Chris Mares

Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – Chris

Myth, Belief, Truth
Chris Mares

Chris Mares
The words myth, belief, and truth are all very powerful and evocative.  They connote many different things and are also quite confounding.  After all, I may know what a myth is, but what do I believe? And, what do I know to be true?

After several lengthy dog walks in the woods near my house mulling how these words relate meaningfully to my teaching, I have will start with a simple definition of each, an example of each, then a rumination on qualitative truths:


Myth – A widely held but false belief or idea

It is a myth that there is a single best way to teach language.


Belief – Something one accepts as true

I believe all students can be inspired to learn.


Truth – That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality

It is true that students will learn despite what I do.

I will take these three statements as my call to action.  If there is no single best way to teach language, then the door is open!  There must be more, two, three, four … lots.  If this is the case then I should find out more, experiment, take risks, and see what I can discover.  By the same token, if I believe that all students can be inspired to learn then I must take each student individually and find a way to inspire them, accepting that not all students will be inspired in the same way, but that one or more way will inspire them.  And finally, if it is true, and it is, that students will learn despite what I do then this, like the myth that there is a single way to teach language, is also a tremendous permission to get creative.

There are more truths, though.  These truths are the ones that come to us over the course of our time as teachers.  I feel these experiential truths, which cannot be quantified, and therefore are not empirical, are still valid and I shall explore ones I feel are significant for me, and perhaps for you, too.


All students deserve the teacher’s attention

It is easy to respond to the students who raise their hands, who answer question, who do their work, and are clearly interested, and enthusiastic.  But there are other students, who, for whatever reason my not be as engaged or as clearly interested.  These students deserve the teacher’s attention, too.  It may not be as easy to lure them out, or inspire them, or get them focused but it is our job to do this.  For all our students.  It takes effort on behalf of the teacher and a sensitivity to what may lie behind the seemingly passive or disinterested face.  However, one of the great rewards of teaching is to get a disinterested learner interested.


No two classes are ever the same

I used to teach large university classes in Japan and would often be using the same course book with two or more classes.  Many times I taught the same unit to three different classes in one day.  After a while I noticed that a unit I had successfully taught to one class would fall flat in another.  It struck me as odd that the same lesson plan could work with one class and not with another.  It took me a while to realize that the variable I had forgotten to factor in to my planning was the particular chemistry of the class itself as well as the individual members of the classes.  My automaton approach was focused on the lesson plan and the material to be covered, and not on the students themselves and how the material may have needed to be modified or presented differently according to the specific class being taught. It’s always about the students.


There will never be a class in which all students are ‘the same level’

In my early days of teaching I craved classes where all students were at the same level.  I found it constantly frustrating that this was never the case.  Then, inspired by Adrian Underhill, I turned my ‘low yield’ response to a ‘high yield’ question.  My response had been, ‘If you guys were all at the same level, then my life would be so much easier.’  My question then became, ‘In what way could I change my teaching in such a way that I could reach all of you?’  This was a moment of profound realization that changed my approach to students and teaching in a wonderfully rewarding way.  It made me ask the deeper questions.  Rather than stating to myself, ‘Well that didn’t work,’ I would reflectively ask myself, ‘How could I have done that differently in a way that would have been more productive or interesting for students?’


Teaching is an art

Successful teaching requires the balancing of a complex set of variables that are often in a state of flux themselves.  To be able to achieve a balance that results in efficient teaching and meaningful learning is an art.  It takes time to achieve competency and longer to achieve mastery.  Moreover, risks must be taken and mistakes made.  This is how we learn our craft.  Our art.


A lesson plan is a guide not a contract

Teachers are often trained to plan lessons in terms of goals and objectives and to frame classes according to time spent on presentation, practice, and production.  This is understandable, especially when working within the constraints of an imposed curriculum.  Teachers are less often trained to look for moments of serendipity when a chance occurrence may lead to the possibility for temporarily abandoning the lesson plan when a teaching moment occurs.  To view the lesson plan as a guide and not the be all and end all is a healthy perspective to take as it allows for creativity and also a degree of unpredictability.


Trust is the key

In order for students to improve mistakes must be made and it is important to encourage students to take risks with new language.  In order to do this students must feel safe which means they have to trust that their teacher is there to support and guide them and not to penalize them for making mistakes.  Positive reinforcement in a trusting atmosphere leads to efficient learning which is what we are after.


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Chris Mares

Chris Mares is a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials writer. He is director of the Intensive English Institute at the University of Maine, and has coauthored several popular ELT course books.

2 thoughts on “Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – Chris”

  1. Thanks for writing and sharing this, Chris. The qualitative truths you ruminate on are such important insights into our diverse teaching situations and they profoundly shape our teaching identities. Having confronted each one of them through a trial-and-error process is an integral part, I feel, in my overall experience as a teacher.

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