Monday, October 29, 2012

What I Don't Teach and Why

There are several things I have all but removed from my training.  I am not unprepared to teach them nor do I inherently disagree with these points, but they consistently fall into the low frequency/low value part of my training plan based on the learners' need.

Whether it is part of a lesson plan, encountered in the lesson, or part of feedback, I typically evaluate the relative importance of the language item.  This includes lexis, grammar, functions and skills.

Frequency is how often they will use/see the language in their work tasks and international communication situations.  Value represents the impact of the item on a range of categories including possibility for miscommunication, impact of miscommunication, typical audience, effect on respect and reputation, impact on the situation intent (persuade, inform, build relationships, etc.).

From this I notice several topics which consistently drop in importance and do not warrant spending our limited training time on the subject.


While certain functions within the negotiation dance such as suggesting and bargaining (really just a disguise for the II Conditional in a grammatical syllabus) are useful, my learners almost never face this context.  For my German learners, there are few employees who have this responsibility without the pre-requisite of proficient English.  I will cover suggesting and the II Conditional in other contexts, but my general rule is, "If we can't create a simulation for it from the class, don't have a role play about it."


Sorry, but they are all but gone.  This is based on several factors.  My learners normally have limited NS contact.  Of those they do work with, there are fewer exchanges with 'novice' international communicators.  In my observations, these Americans and Brits are experienced enough to monitor idiom usage.  They may add great color to language and provide for a quick laugh in class, but we can find humor in other ways, and giving the idioms a trainer 'stamp of approval' will only increase the chances for miscommunication when they use them with other NNSs.


I understand that telling good stories is important in building relationships.  But I also know many NSs (myself included) who can tell some really horrible stories.  In general, I find that when they want to tell a story... they get it out.  For the grammar, the narrative tenses only seem to increase doubt in my learners.  For the vocabulary, we simply don't have time to cover enough topical areas to fill the gaps.  Other elements (like linking phrases and adverbs of commentary) can be placed into other areas as well.  We do cover adjectives to describe emotions and other ways to express interest, surprise, stress, etc... but storytelling is not a key aspect of the training.

The Present Perfect for Past Events that Have Present Importance

This is always the element of the present perfect that confuses my learners the most.  As an American, I also see it as a nice element of British English.  So, I typically only teach the present perfect in two ways:  1)  life experience, 2)  giving current facts and states context.  I don't really see much wrong with saying, "If it is a finished action, put it in the past."  After all, my German learners typically make the opposite error and put everything in the present perfect.

Phrasal Verbs

This follows much of the idioms line of thinking.  We will look at the overall meaning of 'get' (get back, get up, get + adj) and few key phrasal verbs we see often in BE like 'pick up' and 'drop off'.  But when I see list of 500 Phrasal Verbs, I move on.  Remember, my learners are primarily communicating with other NNSs where proficiency levels are often lower.  Setting the idea of 'one word - one meaning' may sound sterile and cold, but ultimately much more effective in their high frequency situations.

Telephoning to Make Arrangements

How this became the standard for telephoning 101 in course books I'll never quite understand.  My leaners don't make arrangements by telephone... they make them with Outlook (or at least email).  My suspicion is that this lesson just mixes so nicely with the grammatical syllabus which states we need to learn the present continuous for the future.  By the way, this grammar is often not so important with my learners either.  By the time they are ready to learn, I typically already hear it emerge from on-the-job exposure.

Report Writing

Nope... don't do it.  I have a few questions about this.  Who has time to write and read prolonged reports?  My learners don't.  Some do write reports, but they are typically under 200 words in total with a wide range of images and graphics.  Who read these reports?  In most cases I have seen, the report travels at a maximum of two level horizontally or vertically.  Presumibly at that level, relationships, trust, and respect have already been developed.

Writing a Letter of Complaint

When was the last time you or someone you knew wrote a letter to a hotel to complain about the accomdation or service?  I have two types of learners, complainers and non-complainers.  The complainers already know how to do it (in any language, I think), and it feels unnatural for the non-complainers.  Yes, there are situations that are 'unacceptable' in daily business and conflicts do erupt between suppliers, customers, and colleagues.  Through my coaching I get to see them regularly.  Expressing disappointment or frustration may be a better way to describe this.  This is easily covered by teaching common uses of 'still', the 'present perfect continuous', and 'not...enough'/'too'.  Needless to say, I haven't seen a letter in a long, long, time.


While these items are rarely part of my training, I would never refuse to work with learners to develop them.  For some job functions, these items may be more important (e.g. secretaries, intense work with NSs, specific department functions) and will be included in the performance objectives.  Furthermore, as they begin to master their current tasks, we will shift our importance to focus on future skills.

The point is, no materials writer knows my learners as well as I do.  What the ESL profession thinks they should learn is often not that important.  When planning lessons and dealing with emergent language, we need to pick and choose how we spend our time and their effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment