The following is a (slightly modified) re-print of an article published in the May 2011 edition of the Newsletter for English Teachers.
A colleauge and I were talking the other day and he observed that for many of our students the most that they will ever use English in their life is not in some future hypothetical business situation or travel. The time that they will use English the most is now, in their English class and the non-Japanese person they will have the most interaction with in English is their teacher.
Whether or not this is true (and I suspect that it is), we certainly can say that our interactions with students in the classroom are important and using English for as much of these exchanges as possible is vital.
I have long contended that many of our students don’t view English as an actual system for communication, but simply as a series of exercises that they have to do in order get a grade, pass a class and graduate. English is background noise in the movies. It’s another layer of instrumentation in pop music. It’s something “foreigners” use; it’s not something that they use.
How does one convince the students that English is an actual communication system? How can we increase our interactions in English with our students? Through classroom English.
Many textbooks, if they have any classroom English at all, treat it in a very cursory way. A list of vocabulary and expressions, maybe a few model conversations. My guess is that many authors make the assumption that the communication skills that the students are learning will naturally be applied to the communication needed to navigate the language classroom. In my experience that certainly happens in ESL settings, but here on our campus, that leap is too big and most students don’t make it.
The textbook that I began using last year, Communication Spotlight by Alistair Graham-Marr, does this brilliantly. Instead of treating classroom English as a side topic, it is the topic of the lesson. Instead of using a theme like talking about vacations or how to describe their hobbies, the functions being taught in the lesson are how to communicate in the environment they are in now–the English classroom.
A quick scan of the chapter titles illuminates my point. “How do you spell that?” “What’s this in English?” and “Can you open the window?” These lessons are teaching the students how to communicate in English right now, right here. It is a text that I highly recommend.
But for those of you who have already chosen a text, what can you do? When making supplementary materials or homework assignments, make the theme classroom English. Instead of asking the students to walk around the room and try to find someone who is on the soccer team, have them practice asking each other how to spell the vocabulary words introduced in the chapter. Instead of having them give directions to their favorite shop in Shinsaibashi, have them practice sharing their answers from the listening activities. Instead of asking each other what kind of music they like, have them practice making requests, e.g. borrowing a pencil or looking up something in the dictionary.
Teach your students how to use classroom English and increase their English use here and now.