ESL - Teaching Feed

Teach the Way They Learn


It seems like a 100 years ago that I discovered training was an actual profession.   I had been sitting in the Alameda County Business Library trying to find a new profession. My sales job at a consumer electronics store had ended.  I wanted to make a change. No more retail.

A whole new world opened up for me the day I found "Training Magazine."  I threw myself into learning everything I could about working as a professional trainer.  At UC Berkeley I enrolled in the certificate class for trainers.

I will never forget the first words out of the mouth of the professor; "Adults do not like to be tested."  These classes were aimed at teaching adults.  While there was nothing earth shattering discussed, it gave me a format and an agenda to follow.

The course material and the wisdom I gained from these classes was invaluable.  They helped me in becoming a successful sales trainer.  When I moved on to working in computers, I was able to design training courses for adult employees terrified of a mouse.  Now as a teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language) I use the same rudiments of teaching adults I learned 30 years ago.

I have always been the rebel.  It goes without saying, I march to a different drummer.  I see things differently than the rest of the world.  I see this as a gift, although sometimes this gift gets me fired, kicked out, and left aside.  At this age I have become mellower, but I still stand up  for my principles.

Teaching English or any second language is not easy.  I could empathize with my students, because I too, had to learn to be fluent in a second language.  In my case, it was survival.  I had moved to Buenos Aires, and if I planned to live there, I needed to speak the language.  In my student's cases, it was also survival.  Job survival.  Speakers of English get better jobs and/or promotions.

Drawing on my experience as a trainer and as someone who also had to learn a second language, I began to develop my own technique for teaching.  While children learn mostly by rote, adults do not.  Adults do not like to be tested.  Adults must feel they have a part in the learning process, and adults must feel they are going to get something of value.

Children expect to "fill in the blanks" answer "True of False", and do "multiple choice exercises." Adults hate this.  They consider it a waste of time.  Why can't HR departments understand that? I teach English in companies here in Buenos Aires. HR departments and almost all the English Institutes have the same idea on how to teach English.

They use photocopies of English workbooks from 20-25 years ago accompanied by a CD. Students are expected to fill in the blanks or connect the dots. Like children. There are tests, quizzes, midterms, and finals. Two things happen in this archaic method of teaching: 1. Most students drop out of the class. 2. Students don't learn. Whose fault is this? The teacher, of course.

In an interview last month, I was asked how I teach.  I was honest.  I told them I hate workbooks.  I use a combination of materials.  Lots of videos from Youtube. Ted talks, NPR, BBC.  I send students articles to read.  My classes are multi-media oriented.

The HR person asked me how I taught grammar.  Once again, I told her with Youtube videos, group participation.  The next ridiculous question "How do you know they have learned anything if you don't test them." Duh.  You listen to your students speak.  You do writing exercises that are fun.  If you can't tell if your students have not improved, you should not be teaching.

When I told this HR person that I always ask my students what they expect from the class, she told me not to do this.  "They will ask for information to use on vacation or going to bars."  I told her in 10 years of teaching English this has never happened.  Students are very candid about their needs. They want to speak more fluently, they want to write better emails, they would like to be able to understand native speakers say during conference calls.  

A bored student does not learn.  I know that first hand.  I was bored throughout high school.  I felt it was a waste of time.  Bored students do not come to class.  That is why I try to make my classes entertaining and fun.  HR people, at least here in Argentina do not understand this.

You can wrap yourself around a workbook and tests.  Statistics.  What they can't wrap themselves around is students learning in a non-traditional manner.  HR Departments are not teachers. They have no sense of what it takes to convey information so that students learn. They do understand spreadsheets. People are not spreadsheets. 

I am considered a rebel and difficult. I like to make the classes interesting. I use videos, articles, lots of conversation. My students learn and they love the classes. HR no. They still think I should use a workbook.  I don't.  I won't.  Sometimes I get fired for it.  

The most important part of learning a language is to be understood and to understand. After that, you can improve. HR feels students who get good scores on their tests have learned. Students who learn this way will tell you that they had years of English and they cannot talk or understand what is being said to them.

My role is to find a way to convey the information so that they understand it. It is boring to stand up and say "Please turn to page 12 in your workbook." I much prefer to say "Today we are going to listen to a Ted Talk."  

Regardless, child or adult, if someone doesn't learn by the way you must teach the way they learn.