In staffrooms all over the world, English language teachers debate how they can best help their students to acquire English proficiency. How can I create a great lesson plan? What’s the best way to motivate students? How much homework is the right amount and what kind of exercises would be the most helpful?
I’ve personally seen situations when these debates have gotten to the point of being rather heated and intense. Most of the time, it’s not because teachers are trying to be competitive or looking for personal glory. Rather, it’s because they’re passionate about helping their students achieve their goals and they take that role seriously.
All of the above questions are important ones and come from a sense of responsibility and duty of care, from teachers wanting to be the best teachers that they can be.
Sometimes I wonder if we as teachers, in our eagerness to meet the challenges of day-to-day issues, are too quick to spend time on ‘micro-matters’ without giving any thought to the ‘macro’ side of things.
Think about this…
Teaching a student is like building a house. And lesson plans, motivation and homework are like bricks, windows and doors. You wouldn’t just start joining bricks, windows and doors together without an architectural plan.
In the same way, I suggest you shouldn’t start teaching without a ‘teaching architectural plan’ – a ‘macro view’ with key teaching principles that will inform what kind of lesson plans you create, how you motivate students and why you set the homework that you do.
One of my key teaching principles is about accuracy and fluency.
The Fluency vs Accuracy Dilemma
Every mainstream teaching method or approach concurs that both accuracy and fluency are important. The dilemma for instructors lies in the fact that the more you teach one, the more you neglect the other.
They are at opposite ends of the teaching spectrum – the ‘north pole’ and ‘south pole’ of communicative competency. In a discussion exercise, if you want a student to practice fluency, you can’t interrupt them to correct their mistakes. If you want to correct their mistakes, maintaining fluency is impossible.
So, how should we address this macro issue?
Ask yourself this question… Why are my students taking my course?
Whatever the reason, it’s to do with life OUTSIDE the classroom.
And in life outside the classroom… Which is more important – accuracy or fluency?
As long as your student is accurate enough to be understood, fluency is more important.
So, I have included the following maxim as one of my key teaching principles
Focus on giving my students multiple opportunities to practice
fluency with exercises that replicate real world situations.
It goes without saying that accuracy should always be a major part of any English language course. But while I believe that accuracy should be a principal element, fluency is even more critical if a student is to achieve real English language proficiency.
At the beginner level, you certainly need to focus more on accuracy initially. The students don’t yet have enough language to engage in lengthy conversations – but fluency activities can come into play at this level quite quickly when the language basics have been set.
Once students have progressed to an intermediate level, every effort should be made to prepare them to communicate and ‘compete’ on a level playing field with other native English speakers – and the most important factor in these preparations is SPEED.
Speed of thought and speech, speed in considering and responding, developing a comfort level with fast-paced, dynamic interactions so that their contributions are unhurried, worthwhile, persuasive.
I can still remember one of my female adult students coming to me in tears one day while I was teaching in Korea. She was one of my best learners, who was always on time, always wanting to participate.
She told me how she had joined in a conversation with three American girls. They were talking about something she understood. She got very excited. All her years of study and sacrifice were about to pay off. She was finally in a position to be an equal participant in a ‘proper’ conversation.
Just as she was opening her mouth to say something, one of the girls changed the topic and she missed her opportunity.
She was devastated. She had a fleeting chance to be an ‘equal’, to ‘justify’ all her efforts – and then the moment was gone.
That was a real turning point for me as a teacher. From that moment on, I vowed and declared to do everything in my power to give my students the tools and the experience to avoid that kind of situation happening to them.
Lesson Plans, Motivation, Homework
So, when I look at lesson plans, motivation and homework, I look from a macro perspective, remembering my key teaching principles which include having a fluency-focused approach.
My lesson plans usually include having an open-ended task for students to complete, where a variety of answers are possible.
I find this type of exercise really motivates students because they have the dominant role – they control the language and the task outcome.
Because students have learned to become autonomous communicators, the homework I set focuses on further developing that autonomy.
One last thing
If you’d like to learn more about English language teaching, check out our other articles on our TESOL Advantage website.