Somehow, in every Intensive English Program I’ve taught in, practical English is always relegated to the lowest level classes, the beginners. Even then, we rushed through it, almost dismissively, trying to hurry them into higher levels of English–the level they need to master to pass those English proficiency exams to get into university. It’s like we forget that our students will be living in an English-speaking community for years while they work on their degrees.
Living life in practical English
Yes, our students want our help in achieving the desired score to gain entrance into a university where they can take classes in their major and eventually graduate in triumph. But most of them also want to live in the community where they are–it’s why they traveled thousands of miles from home when they could have been taking online classes in their pajamas. They want to make connections with the people around them. They want to talk with and socialize with new friends, classmates, even neighbors. Is the English we teach in the classroom helping them with that?
Will this be on the test? vs. Does anyone really say it that way?
Falling into the trap of teaching with the purpose of helping our students pass an exam is soooo easy in an IEP (Intensive English Program). It’s what they’re paying for after all. And truly, that IS all that some are interested in. Those are the easy ones. We can help them master all the rules, give them all the practice they need to get the score they want, and then after they have that score, we’re done. We brought them to a finish line, but is that line on the edge of a cliff?
Personally, I’ve always loved it when a student interrupts to ask, “But does anyone say it like that?” The answer, too often, is no. We don’t speak in the formal, stilted English that we teach–the English they need for those overly-important English-proficiency exams. Practical English isn’t generally covered in books, and when it is, it’s formal.
The students who only learn that are easily identified in a university class–they’re the ones sitting with others who speak the same first language. They’re the ones who aren’t chosen to join group projects and are avoided for pairwork. Others think talking with them is difficult and stressful. Conversations with them are not likely to yield a richer understanding of their culture because they either aren’t comfortable using English to talk about even superficial topics beyond a sentence or they don’t know how.
On the other hand, the international student who is comfortable socializing in English with others is often sought after. Others want to know more about them and where they’re from. They are interested in their opinions, thoughts, culture, and perspectives.
How do we get from “hi, how are you?” to discussions on current events with native speakers?
Stepping stones. It’s all about crossing that river with stepping stones. Students aren’t going to magically be comfortable talking with native speakers once they finish the language school and move on to university, even if they were active participants in class discussions on a variety of topics. They need practice with native-speaking students as well. To get that, your students will have to talk to people OUTSIDE your class, outside the language school, outside their circle of international classmates.
Role plays provide a starting point for practical English.
With role-plays, students can first practice practical English in a risk-free environment–the class where you, the teacher, know about the affective filter and how to set up a supportive context within a setting that is as authentic as possible.
This doesn’t mean give them a topic and tell them to act out a situation–unless you’ve got a class of high-level, outgoing students. Most classes, most students, will find greater success with some props like a list of essential vocabulary, a provided dialogue that they unscramble and then practice, a script, and/or scenario and character cards to build from.
First, acting out what to say and how to respond in various situations in class will give your students the confidence they need to try it OUTSIDE your class. And that, frankly, is where the magic is going to happen. Not in your class. Not under your direction. But you will have definitely helped to make it possible.
They didn’t come just to pass a test.
And then the finish line won’t be at the edge of a cliff. They won’t have learned English just to pass a proficiency exam and then spend the next few years with books as their closest companions. They’ll be active participants in class discussions at university, meeting their group project members to go out, not just work on the project. They’ll make those connections at university and within their communities that they’ll remember for a lifetime.
Because THAT is why they traveled thousands of miles. Not pass just to pass a test and get a degree–it’s an online world, more so than ever before. They could have done from the comfort of their own homes. They wanted more. Help them get that practical English.
Read more about teaching adult ESL!
- 3 Powerful Reasons to Incorporate Conversational Visits in a Speaking Activity
- Adult ESL: Honest Tips From the Trenches
- Free Talking: Getting Low-Level ESL Students to Talk
- Two Priceless Adult ESL Teaching Tips to Always Remember
- 12 Exciting Ways to Use TED Talks with Adult ESL
Going out to eat is a common social event in just about any culture. Food makes a great starting point in conversations. Hands have something to do, and chewing provides a few extra moments to think before responding. Plus, we’ve all got to eat, right? Subscribe to my newsletter and grab this FREE page of dialogue prompts for your students to use in pair work.