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The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

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Teens in Classroom Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, looks at some different ways the language learning experience can be enriched.

More and more, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is being taught in mainstream schools around the world. As part of a larger curriculum of general education, EFL teachers have an opportunity to focus on aspects of learning beyond grammar, vocabulary, and the traditional four skills. With the aim of enriching the language learning experience, I would like to focus on some of these aspects. For the experienced EFL teacher, these will not be new, but I hope that by focussing on them here, it will encourage teachers to give them more importance in their classrooms.

Encourage questions

This may seem obvious, but it is not always easy, especially when a lot of education leads many students to become passive recipients of information.

Before beginning a lesson or a unit of work on a topic, ask students what they already know about it. Make sure they do this individually first in order to get input from everyone. Have them share their knowledge. Then, tell them the next unit is on this topic. What do they want to know? Ask each student to write 1 or 2 questions. If you can, display the questions in the classroom. In this way you can refer to them as you work through the unit.

Encouraging questions from the very beginning tells your students that you expect them to be actively involved in the work of the class. Further, it tells them that what they are learning should be meaningful and useful to them. It is the best way to learn.

Bring their world into the classroom

Think about the lives of your students, at school, at home, their neighbourhood, city, country. Now think about what you will be teaching them during the term or the school year. How can you bring their world into the classroom? Let me give you a simple example. When teaching “can” for abilities, consider involving the physical education teacher. Students can do some of the activities in the physical education class, like jumping, running, throwing, etc. Once they have done the tasks, you can use the information in the English class as students express what they can do. This can be in the form of graphs or tables, individual or class posters. The important point is that students will be learning and using the language to communicate real information. The language they learn is not simply an end in itself, but a means to communicate.

Students can make a timeline of historical events to practice the past tenses based on work in their History lessons, explain the process of an experiment from the Science class, use skills from their Art classes to create displays of their work, as well as critical thinking skills from Maths classes to organise their language learning. The key is to involve other school subjects, and the teachers of those subjects, in the students’ language learning experience.

Once you have considered the school, move on to life outside school. How can you involve family and friends? One of my favourite activities with my students was when I was teaching “used to” to teenagers. I asked each student to talk to their grandparents and bring to class 2 – 3 things that were very different now from the time their grandparents were teenagers. I then would use the information to introduce the language point, “used to”. The students were so interested in the information that the language quickly became secondary, and easy to use.

Stories

I am a big fan of stories. Someone once told me that stories may have been the first form of education, as people communicated important information around the camp fire. I have little trouble believing this. There is something about the structure of stories that makes learning easier. For this reason, stories are a great medium for language use.

Stories are everywhere: what happened on a holiday is a story, how a student begins his day is a story, what happened on the way home is a story. We tell each other stories every day. The key is the structure – beginning, middle, and end. The story develops, leading us to the end. It is by nature interesting, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling it.

When considering the topics and language you will be teaching, think about how these can be included in a story. The story may provide the basis for the language you want students to learn, or it may be the vehicle for the topic of the unit. When stories become a part of your teaching, you will naturally begin to collect them. Don’t forget local stories, stories from your students, and traditional stories of the country you live in.

Sense of achievement

Too many times education focusses on what students don’t know. Rarely do we have the opportunity to show students how much they have learned. Just as students learn the present simple, we move on to the present continuous. Just as they grasp past simple with regular verbs, we introduce them to irregular verb forms. Education focusses on what students don’t know. So, giving students a sense of achievement based on how much they have learned is important to raise students’ self-esteem and confidence in their ability to learn more.

Brief, unit-based projects can offer students the opportunity to show what they have learned, as well as give many students a second chance to learn what they have forgotten. Encourage your students to see the project as a learning opportunity: What language are they using? What mistakes are they still making? What are their weaknesses? Their strengths? How could they improve? The aim is not simply to learn more, but also to get students used to reflecting on their learning. In this way short projects can help students become better learners.

These four points may seem obvious, but it is not always easy to make them an integral part of our classes. However, as they do become a part of your lessons, you will find your students becoming more active in their learning. You will also find that learning itself will have more meaning and become more rewarding.

Image is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons license

Author: Verissimo Toste

Veríssimo Toste is a teacher trainer working in the Professional Development Department at Oxford University Press in Oxford. He has taught English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for over 25 years, having taught students from 3 to 93 years of age. He has completed a Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from the University of Edinburgh. Veríssimo’s interests include using readers to learn English, and how students learn a language naturally. Although he enjoys teaching young learners, he finds teaching adults challenging – and he loves a good challenge.

5 thoughts on “The EFL Classroom: Teaching more than English

  1. Reblogged this on Evelyn Izquierdo and commented:
    Bringing the world into the classroom is a must for the language learning process. Cultural issues, for instance, provide excellent opportunities for meaningful classes and encourage students to actively participate. Here is an article that offers several ideas on how to enrich your EFL classes and make them more interesting by using the students’ background knowledge.

  2. Hello Verissimo. Here’s my first comment on a blog even though my teaching TEFL experience looks more or less as long and as varied as yours. What you say ties in to what I did with my teenagers class yesterday afternoon. I had been browsing the BBC news before the class and found the news about six young people from Iran who had been arrested for making a Happy video, (YouTube..Happy We are from Teheran). I showed them the video with the usual questions starting with very easy e.g. How many people are there? How old are they? What are they wearing? Where do you think they’re from? But then suddenly told them that they had been arrested and their curiosity increased exponentially. WHY? Then we saw the BBC report to find out. It said the video had received 40,000 visits. We discussed the issue and then I opened the news again and…..the breaking news had changed and we got not only more of the background but also the fact that they had been released. This was probably due to them being forced to apologise but also helped by international pressure from YouTube viewers like ourselves. The viewing rate now is 160,000. So we were as Pharrell says…Happy! So what happened? The kids forgot they were studying English and learnt a whole lot of everything. Great class!

  3. An inspiring post for both inexperienced and experienced teachers.It’s of great importance to harness choices in language teaching and help sts at any age to develop their critical thinking.The article enables us,teachers,to come up with imaginative and creative ideas.Thanks a lot.

  4. I really liked the “Sense of achievement” section and I believe it’s of utmost importance that students are aware of the progress they make. This achieved confidence is essential for them to feel more motivated and willing to learn more. Besides, by creating meaningful situations, it would be more likely that they engage in their learning process.

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