Welcome to another issue of Modern English Teacher, wherever you are. Our theme was chosen a few months ago and I am happy we went with it. There used to be a time when certain teachers loved technology and others loathed it. After the last twelve months many of us have been forced to adopt it and I am sure the vast majority have been pleasantly surprised as to what it can add to one’s teaching. Over the same period, we have also been asked to be more conscious of our learners’ well-being, their state of mind and their behaviour, all of which are linked. We have had several international students who have been forced to stay here longer than they would have expected and that has had an impact on how they perform both in the classroom and in assessments. They have not seen their families, had home-cooking, or touched base with friends for a long time. We also have many students residing here permanently but with family outside New Zealand who might be suffering from not only the medical events of the last year but also other life-threatening phenomena.
Coping with that plethora of emotions is, therefore, an important skill for learners and teachers to be aware of and to manage, which is one reason I placed our first article where it is. I believe one of the key attributes of a good teacher is empathy, that ability to get close to the wavelength each individual learner finds themselves on on any given day. I am constantly thinking about teaching my classes as much useful language as possible, developing their skills, and offering them insights into communicating more efficiently. At the same time, I want that learning process to be as smooth as possible. What causes some of the problems is the assessments which crop up so regularly. Many of them are formative so should be less stressful, but it remains hard for learners to differentiate between summative and formative – to them they are all tests and exams. Keeping a class on an even keel through an eighteen-week semester is a challenge but one we all enjoy – at least here in New Zealand we are teaching live classes and not still online!
I have been mulling over for a few months now why some of the simplest patterns of English are so hard to put into practice. By a pattern, I mean something like using the same tense in the answer as is used in the question. More often than not, this will help you in your choice of language. The answer to ‘What are you doing this weekend?’ will probably be close to correct if you think in terms of using the present continuous. It will be even closer to fluent if you leave out as many words as possible. So ‘Going to the rugby’ would be a nice, simple, and accurate reply. Another pattern would be to follow up your answer with your own question and again limit the words, so ‘What about you?’ fits the bill nicely.
Noticing the language is a huge part of learning as I realised a few weeks back when I was out hiking (walking) in the bush (countryside). As we passed another couple, the man asked, ‘How’s your day been so far?’. This is such perfectly intuitive use of the present perfect that I replied, ‘Fine thanks, and you?’, by which time he was getting out of earshot, but the conversation was nicely completed. As a language teacher I was also thinking how right he was to use that tense. The day was not over yet. When I got back to the motel, the manager correctly asked me ‘How was your day?’, intimating my day was over, and the evening was about to start.
As teachers, it is really useful to keep notes on these perfect examples of the cement which holds conversations together and to help our learners spot them and try to use them. In terms of pronunciation, the rules for pausing are fascinating in English. It has nothing to do with the number of words and everything to do with the number of ideas. Each group of words essentially conveys some information, that is then followed by a micro pause before the next chunk is added. Sometimes the chunk can be one word, a linker for example, like but or a time marker like then. This understanding of pausing helps learners speak more clearly but, probably more importantly, helps them listen. I will be trying more of this over the next few months, it works at any level and helps bridge the outside English-speaking world to the classroom. Which is what all of us are supposed to be doing! Wherever you are doing it, stay safe and enjoy reading this issue.