It seems whatever we do, we can always do more. We can always spend more time with our family and friends, or working, and of course, learning English. So as English language teachers we should be demanding and try to get our students to do as much as possible outside of class, whether it be homework in the workbook, or watching a film in English.
This is obviously in addition to basics like good attendance. Early on in the course we should discuss our (high) expectation and let them know that if they want to see dramatic progress, merely coming to class isn’t enough. Often (but certainly not always) they rise to the challenge and work hard to achieve their language goals.
Admittedly, this is not for everybody. There is a certain type of student who, in spite of wanting a demanding teacher, because of their life circumstances, is unlikely to be on the fast track to fluency. For example, I remember one student with two small children and a demanding 12-hour-a-day job who wanted an advanced level by yesterday. It sometimes surprises me how unrealistic these results-oriented people can be, at least when it come to English.
In any case, even though the homework I’d like to give her was to spend more time with her children, I had to play my role and encourage her to do as much as possible both in and out of class. Usually students like this have good intentions but aren’t able to do much beyond the work-related stuff they already do. But at least this particular student had good attendance, which again is the bare minimum.
However, many students obviously do have the time and motivation to do a lot out of class. In fact, I had one who worked very hard doing Home English type stuff, and learned surprisingly a lot, but clearly lacked the fluency you can really only get by real communication. So my classes with him involved a lot of conversation and trying to activate the language he’d studied. It was in his head and just needed to be brought out, but he had to make a huge effort to communicate. A curious case, but I applaud his willpower and tenacity.
I imagine the bulk of students fall somewhere between these two extremes. I personally always give homework and strongly encourage students to do it, whether it be in their workbook or studying the language. It’s actually fairly common for the language focus to go in one ear and out the other: it does take a while to sink in.
We can obviously revise the stuff in class, but students easily fall into the trap of putting the entire onus of learning on their teacher. One teacher described this attitude as ‘having English done to them’, like going to the hairdressers and having your hair done. But good students know if they’re going to learn English, THEY have to learn it. I view the teacher’s main role as a facilitator: we help our students reach their language goals much more quickly and efficiently than they could on their own.
So now we’ve got them coming to class regularly and doing their homework. What else can they do outside of class? Actually it’s an excellent idea to ask them this very question, and WE might actually learn a thing or two. For example, one student said he was video conferencing in English on Facebook. I had no idea you could do such a thing, although I do Skype with my brothers and sisters. In any case, if students can video conference in English, they’re managing to do one of the most difficult things: get spoken fluency practice. Not everybody’s comfortable or has time to go to an Irish pub, or to find someone for a conversation exchange.
Reading should also be encouraged, and I don’t mean just their technical documents, but a wide variety of genres. I especially recommend those with natural everyday English such as recent novels, or readers, which are often simplified novels. Glossy magazines are also full of ‘natural’ English. I suppose those really cheesy romantic or adventure novels are too. I’ve had some students tell me they read comic strips in English, which is excellent because of the visual support. I imagine you can find it online as well, probably for free.
Some learn a lot via songs and their lyrics. I remember one student had learned a surprisingly lot of useful colloquial vocabulary this way. Others watch films and TV series. If their level is up to it at all, I recommend no subtitles. If they want they can put on English subtitles the second time around. If they need subtitles they should be in English. Some students find a TV series they like (and mostly understand) and go with it.
By the way, there’s a simplified sit-com for English language students called Extra English, and it has a subtitles option. It’s on YouTube and is recommended for lower level students. (see video below)
Something that may catch on before long is video games aimed at English language students. For more details on this you can see my post here on madridteacher, ‘Game-Based Teaching’.
So discuss all this with your students and hopefully you’ll have a fruitful exchange of ideas, although I remember once I rained on my student’s parade. He was saying that he enjoyed watching documentaries, but he also revealed that he could hardly understand sit-coms. It turned out he was weak when it came to chatty social English, and he seemed deflated when I pointed this out to him. Well, while it is important for the students to enjoy themselves, it’s also important that we point out any shortcomings. And this is life, isn’t it? You’re never done: you can always do more.
Extra English series for students of English
(suggested by David Overton).