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And I have a life too .....
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I’m sure you’ve recognized it – it’s a classic example of a sentence you can find in coursebooks. I call it the 2 in 1 type, i.e. something was happening when something else happened somewhere along the line. I use a lot of miming when presenting this grammar structure. Kids laugh and teenagers think I’m a nerd. I draw graphs and write equations on the board. I use rulers and pencils to visualize it. I use Czech a lot when explaining. And sometimes I feel I’m no longer an EFL teacher but a maths one, for example. There’s another type – the 1>2 type, such as in I came home and cooked myself dinner. I ask my students to translate a couple of sentences to help them grasp the way English differs from Czech. I believe I need to draw my students’ attention to these structures, otherwise they’ll end up lost in translation. While doing so I’m fully aware that this is not exactly how English always works but I keep going because I can see all the happy faces that gleam with contentment: Wow. I got it right. This is so simple. I believe, be it only for a while, that I’m a good teacher.
Then I stop and continue to do vocabulary work. I toy with the lexical approach for a while. I ask my students to underline collocations and useful chunks of language. We do functional language. We communicate, collaborate and cooperate. We read authentic texts. This time I believe I’m a great teacher. Because great teachers do these things, don’t they? But I feel exhausted after a while so we resume doing grammar again. We go back to the safety of grammatical structures. We attach what we learnt in those genuine texts to something solid. And so we drill ‘used to be’ and didn’t use to be’. We look at old photos and observe how much we’ve all changed (the present perfect is poking out its little arrogant head here but no, I have to ask him to hide for the time being, his time has not come yet).
No, my teaching can never be completely dogmetic and communicative. It will always be the McDonald type of teaching. Maybe this is not the best way to acquire a language but it can be a good way to learn it under certain circumstances, such as with only a couple of lessons a week, in an L1 speaking country, with an L1 speaking teacher. I learnt the same way after all. I believe that if learners understand the rules underlying the language – and there are rules and principles everywhere we look – they will be motivated to explore and experiment. People need to understand to feel safe. But some day they’ll be able to step out of their comfort zones – somewhere beyond the safe territory of the classroom and the coursebook. And once they’ll be able to build solid structures on these foundations.
No, it’s not ideal and it’s not perfect. They’ll be surprised and shocked to discover that the language works differently. They’ll be astonished to see that some of the things they once learnt are not 100% useful. Some of them are not even true. They’ll be pleased to see that the structures which were once forbidden are now allowed. But doesn’t this always happen when kids leave kindergarten and later, when they leave school, and finally, when they graduate? Reality is always different from the artificial environment of the schooling system, no matter how great the system is. We can never replicate real life in the classroom. Yes, we must try to get as close as possible but it would be silly to think that learners can acquire L2 the same way they acquire L1. It would be silly to believe that our students will automatically speak with a native-like accent using native-like English if we teach communicatively.
But what happens in the classroom is real life in the end. So learning should be made meaningful and enjoyable, even in this totally artificial environment. The thing is that seemingly meaningless stuff may later turn out to be meaningful and very useful. It’s the reality experienced outside the classroom which will finally bring all the theoretical matter to life. More than once my students uncovered the artificiality and nonsensicality of the language presented in coursebooks and as a consequence, some very interesting discussions emerged. It’s the ability to think critically and to express opinions which I find the most valuable for their future endeavours. What matters, I think, is the cognitive and affective attitudes to learning and knowing we cultivate in the classroom. In other words, the how is more important that what. So, no longer do I plead guilty of being a bad teacher just because I explain grammar rules explicitly. No longer do I feel guilty about translation and using L1 in the classroom. Because these are the stepping stones; the bridge leading to all the important jobs I’m obliged to do as an educator…