Hours before posting this blog, I read two interesting articles (about the same subject) on the Guardian and the British Council sites, which has changed the course of this post (or at least the opening paragraph). Each showed that language learning in the UK has declined, stating “three-quarters of the UK public are unable to speak one of the 10 most important languages,” and based on my own inability to speak another language, I would agree. As far as I remember, learning another language did not seem important in my school years and the drive to learn one diminished once I was given the choice to drop it after GCSE. Not so many years later, like many others, I feel a desire (or more likely a wish) to be able to speak another language. This may have been reinvigorated when travelling (though other friends who haven not travelled feel the same) and noticing how people from other countries could so easily communicate with me – I would feel ashamed that I could not listen in on their conversations when they spoke in Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese etc.
Here at emc design we work with English Language publications for Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Pearson, amongst others. We specialise in creating exceptional and sophisticated materials for teachers, students, young and adult learners across traditional and digital formats. In doing so, we know the markets and regions that are learning English, and the process in which English is taught. As the publishing industry begins to shift toward digital so too will the format of teaching and learning a language. With various online guides and resources, there is more and more scope for tutors, schools and private institutions to engage with their classes and to get ideas about the best course in which to teach.
As we are a design agency, we are very interested about how the materials we produce are used and to what extent they are effectual. In order for us to continue to produce the best work and be even more effective, we are also invested in where the industry is going and what others think. That said we decided to speak to Benjamin Collison, a recent TEFL course graduate and is now teaching English in China. I asked him about his experiences in teaching, the kinds of resources he uses and other questions related to English Language Teaching.
*York English School is a private institute that has been open for ten years, with five schools based in Fuzhou. The school provides traditional resources and does not have any classroom computer. Nothing is provided digitally.
Tell Us About Yourself
Ben: “My name is Ben Collison; I am 23 years old and am originally from Watford, Hertfordshire. I teach young learners aged four to nine at York English School which is in the city of Fuzhou in the southeastern province of Fujian, China, where I also live.”
What are the kinds of resources your school provides?
Ben: “Cody Klassen, the Director of Studies chose the school’s curriculum to follow which he deems appropriate for the children. The curriculum has been edited with additional phonics lessons to work on the students’ language production, as the previous phonics material did not meet our requirements, and so is being rewritten by the senior teachers and coordinators.”
“Resources include 4 textbooks for the students: an activity book, a student workbook, phonics book and a spelling book. A teacher’s workbook is also supplied to help act as a guideline to plan the lessons. The school also provides its own lesson planning books for each of the teacher’s classes.”
“The school provides all of the resources that are needed to teach the children and also provides a small amount of cash for each of your classes to reimburse you should you wish to buy extra resources. The school encourages you to teach in your own style and use the resources at your own discretion. The only stipulation is that you cover the lessons’ main objectives. The main objectives in the lessons are grammar points, using vocabulary words which are accompanied by a story or a song.”
“The products we use are paid for by the school; we use the textbooks cover to cover, going by the syllabus in the book.”
How much input into what is taught comes from teachers?
Ben: “There is a lot of teachers’ input in the curriculum. Currently the starter course is being rewritten. If the tutors don’t think a course or module is teachable, the school changes it. As it is a private school, there is a lot of parent feedback and input as well.”
What other resources have you used aside from the ones the school provides?
Ben: “Teachers often provide their own resources from the Internet. Also in your working schedule each week each teacher has 1 and a half hour resources slot on their timetable to update the school’s resources at the central school.”
“I have used resources I have found on the Internet in my own time and that other teachers have suggested and shared with me. Some of them fail, however most of them are successful. I have generally found the online resources to be great for getting inspiration for ideas and teaching methods. I use Dave’s ESI Café and tefl.com, which are particularly useful. The school encourages professional development of its teachers, with monthly workshops and annunal training seminars. I also look online for tips and advice of how to improve. Teachers in the school are under probation for the first month where you are observed weekly by an Academic Coordinator, then once a quarter after that. Teachers can request to be observed if they are struggling with particular classes.”
Would you ever buy resources or materials?
Ben: “I would never buy any resources or materials, there is so much free content online, plus the school provides a lot of materials and all the teachers at the five schools share and coordinate with one another.”
How important is the design and layout of the materials in teaching your students?
Ben: “The designs of the workbooks is important for the students’ understanding and for me to convey the subject. Some sections are easy, easy and clear workbooks are the best. Some sections however baffle the students with weird, nonsensical pictures and passages that often go off on a tangent. I find myself teaching what’s in the book without using it. Occasionally there isn’t enough on the pages, so I use it more as a guide.”
What kind of teaching does the school encourage?
Ben: “The curriculum is designed in a way that allows you the freedom to teach in your own style. This is encouraged by the school as well, so classes are natural and comfortable. It is encouraged that you plan a lot of activities for the children and cover different learning topics in the classroom. We are required to cover all components of learning – reading, writing, listening and speaking. Due to it being a private school, the parents like to have a say in the classrooms and like to know the children are being active and participating.”
What is your particular style of teaching?
Ben: “I am very active. I like to get the students involved as much as possible, so I do lots of games and get them to help teach each other. I walk around the classroom, monitoring the students’ progress and encourage them to engage with each other.”
What are your thoughts about learning a new language?
Ben: “I am currently learning Mandarin. I think learning a new language is very important and is becoming more so in present times as the world is becoming more connected and it is far easier to travel. I think the UK lacks emphasis on learning a new language. In school you have weekly classes for three years and then you can drop it if you wish. It is not pushed upon students and you are never told the importance of learning a new language. I generally think there is a laziness amongst British people about learning a new language and culture, because English is the international language of business and a lot of countries emphasize teaching their children English. This gives British people the attitude that everyone can speak English so why should we bother speaking their language. I think to gain the most out of different cultures and countries, it is important to be able to speak their native tongue.”
What challenges in teaching have you come across?
Ben: “The main restriction to teaching ESL for me is keeping the children’s attention from drifting is challenging so you have to make the lessons as engaging as possible with lots of games and activities, you almost have to trick the students in to producing language. It works and you can see them progress quickly, as children at this age pick up things. Behavior management is also a problem as the children can be very disruptive in lessons. In some cases, learning difficulties have not been addressed, so some students require extra attention. Learning difficulties aren’t recognised here, so no support is provided by the school and families would have to go elsewhere.”
What have you learned whilst teaching?
Ben: “I have learned to be more confident in front of a classroom. It has helped me with my own language learning and enabled me to be more focused. I used to mumble a lot before I started teaching, however standing in front of a classroom and having to teach has improved my speaking skills. You notice a lot of cultural differences in Chinese children compared to children from the UK. You learn to be patient and be more sympathetic. It is a good learning experience, although frustrating at times as China is an extraordinary place and can seem quite chaotic. There are many bonuses though, I get to work in an amazing country!”
Communities of Teachers still appear to be relying, in some capacity, on traditional, printed materials. These however are used as a ‘guide’ to create and formulate their own resources. This indicates clearly that the printed materials still has a significant presence in English Language Teaching and cannot be displaced completely with digital resources. Publishers need to ensure they continue to create inspiring, clear and usable resources at affordable prices, in order to not only compete with other Publishers, but also the growing trend for teachers to create and use their own resources.
Are you a teacher creating your own materials? Or a publisher focusing on digital publications? Do you have a desire to learn a new language?