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3-Step Guide: Teaching Conversation to Beginners from Day One

School childrenBefore ever working as an English instructor, I taught dance for many years. Getting dancers to remember the steps is a task typically met with varying degrees of success and frustration! My perception changed after taking a master class with a choreographer whom I admired greatly. Not only were the movements taught in a fun and fluid way, students of all ages caught on immediately and had the routine memorized and performed fully by the end of the hour-long class. The secret to this method of teaching was consistent repetition, without breaks. It was interesting to see a technique completely new to me working so perfectly. It changed the way I thought about teaching dance, and it also influenced my method of teaching in various disciplines throughout my life, from then on. I used this method to teach conversation during my time as an ESL instructor, and it worked wonders!

How does it work?

Basically, the method goes like this: The instructor puts on music and simply begins to dance the first few steps. The students then copy the movements. The instructor does the first steps over and over, without stopping, and the students follow along. Then, after almost everyone is in synch, the instructor adds on the next few steps, without pausing. The students then follow along, incorporating the steps they just learned with the new, additional steps. This method is repeated over and over, without breaking, until the entire routine has been covered. By that time, students have memorized the movements with their bodies, without even realizing it.

The point of teaching this way, the instructor said, is to get students to stop thinking and start doing. Constant repetition is also the best way to ingrain new information quickly and with few errors.

How can you get the conversation started?

In an English language setting, I found that this works best for practice with speaking out loud.

Instead of practicing speaking aloud with a particular unit and then moving on to the next, students can learn basic communication much better by continuous, repetitive practice of simple exchanges, which are built upon bit by bit. This simple dialogue does not need to move as quickly as the lessons themselves. Instead, start small and keep building as soon as the majority of the students can comprehend and respond fluidly. You can ask simple, conversational questions in the beginning of class as students are getting situated, then ask them anytime throughout the lesson. Start out by writing a simple exchange on the board. Practice it all together, first. Then, starting the next class, you can begin to practice it in repetition.

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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 3: Reading and Handwriting

Close up of pen on paperIn the last of his series of posts on teaching in Libya, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses how his students progressed in reading and writing.

If you missed them, read Jon’s previous posts about teaching The Alphabet and Spelling.

At some point in the process, we introduced cursive i.e. ‘joined up’ writing. This was largely to satisfy the pressure put on us by our students who considered words formed from individual letters rather infantile. Again, there were important considerations here as we had to demonstrate carefully how the preceding letter joined the one that followed. Letter ‘a’ for instance always joins up from the bottom, while letter ‘o’ joins up from the top. I remember how some ingenious students would print the word in separate letters and then add the lines to join them up!

You might wonder what else went on in these lessons. Only about a third was dedicated to the business of writing. The rest of the time was spent on beginner’s oral English. Of course this was made more difficult for students as they could not have a written record of what they had been taught.

Many teachers, myself included, allowed them to transliterate; that is, render in Arabic script an approximation of what they had heard in English. Fortunately for us, Arab learners of English are used to rote learning and have superb memories. Their oral English was well ahead of their reading and writing. Oral work previewed what would be read and written later, so teachers had to be extremely vigilant about their choice of structure and vocabulary and grade their language with care and precision. This discipline has stayed with me.

As the terms progressed we spent a lot of time exploiting graded readers and getting students reading aloud. I can hear the ‘tut tuts’ of some readers – ‘Reading aloud! How retrograde, whatever next?” But for us, it was an absolutely necessity that the students proved that they could see the correspondence between the printed letters on the page and how the words that they formed were actually said. We had a well-equipped library of graded readers that were used as class sets. They were too precious to lend out.

To return to the opening sentences of this series, teaching script and spelling to my Libyan learners is high up on the list of the most interesting and challenging things I have done in my teaching career. As a teacher I learned to have a great deal of respect for the efforts of my students, even if to most eyes they would appear ill-formed and juvenile. I realized that they were the result of a commitment and perseverance which few people, myself included, are capable of.

What have been some of your most interesting and challenging teaching moments? I’d love to hear them!

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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 2: Spelling

Pre-teens at a spelling beeIn this second post, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, discusses the peculiarities and difficulties of teaching English spelling to students in Libya.

If you missed it, read Jon’s first post about teaching The Alphabet.

After we had taught the letters, it was time to start creating short words and introducing students to spelling.

Vowels were a particular challenge – while vowel sounds may be shown in Arabic using marks similar to accents, Arabic largely has no need to mark the vowel, as the order of consonants is enough to transmit meaning.

Clearly the first task was to lend a value to each of the vowels, so ‘a’ became / æ / as in cat; and o / ɒ / as in dog and so on.  Words were set out on flash cards and taught alongside visual images. Many words can be built phonically and students would get tremendously excited when they managed to decipher what was written on the board. Eventually we moved onto writing full sentences of language that had been introduced far earlier. For instance: ‘Hello, my name is Ali’ and so on.

When people talk about the difficulties of English spelling they often cite rare words like plough and all the different sounds that the combination of letters –ough can make. (Think of ‘enough’, ‘through’, ‘though’ and so on.) Believe me, the problems are much more basic than this! We had to start with far more basic concepts.

One of the early tasks was to introduce and teach the simplest digraphs – one sound from two letters – such as –sh for / ʃ /, –ch for / tʃ / and –er for / ə(r) /. We covered wh– for wh– questions very early on. Later on we showed how the final ‘e’ in a word could sometimes make the preceding vowel take on its full alphabetic value (think of ‘Tim’ / ɪ / and ‘time’ / aɪ /). The multitude of ways of realizing the same sound was another area that students always found perplexing. The long / iː / could be represented be as in ‘be’; –ee as in ‘see’; –ea as in ‘please’, and so on.

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Teaching English as a Foreign Script – Part 1: The Alphabet

Writing the alphabetIn the first of a three part series, Jon Naunton, co-author of Business Result and Oil and Gas 2 in the Oxford English for Careers series, shares his most challenging experience as a teacher: teaching English to beginner students in Libya.

If asked to name the most challenging thing I have done as a teacher I would probably say that it was teaching the Roman script, handwriting and basic English spelling to absolute beginners during my time in Libya. While most of us have taught beginners (usually not real beginners) at some point in our teaching careers, real out-and-out adult beginners are a rarer breed. Teaching students who have no notion of the Roman script also adds a further challenge.

Nearly all our students were males between 18 and 45. Many worked in the souk (market), and a few even had problems reading Arabic. Many fell by the wayside after a couple of courses, but those who persevered have my unswerving and unconditional admiration. They came to school three times a week for a one hour lesson. Most never missed a session. Their sheer enthusiasm and commitment was infectious and motivating for anyone who came into contact with them.

So how did our school go about teaching these students? I make no claims to the programme, as it had been devised over a number of years by previous teachers and directors of studies, notably Sue and Jeff Mohamed and Jane Alexander. Drawing on their experience of teaching primary children, their knowledge of Arabic and the demands of a beginner’s structurally graded syllabus, they created a methodology that was a cocktail of different elements. I would not claim that this methodology had all the answers, but it certainly provided an excellent point of departure and impressive results.

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