Teaching English World In English

Posted on February 18, 2013 by

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I have to apologize if this seems obvious to you, the reader, because for me it took me a while to catch on. See, the Macmillan English World series is meant to be taught in English. I figured this out from using Rosetta Stone.

When I came to Georgia, English World had not yet been introduced at the national level, although my school did use the books for some classes. I spent a year in Georgia teaching with all manner of books, or with no books at all. Regardless of the available resources, my coteachers took more or less the same approach: present a text, translate the words, have the students copy and/or memorize the text, have the students read or recite the text. Grammar was taught through explanation (in Georgian) followed by translation exercises.

Pretty standard stuff, and the standard reaction to this methodology from TLG volunteers was that communication was lacking from this method. The only times students actually spoke English was when they were reading off a page or reciting something they had memorized, but neither of those activities demonstrates understanding of the material. The ostensible purpose of us native speakers was to add a communicative element in order to enhance speaking, listening, and communication skills.

What was questioned much less was the efficacy of a teaching method in which most of the actual instruction took place in the students’ native language. Every English word was translated for the students, often multiple times per class session. Classroom instructions were given in Georgian. Explanations of grammar were given in Georgian. Generally speaking, out of a 45 minute class period you would be lucky to hear 10 minutes of English.

Enter English World – a series of books that included detailed teacher’s books with lesson plans, and that included methodology training sessions from Macmillan. Did the teachers change their methodology? No. Now instead of memorizing badly translated or unintentionally comical texts, students are memorizing badly written or intentionally comical texts. Teachers almost always still translate the words into Georgian, and generally still do grammar explanations in Georgian, and still issue classroom instructions in Georgian. English World is certainly much better source material than what the kids here had before, but there’s only so far source material can get you.

This winter, over break, I decided to devote some of my free time to learning Turkish with Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone teaches language entirely in the target language, with no grammar explanations or translations – only pictures and examples. Sometimes, if the grammar rules are tricky, you have to just figure them out. This method has widely varying results with different types of learners, and different langauges – for me, studying Russian with Rosetta was boring and I gave up, but studying Turkish, with its sound-based grammar rules and its many cognate words in Georgian, has been like unlocking a really interesting puzzle.

It was in thinking about what, if anything, I could take from Rosetta Stone and use in my classroom, that I realized that English World is designed like Rosetta Stone. English World is nothing but pictures and examples. There’s nothing in any of the lesson plans about translating the words back into the learner’s native tongue. Unlike in many prominent TEFL books (like Oxford’s excellent New English File series) there aren’t even grammar explanations – just examples, with pictorial context to let students figure out what the grammar means.

There are numerous benefits to actually using English World this way – following the lesson plans and teaching completely in English. The first is that it increases the amount of English input the students get – it could go up from ten minutes of spoken English per class to as much as 40. The second is that it eliminates the teaching of bad grammatical rules. Since English grammar is so complicated that even native speakers have trouble explaining it, it makes sense to try to teach around the grammar instead of teaching grammar rules that are either wrong or have so many exceptions that they are useless to learners. The third is that it makes the best of the English World materials and exercises, since they are specifically designed around this strategy.

There’s a lot of theoretical backing behind the idea of teaching a foreign language in that language, and Rosetta Stone is a famous, well-researched, and highly-regarded software package, so I decided to see if this inspiration could be of any practical use in my classroom. My new coteachers were totally on-board, and didn’t want to give translations of the English words into Georgians, but try to teach them in English, especially for the older kids.

One of the first things that happened was that the parents complained. This happens a lot and I’m used to it, so now we spend a tiny amount of time with the kids scrawling Georgian into their books and notebooks, just to appease the complainers. My coteacher said the parents wanted to know the translations so they could help their kids study, which I think is 1) really nice, if true, but 2) probably not true and 3) misguided, since if you don’t already know these words, you are almost guaranteed to mispronounce almost all of them, possibly resulting in your children making negative progress at home. If the parents want to get involved, I am happy to work with them on ways to do it, but quizzing their kids on vocabulary that they themselves don’t know is not one of them.

Anyway, the kids themselves respond well to this. We teach the lessons similarly to how English World lesson plans are laid out, entirely in English, except that we sometimes ask students to translate words or phrases to check their comprehension (especially if English-language comprehension questions are unnecessarily confusing or time-consuming, which they often are). I’ve only been at this school for two weeks, so the kids are still learning their classroom instructions in English (their previous teachers had done them in Georgian) but my goal is to have them responding to English instructions (open your books, repeat after me, translate, show me your homework, etc.) by the end of the month. They’re getting used to answering questions in English and hearing spoken English, and I barely have to slow my speech for some of my classes. That’s significantly better progress than I’ve made in previous semesters, but it makes sense that giving them up to four times as much spoken English to listen to would improve their listening skills much more rapidly.

My coteachers are also highly involved. I’ve heard some volunteers say they’ve taught English-only lessons by basically excluding their coteachers entirely – erm, that is to say, using the “one teach, one observe method” – but I find lessons go a little better when both teachers are actively involved. Because of the way foreign language methodology has worked in Georgia up until now, teachers almost reflexively translate instructions and questions into Georgian before giving the students time to think about what they’ve heard, and that can be very frustrating for volunteers who are trying to get the students to communicate in English. As I said before, we’re told we’re here specifically to communicate with students in English.

I recommend finding ways that both teachers can participate without translation. For instance, one of the best things about coteaching is the ability to model questions and answers. Last semester, instead of translating a question (or, in addition to translating), if the students didn’t answer, my coteacher would ask me the question, or I would ask her, and so we gave the students the prototype for the answer which they could then copy for the next question.

And of course, I am forever finding myself saying something to the class that does need translation – just because sometimes English World 2 students do need a special instruction that can’t be delivered with English World 2 language (for instance, “go home and look this song up on YouTube”, which is the homework I assign when I teach the kids a new song) – and it’s great to have a coteacher there to do that translation.

Teaching English World in English doesn’t necessitate a complete ban on speaking Georgian, in other words – just shift in focus so that translation of instructions or materials doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of class time (five minutes or less out of a 45 minute period).

In any case, I have found that the insight that English World is meant to be taught without any first language instruction helps me make the best out of the English World materials, gives me a constructive way to communicate with coteachers about methodology, and makes a real difference in educational outcomes. Maybe you’ll try it and let us know what you think – or maybe you’ve been doing it that way the whole time – either way, send us your comments!