My trainees’ 10 (+1) maxims of teaching

by Chia Suan Chong

Many CELTA trainers I know have taken the foreign language class out of their CELTA timetables in favour of other more ‘practical’ input sessions such as classroom management. But looking back at the times when I was training up to be a teacher, I realised how some of the most valuable lessons I had learnt have come from those demo foreign language lessons and decided to give it top priority by dedicating a good 60 minutes to it on Day 1.

But before looking at the reasons why I’ve chosen to do so, let me first outline the foreign language lesson that I usually deliver. And for those teacher trainers out there who claim not to speak a foreign language, I hope this brief lesson plan would serve to reassure you that you do not need to speak a foreign language well to carry this out.

I usually do the foreign language lesson in either Chinese or Japanese, depending on the profiles of the candidates. Evidently, I’d choose the language that trainees are most unfamiliar with.

Materials: 6 items of realia – A box of English tea, a tin of green tea, a bottle of milk, a jar of coffee, a can of Coca Cola and a bottle of mineral water.

Procedure: I greet the students in the foreign language, and set out the items on the table. I start with one item, say, the English tea, modelling, drilling chorally and then individually. I then do the same with the second item, the green tea, before moving back to the English tea and the green tea again. Every time I introduce a new lexical item, I go back and drill those that I had done previously.

When the six items are drilled sufficiently, I draw a chair and a table on the board with a customer sitting and a waiter standing. Because my drawing abilities are so bad, I mime the waiter with my scarf over my arm just to ensure understanding of the context. I then mime the following dialogue line by line, but with the introduction of each line, I drill the phrase and everything I covered before.

Waiter: Hello

Customer: Hello

Waiter: What would you like?

Customer: I would like some English tea/coffee/water/etc…

In pairs, students role-play the dialogue with the help of the dialogue written on the board.

I then add  the rest of the dialogue.

Waiter: Would you like anything else?

Customer: I would also like some milk/Coca Cola/ etc…Thank you.

Waiter: Thank you.

Again, in pairs, the students role-play the dialogue. Just before they swap roles, I erase the dialogue off the board and have students do the role-play from memory.

At the end of the demo, the trainees discuss what they think each phrase from the dialogue meant in English and how they felt during the lesson.

On a recent CELTA course, after a rigorous introduction to Japanese, my trainees were also given the task of formulating maxims for their own teaching, in the hope that it would contribute to feelings of ownership of the ‘maxims’.

Here are their 10 +1 maxims.

1. Thou shalt allow lots of repetition.

This was the first point that lots of the trainees mentioned. They realised how important repetition was and passionately stated that no matter how many times I allowed them to repeat ‘mizu’ (water), each time was precious to them and a chance to review and etch the word into their memory.

2. Thou shalt not make students feel bad for not remembering. Instead make them feel relaxed.

The phrase ‘energetic antenna’ is starting to make a regular appearance on my CELTAs. The teacher is the energetic antenna of the group in the same way a manager of a team conducts the energy and affects the dynamics of its members. The teacher is therefore responsible for fostering an enjoyable, friendly and relaxed atmosphere conducive to making mistakes and learning. After all, as I always say to my students, ‘if you don’t make mistakes, I don’t have a job.’

3. Thou shalt drill! drill! drill!

A more experienced trainee came to me during the break and asked if I was advocating the audio lingual approach or the direct method. Although I’ve had lots of experience with the Callan Method in my early days of teaching, it was important to get across to him that a multi-method ‘cream of the crop’ approach (where we select and pick the ‘cream’ or the best of each approach/methodology to suit the occasion and the student) was what we hope to encourage (and not the ‘CELTA method’ which some cynics seem to complain about).

4. Thou shalt not overload students with too much information.

Although it is never wise to overgeneralise, I suggested to trainees that for a 40-minute CELTA lesson, it is perhaps appropriate to introduce 7-10 pieces of new lexis (if lexis is the main aim), but it was also a good opportunity to highlight the fact that words like ‘orenji jusu’, ‘coca cora’, ‘cohee’, etc were easier due to their similarities to English, and therefore allowing us to include more than 10 pieces of lexis in that lesson.

5. Thou shalt teach lexis in chunks.

Several trainees were puzzled by the meaning of certain words in the phrases I taught them. When encountering ‘cohee o onegaishimasu’ for ‘coffee please’, I overheard some of them wondering out loud what ‘shimasu’ might mean. But ultimately it did not matter,  for as long as they knew that the whole expression ‘onengaishimasu’ was one that allowed them to ask for favours in Japanese, our job was done.

6. Thou shalt train students to tolerate ambiguity.

A skill that is so important to every language learner – the ability to face unknown language items and not suffer a psychological block or a deflation of one’s self-esteem. The language classroom can already make the most powerful of business people feel like a child – one without control of his/her environment and not able to achieve what must be one of the most basic of human abilities – the ability to communicate. It is thus extremely vital that learners realise that there will be times when lots of words will be unknown and that is okay. We can still try to guess the meaning from context. And more importantly, for learners to understand that language learning is a long process. One of my trainees exclaimed today that we had spent 40 minutes and had only learnt a short dialogue at a cafe. Language learning is like a race with no end, a run where the destination is unclear…and we all know that these kinds of runs can be psychologically exhausting. That’s why it is all the more important that we enjoy the journey and the small successes that we achieve.

7. Thou shalt use visuals.

The trainees clearly found the use of realia was novel and motivating, and mentioned that it was important to cater to more visual learners. This also included the writing down of the dialogue on the board so that trainees were able to see the words and not just hear them. My co-tutor doing the session on learner styles tomorrow is going to have the trainees all prepped and mentally ready for that session!

8. Thou shalt motivate the learners.

Several trainees commented on the importance of the lesson being fun, and the trainer being energetic and engaging. The teacher of course does not have to be jumping around like they are high on an overdose of ADD medication. The teacher is not a performer and does not have to behave like mad ol’ me. A teacher can be calm, sedate and relaxed and still motivate and engage their learners all the same.

9. Thou shalt correct the students’ mistakes, albeit judiciously.

This seems obvious but I was once told that one of the most frequent complaints that students make to managers is that they don’t get corrected enough. Students pay to be corrected, so as long as you do it in a friendly, supportive and encouraging way, and in a way that doesn’t interrupt that fluency too much, correction should be a feature of the language classroom. And I encourage my trainees to do so from Day 1 of their CELTA.

10. Thou shalt set a context and present language in context.

Probably a cornerstone of the communicative approach to teaching, the context-based presentation creates a place in the brain for learners to ‘put’ the new language and this therefore helps learners to retrieve the new language more efficiently and effectively. But my trainee today probably gave a less-noted, but equally valid reason for presenting language in context : it is more fun and shows you directly how you can use the language. He claimed he was now looking forward to going to a Japanese cafe and putting the language he had learnt to good use.

+1. Thou shalt encourage lots of student talking time and only quality teaching talking time.

Okay, this is a +1 because it is the one I deviously slipped in so it actually came from me rather than the trainees…although some of the trainees did mention the importance of the use of clear and graded speech, gestures, and facial expressions to ensure understanding – a tenuous link to ‘quality teaching talking time’ I admit, but nevertheless useful. Related to the importance of increased practice in the language classroom, increased student talking time is achieved by encouraging pair/group work, and multiple opportunities to rehearse the language taught.

So there they are – the ten (+1) maxims that my trainees formulated all on their own.

Ten (+1) maxims that beautifully describes the foundation of the SLA (Second Language Acquisition) principles and the communicative approach.

Ten (+1) maxims that I will be holding them to throughout the teaching practice lessons on the CELTA and throughout their teaching career.

And here is a published article to remind them that I will.

Author’s Bio: Chia Suan Chong currently runs General English and Business English classes, in addition to teacher training(CELTA) courses at International House London, and has been active at conferences speaking about ELF, Dogme, Systemic Functional Grammar, and Pragmatics. Active on Twitter, Chia loves a good debate and blogs regularly at