I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK.
I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.
Running a 4-week initial teacher training course, such as the Trinity Cert TESOL, is extremely rewarding but also rather draining.
Rewarding because your guidance and support allows your fledgling teachers to spread their wings and fly unaided by the end of the course.
Draining because you also have to deal with the inevitable emotional stress and strain that trainee teachers experience as they find themselves out of their comfort zone.
When the moderator arrives on the final day of the course, my own nerves are at breaking point. Trainee teachers rarely fluff their lines in the Materials Assignment interview (when they reflect on and evaluate a set of self-created materials) but a nagging voice at the back of my mind keeps reminding me that human beings are always capable of shooting themselves in the foot.
In the end, all but one of the trainees passed the course. One had to be referred due to a series of unfortunate events which I’m not going to discuss here.
The course finished a couple of weeks ago and in this post I’d just like to note down a few random observations which emerged and have been swirling around my head ever since.
Before the course
How do we access somebody’s suitability for the training course and teaching English here in Spain?
Trainee teachers come in all shapes and sizes. Even when I took my course (over two decades ago), I was surprised by how few of us fitted the TEFL stereotype of the student looking to explore the world and ‘find myself man’. The stereotype still persists of course, which is why I wonder how many people – who could potentially make effective teachers – decide the course is not for them. Maybe it’s time to stop including so many young, attractive, perfectly-groomed young people in images advertising TEFL courses. Let’s find some older and less aesthically-pleasing to pose in front of whiteboards holding fake certificates.
On a more serious note, one of the trainees on the course really struggled with the demands of the course. Does it really need to be so stressful and overloaded with content?
During the course
One of the challenges facing course designers, directors and trainers is ensuring that content is covered and assessment is standardised. My co-trainer and I agree about lots of aspects related to teaching and learning. However, the trainees did mention that their trainers differed in terms of their assessment criteria. They were too polite to go into details but I have an idea of where our differences reside.
Which begs the question: to what extend should assessment criteria be standardised and consistent? We talk a great deal about individual learning differences but what about individual teaching differences?
Shove a group of EFL teachers in a room with plenty of alcohol and ask them to discuss their beliefs, opinions and experiences of language teaching and learning. You’d have them at each other’s throats in no time.
Time for a confession. I find myself promoting teaching techniques, approaches and strategies to trainees which I rarely use in my own teaching and doubt whether they result in effective teaching. The problem is that skills development is not a linear process. As our skills develop, we find ourselves discarding techniques which have served us well in the past and becoming passionate advocates of approaches which sound great in theory but fall flat in practice.
After the course
On the whole, I am fairly pleased with and proud of the training course I have designed. It is informed by second language acquisition research; it’s dynamic and practical, and the trainee teachers learn how to plan and deliver lessons which the learner (the Spanish students who attend the teaching practice classes) enjoy. Whether they really benefit from the classes is another matter; at the very least, they get lots of speaking practice.
Like most TEFL / TESOL courses, broadly speaking we train our teachers in the Communicative Approach to language learning. However, when I talk to local teachers working in private academies in Spain, I’m concerned by what I hear. Most academies sell exam preparation classes which means that lots of teachers seem to be teaching exam strategies and asking learners to do lots of controlled practice exercises. Authentic communicative tasks seem to be on the wane.
So, that’s my main worry. Is our training course really preparing teachers for the reality of teaching English in private academies in Spain? I’m not sure.
The English say that one should never discuss religion or politics. My trainer on the TEFL course I took over 15 years ago said more or less the same thing and told us to stick to ‘safe’ topics with our learners: clothes, sports, houses, cooking etc.
Well, the other day, I had a great class with a pair of Spanish sisters and we talked about..you guessed it…politics (aaarrrggghhhh!!!)
So, here’s what we did:
Step 1: After a brief discussion about work and jobs, I asked them if they were interested in learning about typical interviews questions and answers in English. They agreed and I elicited a series of questions from them. As I had expected, the questions they produced were standard interview questions, although I told them that interviewers shouldn’t ask any direct questions about marital status! Of course, their questions needed some grammatical, lexical, and syntactical fine-tuning but we drew up a list of 15 questions in about 10 minutes.
Step 2: I told them that they were going to perform a role-play / simulation based around the questions they had produced: one of them was to be the interviewer and the other the interviewee and then they would switch roles. One of them asked me what the position was. Their eyes lit up when I told them that Prime Minister Rajoy had resigned and the state was interviewing candidates for the presidential position.
Step 3: After giving them a few minutes to prepare, I let them get on with the interview. It just flowed….. They were both extremely eloquent and impassioned and the unreality of this particular interview scenario seem to free them to produce some of the most nuanced and expressive language I have heard them use. I made notes (errors and examples of good language) sat back and enjoyed the show.
Step 4: I praised their efforts and then had a quick feedback session in which I showed them the mistakes they had made and asked them to correct. When they couldn’t correct, I told them a better way to express their ideas.
Step 5: I asked them to write a speech entitled “If I were the Prime Minister of Spain, what would I do”. I asked them if they could record it and send me their speech as an MP3 recording. I’m still waiting for them!
They thanked me for the lesson and I left the room laughing and joking with them about some of the comments they had made. The lesson required zero preparation, no resources apart from a sheet of paper and a pen, and they even learned a number of new phrases.
So, thanks Mr Rajoy – I bet he doesn’t hear that word very often these days!
As a young boy growing up in the 70s, I thought that Kojak -a bald American detective with a penchant for lollipops – was the coolest man on TV. In my primary school, his popularity led to an outbreak of 7-year-old boys hitting girls on the head with lollipops before running away shouting his catchphrase:
Who loves you baby?
While I wouldn’t condone confectionery-related child on child violence, his catchphrase reminds me of one of my favourite activities for raising learners’ awareness of the importance of sentence stress when speaking English.
English is often termed a stress-timed language, which means that we pronounce content words (often nouns, adjectives and main verbs) more loudly and more slowly than grammar words like prepositions and articles. The beat or rhythm of the language is also determined by these stressed content words which means we ‘swallow’ the content words. Syllable-timed languages, like Spanish, sound quite different because most syllables have the same length. Speakers of syllable-timed languages can sound quite monotonous to native speakers as we are accustomed to identifying meaning by listening out for stressed content words.
Think of it this way. Have you ever had a telephone conversation in which the other person won’t stop talking in a loud voice? You hold the receiver or your mobile away from your ear but you still get the gist of what the other person is saying. You hear the content words and follow what they are saying.
As English is a stress-timed language, it’s vital that we raise our students’ awareness of this phonological feature. One way to do this is as follows:
Find a photo of a man and a woman having a serious chat.
Build up the context with a few questions:
Who are they?
What’s their relationship?
What are they talking about?
How does she feel about him? How does he feel about her?
Give the couple in the photo names, let’s say, Bob and Julie. Board the following dialogue:
Bob: I love you, Julie.
Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob.
Ask for a couple of volunteers and seat them at the front of the class. Ask them to perform the dialogue. You’ll get a round of laughs at this stage.
Then, underline a couple of words in the dialogue and ask the students to perform the dialogue again but this time ask them to stress the underlined words.
Bob: I love you, Julie.
Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob.
Ask the students if they can infer any extra information about the couple’s love life from this second performance. (For fun, I usually shout out Kojak’s catchphrase at this point – Who loves you baby?)
Hopefully, the students will come up with comments like those below in red.
Bob: I love you, Julie. (It’s you I love Julie. Not your sister/flatmate/my ex-girlfriend)
Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob. (I am in love Bob. Not with you though. I love your brother/flatmate/best friend/ Justin Bieber)
Underline a couple of different words in the dialogue.
Bob: I love you, Julie. (I know we are supposed to be just good friends but I’m crazy about you Julie)
Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob. (You’re one of my best friends Bob. You’re a great guy but you don’t float my boat / rock my world etc.)
Let the whole class join in now. Put them in pairs and get them stressing different words in the dialogue and ask them to infer extra information about Bob and Julie from the stressed content words.
By doing this simple activity, you can raise your learners’ awareness of which types of words are generally stressed and get them acting out dialogues and not merely reading them aloud.
Encouraging them to think about how stressed content words can help us identify the emotions and feelings of the speakers in dialogues should help improve their pronunciation and develop their listening skills – they will realise they don’t have to hear every single word to understand spoken language.
Summer is on its way here in Southern Spain but the 10 teachers on the TEFL in Spain Introduction to Teaching Business English course managed to stay focused and upbeat last Saturday in Malaga. For the final seminar, or workshop as we will call it next time, they had to present a game or activity that they might use with a group of Business English students.
1. Answerphone Dictation– Put the students in pairs and ask them to sit back-to-back. Give each student a short answerphone text with numbers, fractions, percentages, dates etc.For instance: Sales increased by 24% in the last quarter of 2012 peaking at 21,003 in December. Student A reads out their answerphone message to their partner who has to note down the key data. Simple and adaptable. This could also be used to practise talking about trends and the students could represent the data in chart or graph form.
2. Sentence Swap Needs’ Analysis – A quick icebreaker in which you’ll get to know what your students need and want from the course.Ask them to write down their needs for the course on post-its. Collect them in then redistribute them, making sure that no student receives the post-it they wrote on. Ask them to read out what’s on the post-its they picked up and everybody guessing who wrote what. This could then lead into a discussion about needs and expectations for the course as a whole and could be compiled as a document that could be referred to throughout the course.
3. Hotel Negotiations – Two of the trainees chose to present a hotel role-play in which the two parties had to negotiate over room rates. In the first role-play, the students had to divide into 2 groups: the clients and the hoteliers. The clients have been reserving rooms in the hotel for a number of years as they attend a yearly conference in this particular city. They feel they are due a special price as they have been loyal customers. The hoteliers are in the tricky position of wanting to keep these valued clients but need to ensure profits are still made.
4. Hotel Holidays – The second hotel role-play was based on a negotiation between a Human Resources Manager and a Company Director. The company has recorded strong yearly profits and the CEO has offered to pay for a weekend break for all the staff. The conflict arises because the Human Resources Manager knows the staff are expecting a luxury hotel in some exotic location but the management want to offer a cheap city break in a cheap and cheerful resort town like Blackpool.
5. Battleships, Bingo, Blockbusters – One trainee drew up a grid on the board and demonstrated how competitive games can be used in the classroom to practise all sorts of Business vocabulary. These games are commonly used in TEFL classes but can be easily adapted for Business English students.
6. The Hands of Hans – The most bizarre moment of the whole 2-day course happened when one of the trainees, a qualified Physical Education teacher, presented one of his favourite team-building exercises. We were all required to form a circle and join hands. Then, we had to twist around so we become a tangled web of interlinked arms. Our task was to reform the circle without letting go off anybody’s hands. Perhaps not the greatest activity for recycling financial terminology but a great energizer.
7. Selling lemons – In British English, we can talk about buying a lemon,, which means we have purchased something broken or worthless. For this activity, we were shown pictures of ridiculous gadgets and asked to prepare a sales pitch to impress potential investors. We had to do a lot of lateral thinking to work out what the products could be used for, which was great for developing our creative muscles. A challenging and fun activity for viewers of The Dragon’s Den.
8. Rumours of Cutbacks – The next activity was based on an all-too-real scenario. We were split into two groups and given role cards as employers or employees. The staff had heard rumours of staffing cutbacks and were afraid they were about to lose their job. An emergency meeting had been called to find out the truth. For the employers, this was an exercise in putting a positive spin on an unfortunate situation. For the employees, it was an exercise in weeding out the truth. Not sure I would do this activity with a group of students from the same company though!
9. Spot the Lies – There is an old BBC TV show named Call my Bluff which is played in many TEFL classrooms around the world. This game works extremely well with Business English students who know or need to learn some specific job-related vocabulary. Students are given an unusual word with three definitions: one true and two false. They read out these definitions to the rest of the class who try to identify the correct one. Great for practising how to keep a poker face and it can be made more challenging if you ask the students to choose their own words and create their own false definitions.
10. Small Talk Circles – The final activity got us all out of our chairs again. We were asked to form an inner and an outer circle with the inner circle people facing outwards and the outer circle facing inwards so we had to look another person straight in the eye. The trainer then asked us to imagine we were sitting or standing next to the person we were facing. Then, we were presented with a scenario, such as The person facing you in the inner circle is the boss’s wife, make small talk with her, and asked to improvise a conversation. We only had 30 seconds to interact before the teacher clapped her hands and the inner circle revolved, meaning we were facing a new partner.The teacher then gave us a different scenario in which we had to quickly strike up a conversation. An excellent activity for developing fluency in social interactions.
Hope you get the chance to try some of these activities with your General English or Business English students. Maybe you have some other ideas you’d like to share.