meeting that she had scheduled at the beginning of the semester. She said that she would give them individual feedback on their work and inform them about their progress.
The grading (evaluation) system was based on the guidelines prepared by CELOP and the teacher prepared a detail report of each student with the details of their initial position and the progress the student has made so far.
Lesson Plans and Students’ Objectives
The teacher had planned the lessons in terms of activities and she would tell them the class agenda at the beginning of the lesson. Also, she would talk to me and told me what she intended to do during the lesson. She would tell the students to focus on the lesson because the contents she was teaching on the particular day would be asked in TOEFL and so on. Since the teacher had to use varieties of techniques in class, she had to tell them what the lesson objectives are at the beginning of the lesson so that the students can focus their attention to the particular items that they are supposed to learn. Thus, the lesson, was ‘learning focused’ rather than ‘teaching focused’.
Classroom management was another aspect that plays very important role in language learning. My cooperating teacher used varieties of techniques to encourage students’ participation in class. Major techniques she used in class were group work, pair work, class discussion, presentation, project work and individual assignments. In order to address issues such as late coming, absenteeism, tardiness, using mobile and other devices during the class she used different strategies. She would point out the individuals if she saw someone texting and using the mobile devices in the class. In order to check lateness, she used to give them quiz at the beginning of the class and she would tell students that some important announcements would be made at the beginning of the following lessons. Also, she would caution them that they would lose marks if they were late.
In order to check absenteeism, she talked to the students in private and told them that regularity is something that CELOP puts a very high value on. She also said that the university that they will go in the future will be very strict about the regularity. So individual counseling was a part of the regular teaching.
Classroom interaction was also a major focus of the course. The teacher knew the names of all students and she would call the individual students to speak if shy students did not say anything in class activities. There was one student in class who was always responsive and he tried to dominate the class. He would be the first speaker if the teacher asked any questions in class. The teacher did not say anything in the beginning of the semester but as the student continued to show this behavior consistently, the teacher asked him to wait for other people to respond but the student felt a little uncomfortable to keep quiet. The teacher said, “during the one-to-one meeting I told him that it is very important in class to let everyone a chance to speak and he agreed”.
This shows that the teacher has to be aware from the very beginning of the semester and find out who are extroverts and who are introverts. Also, it is important to find out whether the less participation in class activities is linked to the personality traits of the student or there are other reasons such as not being able to speak English, fear of making mistakes, cultural reasons or any other factors.
Use of mother tongue in class was an issue in this class. Majority of the students were from a particular language background and they would speak sometimes in their mother tongue particularly in group work. Personally, I do not see the use of mother tongue a big problem on the part of the teacher when s/he has to explain something very important and the students find it difficult to understand in the English language. But as far as the group work, discussion activities and communicative activities in class are concerned, the students should speak English and the teacher has to make sure that they speak in English. The role of teacher is very important here. Grouping of the students with different language background, telling them to speak only English, monitoring the group work effectively can be some strategies to present the overuse of mother tongue in English class.
Based on the observation, I have drawn the following insights which we might consider the lessons to be learned for the effective language lessons:
- Learning goals are the key for a successful lesson/course. Thus, it is very important that learning goals are determined before the course starts and these goals are prepared together by students and teachers.
- Learners’ errors are the best input to create the learning goals. Teacher need to spend sometime with the students to identify the types and patterns of the errors so that the learners need appropriate treatment on their errors during the course.
- Once the learning goals are set and they are communicated to the students clearly, teacher should prepare goal-driven lesson plans.
- Teacher needs to address the learners’ errors right from the beginning of the course using a systematic approach rather than waiting for longer time.
- Giving facilitative feedback to the students and creating collaborative learning environment would help learners minimize the errors and they can learn from the errors they commit.
- Any error correction techniques the teacher uses in class should have a take away. Correction without an uptake would just waste the time for correction and it will not have any impact in the learning process.
- Teacher has to be sensitive to the learners’ diversities and these diversities should be carefully addressed to create an effective learning environment.
- Classroom management and classroom dynamics are equally important in the language classroom and an English teacher should learn to manage them in their class.
Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5: 161-9.
Reed, M. and Michaud, C. (2010). Goal-driven lesson planning for teaching English to speakers of other languages. Ann A
(Mr. Gautam is the Reader in English Education in Mahendra Ratna Campus, Tribhuwan University Nepal)