Some Further Reflections on 30 Years of EFL/ELT Teaching and Training
Sandra Piai is a freelance teacher trainer and proofreader. She has over 30 years’ experience in ELT and has held academic positions such as PG Coordinator on Master’s programmes at the Universities of Sussex and St Andrews. Prior to this, Sandra worked for the British Council. She has presented at many conferences, and has given EFL/ELT workshops in countries in Africa, Asia and Europe, the last ones taking place in Bolzano, Italy in October 2021. She has also published in professional journals, including in HLT on three occasions. During the pandemic last year, Sandra did mainly proofreading work, but she was also involved in creating a website for teachers to upload their favourite lesson plans to be shared among the teaching community, see: https://www.skyeonlineenglish.com/lesson-plans/
In the article I wrote for HLT early last year (Piai 2021), I reflected on how rewarding indirect feedback from your students can be. Feedback comes not only in various forms but also at various times. Sometimes things we do naturally or take for granted both in and outside the classroom can have a lasting effect on students and/or colleagues, often without our realising it. I read someone on social media calling it the “ripple effect”, which seems to sum up what I am trying to describe very aptly.
This was reinforced last summer when I heard from a friend of one of my boys. He had had several jobs since finishing university, mainly in caring roles, and he was now doing English supply teaching in local primary schools where we live in Italy. He said he had been motivated to do this by the memory of his first ever introduction to English in my kitchen. At the time, he didn’t know my son and for me he was just another “private lesson”. I had no idea our paths would cross again later or that he would remember his lessons with me so positively. I was able to recommend a Cert TESOL course to him and, happily, he received his qualification before the end of last year, over 30 years after his first lesson in my kitchen. An example of rather delayed feedback, but also a nice ripple effect, too.
Coincidentally, not long after this, Dario got in touch via social media. I knew he had gone to university in London and had stayed on there working, but I didn’t know he was now back in Italy. He mentioned his lessons in my kitchen, too, and how I had stimulated his interest not only in language but also literature and writing. Although he was Spanish, his parents had put him in the English section at school and he came to me for private lessons from the age of seven. His English came along in leaps and bounds (in my kitchen), but I felt he lacked some of the cultural language and background that British children grow up with such as the Nursery Rhymes and songs we teach in the second language classroom, but perhaps not so much in the first language one, and books like The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and some of Beatrix Potter’s Tales. He is now considering taking a year off to write and while, obviously, most of his love for literature came from his English teachers in secondary school, I can’t help wondering whether the seeds weren’t sown in my kitchen. Another ripple effect – if seeds can cause ripples.
I also read The Wind in the Willows with another little boy, Thomas, who frequented “the kitchen”. His family were German, but he and his sister had been born in the United States when his father was working there. He was in the German kindergarten, but his parents didn’t want him to lose his fluency in English as he wouldn’t be doing English at school until he went into first year primary. We played lots of games, sang songs and read books together. On the way to Germany by train one holiday, Thomas was going to throw his sweet wrapper out the window (this was in the days when you could open windows on trains) and when his horrified Mother told him that he couldn’t do that, his reply was, “Well, the weasels would”. So he got more out of The Wind in the Willows than I had envisaged, and what an unexpected way to receive feedback. (For any of you reading this who do not know The Wind in the Willows, the weasels are the villains).
Another child who had the “kitchen” experience lived just round the corner from us. Paola was also seven years old and was in the French section at school because her father was Belgian, even though they always spoke Italian at home. She was having extra French lessons outside school as well as coming to me for English, which she was doing as second language at school. She was a very sweet child, but shy and probably struggling to cope with all these extra lessons on top of school work. She had an amazing talent for drawing and colouring, so most of what we did was based around this. Nevertheless, nothing seemed to change at school and I was on the point during the Christmas holidays of telling her father that I thought they should perhaps consider sending her to an Italian school, when, all of a sudden completely out the blue, there was a breakthrough and she started speaking. Not just words, but complete sentences; all that time when we had been drawing and talking about what we were doing she had been internalising the language. Probably the fact that she could draw much better than me also gave her confidence a boost. That’s what I mean about how important it is to listen to our students, silence can also be a sign of learning. In private lessons the rapport is clearly different from that in a class of 25, or even more, pupils, but we should never write off students; sometimes a change of teacher, or a change of class, or simply a change of seating position can be enough to make a difference.
A class of young learners at a state school in the north of Spain used to break into song whenever we did a drawing or colouring activity. I always left 5-10 minutes at the end of a lesson for some sort of art and craft based on the vocabulary we had been practising in the lesson. Their favourite song was Tommy Thumb, and when they were drawing, pasting or colouring, one child would start singing and gradually the whole class would join in. It was a great feel good feeling to hear them singing whilst they worked. Is that indirect feedback, too? I’m not sure, but it shows they were happy in the classroom and comfortable with interacting spontaneously.
I did some drama with a class of reluctant-to-speak teenagers, also in the north of Spain. They worked in groups to present the different scenes of a Superman sketch (Case & Wilson, 1979). The groups themselves decided who would play which part and who would be the prompter and the stage director. They had 15 minutes to practise, and then the show would start. Several students told me after the lesson that it was a great way to practise speaking and we should do it more often. Praise (and positive feedback) indeed.
That is not to say all my lessons have been successful or that I have had a great relationship with all my students. I remember a very difficult class of elementary level young teenagers in Spain, when it took me well into the new year to build up any sort of positive relationship. Yet I tried everything: class contracts, the famous carrots of the previous article, plenty of short activities to keep a good pace to the lesson, but they were still a pretty disruptive bunch. I even asked a colleague to sit in on one of the lessons to give me feedback and she pointed out a couple of things I had not noticed or taken into consideration, but the situation didn’t really improve, and I used to dread these classes. Then one lesson I prepared the board in advance and wrote: This lesson we are working the Silent Way. There is a handout on your desk, read it carefully and follow the instructions. If you need help, raise your hand. You are not allowed to speak. On the handout, the students were told to write between 6-8 questions to the person sitting next to them asking about their home. They were told they would use the answers to these questions to write a short paragraph about their partner’s home, so to think carefully about the questions. They were all so surprised at this approach, that after a lot of looking at each other quizzically and shrugging their shoulders, they got on with the task. Questions were duly exchanged and answered, and the short paragraphs were written, all without a word being spoken. It was pure bliss. However, the lesson did require quite a bit of monitoring to ensure everyone was on track. When they had finished their paragraphs they were allowed to speak and we then stuck the paragraphs round the walls and everyone mingled to read what everyone else had written. I really hadn’t expected the lesson to go so smoothly, but reflecting on it afterwards, not every young person in that group was disruptive, some really wanted to participate more. Moreover, we often get our students to work in pairs and/or groups, but perhaps sometimes we overlook the fact that the shyer person also likes time on his/her own and nearly everyone appreciates thinking time, so perhaps coming into a silent classroom met these students’ needs?
How important rapport with our students is. In my experience, students are always interested in their teachers. The students in my foundation class in Turkey were fascinated by the fact I was British and had a British family, but at the same time lived in Italy and had an Italian family too. This class was the weakest of the foundation classes and my co-teacher and I introduced a Learner-centred Letter Writing project in the hope of encouraging them to write more in a less stressful situation (Piai & Shah, 1997). We bought them exercise books and we wrote joint letters to every student in the class and the students had to respond to one of us for homework. After that it was up to the students how often they wrote, we just promised to answer every letter they wrote and that everything they did write would be completely confidential. It was really interesting to see how their written work slowly improved over the year, and the students themselves could see the progress by the length of their later letters in comparison with the first ones. We did not correct their work, but would sometimes make comments such as ‘I couldn’t understand your second sentence, how could you rephrase it?’ Or ‘Are you sure you have used the correct tense in paragraph 2?’ It was quite time consuming – it would be so much easier today with computers and perhaps blogging rather than writing letters – but it was worth it to see the students’ confidence increase and it created a bond between us and them. We learnt about one student’s Grandpa with dementia who regularly went missing, another student’s struggle with his sexuality, as well as what they did in the evenings or at weekends, their dreams and ambitions, and some asked questions about English, too.
Is classroom rapport something that develops naturally? Or is it something we can work on? Looking at my notes for this follow up article, I notice that most of my memories of good rapport are with first time courses or lessons. Is it because we automatically put more time and effort into preparing when we meet new students for the first time? Very probably. I ran my first Cert TESOL course in Scotland in 2001 and I am still in contact with some of the trainees 20 years later. I have run several Cert courses over the years, but only on two other courses have I remained in contact with trainees. Cert courses are, of course, different from General English courses and trainees and trainers tend to gel quickly, although there can also be personality clashes. One course director on a Cert I moderated had had sleepless nights over a difficult trainee, and it reminded me of my difficult class of YLs some years earlier. I suggested that he wrote in the Trainee Handbook, as well as stating at interview, that trainees who had difficulty in adapting to course regulations could, after a written warning, be asked to leave. Which sounds very draconic, but is it fair that due to some incompatibility of character/personality, one trainee can upset the dynamics of a course to such an extent? Especially when on certificate courses we only have four weeks to get something right? Sometimes we just have to admit things aren’t working and move on. That is true of the classroom too, when a lesson which we have invested so much time and effort in flops for no apparent reason. Perhaps we were too invested in it and had not taken our students’ age or level or interests sufficiently into account? Perhaps the weather played a part? Why do we sometimes get incompatible personalities? We will never know. Reflect and move on.
We can also support learning, even if we are not directly teaching. I sent the previous Romeo article on my reflections to a friend and former colleague in Scotland for feedback, and she asked if she could send it on to an applicant for her Master’s programme in ELT. This applicant was an American student who was having second thoughts about doing the programme and committing to teaching. However, she read the article and it convinced her to do the programme after all. When you hear you have given ideas or suggestions to colleagues, which have been successful, it makes you reflect that in some small way you have perhaps made a difference to students’ lives, and possibly caused a small ripple.
About the same time, I heard from someone I proofread for on occasions. She emailed me to let off steam about her undergraduate students at a German university. She was having difficulty motivating them in her online seminars during the pandemic. I sent her a few ideas that I had used to engage teenage students in CLIL classes, and some time later I heard from her again. Her online seminar on migrants and the migration problem was getting little response from the students when she remembered one activity I had suggested involving stem sentences. So she dictated some of these randomly, such as: if I were a migrant, I would .....; if I had no job no prospects, and a family to feed, I would .....; if people smugglers offered me a place in a lorry to reach Europe, I would .....; and so on. The fact she personalised the situations not only involved the students in the topic much more than she had expected, but also motivated her to find different ways to personalise future seminars. So, positive feedback from both students and the teacher.
Finally, I noticed on Linkedin recently that a former colleague had written a tribute to one of her university tutors, obviously a very caring and dedicated woman, who had died. I commented on how lucky she was to have been taught by this tutor. She wrote “Yes, very. And to have worked with you”. Which was just such a lovely thing to say, and something I was not expecting, but which made me feel that these 30 plus years working in EFL/ELT have been more than worthwhile.
So, if I had to sum up what I consider the most important things I have learnt about teaching over these last 30 years or so, I would say: always reflect on your lessons, always challenge your learners, always listen to their feedback, create a positive, humanistic learning environment, and always listen to your learners – even their silences.
Case, D. & K. Wilson (1979). Off-Stage! Sketches from the English Teaching Theatre. London, UK: Heinemann Educational Books
Piai, S (2021). Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou, Romeo? Humanising Language Teaching: 2021/1. https://www.hltmag.co.uk
Piai, S. & T. Shah (1997). Learner-centred Letter Writing. Independence: Newsletter of the Learner Independence Sig: Issue 20. IATEFL Whitstable, Kent, UK
Carle, E. (1969). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. US: World Publishing Company; UK: Penguin Books
Grahame, K. (1908). The Wind in the Willows. London, UK: Methuen & Co
Milne, A.A. (1926). Winnie the Pooh. London, UK: Methuen & Co; US: Dutton
Potter, B. (1902). The Tale of Peter Rabbit. London, UK: Frederick Warne & Co
Rosen, M. (1989). We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. UK: Walker Books; US: Margaret K. McElderry Books
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Some Further Reflections on 30 Years of EFL/ELT Teaching and Training
Sandra Piai, UK