Why bother?

Why should I know this if I won’t be teaching it to my learners? This is a question often asked by some of the language teachers I’ve recently talked to when discussing about grammar, phonetics and phonology, and different methodologies. Well, in my opinion, there are certain things teachers must know. Teachers are supposed to be knowledgeable in order to guide learners in their own quest of self-discovery. This doesn’t mean I believe teachers should do all the teaching while learners sit passively and simply listen to their teachers – much on the contrary. However, there are a couple of things I think language teachers should know. Here it goes:

1. Teachers should know advanced grammar

Even though I believe grammar shouldn’t be more important than vocabulary or pronunciation in the classroom, it has its importance. The fact that the teacher knows the subject matter well doesn’t mean he is going to give chapter and verse of every little bit of grammar that comes up in a lesson. Nevertheless, the more the teacher knows about grammar, the easier it is for him or her to find a different way to get his or her students to understand that they should have said “I would have read it” instead of  “I would read”. I believe that English teachers should be able to pick up mistakes and take advantage of correct utterances equally as fast as possible in class – especially the latter. If, on the other hand, the teacher is trying to teach only the grammar and not use it as yet another aspect of language teaching, i.e. if grammar becomes the focus of the lesson instead of yet another aspect of it, then, as Nick said in his post, it’ll confuse students more than it’ll help them.

2. Teachers should know phonetics and phonology

The same thing that applies to grammar is true to pronunciation. I don’t think teachers should bother all their learners with names as fricatives, plosives, soft palate and so on. However, in my view, the teacher who is versed in such matter has an edge over teachers who lack knowledge in the area. It’s much easier to understand what is happening inside the students’ mouth and, consequently, show them what is right and show them the right way to do it. I found that, more often than not, when teachers rely only on sound and drilling, without raising learners’ awareness to the correct position of the mouth, the mistake tends not to be corrected. On the other hand, once learners are shown the correct way to produce the sound, the easier it is for them to repeat it later, when there’s no teacher to correct them. I agree with what Adrian Underhill says, “we should try to make pronunciation physical.” If the teacher knows about manner and place of articulation for individual sounds, for instance, it’s way easier to correct learners.

3. Teachers should learn about language teaching and learning methodology

OK, I’ve said it before and I’m going to repeat it. I do enjoy the principles of Dogme, just as I like the principles of the lexical approach, TBL, and CLT – to name just a few. There’s no magic pill to lose weight, and there’s no one method “to rule them all”. Teachers should be resourceful, and different techniques can be used with different methods. Again, it’s only through knowledge of different learning strategies that a teacher can help students become autonomous and life-long learners. It might even be OK for novice teachers to be trained in this or that method, but as teachers become experienced, they need to keep an open mind and accept that, yes, there may be useful procedures in methods considered dated. It all comes down to the learners you have. If we accept that each learner is unique, why should we believe that A is the best method for all students?

I guess I could compare it to going to the doctor’s. When I see doctor, he or she doesn’t tell me what I have in medical terms, or, if so, I definitely ask for a “translation”. Yet, I expect my doctor to be able to make a diagnosis as fast as possible and treat me just as swiftly. If he isn’t knowledgeable about his or her area of expertise, I’ll probably be running lots and lots of exams – most of them unnecessary ones. Mistakes are part and parcel of learning, but teachers should have a very good idea of what they’re doing to help their learners when they make such mistakes.

Needless to say, this isn’t a comprehensive list. However, I’ve been thinking about these matters as they have been mentioned over and over by teachers I’ve talked to recently.

* The My ELT library series will continue, but I found out that it was preventing me from writing about different things I felt like writing.

7 thoughts on “Why bother?

  1. 100% agreed Henrick. I am of the same belief myself. In the same way that students become more proficient at using basic structures as they learn more advanced ways of saying the same thing, so do we become much more proficient at the 101 of teaching as we thread the steps that take us beyond it. The confidence factor is also very important. It is not that we necessarily learn more about the basics when progressing in our studies, but that we necessarily feel more self-assured when teaching those same basics once they become just that to you: the basics.

    1. Hi Bob! Great to see you here!
      That’s exactly the point – it’s not that we’ll be teaching them everything we, teachers, know. We will, nevertheless, make use of such “advanced” knowledge to help them in the best possible way. Confidence plays a major role in it, and knowledge is what makes us feel confident when teaching.

  2. Fully on board here as well Henrick. My teachers always ask me, as we aren’t supposed to focus on grammar in the class, why do I send around emails once a week detailing a grammar point. You hit the nail on the head. Teachers should know so they can help their students understand it better and to be able to understand why a student is making a mistake or why an utterance is wrong.

    I’d agree on the pronunciation as well although it’s rarely important in the Turkish context. I always have to model tongue position with “th” and sometimes mouth position with “v” vs. “w” but that’s about it. However, in Vietnam I spent lots of time showing mouth and tongue positions because the pronunciation was so off.

    Theory, I’m with you all the way as well. A teacher needs to have as many tools in their bag as possible. Who knows what will work best with each class. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to one approach.

    Nice post.

    1. Hi Nick. I really liked the idea of weekly emails detailing a grammar point. I believe the main problem with grammar is that teachers still look at form only, and fail to explore meaning and use (I’m borrowing from the 3-Dimensions of Grammar idea by Larsen-Freeman and Celce-Murcia) which are paramount for communication. Focussing on form only is the problem, not the teaching of grammar.

      Regarding pronunciation, you’re luckier than us, then! Brazilians have, overall, a very good pronunciation, but some of the problems are quite difficult to solve, especially the vowel sounds. However, as these problems don’t jeopardise communication to an extent of unintelligibility, teachers and students prefer to repeat what they’ve said two or three times instead of trying to correct it. For instance, it’s common for Brazilians to say “eat” when they mean “it”, and we have a hard time when it comes to finishing our words with a consonant sound, which doesn’t happen in Brazilian Portuguese except for few consonants (such as S and M).

      Theory, well… I think there’s a major problem when novice teachers (and some experienced ones) say they abide by CLT in their classes, but can’t explain what CLT is. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Truth be told, most teachers are on auto-mode, unfortunately. They are simply repeating what had been used with them and hope for the best. Knowledge is what allows for creativity and freedom of choice based on informed decisions.

      Thanks for your visit and your comments! Always a nice read!

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