Tuesday, 8 April 2014


(Or maybe I’m wrong...)

When you’re working in EFL, you learn something new every day. Or at least I do, anyway. My latest revelation took place over the past two weeks. I’m at a new school. It’s called Speak Naturally. I was informed on Day One that in order to speak naturally (and it must be done with an American accent, mind you – very important) you need to spend nine tenths of every lesson doing unison drilling. No games, no breaks, no light relief; no nuthin except unison drill, unison drill, unison drill. And don’t let that American accent drop for one second. The line-up of expat teachers charged with the task of teaching natural American English is two Brits, two Filippinos, one Ukranian, one guy whose accent is so bad I can’t make out where he’s from, and me. Now the expats aren’t required to actually conduct a lesson. Oh no, they are co-teachers, which means that their role consists of standing up front listening to the Vietnamese teacher doing his or her unison drilling, and, on command, saying a word or sentence here or there. Much like a performing seal. Sitting in on one of these sessions is excruciatingly boring, and time drags.

Now, being a writer engaged in writing a book about English teaching, I was very interested in this new method. It presented me with the perfect input for a chapter pouring scorn on misguided EFL methodology. Thus every night after my co-teaching stints I would hurry home to write furiously about how ineffective and unsuitable this particular method was. 

Before I continue, let me describe a typical lesson I have suffered through. This particular 90-minute session for an adult Elementary class is intended to teach 20 expressions, and train the students to say them exactly as a Milwaukee factory worker would. Some of the expressions are useful language – ‘my sister, my grandchild, my grandson, parents-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law,’ and some are a trifle odd – ‘a plump boss, a weak housewife, an old actor, a strong farmer.’ No full sentences, note. The words are projected onto a screen. Cue in the expat co-teacher (that’s me, Folks) who says the words twice and has the students repeat in unison. OK, that’s my bit done for the meantime. Siddown, and let the Vietnamese teacher take control.

Word number one.
T: Sister. Repeat.
Ss: Sitter.
T: No. SiSSter.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.

As the students speak, the teacher raps a bamboo stick against the screen in time with each syllable, and at the same time stamps his or her foot.
T: Again. Once more. Again.

By this time I am taking surreptitious looks at my watch. When in the hell is the real teaching going to begin?

T: Right, second word. Brother-in-law. Repeat. Repeat. Again. Again.
What with the tapping and stamping, the teacher is already beginning to work up a sweat.
T: Again. Once more. Again.
Once the family relationships have been taken care of, it’s time for the odd expressions.
T: A bored housewife.
Ss: A bored housewie.
T: No. HousewiFe. Repeat. Again. Again. [Tap-tap-stamp-stamp.]
By this time I’m bored out of my tree. Even more bored than the housewife in question. So too are the students, surely.

The choral repetition of the twenty expressions takes up the first hour. God, what’s next? Uh oh, it’s my turn to add a contribution to the lesson. “Mr Don, who is the housewife?” “Um… she’s a bored housewife.”
T: Yes. Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No. Listen to Mr Don! Mr Don, who is the housewife?
Me: She’s a bored housewife.
T: Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No! She’S. Repeat. Again. Again. HouSewife. Repeat. Again. Again.

What seems like three days later, the 90-minute comes to an end. “What do you think?” the Vietnamese teacher asks me. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting teaching method,” I say. So interesting I can’t wait to get home and record my thoughts on how not to teach.

Every rule of effective language teaching has been disregarded. For one thing, drilling for 90 minutes is tiring and stultifyingly boring for the students. The language drilled has been of doubtful usefulness. The students were not asked to speak in complete sentences. There have been no changes of focus, no periods of light relief. The language practiced was as unnatural as you could dream up. In short, a disastrous sham of a lesson.

Now I’ve often extolled the virtues of unison drilling. It allows the students to familiarize themselves with the sentence patterns, the vocab, and the pronunciation in near anonymity. Any mistakes they make will pass unnoticed, and hopefully in the next repetition they’ll get it right. But unison repetitions for 90 minutes straight? Madness.

But. And this is a big but. As I am winding up my critical, almost vitriolic condemnation of the technique I’d observed and been engaged intermittently in over the past two weeks, I cast my mind back on how the students had reacted to this madness.

Not one of them had spoken Vietnamese during any of the sessions. Not one had nodded off or lapsed into the nether-world of daydreams. All had responded promptly to the teacher’s cues, and with an obvious desire to get their utterances right. And they had given their undivided attention to every minute of the lesson. Which kind of describes the perfect class, don’tcha think?

Why is that, I wonder? Maybe because the rote learning method is one they’re familiar and comfortable with; the method by which they’ve learnt everything from maths to science at school. Maybe because they haven’t been asked to contribute their own input at any time in the past hour and a half. Maybe because they haven’t once been asked to think for themselves. Maybe….

Like I said, you learn something new every day in EFL.


Here’s a customer’s review of EFL minus the B.S.: “Excellent book. As a former EFL teacher, ten years in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas. The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher. Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.” – J.D.

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