My issue with the one-size-fits-all approach

I have spent most of my teaching career working in the private sector. When I received an opportunity to get involved in a programme aimed at Colombian public schools students, I decided to give it a go and try something new. It proved to be a good decision because I was given a chance to work with some brilliant teenagers who are full of ideas and enthusiasm. It was also my first experience with being asked to deliver pre-planned lessons.

My issue with the one-size-fits-all approach

From what I understand, all teachers participating in the programme were given the same materials. What sounds like a convenient solution that is meant to save time on lesson planning can actually lead to some issues. I mean, you can’t do exactly the same things with all groups of learners. For example, activities that are appropriate for students with a high English level most likely won’t work well with beginners, which is just common sense.

Even though my lessons were pre-planned, I was glad to hear from the trainers that there was room for adaptation. There were some pretty cool activities the students were asked to do, such as building an eco-friendly house in Minecraft and creating a TikTok video, and each lesson was built around a main goal. I liked those tasks, so I kept them in my lesson plans, but of course I couldn’t resist supplementing the lessons with my own ideas and activities while abandoning those that I didn’t consider beneficial for my group of learners. The students’ reactions were very positive, so I believe that everything worked out perfectly fine.

When I started my teaching career, I quickly realised that I find it very difficult to follow lesson plans designed by someone who has never seen my group of students. The idea of going through pre-planned activities makes me feel like I’m in a straitjacket. I have a similar reaction to those coursebooks that expect me to follow the PPP lesson framework. Good morning! Our topic today is the second conditional. The second conditional is used for hypothetical situations. Its structure is if + past simple… Maybe it’s just some trauma caused by being taught foreign languages using this framework at school, but I really can’t think of a more boring way to deliver an English lesson. If I were a student attending such a course, I’d rather save my money and watch funny videos on YouTube instead of signing up for more lessons.

I understand that throwing away the coursebook isn’t a viable option for many teachers. In fact, some of the books actually have useful stuff in them and learners enjoy doing those activities. It’s also necessary to consider the fact that the students have paid money for the coursebook and expect to use it. I just don’t see following the book to the letter as an ideal teaching approach. When I plan my lessons, I always look for opportunities for tweaking the coursebook activities or completely skipping them and doing something more meaningful.

Speaking of the second conditional, I believe that nothing bad will happen to the learners if they aren’t told explicit grammar rules at the beginning of the lesson. I prefer it when the students have a real conversation about what they would do in case of winning a lottery, and then we focus on form and deal with grammar structures that come up. There are also other options such as the test-teach-test framework or using relevant authentic texts to analyse the language. I know that PPP lessons are easy to deliver, but I feel that my students deserve to be taught in a more stimulating way even if it means I have to spend much more time planning my lessons.

I have already mentioned on this blog that I can’t imagine myself working for a ‘method school’. In short, the teacher’s role in those institutions is to follow a script and deliver pre-planned lessons. Well, I’d rather change my profession than work like that. I presume that students learn English because they want to use it in the real world, so it makes sense to make the classroom a place where interesting things happen. Also, the teacher should be allowed to have some fun as well. Mindlessly going through a lesson plan following the same lesson structure again and again with no possibility of making any detours at all? Nah, you’re alright.

There are some really good websites with useful lessons plans, so it’s very easy to find inspiration for your own lessons. However, I think that it’s always necessary to remember that there is more to teaching than just using high-quality materials. First and foremost, we always work with real people who have their own lives outside the classroom, so it’s a good idea to find out why they study English, what their hobbies and interests are, which activities they enjoy doing, etc. Following a random syllabus imposed from the outside seems like a missed opportunity to me. I believe that building rapport with the learners and personalising the course content will lead to a generally more pleasant experience for everybody involved. Showing your students that you care about them and take them seriously is much more important than if you use the materials provided to you by the institution or not.

Review: English, please!

In the blog post about my work as a volunteer teacher, I referred to Daniel Le Gal’s article English Language Teaching in Colombia: A Necessary Paradigm Shift. What immediately caught my attention was that the author mentioned coursebooks designed specifically for Colombian students. One of them is English, please!, which was created by the Ministry of National Education in collaboration with the British Council and Richmond ELT. Its latest edition can be downloaded for free from this page administered by Mineducación, so l think that we should take a closer look at it.

Review: English, please

The series comprises three coursebooks aimed at students in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grade who have been studying English without making any progress. I work in the private sector and my students often complain about the level of English instruction in public schools. Adriana González wrote about this topic in English and English teaching in Colombia: Tensions and possibilities in the expanding circle, which I recommend reading in case you are interested in teaching English in Colombia. It would be harsh to blame teachers for the situation because it seems to be a systemic issue. English, please! is part of the government’s strategy to address that.

What you will notice right away is the fact that the coursebooks use British English. That is to be expected when the British Council is involved, but is that the right option for the students? In 2019, Colombia was visited by 4.5 million foreigners, and 22% of them were from the USA. Visitors from the UK didn’t even make the top 10, so they don’t appear in the government’s report. The country is geographically and culturally much closer to the USA, yet English, please! teaches Colombian students to use at weekends and a torch instead of the equivalents that are more common in the US variety of English.

In fact, in spite of writing my blog posts in British English, I actually use the US spelling and talk about soccer when I teach Colombian students because they are more familiar with it. I also point out differences between the two varieties of English when necessary. English, please! simply promotes the British one even though I think most Colombian teenagers would probably find learning American English more relevant to their needs and interests.

Fortunately, the coursebooks avoid the pitfalls of including content about random British celebrities. English, please! gives the students an opportunity to learn English while reading about Colombian food, places, people, etc. There is some international content referring to other parts of the world, but in general I can imagine the coursebook making the learning experience more personalised and engaging. It doesn’t always work perfectly well, though. Let’s take a look at the following example:

Review: English, please

The coursebooks were written by a team of Colombian ELT professionals and international freelancers. I guess the person responsible for this part isn’t a football fan. Falcao is a good player, but I certainly wouldn’t call him tall because in every game there are several teammates and opponents towering above him. In addition, the photo of the other guy isn’t great and you can’t properly see what colour his hair is. I think that they should have chosen something better than an image downloaded from Wikipedia.

To be honest, I think the first book, which is supposed to be used with 9th graders, is the weakest one from the series. I think some parts could have been done in a slightly different way. For example, this is how students whose English is at a low level are encouraged to improve their listening skills in the first lesson:

Review: English, please

English, please! contains glossaries with words and lexical chunks translated into Spanish. I suppose this is based on the fact that the books are expected to be used in a monolingual environment, so it’s not a completely bad idea. I’d still prefer to use dictionaries because I find them more helpful than word-for-word translation. There is also some strange stuff in the first coursebook. I wouldn’t call myself an expert in the Spanish language, but this explanation of special cause doesn’t seem right:

Review: English, please

The good news is that the following two books are considerably better. There are a lot of opportunities for collaborative work, and I imagine that students will enjoy doing some of the tasks. The texts about Colombia aren’t bad either. It was also quite interesting to see that the writers decided not to avoid PARSNIP topics. The following activity is from the last book, which is meant to be used with students older than 16:

Review: English, please

There are no surprises when it comes to the linguistic content because English, please! follows the traditional synthetic syllabus. It contains the same ‘building blocks’ of language that you will find if you pick up any run-of-the-mill coursebook, and I think that it’s necessary to supplement it with other activities and materials. Its main advantage is that it deals with topics that Colombian students are familiar with, so the teacher doesn’t need to spend a lot of time on personalising the coursebook content.

I’d say that English, please! is a nice attempt to come up with something more appropriate for the local market. It isn’t perfect, but using this series makes more sense than teaching completely random topics from a book designed without any specific target audience in mind. I just don’t think that coursebooks are the main issue in ELT in Colombia. Teachers who have received relevant training will deliver amazing lessons even when they are asked to use a terrible coursebook because they will adapt the activities or abandon most of the book and design their own materials. Of course, if local teachers’ training comprises mainly of being taught about language, then even the best coursebook in the world won’t be very useful.

This series also contains something I haven’t seen in any other publication of this type. If you open this PDF file and go to page 2, you will encounter an interesting name there. I mean, his English is great, but I wonder why this man is listed on the credits page of a coursebook for high school students. Any ideas?