The Perfect English Lesson

Daydreaming to define objectives

I have often used daydreaming to think about my perfect English class set-up. This visualization technique has helped me define my goals and even establish strategy. I recommend that teachers should indulge in this activity to decide what they really want. Once you know your objectives and actually see them in your mind, it is much easier to implement changes and ask for the help you need from the administration or from colleagues.

Now we are all very different and our daydreaming will lead us to class plans or curricula that will obviously differ, but I thought it might be helpful to explain how visualization led me to create a language course the students found very effective and that my colleagues and I were very satisfied with. For complete details of this course and most of the worksheets and recordings used, you can read and work with QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book Version 5.0. It is a 2,500 page book in MS Word with audio and video documents on a DVD (price €29 plus shipping).

My initial difficulties

Many years ago I found myself at a university in France teaching engineering students. There were almost thirty per class and they didn’t seem interested by what I had to say. I admit I was probably not very interesting—or I simply didn’t manage to see what they were interested in. So I started thinking about my perfect English class. It is true that I had previously taught at a university in Venezuela where I had had fewer students and worked with an amazing language lab. So I had certain concrete ideas. Thinking aloud, I said I wanted only 12 to 14 students per class, a language lab that was reliable and user-friendly and a team of teachers all working together towards a common goal. Amazingly enough five years later my wishes had come true. By submitting numerous projects, explaining my objectives to the administration, giving free English courses to colleagues in other subjects and searching for the most enthusiastic and devoted fellow teachers I could find, this first dream became reality.

What was missing?

But I still didn’t have the perfect English class, because I hadn’t thought enough about what the students would be doing in class or in lab. So I started daydreaming again. I wanted the students to be as autonomous as possible. They would be giving presentations in tutorials (one-to-one sessions with their teachers), they would be correcting their homework on their own in intensive oral pair work, and animating the class in different activities. Above all they would be speaking only in English—even when asking me questions—and I would be almost silent. Yes, that would be the perfect class: the students would be doing practically all the speaking and the teacher would be silent.

But how do you get students, who have almost never spoken in complete sentences in class, to do the animating in the place of the teacher? It is easy to assign talks or other presentations, but if they are not well prepared you run the risk of having students perform in “deplorable English” or wasting everyone’s time with unsuitable subjects and uninteresting activities. I think we have all had experiences where the students’ English was so poor that we felt like intervening almost after each sentence—and of course we didn’t do so, as we didn’t wish to humiliate the students.

Bringing the language level up to par

The answer to this question is “training”. The students need practical training in the English language before they can embark on activities involving the entire class. The best way to give them this training is through a language lab.

Today the technology has advanced so much that language labs cost very little compared to the past. And you don’t need a multimedia lab. You don’t need a lot of functions. You don’t need all the special options like students speaking to others through the lab. They can do that in the classroom by moving around. In fact an audio lab that simply copies the program onto the students’ positions is quite enough. If your school cannot afford to purchase an audio lab, then you can easily work with computers or you can get iPods for your students. You buy a set of iPod Nanos or equivalent MP3 players and you simply make up playlists for each day of class. The students will be so busy listening to their iPods that they won’t even have time to do any texting on their cell phones!

The objective of having a language lab or iPod lab is to have students work on their own during class time. The advantage is that students will be able work at their own pace—stopping or going back whenever necessary. The teacher will not be directing the class all the time and all the students will be speaking atthe same time during the oral exercises.

A more effective way of learning

Now why is this so important? When students work on their own they learn more quickly—they are more serious about their work, especially when they have their headsets on and are concentrating on what they are “hearing” and not what they are seeing around them.

Also this gives the teacher the wonderful opportunity of working individually with the students. When you have 12 to 13 students working on their own with their headsets on, then you can have one student at a time alone with you giving a personal presentation. In that situation you are on your way towards the perfect class. When you have all the students busy, repeating, transcribing into their workbooks and even singing by themselves while you are listening to a fascinating talk by an enthusiastic student making practically no mistakes, then you really feel blissful. Quiet happiness, that’s what I call it—my perfect classroom set-up.

Setting up a language program for a lab or computer/iPod room

The question remains: How do you set up a thorough language program that will allow students to work on memorization and pronunciation through repetition, comprehension through gap-filling activities, and expression though repitition, transformation or question exercises? One solution is to use exercises and podcasts from the Internet or from commercial language programs. The number of resources is fantastic. It is true that it takes time to build up an effective program based on a reasonable curriculum. For more information plus recordings, worksheets, and keys, you can read QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book Version and get all the explanations and even most of the exercises I have been using. There is even complete a 25-page workbook that you can customize to suit the needs of your students and print out in recto/verso. But for the time being I just want you to visualize a computer room, language lab or simple room with iPods where the students are working diligently on their own, speaking into their microphones or just mouthing the words, while you are speaking to one or two students at a time.

What we all hope for

Now that you see what you can do during an hour in a lab where students are autonomous, let’s turn to the hour in the classroom. I did a lot of daydreaming and experimenting before I got it right. And colleagues helped me along the way, as we were all working together to find techniques that would really work for the students—and for the teachers too. We wanted to reduce our preparation time to a reasonable length, we wanted to avoid anguish and embarrassing situations, we wanted to feel good about our teaching, i.e. get enjoyment and satisfaction out of our efforts while eliminating unnecessary stress. We wanted the students to speak only English in class—even amongst themselves—and to progress quickly in speaking skills. Isn’t that what we all wish for?

Pair work

The hour in the classroom was finally divided up into three or four parts for a 60-minute class. First we would correct all the written assignments. A program like ours doesn’t work unless students do sufficient homework. The change we made was to let the students correct their homework on their own during intensive oral pair work. The minute I introduced this change my colleagues were thrilled. They said, “It’s great, Marianne. We just have to hand out a key to each pair of students (for each exercise), and then we have nothing else to do!” True, but teachers used this time to answer questions individually or to set up equipment or props for coming activities. And students had to be trained at doing pair work during the first sessions. There were also oral assignments like learning texts, poems or dialogs by heart or being able to translate entire passages from L1 to English. All this can be done in oral pair work with students reciting to each other or translating while the partner consults the key. This takes about 15 to 20 minutes. It is a wonderful “warming-up” period.

Trust your students

After about five minutes of “teacher talk” explaining something (culture, grammar, vocabulary), the class indulges in an activity in groups of three to four students (debates, discussion, role-play). Finally the last 20 minutes are devoted to student presentations, first fairly short ones (4 minutes) and later a bit longer with students animating the class—while the teacher remains silent and becomes a member of the audience like everyone else. It may seem boring to have this same plan for so many lessons, but all the activities are different, the topics are chosen by the students and they try very hard to get everyone to participate. So every class is different. The key to all this is to help your students outside of class (before their presentations) and to trust your students. Yes, trust is very important.

A digital book to help you

For more information and all the worksheets we use in our course you can read QualityTime-ESL: The Digital Resource Book Version on a DVD €29 or the downloadable version €15, and you will see it is well worth the investment. There are even thee series of podcasts on iTunes with worksheets to be used for oral drills and pair work in your teaching. This digital book will help you develop your own course and to achieve the goals you set for yourself through visualization or daydreaming.

To order go directly to the store.

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