How to Teach English Knowledge Instead of Teaching Skills
What comes to mind when one thinks of an English classroom? Is it organized rows of desks filled with students writing vocabulary and grammar into their notebooks while the teacher talks in the front? This is the classic image of a classroom. A student goes to school to learn what they don’t already know. When teaching English, it can be easy to fall into the trap of rote memorization and reliance on grammar and vocabulary. However, is this method effective? Does this way of learning motivate students to become lifelong learners of a foreign language? It is less useful to teach students many things than to teach them the skills needed to learn the things they don’t know. This essay will assess the current view of knowledge-based teaching versus skill-based teaching based on my own experience and look at two possible ways to teach skill-based learning in an English classroom.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Damaris L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Personal Teaching Experience
I began my teaching experience one year ago. I was allowed to be an assistant language teacher in the countryside of Japan. This has given me a unique look into the school system of a foreign country and allowed me to hone my teaching skills without being directly in charge of a classroom. In my experience, English is taught just like any other subject in Japan. Everything is geared towards an extensive entrance exam at the end of the year to either allow the students to enter high school or university. Due to this, there is a large focus on memorizing vocabulary and focusing on the grammar points present on the exams. There is a small effort to make the classroom more communicative by the sheer fact that a native speaker is current. However, this usually gets sidelined in favor of preparing for the exams. In my experience, this method has not been effective in my classrooms. Many of my students have been studying English for years and still cannot answer simple questions such as, “How are you?” They see English as a necessary evil to enter high school, rather than a tool to communicate or enjoy foreign media. According to the US Foreign Service Language Difficulty Ranking, English is complicated for native Japanese speakers to learn and can require up to 2200 hours of study to reach proficiency (Smith 2019). The hours currently spent in class don’t even come close to the amount of research necessary. Thus, it is more important to instill a motivation to learn outside of the classroom in students than fill their heads with vocabulary and grammar. Students need a practical application of English rather than theoretical information about it. To achieve this, teachers need to break up complex skills into smaller, more palatable bites and tell them why, when, and how to use the strategies we teach (Archer, A & Hughes, C. 2010).
There are four skills in language learning: listening, speaking, writing, and reading. The two that prove to be more difficult for Japanese learners are attending and speaking. Listening to examples given in class can often be dull and uninspiring. Teachers need to teach listening skills and show students how to apply those skills to something they love outside of class. There is a large amount of English media that could cater to students’ interests. For example, it can be useful to watch clips of English movies or television shows in class. A teacher can teach skills such as listening for details, inferring meaning based on context clues, and chunking out the information a little bit at a time. The activity could consist of a small clip. The students watch once and write down words that they don’t recognize. The students could then watch again and listen for those words a second time. After this, they use a dictionary and ask the teacher about tricky definitions. The students then must summarize the content of the clip. This teaches them that they have to power to understand foreign media, but it may give them the motivation to learn to continue to watch an exciting show or movie in the future.
The same method can be applied to speaking. A skill that can be taught for learning speaking is using simple words to explain a slightly more difficult word or idea. This can be done with games and activities or with worksheets. For example, a student is given a worksheet with vocabulary. They must try to think of as many other words as they can that describe the language. This teaches the skill of expressing an idea in conversation when you cannot remember the exact word or phrase. This can also be achieved in team games that use other English words to help their team guess vocabulary. This gives the students a practical way to apply the terms they know in a fun and engaging way rather than simple memorization.
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These were only two examples of activities one could use in the classroom to promote learning skills over knowledge. I hope to use these methods in my classroom in the future. I have seen firsthand how the focus on learning vocabulary and grammar with no practical way to apply it to life is ineffective in a language class. Teaching expressive skills on learning on one’s own will be better for English proficiency than a traditional classroom approach to the subject. The methods taught in this course go well with a skill-based classroom. For example, having student-centered lessons and activate phases. There should be an emphasis on communicative activities over memorization.
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