No Spanish in the classroom?

Being a reflective teacher is an important element of professional development because it makes you think about your teaching practice. It’s quite useful to ask yourself why you are teaching the way you are teaching. Reflecting on your work isn’t always a pleasant process because it can lead to opening a can of worms. However, I think that admitting that you got something wrong can help you improve as a teacher even if it means denting your ego.

I spent eighteen months after completing my CELTA oblivious of any real professional development. I just kept doing what I thought was correct at the time. Fortunately, I decided to study for Delta Module One, and reading ELT books made me question things for the first time in my teaching career. For example, when I was tasked with assessing students’ speaking skills, it involved asking them to draw a card with a random topic and giving them a minute to prepare a monologue. When I read Testing for Language Teachers by Arthur Hughes, I found out that this is not a recommended procedure because it makes learners unnecessarily stressed. The book helped me explore some more considerate and effective ways of assessing speaking.

No Spanish in the classroom?

All teachers makes mistakes, particularly at the beginning of their careers. My biggest one was persisting with the No Spanish! policy for quite a long time. In my defence, I taught a multilingual group of students during my CELTA course, so it was necessary to rely only on English. It took me a while to realise that penalising Colombian students for using their native language wasn’t a good strategy. Everyone else seemed to be doing that as well, so I didn’t see any problem with enforcing the rule.

Again, I needed an intervention from the outside to show me that there are other perspectives on the topic of L1 use in the classroom. When I decided to focus on teaching monolingual classes in Colombia for my Delta Module Three assignment, I needed to research the area. The role of learners’ native language is a key issue, so I started reading more about it, and Vivian Cook’s article Using the First Language in the Classroom proved to be a game changer in this regard.

There are solid arguments for using only L2 in the classroom, and I completely understand how the direct method came about. However, it doesn’t seem to be the best options for monolingual environments such as Colombia. Cook says that the interaction between L1 and L2 is a fact of life and fighting against it doesn’t make much sense. He suggests treating learners’ mother tongue as a useful resource and taking advantage of it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean promoting unrestricted use of the native language in the classroom because that would be taking things to the other extreme. If possible, L1 should be used in a more principled way. For example, there are a lot of cognates between English and Spanish, and it’s pretty useful to expose students to them. In fact, that’s what I relied on when I moved to Colombia with limited knowledge of the Spanish language. This inevitably means exploring the area of false friends to avoid misunderstanding. I don’t see any harm in looking at similarities and differences in some grammar structures either. 

I also think that using L1 when it comes to lexical chunks can help you save valuable class time. Let’s use the expression it’s worth it as an example. When you encounter it in a text, you can spend a couple of minutes trying to clarify its meaning using some contrived examples, and there is still no guarantee that it will be fully understood by everyone in the classroom. Using its Spanish equivalent vale la pena will immediately resolve that issue. L1 can be very useful in terms of class management too, particularly with beginners. I see no point in torturing students who have just started learning the language with English-only instructions when you can help them out using their mother tongue in case they are struggling with a task.

In addition, I have no qualms about using translation activities in my lessons. I am not advocating for the return of the outdated grammar-translation method that doesn’t pay any attention of speaking. Asking my students to translate a hoax message I had received through WhatsApp can help kick-start a discussion about fake information on the internet, and I see no issue with including fun stuff like that in my lessons from time to time. I recommend watching Philip Kerr’s webinar The return of translation for more information on the topic.

When I look back at the beginning of my teaching career, there are a few memories that now make me say to myself That was a bit daft, wasn’t it? and banning the use of L1 in the classroom was undoubtedly one of them. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help us address various misconceptions. I think it’s really important for us teachers to be open-minded and willing to change our stance in case we encounter evidence suggesting that our students may not benefit from our actions.

Mike Long: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

When you start teaching English in Colombia in an entry-level position, you are usually given a coursebook and told how many units you are supposed to cover. I assume this is common in many parts of the world because it’s the most convenient way to teach languages. However, it doesn’t seem to be the most effective approach. It’s definitely a good idea to explore other options, so I would like to focus on a book written by Michael H. Long, a proponent of Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT).

Long’s work deserves a lot of attention, and I recommend that you listen to this interview with him on the SLB Podcast. I had written a draft of this blog post about his book Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching several months ago, and this paragraph originally included more positive information. Sadly, Professor Long passed away in February this year. You can read more about this brilliant scholar and his impact on teachers around the world on this website created in his memory.

Mike Long: Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching

The first part of the book deals with second language acquisition (SLA). I find this topic fascinating because the fine details of our language learning process are still shrouded in mystery. Long does a great job of describing the main SLA theories and their practical implications. Even though I had previously studied ideas of well-known academics like Krashen and Prahbu, I learnt something new about their work. Right from the beginning, you will notice that Long is very diligent when it comes to referring to books and studies. In fact, there are no fewer than 56 pages of references at the end of Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching!

Long argues against treating languages as objects, and he is definitely not a fan of the synthetic approach. Dividing a foreign language into small pieces and teaching them one at a time doesn’t necessarily lead to good results. My own experience as a Spanish learner and an English teacher certainly confirms that assumption. Why do so many Colombian students say “he have” when the present simple is dealt with in one of the first units of every coursebook for beginners? I don’t think that we learn languages by simply imitating what the teacher or the coursebook says. Half of my students keep saying I am agree, but I have never taught them that and it doesn’t appear in the coursebook either. It seems that explicit teaching of individual items doesn’t always work well in real life.  

Obviously, Long proposes TBLT as a more appropriate way of teaching languages. What I love about his book is the fact that it’s not just about language. Long talks about the role of education and TBLT’s philosophical principles, and emphasises the need to treat students as rational human beings. Learning by doing, emancipation and egalitarian teacher-student relationships are one of the principles mentioned, and I think it’s difficult to disagree with any of them. I definitely feel more comfortable when my students see me as a communication partner rather than a person of authority who is meant to lecture them about the wonders of English grammar.

The book provides you with concrete steps for implementing Task-Based Language Teaching in a classroom setting. Long suggests abandoning coursebooks, which may seem like a radical idea, but there are pretty good reasons for that. If you want your course to be truly personalised and relevant, you need to conduct a needs analysis and design the course for your group of students from scratch. In addition to syllabus design, the book deals with materials, methodological principles and evaluation. It also provides useful advice related to focus on form and giving negative feedback to students.

Everything in the book makes perfect sense to me and I have no doubt that TBLT is very effective. Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching should be read by those responsible for the way English is taught in their organisation. That said, as Long himself admits, his version of TBLT is unlikely to replace traditional coursebook-driven teaching. To be honest, I can’t imagine many Colombian institutions spending money on needs analyses, course design and training teachers in TBLT when they can simply adopt a structural syllabus provided by a coursebook. It just doesn’t seem to be a financially viable option.

I would love to get a chance to work on a TBLT project at some point in the future. In the meantime, I plan to keep going beyond the coursebook as much as possible because I believe that my students benefit from using English in a meaningful manner. Even if your course ends with a discrete-point test of grammar and lexis, it’s perfectly fine to deviate from an externally imposed syllabus from time to time. Designing tasks and materials that are more relevant for your learners is undoubtedly more demanding than just following your coursebook, but it will lead to a more satisfying experience for both you and your students.