I’m currently doing a teacher trainer course and my brain is short-circuiting, so I really need to get my head round what’s going on. I have a big problem with pro forma lesson plans, treating learners as if they were blank sheets to be written on, or empty vessels to be filled with teacher-led, timed and taught, prefabricated solutions looking for a problem; imposing our own schemata on the minds of others and calling it teaching. Piaget would turn in his grave.

Anyway, here’s a quick run through one of yesterday’s classes in the hope it will explain why I simply can’t bring myself to follow a general English course book or use any sort of linguistically focused or sequenced synthetic syllabus.

I have a class of nine 11 to 14 year olds who come to class with me after a long day at school for a one hour class twice a week. They’re all totally different in their own way, from different backgrounds and even cultures, boys and girls, and most importantly they all have different levels and abilities. By way of example, I’ve got one boy who chats away to me quite naturally in English throughout the class, and others who only know how to say a few things in English. Some of the poor creatures are embroiled in disaterous CLIL classes at school where they are neither learning content nor English, but that’s another issue for another day.

If I had to do an honest needs analysis for the group I’d say that what they all need is to have fun, get on well with each other, make friends, learn to cooperate and communicate, be accepted as they are and feel safe and encouraged to learn in an environment where not knowing is par for the course rather than something to be ashamed of. In fact I’d go so far as to say that my teaching objectives are more to do with creating the environment for learning to take place than actually teaching them anything at all in the traditional sense. Language learning should be the result of something much more engaging and interesting, not the goal. Language itself is a medium that we use to get more important things done. How many kids acquire vocabulary through playing computer games?

Anyway, what do you actually do then with a mixed level group of pre-teens? To start off the class I did something I don’t normally do, just to see how they would react. I started by pre-teaching question formation and eliciting questions from the group. One boy suggested “What do you mean?” as an example question, then started to imitate Justin Bieber, another suggested “Can I pay by credit card?” a question they had “chunk learned” in a previous class. When one of the kids commented that this was “just like school” I quickly abandoned my temporal PPP madness and got on with business as usual; uppercase TBLT.

No materials, no worksheets, no gap fills, no pre-teaching, no modelling, no preconceived route to follow, just a simple task.

  • One of you is a tourist who wants information on shops, restaurants, things to do, places to go, what to buy… and the other is a local who happens to be walking along the same street. Work out a dialogue between the two of you and then perform the dialogue at the end of the class.

I love this sort of task because I never know what will happen. There is always some degree of healthy competition between the pairs to see who can come up with the most original and creative role-play. They work together on the role play, come up with ideas, ask me what they don’t know and at the end of the class do the performance. I record the dialogue on the iPad and then we watch the performances and have a good laugh. In one of the role plays they ended up going off for a coffee, in another the tourist turned out to be a mugger, in yet another there was a three year time lapse in the middle when the tourist came back seeking revenge for having been wilfully sent in the wrong direction.

Could I ever hope to match the creativity and ingenuity of my learners?