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A Failure of Imagination?

by Robert Buckmaster

Once upon a time a teacher came to talk to me about his advanced classes. He was worried that they didn’t seem to be making much progress and he was dreading having a learner complain about the classes. He was an excellent teacher and very conscientious. He told me that the learners seemed happy enough, worked well through the book, chatted about the topics but only seemed to note down a few new words and he wondered if that was all there was to teaching and learning at an advanced level.

We explored the issue and as I was in the same boat with my advanced teens I suggested to him that we were faced with two problems and that these were both failures of imagination.

I seem to remember that years ago when the first Headway Advanced came out John and Liz Soars noted that there hadn’t really been a concept of an advanced coursebook. Anyway, since then there have been a plethora of coursebooks at this level but sad to say they are all pretty much of a muchness, not just with each other but with books lower down the series (most books are in a series these days it seems). The same topics, the same grammar, just longer texts, with maybe a slightly wider variety of texts, with harder vocabulary. This is the first failure of imagination. I think learning at an advanced level is fundamentally different from learning at lower levels. The learners’ needs are different and how they should learn is different too and the materials they use should reflect these differences.

Advanced learners can talk, generally well enough to be understood and more than enough to cope with the speaking that they are asked to do in class. They’ve talked about the same topics over the previous years of learning; they are familiar with the issues and how to express their opinions and talking more about the same is not going to get them anywhere. In normal everyday speech we can get by with 800 or so words, so practicing these ad infinitum is not really a winning strategy.

What is needed is a different focus – on reading and writing. Advanced learners need to be exposed to a lot of different language, in detail, and need to write and rewrite a variety of different text types. This will fine tune their grammatical knowledge, improve their vocabulary and have an impact on their spoken language as well. Advanced learners need to read, dare I say it, a lot of fiction, because all life is found there, and to discuss and write about what they read. No need for a coursebook there.

The second failure of imagination – an institutional one – was the fact that the classes were of the same length and frequency as other classes. All classes seem to be two times 45 minutes, twice a week, or three times the same, twice a week. My ideal course for advanced learners would meet once a week or fortnight to discuss the reading and writing they had done between lessons.

The course materials would be a novel or set of short stories supplemented with texts of current issues and events from the internet. In between lessons the learners would read the texts, do exercises, projects and writing tasks based on these and prepare for the next lesson. The lesson itself would focus on work done and work to do.

Once a week or fortnight is not enough some might cry. Well, that’s why the internet was invented and why schools have websites. Integrated into this course would be on-line support, exercises and activities based on the course content.

Once upon another time a teacher commented on the lack of attendance at her Business English classes; it seemed that students didn’t come very often, they were in meetings, away on trips, just busy, and the mix of students constantly changed. Classes were two times 45 minutes, twice a week, the same day each week – the general English afternoon model transferred to the morning and an office somewhere. Another case of a failure of imagination.

There is no reason on earth why Business English classes should follow the same pattern as General English classes. In fact there are plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t be the same and these are that students don’t come very often, they are in meetings, away on trips, just busy, and the mix of students constantly changes.

An effective business class could meet once a week. For an hour. Not enough goes the cry. But at the risk of repeating myself for the second time, that’s why the internet was invented and why schools have websites.

Schools should invest in on-line materials to support teachers to deliver more flexible learning opportunities. Business people are too busy to block in three whole hours a week to learn a language. They would find shorter lessons with on-line support – a more efficient use of time. Reading and listening in class would be out. They could be done in the students’ own time. Lessons would be focused on talking about the reading and listening already done, dealing with topics, grammar issues, vocabulary questions and scaffolding oral communication.

Schools should even consider operating a specialist business English team and a calendar lesson system. Business people are very busy but are used to committing to meetings. Treat your business classes as one hour meetings to be scheduled a week or so in advance. Have your teachers’ schedules blocked with available slots and ask students or groups of students to book the next lesson one lesson at a time. If a teacher is not available at a preferred time the students can have the option of another teacher or a different time slot. Then they have to keep to the arrangement.

It means more admin of course, keeping track of all the bookings but attendance should go up. Classes are not classes but meetings and teachers should treat them as meetings. The agenda is the work done and the work to do.

All it takes is a little imagination, work and the internet and your classes and courses will be transformed into something more than the same old same.

Author’s Bio:
Robert Buckmaster is Director of Studies at International House Riga. He has worked in many post-Soviet countries for the British Council as a teacher trainer, project manager and educational consultant. He has a Diploma in Language Teaching Management and a Masters degree in E-Learning. He is especially interested in ESP and corpus linguistics.

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