Teaching approaches must be attuned to the learners or clients and to the objectives of the course of study. In Japan, the ESL industry is a continuation of high school English, a long joyless slog where children and teenagers are forced to cram as much information as they can into short term memory to elevate their test scores.
All companies I worked for in Japan presented me with a textbook or textbooks for each course. Some companies were quite strict, some very flexible in what happened in the classes. Very few of my clients benefited from textbook learning.
My clients were usually adults from mid-20s to mid-60s, company employees from any level within their organisation. All of them needed to gain communicative proficiency with reading, writing, speaking and listening. All of them had years of textbooks and tests such as TESOL providing them years of evidence of their failure.
A tough place to start.
Where ever possible, I began each course by throwing the textbook away, sometimes literally where comedic effect would not be shunned. The first step was to remove the source of their failure.
I’d then engage each student in a dialogue, levelling up or down according to their presented skill levels. Always starting with, ‘How are you?’, ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ and ‘Why are you studying English?’
In this space of reduced threat and apparent lack of testing, each person is able to focus on the communicative element of the interaction rather than position themselves within a testing environment with the concomitant triggers.
The brain is not triggered by threat. Fight-flight-freeze is not engaged. Friendly rapport and in-jokes reaffirm safety. Defences go down. My reassurance goes up.
Only after the sweating, shaking and stammering stops do I ask them about their learning goals and learning styles, and investigate with them their attitudes to both learning and English.
I don’t know how else learning can take place.
What is happening in the process? Let’s review the standards to triangulate!
Test, Teach, Test
The teacher tests the students on some point, teaches the missing information, then tests again to evaluate effectiveness.
This is known as teacher-centred. Content is provided by the educational organisation and the students or clients are passive.
Present, Practice, Production
The teacher presents material and the students practice until they are able to produce that material autonomously.
This is also teacher-centred although students may choose initial content. Students are more active in the class but content is usually neither authentic nor relevant to student career needs or goals.
A trained teacher may conduct the entire course with students choosing content, encouraging each other to practice, and evaluating each other’s production. In this case, this approach is student-centred.
Task Based Learning
Choice of task is usually teacher-centred but students work together much more closely. Content is not necessarily relevant but tasks can be authentic work place situations.
This can be student-centred but is usually not.
Student Output Focussed
The teacher asks each student what their needs and goals are and helps the group choose (this works for individuals, too). The teacher encourages the students to locate resources and apply them. The teacher then guides students towards competency in chosen activities.
This is student-centred. Content is authentic.
Attempt, Discuss, Demonstrate
The teacher instigates the initial attempt by the student to communicate and then becomes passive.
The students attempt, and the teacher asks what kind of and in what style feedback would be appreciated. The discussion session based on initial attempt and stated preferences. The student then demonstrates — to themselves — changes in skills and knowledge.
This can be repeated many times for any single activity according to the student and time constraints.
This is student-centred. Content is authentic and goal-based.
I had repeated success with SOF and AFD, and even using a loose version of PPP and TBL. When they were opened at all, textbooks were merely a platform to help students tailor their learning: how does the textbook content not match what you do at work?
I had zero success using a textbook in helping my students improve their demonstrable skills or knowledge. Combining texts and externally prepared content with journaling, board work, presentations and a lot of written and verbal exchanges, I had more success.
Where content was chosen by my students and goals were stated, I was able to clearly guide them along the paths they chose. Checking if they were continuing satisfactorily or wished to change is an easy matter and always appreciated by students.
Learning requires personal investment in the process. Self-confidence builds as evidence of competency accumulates. The written word and the reduction of anxiety are the two best pieces of evidence to confirm skills acquisition.