Being a better teacher, Bits and bobs

Teaching ESL in an international school. Here is what I’ve learnt…

My current work area is very specific: first of all, it is a multi-lingual group which is so common for international schools; second, our school uses English as a medium of instruction, communication and as an official language. ESL is offered a compulsory course in grades 9 and 10 for those who did not make it to English as the First Language group.

In a different context the course could have been called ELA or EFL, the idea remains the same: we get students whose English is not there yet, while they need to carry on with all other classes, write extended assignments and understand the lessons as if they have no difficulty with the language of instruction.

My role constitutes a few components. The primary goal is to provide the students with skills to help them make it through the school year with less language-related stress. Another crucial factor I just cannot ignore is the IGCSE exam all students are obliged to take. The exam itself is not that hard, actually, the required B2 backfires in the following year, as it is obviously not enough for A level courses, especially those in social studies and sciences. Balancing those goals in a mixed-ability group is both challenging and rewarding. And here is what I’ve learned so far:

  • Homework
    In my class homework should not be a stand-alone activity and homework for me specifically. Moreover, the more I teach, the less value of homework as it is I see.
    I teach 6 periods per week and those classes are pretty intensive. The in-school time allows me not only to introduce new concepts but to practise them as well. Assigning an additional worksheet does not make any difference in the long run.
    I am absolutely sure, that my students will not forget English if they spend the weekend without my homework. I am also sure that they will have to put their reading and writing skills at trial to complete the homework they have for other classes.
  • Group work
    Not only many students are not big fans of the group projects, but, moreover, many projects turn out to be a time-consuming activity with a final product to show around, while the valuable time of a high-schooler may be spent in a better way. In my specific class individual work is an answer.
  • Patience and fossilized errors
    My students are not starters or anything like that. They are fluent, but some language skills are constantly falling them and that is why they end up in my group.
    Let’s take the number one headache – capital letters. I know that they know about their existence. If I ask my students for rules at any point of the school day, they will easily recite the whole list. But applying the rules is a totally different story. There is no point giving them primary-level worksheets or discussing the rules. They KNOW it. By heart. Half a year later they are consistent in my class. A few months more and they start using capital letters in their notes for other classes.
    It was an example, but you can get the idea. Half of my work is to insist on correct forms even if no one ever cared about correcting it. And doing it without killing the motivation to write whatever else or feeling too bad.
  • Combine the subjects
    I have abandoned the idea of seeing my class as a solo subject in a vacuum. Time and again I tell my students, “Open you science coursebook” or “pick your latest history/sociology essay”. we could have practised the note-taking methods on some unrelated articles. We do it with the units they have just covered with the teacher or cover so long ago, that they forgot all the details. Do they still study for my class? Absolutely yes. Do I feel bad that they end up concentrating on the material of another class? Not at all. The whole point of my subject is to give them the tools to get better in their learning.
  • Learning first, exam later
    The general approach is to take all the exam skills and make the most of them in the school environment. If everything was done well, students will be ready for the exam and more without months of practising exam-style questions and piles of past papers behind. After all, English is about skills, not facts.

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