Getting Students Involved – Changing the Focus of Teacher Training
This article was published in the magazine Polish Teacher Trainer in 2004
Language teaching differs in significant ways from other subjects in the curriculum. In most subjects the teacher imparts knowledge to the students. The aim of the lesson is to produce this knowledge. In the language class, the aim of the lesson is the production of language itself. That is, students have to participate actively in the lesson; they have to be involved in the proceedings. You cannot learn a language by absorbing knowledge about the language passively. If you accept this argument, you can apply it to teacher training. It follows that the practical skills of getting people involved in the lesson are of great importance. Teacher Training courses always involve knowledge (of the phonetic system, child development, methodology, linguistic theory and so on). They do not always involve practical work on the techniques of presentation and of involving students actively in the process of using the target language. I believe that knowledge of presentation skills such as eye contact, and of teaching techniques such as how to conduct an oral drill, are considerably more important in the language teacher’s daily life than knowledge of who (or where or what) Chomsky is.
A teacher training programme should have three aspects:
This includes the traditional and more academic parts of the programme, which can be taught as information, such as:
The grammatical system; theories of grammar; phonology; function and register; methodology; syllabus design; levels of achievement; the spelling system; skills development strategies; materials evaluation; exercise types; comparison of L1 and L2; the history of language teaching; linguistic theory; literature; culture
Interpersonal relationships and communication skills
This includes areas such as:
Voice control and breathing; eye contact; stance; mime and gesture; control of language; grading your spoken input; awareness of individuals; reading aloud to the class; acting out materials; attentive listening; informal contextualisation; discipline; promoting learner independence.
Concrete teaching techniques
This includes areas such as:
Opening and closing lessons; conducting repetition work; question techniques; conducting oral drills; confirmation and correction; giving clear instructions; organisation and management of pair and group work; phasing a lesson; using the board and other visual aids; using audio materials; video exploitation; using realia
These areas need teaching through participation, and are best experienced through peer teaching, and if possible microteaching with the aid of video cameras.
Our problem as teacher trainers and trainees is that while the more obviously academic issues listed under knowledge seem serious and respectable, the issues listed under Interpersonal relationships and communication skills and Concrete teaching techniques are unusual in other disciplines and may be seen as trivial and beneath the dignity of the trainee. I consider that every item listed in the last two sections is worth at least 90 minutes on a training course.
Breathing and voice projection
Actors, singers, dancers, yoga enthusiasts and sportspersons all learn and regularly practice breath control and breathing techniques. The various methods for improving breath control and voice projection are well known and widespread. You can learn effective exercises from many different sources. Basically, you have to learn to utilise the whole of your lungs, and control air flow from your stomach rather than from your upper chest (or worse from your throat). Too often, we’re concerned about holding our stomachs in when we’re speaking to a group of people. All over the world you meet teachers with sore throats. You listen to lectures which are difficult to hear and follow because they are poorly projected. The speaker communicates nervousness (and therefore uncertainty) with every wheeze and rasp of breath. When you study acting, you practise breath control and projection daily. Teachers have to use their voices all the time, but few do exercises. You cannot project your voice for several hours a day unless you do some breathing exercises, or at least understand enough about breathing exercises so as to be able to use them when your voice is under strain – at the onset of a cold, or during a heavy day.
In a short article, I can only hope to suggest ways of focussing training. Breathing is one small aspect. I cannot possibly set out a complete course. However, I will give one more example, conducting oral drills (Adapted from Grapevine Two Teacher’s Book – Introduction on Teaching Techniques , OUP)
Conducting an oral drill
Drills maximise student involvement in larger classes IF you can hold every student’s attention for the complete duration of the activity. Drills should usually be done chorally at first, then individuals should be checked. More difficult drills should miss out the choral phase. Conversely, drills which are done well in the choral phase need not necessarily be checked individually.
There should be only 6 or 8 prompts per drill. Even with very large classes, drills need not be extended beyond 6 or 8 prompts in the individual stage. If you do so, the drills will become boring. I suggest this procedure for doing a drill.
1 Get students to repeat the key sentence chorally (e.g. I’d like a cup of coffee) remembering that intonation, rhythm and stress are at least as important as structure. You can break the sentence into smaller chunks by backchaining or frontchaining:
Backchaining stages: coffee / a cup of coffee /like a cup of coffee / I’d like a cup of coffee
Frontchaining stages: I / I’d / I’d like / I’d like a cup / I’d like a cup of coffee
2 Demonstrate how the drill works with examples (two for simple substitution and response drills, three for more complex two- and three-slot substitutions). Do this by turning your head or body to show that there are two parts to the drill. For example, say:
Class: I’d like a cup of coffee.
Class: She’d like a cup of coffee.
3 Do the drill chorally at speed, remembering that stress and intonation are as important as structure. For example:
Class: I’d like a cup of coffee.
Class: We’d like a cup of coffee.
Class: She’d like a cup of coffee. etc.
Never drill ‘in order’. It’s amazing to see how often teachers will follow this sequence of prompts: I / you / he / she /it / we / you / they
There’s no reason why the pronouns should appear in this order, and when they do so, the work becomes mechanical and meaningless!
4 Do the drill again, asking six or eight selected individuals. This is the most difficult part of the drill, and drills often become tedious and unchallenging because of the way this stage is handled. The key elements are:
a Students must be chosen at random, never round the class.
b The most important part of the individual phase is thinking time. Give the prompt, then pause long enough for everyone in the class to formulate the response mentally, then – and only then – choose an individual student at random to respond. In this way, though only six students may actually speak, everyone in the room has been through the process of working out the response.
c Even if you only give six prompts to a class of forty, you should occasionally ask the same student to respond twice in a drill. Then students realize that they can’t ‘switch off’ once they have spoken.
T: I (pause, select S1)
S1: I’d like a cup of coffee.
T: We (pause, select S2)
S2: We’d like a cup of coffee.
T: She (pause, select S3)
S3: She’d like a cup of coffee
T: He (pause, select S1 again)
S1: He’d like a cup of coffee. .
T: They (pause, select S4)
S4: They’d like a cup of coffee. etc.
You can spend hours refining particular techniques. A book, or a lecture, can’t do it all for you. Some teachers hate drills. If you’re one of them, then don’t do drills. However, if you haven’t made up your mind, try a drill using the procedure above. It won’t necessarily work first time, but practice makes perfect!