David Alexander taught EFL in Japan and London for 7 years before defecting into ESOL. He now works at a North London Further Education college teaching mostly "immigrants of necessity". He still loves the job.
Having briefly babysat my regular ESOL group recently, our school secretary declared, "Your class is very nice, aren't they." I couldn't help but agree with her, both empirically and grammatically. If we consider any language to be wholly black and white, then there is no room for shades of meaning and varieties of feeling if we try to apply it to the real world of breathing human interaction. Yes of course there is a place for Count/Uncount nouns and Subject-Verb agreement - these are useful study tools up to a point - but let us keep the cart behind the horse.
Language is organic, and languages themselves like creatures that have evolved over centuries and are still now growing and adapting to fit their change environments.
As such, 'grammars' (put together to soothe the nerves of stressed language teachers) are descriptive rather than prescriptive. For the cunning teacher, a grammar book like Swan can be used alternately as an ally to quell student voices of unrest, or can be blatantly trumped and ignored thanks to the gift of one's own insightful observations of the language usage of oneself and others.
A colleague of mine was recently wondering aloud in the staff room about adverbs of frequency, and the famous "sometimes = 50%" on the tried and trusted scale from never to always. At first I thought he was mental for even doubting this piece of omnipresent wisdom, but as he continued to try to apply the formula to real life I saw that he was right. If I say, "My wife and I sometimes eat Thai," then to what is this 50% supposed to refer? - to our restaurant outings, or to our total food intake? A real language simple doesn't fit such neat labels.
To have conviction is one's own personal observations is vital not only for a convincing language teacher, but surely also for the successful leaner. The language remains alive and full of the possibility of fresh (and potentially 'improving') manifestation precisely through being kept open to interested enquiry. If it is boxed up with an "I know this" sticker on it, it will suffocate or at least stagnate.
In the UK many of us like to think that we're pretty 'humanistic', and as teachers we try to steer clear of dictatorial pedagogy. But our 'New Age' ideologies and methodologies often run up against learner expectations that have arisen in more conservative educational climes. Students' black and whiteness can clash jarringly with our own grey or rainbow-hued strivings. What has been called 'formatory thinking' (based on the duality of correct or incorrect) abhors any ambiguity. In my opinion then it is part of my overall task to re-integrate the "excluded middle" into conservative polarisations. The constricting mindset that I refer to also casts the teacher in the role of 'transmitting station', and pupils merely as receivers of knowledge. The concept of active assimilation (partly through experimental production, partly through personal enquiry) will be new to many students, and something which even the most well-meaning of teachers can easily forget about most of the time (due to multivalent stresses of the job)... unless you're being observed.
A simple way I have seen learners' eyes open a little wider is via bringing attention from single-word focus onto the richer meanings of the idiomatic phrases they make up. What begins as a simple word (have) leads through an interesting phrasal verb (to have somebody on) into an idiomatic expression (to have it off with somebody)... And so on, like myriad branches, twigs and leaves stemming from a single trunk.
Students get bored with "studying English"; doing grammar exercises, learning word lists, answering comprehension questions, etc, and this very serious obstacle to further development - boredom - requires injections of fresh material from as many different directions as we can devise - intellectual, affective, even sensory. Bombarding your class with lots of different input is one thing, but how to motivate them into making different kinds of effort themselves and to try out new stuff with the language, push themselves?
I work in a Further Education college in the UK, teaching ESOL using the Skills for Life textbook handed down to us by the government. Two chief aims of this material seem to be to equip recent immigrants with the necessary wherewithal to carry out everyday tasks such as fill in a form for the GP; and secondly to not offend, challenge or question any individual or group no matter what their race, religion, native culture, etc etc. As such this carefully-engineered bastion of Political Correctness leaves something to be desired in terms of stimulating the class or injecting them with any enthusiasm about the English language, about British (or "English-speaking") culture, or indeed about anything at all.
It seems to me that more is needed than "using supplementary materials from time to time to give them a break from the book". The printed page (even the most sublime text) is dead, yet language needs to live within my classroom as fully as possible, else the students will not engage, will not develop.
Is there no place for the black and white? Well, if Ibrahim is asked "How are you?", I'd prefer him to answer "Fine" or "Good" rather than "Thank you". So while simplistically I say to him, "Yes, good" or alternatively make a pained and questioning expression, there are actually only degrees of apparent appropriacy in terms of his response. Even his 'Thank you' may raise some interesting questions about cultural differences. Not only is everything relative, but everything is related.
Well, luckily I continue to be fascinated with language and with my language, and the more I can infect my learners with this curiosity the better. I live in the hope that their and my understanding will grow through further questioning rather than generating correct responses.
Please check the Skills of Teacher Training course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.