A lesson in listening.

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I thought I was a good listener, able to adapt activities and approaches to my learners’ needs, types and personalities.

However, a recent experience from teaching one-to-one reminded of this: however good I think I am in what I do, there’s always lots to improve on.

Here’s what happened.

1. First impressions, wrong conclusions.

I was approached by someone who needed preparing for a final EFL exam at an economics course. After I asked my new learner about her English exam and, hearing it was oral exam on topics from economics, I made the obvious conclusion: the focus of our lessons should primarily be speaking – and lots of it.

I also asked the usual questions about her previous experience with language learning. Among other things, she told me about her difficulties with foreign languages and how she felt she didn’t have ‘the genes’ for them. She could, however, speak basic, every-day English and was able to memorise new vocabulary from economics. Her fear was that she would be unable to put the vocabulary into more complex sentences, which might prevent her from expressing herself well on the exam. I asked her what she would like to do in our lessons and she explained that she mainly wanted me to explain the basic English grammar to her, so that she could form sentences better.

In my mind, I agreed – grammar definitely helps to achieve better fluency.

The plan was as follows:

  1. Avoid the usual “dry” grammar-translation used at schools. Focus on confidence-building, improving fluency, brushing up grammar in real context.
  2. Use many visual prompts so that we could practice talking about what we see in simple and, gradually, more complex sentences, with linkers.
  3. Prepare vocabulary flash cards for practising accurate definitions of important vocabulary on economics, based on the exam topics (money, competition, market, banks, products, etc.)

This, at least to me, was the perfect mix and, for the first lesson, I prepared a bunch of cool-looking visual prompts (photos of real people doing different jobs), all nicely lined up on my tablet, for a modern, stimulating lesson with no worksheets, textbooks, or photocopying, in which we would brush up the Present Simple and Continuous tenses in real context.

3. The revelation.

By the end of the lesson, however, I felt something wasn’t right. I was aware of my learner’s natural shyness, but I noticed there was a different kind of hesitancy, or a dissatisfaction in her reactions. Sensing how important this would be in our cooperation, I decided to ask her how satisfied she was with the lesson. She respectfully said she liked it, so I tried to ask a more direct question: what would she like to change and improve so that our next lesson would be even better?

After a small pause, she said something that made me realise that I was very wrong with my assumptions about our lessons:

“You know, I’d really like to focus on grammar, if you don’t mind.”

This simple sentence completely revealed to me what happened: the whole lesson wasn’t based on what my learner needed and asked me to do, but on what I thought my learner needed.

3. Making changes, eating humble pie.

Remembering our first meeting, I could clearly remember my learner trying to communicate her preferences to me right from the start. After all, she knew best what she needed and what suited her best.

As a teacher, I failed to respect her own experience as a learner,  interpreting her words entirely in my own way, based on my assumptions about her, forcing my approach and my preferences on her. Great….

Realising my mistake, I decided on a complete change. From our next lesson onwards, we’d focus on grammar. I’d prepare a list of all basic tenses for her and we would go through each of them, one by one, using simple charts, showing how the tenses are formed, with a little grammar-translation practice, all of which she could use for future reference at any time.

My learner looked relieved and happy.

4. Conclusion.

The second, and all subsequent lessons went well. Knowing what my learner really needed – a systematic, more formal approach to teaching grammar structures – I prepared clear, simple Power Point slides, showing how tenses are formed, starting with the Present Simple, and moving on to other tenses and grammar items relevant for intermediate level.

You can see how it works here:

In the lessons, my learner first tries to complete the provided empty grid in the first slide with the correct verb forms by herself, with my help, if necessary. Then I show the slide with completed verb forms, which she can copy into her notebook. I could simply copy the files for her in electronic form, but she prefers to write it down herself in the lesson, as it helps her to familiarise herself with the forms and gives her material for reference in her own handwriting. She then tries to translate a few sentences from L1 to L2 (written on another slide) with the given form orally. Afterwards, she checks and copies the sentences with translations from the last slide.

My job is to guide her through this process, explaining and highlighting important aspects, or correcting mistakes, if necessary. Everything else is up to her.

While this isn’t the method I would prefer, it clearly is a method my learner prefers, and she is making progress.

I hope next time, I will listen.

Really listen.

[Picture credit: courtesy of FCIT http://etc.usf.edu/clipart]


4 Comments on “A lesson in listening.”

  1. Hmm… interesting. Humble pies aren’t the easiest to eat, and it can be challenging to teach in a way we wouldn’t naturally gravitate towards, but if she is more satisfied with the approach and feels the progress, well then more power to her (and you).

    Cheers, b


    • Thanks for the comment, Brad. I thought it would be tough to teach grammar in this way, but I’m actually finding it easier than what I would have normally done.. It remains to be seen if it really works – her exams are in June next year ;)


  2. […] Steiner recalls the importance of this key teaching skill. Share this post: Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook Google Buzz-up this […]


  3. […] to your students’ needs Posted on 10 October, 2011 by Simon Thomas Marián Steiner recalls the importance of this key teaching skill.Share this post:Bookmark on DeliciousDigg this postRecommend on FacebookGoogle Buzz-up this […]


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