Our students are with us every week for a number of hours – some of us have them for a good number of hours, some of us for a limited number of hours. It is great to use that time as much as possible for the development of their English language skills, especially speaking. But what happens when they leave class? How can they use English outside the classroom?
We certainly do not want them to restrict themselves to using English only in class. We want them to get as much practice as possible. Especially these days, with the advent of technology, there is a multitude of ways to help them practice their English:
- In this world of smart phones and tablets, there are literally thousands of applications which can be used by students. For younger ages, there are English word games with instant feedback. For older students, there are listening and pronunciation apps that can help them tremendously.
- For those who have limited access to technology, books are a great way of developing language skills. Very often, I take my young students to the library and let them wander through the books and pick up the ones they like. With older students, I have taken them to kiosks to look at English magazines on any topic that interests them, or even a visit to a library or bookstore could help. We can help find the kind of book they want with recommendations.
- Writing with pen pals – there are so many ways to do that: either the good old-fashioned way, with letter writing (that I really love and is even more personal) or via safe chat rooms. That way they can practice their English with people worldwide.
There are so many ways to help our students use English when they are not in class – it is up to us to show them and motivate them to take their learning even further!
I believe I’m lucky to be a non-native teacher of English. I live in the same language environment as my students, I know where problems can lie because I could have (and indeed, I have) faced them myself. I’m a just learner who is given a chance to teach. From my viewpoint, that is such a winning position! So my main take on this post is: share what you know works for you. They’ll get the hint and find their own way.
The activity that I’m keen on including during one of the very first classes of the course is all about encouraging students to see English beyond our classroom. We draw two simple mind maps and brainstorm ideas for ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ ways to learn a language. The input we usually have as a result is astounding. The informal map is filled with ALL the kinds of things you’d recommend them to do to get involved with English outside of class. What’s been my personal eye-opener about this activity is that I do not have to utter a single word. To quote Chuck Sandy, “a teacher can totally step back”.
They already know where English is around them and how to get the most of it. Some play computer games on international servers, others watch favourite cartoons and TV series in English. Some remember that they most often have to read user guides to devices in English, others note that they can pick a free English newspaper in cafes. Songs, TV channels, films with or without subtitles, books, airport signs, brands, podcasts – ideas pop up from all students in the classroom and everybody learns something new. We then critically look at what we’ve come up with and discuss which of these ways are best for each one of them.
Yet, I have my own special favourite that I like to share. I advise my students to switch all the gadgets they have into English. That is, I advise them to change to operating system of their phones, ipods, computers and whatever else they might have into English. By doing so they turn their immediate surroundings into English. It’s so easily done and the effect will not leave you waiting for long. A phone which operates in English becomes your English-speaking friend. A Google search conducted in English gets new results. There’s a whole new world of the Internet instantly open through this one-click door. English becomes your reality and with it come confidence, knowledge, and a broader mind!
Click on any of the author thumbnails to go see their answer to this difficult question:
Two or three hours of English is just not enough. Even studying in a classroom for several hours a day, you’re unlikely to achieve a high level if you do nothing in between.
As Leo van Lier put it, ‘The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen’.
Maybe what happens between lessons is as important – or more important – than what happens in them. Think of the classroom as a kind of ‘pit stop’ where learners come in to be re-fuelled and change their tyres. The real action is happening outside.
But I don’t like to call it ‘homework’. To me it’s more like ‘out-of-class work’. Or ‘between-class’ work. Confining it to the home is to limit it unnecessarily (not to mention all the negative connotations that are associated with the term ‘homework’). We need to take homework out into the street.
Literally. There is English everywhere and every learner have some means of collecting it, whether camera, cell phone or just pen and paper. Even if each student captures just one piece of English – that’s 20 potential topics for discussion (in a class of 20).
Here is some of the English I collected today in my ‘barrio’ in Barcelona, in just 20 minutes on the way to the gym.
OK, Barcelona is a fairly touristy town, but there’s English in the most unlikely places.
Some of it is just words, some phrases, and some whole sentences. Some is translated. Some is not. But it all sends a message. It’s part of the linguistic landscape, and it’s a great source of discussion and research, when your learners bring it back to the classroom. Here are some questions you could have them discuss:
- Where was this photo taken?
- How many languages can you see?
- Who wrote it? For whom?
- Why is (some of it) in English?
- Is there a translation? Why/why not?
- Is it correct?
- Is there anything you don’t understand?
- Is there anything you would like to remember?
Important homework is important. “Make-work” homework is evil. Workbook homework is too often mind-numbingly boring, and therefore not useful. Too much homework is cruel. Assigning the same homework for everyone makes sense for about 25% of the class, and therefore, is a waste of time for 75% of the class.
I’ve been battling what to do about homework for most of my teaching career. I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football and never quite making it happen. I am very often disappointed with homework by the end of each school year – both what they do for my classes as well as what I see them doing for other classes. Undaunted, I am about to try another new idea from the new
school year in April.
Of course, the key to success is determining what is important with homework. Rather than trying to figure that out myself, I am finally ready to hand that task over to the students. This idea dovetails with my belief in promoting learner autonomy (learning how to learn) and it also supports my belief that students must be engaged in their homework in order for it to have any meaning at all. By giving them joint custody of their homework assignments, I’m hoping that will increase their emotional commitment and their efforts.
My plan is to present the idea that everyone has her own strength and weakness in English. For some it is one of the input skills (reading and listening); for others one of the output skills of speaking and writing might be weaker or stronger. First, they must decide their approach. Do they want to improve a weak area, or do they want to strengthen a natural talent they possess? Both are valid choices, and they are welcome to make changes along the way.
I plan to ask for diary entries that I can confirm in less than a minute by walking around at the beginning of class. I would also assign one student each lesson to give a one-minute report about her homework in front of the whole class. As far as the content of the homework, there are no rules: it can be academically oriented, focused on vocabulary, one of the 4 skills, Western music, TV dramas, etc. I’ll accept anything if they can explain why they are investing time in it.
What do you think? I would love to hear some success stories about homework.