As an EFL teacher I have a lot of intuitions and hunches about what is right and wrong. But I also have a lot of doubts and suspicions. Every day I ask myself if I’m on the right track or if I do enough to help my students do better.
I’ve had this suspicion for some time now: I’m not convinced that I’m entirely responsible for my students’ progress in the L2 development, even though I’m supposed to be. I believe that most of the time I’m there just to watch if they develop (or stagnate). The thing is that the majority of my students don’t learn the majority of the matter in the lessons. They pick up a great amount of the language outside the class. I have no control over this. But it’s a huge advantage: I have someone to turn to when there’s something I don’t know. Of course, there are some learners who are only exposed to English at school. You can recognize them immediately – they are the weakest and the least motivated ones. They aren’t doing well because they don’t do extra work outside the class and they don’t do extra work because they feel they are too weak to try. I don’t want to over-generalize but that’s the vicious circle I witness in everyday practice.
This brings me to the point of this post. As Scott Thornbury argues in his conversation with Jeremy Harmer at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, with the restricted time we have on our hands in the traditional EFL classroom, it’s vital to find a compromise between the grammar and the lexical approaches to teaching the language. We can never replicate the way languages are acquired outside the L2 classroom. A classroom will always remain just a classroom. We need to focus on the system and the structure but the L2 classroom should primarily become a special place where all the knowledge is brought into and activated. It should be a place where things are sorted out. That’s how I’d love to see my classroom; unfortunately that’s not what I’m paid for.
On the other hand, I’m pleased to hear my A1 students repeatedly (and voluntarily) use a structure I drilled them in the previous lesson. I’m excited to read a description of their school trip which includes the following sentence: Judging by their voices, they were twenty years old. I’m happy to hear that whenever my young learners say numbers, such as 853, they stop and add ‘and’ (eight hundred ….and fifty-three), because I told them and they remember.
One way or another, all the above implies that learner autonomy is the most important thing we should bear in mind. Above all, we need to train our students to go and get exposed to the language out there – on the internet, on the radio, on TV, etc. We must start doing this at a very early stage, though. But we also need to teach them what is important out there – what to focus on. We need to show them how to take notes, record vocabulary, keep learning diaries and so on. And it’s never been easier with all the applications and gadgets available now.
So let’s hope that some day our classrooms will become the special places Scott Thornbury talked about. Let’s hope we won’t have to fear that our authority will be threatened once our students become totally autonomous, i.e. responsible for their learning and development.