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What Students Want

Category: Methodology

The other day one of my students, a girl from South America, came up to me after class and asked if she could “make a suggestion”, and she got the collocation right!; though I suppose a native speaker might have said something like, “David, I was wondering if I could have a word with you”.

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Then I’d have known I was in trouble. Anyway, she suggested we spend less time on fluency activities and more on grammar. OK, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting that: I was nonplussed, dumbfounded and flabbergasted.

But maybe I shouldn’t have been. I’ve been seeing more non-Spaniards trickling into my classrooms of late, especially South Americans. In that continent they seem to have an abundance of original version films and TV series, and many tell me they’ve been to the States to visit friends or go shopping (they tend to be from the upper-crust of their society). And I imagine their English classes are more skills focused and less grammar oriented than here in Spain, because they don’t tend to do so well on written level tests, but their fluency and vocabulary are obviously significantly better. You know, they get by quite well with basic English, but they don’t put in the auxiliary verbs and other fine points (which show up like a sore thumb on exams like First Certificate, which focuses quite heavily on accuracy), so many of them want to plug up holes and do Murphy type exercises.

Facing a classroom of Spaniards and South Americans gives the teacher an extra challenge because their needs are so different. Often Spaniards want to put into practice what they’ve already studied to pass exams in school. And they really enjoy it if these activities are bouncy and fun, along the lines of debates, role plays and songs.

But I’ll never forget a class I had years ago, back when you rarely saw foreigners in Spain (except for tourists), which had basically turned into a bouncy fun conversation class. They were smiling and having fun, but one day they took me off guard by telling me they didn’t think they were progressing. I think they meant they were  putting into practice what they already knew, but they wanted to learn more as well!

That class shaped the way I teach to this day because now I make sure that, no matter what, they feel they come away from the class with something. I want them to be able to say something like “today I learnt some useful vocabulary” or “now I understand the use of gerunds and infinitives a little better”. This is besides the more skillsy stuff like listening and speaking.

So when I teach a class, the first thing is to make sure they learn something. This is the language exposure phase which often involves a reading where we notice some characteristics of the language. After that I try to squeeze in a listening in every class (which usually involves a language focus as well), and finally a speaking stage.

So teaching becomes a game of constantly making little adjustments to keep your students as happy as possible. And sometimes their needs and wants can vary quite a bit, as my Latin American student mentioned above. In her class I’ll do my best to slot in some grammar work, and hope she appreciates the rest. Teaching means catering to everybody’s needs.

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