As students venture into learning, they have many different paths to knowledge. It is my goal as a teacher to light these paths for students and facilitate their journey. I strive to empower my students with practical skills, the confidence to learn, the freedom to shape their own paths, and a safe place to explore not just the English language, but the culture connected with it.
Regardless of why students walk into my class, it is always my goal as the instructor to give all students practical, useful skills that will fulfill their goals. In my ESL/EFL classroom, an observer would find an inclusive, interactive, student-centered class, with a focus on communicative competence. As a learner (especially of foreign languages), I am well aware that acquiring actionable, immediately useful skills makes a subject come alive. If a student cannot find the importance of a lesson in his or life, there is little possibility he or she will truly learn the information, let alone be engaged with it.
For example, in my university-level composition course for non-native English speakers, we do a peer review activity at least once for each essay. Some students may doubt the validity of peer reviews, and many may not see how it applies to their lives outside the writing classroom. Therefore, before each peer review activity, I introduce (or review) guidelines for giving feedback to your peers. In these guidelines, I connect giving feedback to peers on their writing with giving peers feedback in other classes, giving friends feedback in “real life”, and in the future, giving feedback in work situations. I also give the students specific language to get them started with feedback. This scaffolded approach to peer review gives students language they can use outside the classroom and in their future lives.
Another way that I strive to assist students is through instilling them with confidence. I am well aware that for many students, English – both written and spoken – can be a difficult subject to master. In every class, I work to make English accessible to everyone: not just the students who excel at it, but particularly those who do not. I tell my students that my class may not make you love every facet of English, but it will show you, at the very least, that you can learn it, that learning it is not the insurmountable task it may seem. To do this, I give feedback to students as much as possible, both written (on homework assignments) and oral (through conferences and in class). I make it a point, even with the students who are struggling the most (or perhaps especially with those students) to highlight what they are doing well, or what they have improved upon. This helps to show students that they are capable of success in language learning.
In addition, I am keen on letting students have a level of autonomy in the classroom. I endeavor to find ways for students to use as much of the target language as possible in arenas of their own choice. For example, I created an ongoing, weekly assignment in a high-intermediate adult ESL class which allowed students to practice two to three skills (writing, listening, and/or reading). Students selected a media of their choice (radio, TV, newspaper, internet), listened to or read anything they wanted to in English, then wrote five sentences about that topic. Upon correcting the assignments, I chose five sentences from across the class – some correct and some incorrect – from five different papers and wrote them on the board (keeping the authors anonymous) for the whole class to analyze. I found that this assignment allowed students the freedom to explore topics of their choosing, while still allowing me as the instructor to give whole class feedback – despite the fact that the content of each student’s writing varied greatly. I maintained this assignment over the course of three semesters, adapting and perfecting it a bit each time. I found that not only did students improve their writing skills, many often tried to utilize items such as vocabulary, grammar, or punctuation from that week’s lesson into their assignments.
Another practice I put into use is to make my classroom a safe place for language and cultural questions, which leads to the classroom being a safe place for exploration. A mispronunciation or misuse of a phrase, or an omission or addition of a word can drastically change the meaning of what a speaker is trying to communicate; the slightest change can turn something the speaker means to be quite innocent into something offensive, provocative, argumentative, or rude. I encourage my students to ask these sometimes embarrassing or difficult questions, because likely, other students have that same question. Oftentimes, this atmosphere encourages students to experiment with language, to try out new words and forms, to be wrong and learn from their mistakes. This, then, brings another positive aspect to the classroom: making mistakes is a good thing! By embracing mistakes and uncertainty, I hope to allow students to see that those mistakes are actually a step to building communicative competence for all speakers, not a hindrance.
It is through teaching that I find a connection to not just my students, but the world at large. In the same way, for students, I aim to connect our work in the classroom to their lives outside of it, through the teaching of pragmatic skills, confidence building and autonomy, and providing a supportive atmosphere.