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Perspective, Pace and Passing: Teaching English in a Foundations Programme

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shutterstock_306641441Gary Pathare has been an English teacher since 1990 and has taught at Dubai Men’s College, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) since 2001.  He is author of the forthcoming Milestones in English B1 and B2 Student’s Books, publishing in January and August 2016.

A decade and a half.  That’s how long I have been teaching on a Foundations programme in Dubai, and it has been, from a teaching and career perspective, an amazingly positive experience. When I arrived fifteen years ago, I had been teaching general English in Barcelona, and teacher training. The Middle East was as yet unknown to me, and I soon found out that teaching here was a massive change from fun and language games to a serious, high-stakes, assessment-driven academic context. As time passed and I changed my teaching style and persona, I started to find the challenges really absorbing, and my focus changed to developing methodology that worked, writing materials to support this methodology, and sharing my insights. All in all, it has been very satisfying.

However, it hasn’t been an easy ride, for reasons that have become clearer to me as the years have passed. Why not? Anyone who has tried it will have their own answers, but these are mine.

‘Motivation to pass’

To understand the challenges, we should first consider what Foundations programmes actually are. As the name suggests, they are generally preparatory courses for college degrees. Students who need to improve their English skills in order to enter a degree course may be placed in a Foundations programme, or they may opt for this themselves. The course may cover subjects other than English language, such as mathematics and IT, as well as helping students make the transition from school to academia and develop an academic approach that incorporates independent learning and critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately – and here is where the challenges come in – the fact is that, from the students’ perspective, being in a Foundation programme is likely to be simultaneously high-stakes and undesired. If they did not opt in themselves, they will be understandably eager to get into their ‘real’ programme, their Bachelor’s for example, and may be less concerned about their weaknesses in English that have resulted in them being placed in the Foundations program than with how to leave as quickly as possible. So on the one hand, many Foundations students have a strong extrinsic motivation to pass, but on a day-to-day basis they may not be particularly motivated by the actual content. They want out!

A tall order

Another challenge comes from their prior learning. The fact that they find themselves in a Foundations programme may be either because they didn’t do too well at school, or their school did not sufficiently prepare them for academic study (depending on the context, of course). If this is the case, they probably lack not only English language skills but also the required study, critical thinking, independent learning and other academic skills.

In my own context, much of the teaching work involves helping students develop the skills both to pass the Foundations exit exam (in my case, to get a specified IELTS band) and to succeed later on when they enter a Bachelor’s programme. So my daily work involves paying attention in every lesson to building students’ world knowledge and ability to recognize different perspectives, helping them take control of their own learning, encouraging them to improve time management and planning skills, and urging and training them to develop the stamina required for in-depth, academic reading and study. It’s a tall order!

Efficiency vs effectiveness

And then there is the time factor. As time is of the essence – after all, who wants Foundations to go on too long? – a key to success as a teacher is efficiency. Why not teach reading skills from a text which helps develop students’ world knowledge at the same time as teaching them to recognize inference, for example? Why not expose them to written models that they can use for their own writing development? Why not show them how many connectives for writing can also be used in their speaking? And overall, why not make sure that study and critical thinking skills are an intrinsic, systematic and planned part of the curriculum and materials, rather than add-ons? In my own experience, the more intensity that can be brought to bear on each hour of learning, the more satisfying and ultimately successful the course will be.

Quick tips for teaching Foundations programmes

So my top four pieces of advice for teachers starting in a Foundations programme are these:

  • Don’t expect life to be easy, for you or your students; accept the challenges and be sensitive to the students’ frustrations.
  • View the role as a wide-ranging one, even though language teaching is at its core.
  • Maximize the efficiency of the work you do in class – when you have students’ attention, make sure you fully exploit it with multiple levels of learning.
  • Finally, being academic doesn’t mean being serious all the time. Keep a sense of humour! The students – and you – deserve it, with everything else that is going on.

And keep your perspective. Not everyone will pass – some students are simply not suited to the academic life; their talents lie elsewhere. But one of the great pleasures of teaching on a Foundations programme is meeting students who have passed through into their program of choice, and seeing how they have developed both their English and their academic demeanor. I can’t imagine going back to General English.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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