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Can we give students what they need?

November 16, 2007

Hello again,

This summer I was lucky to find myself working in a stately home set in wonderful gardens close to the sea. Mostly I was working one-to-one with...

...highly placed professionals and executives. Because the centre specializes in English for business and professional people, and because most students wanted individual tuition, it was relatively easy to find out what the learners wanted and needed.

But most teachers are not in this position. For the more general school, the learning agenda is often set by exam boards, course books and other factors external to the learners themselves. Direct method, the communicative approach and other sacred cows of ELT sometimes make it difficult for teachers to use other ways of delivering tuition even though students may have different needs. I don’t deny the value of the communicative approach or the emphasis on language as a communication tool rather than a subject of academic study. But I think we need to widen our focus because students themselves are so diverse and have very different needs.

For students who come for short courses and use English in their work, the communicative approach is probably the best; they need intensive practice and confidence building, especially in tasks related to the workplace. But other student come for longer periods and may see their English studies as part of a carefully developed educational plan that will take them through degree studies and possible research. Such students need a much deeper understanding of English: is structure, its different registers, appropriate writing styles.

Then again many students these days are migrants or refugees who need English first as means of surviving in the new country. For them learning the language is inextricably bound up with the systems and cultural values they experience.

The question I am raising now is do we do enough to find out what students really want and have we got teachers with the adaptability and skills to be able to cope with such wide-ranging demands? I’d

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  1. Eric Roth Says:

    Good question!

    Far too often, at least in California public schools catering to immigrants and refugees in large classes, the sad answer really is "no." The official state guidelines help students master around 1500 words - enough to work in a fast food restaurant, get a job as a landscaper, and listen to instructions on a construction site. Although titled "life skills", the reality remains that most immigrants have already mastered the basic information taught within six months of arriving - usually in their native language from fellow immigrants. Addressing a letter, opening a checking account, and registering a car is rather simple - at least in California - regardless of legal status or limited English skills.
    Schools should, it seems to me, provide in-depth survey of students upon registering to find out their actual needs and desires from a formal classroom environment. The private schools, dependent on consumer choice, already use these best practices. The state funded schools, alas, lag far behind in quality - even in language instruction!

  1. Dan Says:

    I don't believe in this false distinction between the "communicative approach" and a "carefully developed educational plan". It sounds like hocus pocus the ESL cottage industry has cooked up to secure careers for all the grammarians and technicians of language. Reading good books and communicating - listening, writing, and speaking - are far superior to irrelevant grammar, boring workbook lessons, contextless games, fad methodologies and genre-focused myopia. Language is an art - it is alive - and will always be unique to each individual.

  1. Mark Morton Glasgow Says:

    By and large, it is the marketplace that determines what type of approach is appropriate in given circumstances. As teachers, unless we are at liberty to determine the needs of our students and also, the means by which we might optimally address those needs, we are bound to serve up something less.

    The real question it seems to me is what do we want? For some, the compromises inherent in given circumstances will be considered acceptable, while for others, of another philosophical bent, such compromises, would be entirely unacceptable. The question of teacher competency will be largely determined by such attitudes as well as, by academic preparation.

    It's obvious that options and foci will be different when we compare a group class with private tuition. Even in the ideal, one-to-one circumstances of private tuition with an educated professional, a teacher is often required to map out a plan, suggesting means which in themselves are not the end desired by the student. This requires a certain trust be posited in the teacher by the student. The student must feel that the teacher is competent to lead him to the desired goal in the most efficient manner possible.

    In conclusion, we as teachers, must decide what and how much, in the way of constraints, we are willing to permit in our professional lives. Having done that, the rest follows, as a natural consequence. I for one, will stake my future in adequate academic preparation, quality instruction and an uncompromising commitment to high ethical standards and professionalism.

  1. Doreen Nestor Says:

    I have been teaching ESL for over twenty years and, sadly, have yet to teach in a private school that really gives a damn about what students want. In many ways, I find understandable, as each student wants something different, and if it is not achieveable in the least amount of time with the minimum outlay, the teacher is always to blame!

    On the other hand, I worked in government-sponsored schools that required us to keep files on individual students (in classes of fifteen to twenty), which required updating each day. The teacher, in other words, was totally responsible for the student's progress! Did the "pay" in any of these schools reflect the time, effort, etc etc required? Well...no!

    The glut of so-called ESL teachers on the market made me decide that there are much easier ways of making a living. I live in Spain now and enquired recently about having 1:1 Spanish lessons in a small school here in Alicante. The hourly rate was €30 for a 15-hour block, and €34 for anything under. Within a few days I was called by the school to see if I would be interested in providing some intensive preparation over a week (7 hours max!) for an FCE student. The rate? €12 per hour!

    My odd-job man here charges me €10. I rest my case.

    P.S. Naturally, I declined their kind offer!

  1. John-Hans Melcher Says:

    Yes! A carefully developed educational plan...is a way to keep teachers in business...yet most times this is it's main achievement.

    We all need jobs...yet a person, an individual person, needing to learn a new language must realize it's harder [and to me, a waste of time] then busy- beaver book work.

    I taught the Police Spanish in Santa FE, NM. 30 phrases. They never opened a book. They knew what they were to speak in advance, they listened to their own voice speak it perfectly, and in 9 weeks. voila!

    Yes, the art form of language will always be a mystery. It's sound! It is not a carefully developed educational plan. Did you have that when you were 2? Nope. Yet, we need to do things at school. So we keep 'em busy with 'our' plans.

    Alas. Not an easy puzzle to solve!

    John-Hans Melcher


  1. Anton ELIAS Says:

    Depending whether a good needs analysis questionnaire is filled out before the course and perhaps another midway to evaluate satisfaction or to add any suggestions or comments, this would be essentially enough to know the students’ needs. As far as teachers being able to adapt to a wide-range of needs, this requires experience to achieve within the duration of the course. To know what material is appropriate or priority and how to teach it within the course time requires experience and teaching technique. So the answer to Brenda’s question is; teachers without a broad experience may not meet the demands or expectations of our students.

  1. Saleem Ullah Says:

    The first resposbility of a teacher is to know the needs , feelings and requirments of his pupils. A teacher conscious about the needs of his students become really a agent of change in the his teaching process.

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