Personal Experience in Teaching Multilingual Classes in the US
2019-06-06 Elizaveta Pachina Alumni Experiences
Having previously been a small business owner, I began teaching an English conversation class as a volunteer at my local library just over two years ago to fulfill a community service requirement for my degree program. The experience of teaching English as a second language has been so personally rewarding that I am now pursuing it as a career change.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Daniel E. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Teaching Multilingual Classes
Being in the United States, it is a multilingual class. The students are all adults from a wide variety of countries, though the majority come from Latin America. I found that the students are very appreciative of the class for primarily two reasons. First, the class is provided by the library free of charge. Many students have been surprised to find out that I volunteer my time and have expressed some confusion about the concept leading me to believe that something so common in the United States is not widely practiced in some cultures. The second reason they appreciate the class is that it gives them a sense of community. Many of the students express that they feel isolated due to the language barrier. In many cases, the student has come to the United States with a spouse who has been employed in the United States and speaks English fluently. At home, their native tongue is spoken and the student has no opportunity to practice English. They lack confidence in English to the point that even shopping causes them fear. At the conversation class, they meet others who are having the same difficulties; consequently, they find friends and feel more comfortable practicing English.
One of the first problems that I encountered was students with different ability levels. The library billed the class as an advanced English conversation class. The library offers several other English classes which focus on grammar. So initially, I was turning away beginners and referring them to the grammar classes. However, as time progressed I ended up with some family members of different levels attending my class together. The problem with different levels in a conversation class is that the advanced students end up with very little talk time because it takes the beginners so long to comprehend the questions and respond. Dividing the class into two groups became inevitable. This makes lesson planning more difficult, but I no longer have to turn people away. I try to incorporate some questions and exercises into the lesson geared toward beginners that the advanced group can skip.
Beginning of My Teaching Career
I had zero experience or training when I first started teaching the class. All I prepared was a list of questions as conversation starters. As time progressed I learned that the students were interested in correct pronunciation. I assured them that Americans love accents, but that we would incorporate pronunciation lessons into the class. This has been the most fascinating aspect of the class for me. I have learned many things about this aspect of English learning. First, most of the students have had English classes in their home countries. It is normally required in their school systems. But it is rarely taught by a native English speaker so there is no reference for correct pronunciation – the emphasis in their home countries is on grammar.
They have told me that when they first hear native English they are overwhelmed. Second, what little training in the pronunciation they have had is not detailed enough. For example, the students have no concept of voiced/unvoiced sounds, cutting the letter ‘t’ short in certain circumstances, etc. Third, in two years I have not come across a student who has been taught the schwa sound. They are completely unaware of the application of this sound. So much so that some students question me and resist the concept. Fourth, few students have ever been taught about sentence stress and linking sounds. Linking is one of the most difficult things to teach. The fifth, correct pronunciation is in part a physical problem. The muscles of the tongue and mouth need to be retrained in order to reproduce English sounds. Tongue twisters are good exercises for this. Finally, choral work is inadequate. For some time the only pronunciation exercises we did in class were done as a class together. I have recently eliminated choral work for pronunciation. Instead, after the pronunciation lesson, we break down into 3 to 4 small groups. In the small groups, the students take turns with the pronunciation exercise and problems are addressed with each student individually. I have the luxury of having two to three other volunteers working with me so that each group has a native English speaker.
Pronunciation lessons eventually led me to also include some grammar lessons. The grammar lessons have been particularly helpful for the beginning students. All in all, I try to restrict the lesson time to 15 to 20 minutes of the 90-minute class in order to maximize talk time. It seems to be working well. The students are appreciative and enthusiastic about the class which has made my experience very rewarding.
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