What is the basic goal of any ESL program?
“Why, that’s easy”, you might say, “it is to teach the students to speak English!” If that’s the case, why do so many programs fail? In Canada, most students took French in school, but very few people can speak even passable French. In the Czech Republic, all of our students studied Russian, but they told us that after seven years of instruction, none of them could speak Russian.
Wherever we taught, we had a list of ten to twenty oral questions for each lesson.
Each question is a complete sentence, and we always asked that the student give a complete sentence for an answer. If the lesson was about the past tense, all of the oral questions were in the past tense. In every lesson, each student was asked at least one question, and they were asked in random order, so that they all stayed alert and ready to answer. In our teaching, we always used evaluation quizzes. Every few weeks we gave each student a short form to fill out. The form listed all of the things that we did in our lessons. They were asked to evaluate each of them, with a 10 for most helpful and a 1 for least helpful. We used these forms on well over 1000 students, and neither of us ever got a value of less than 7 for oral questions. Mostly they responded with an 8, 9 or 10. So we found that not only were oral questions very popular with the students, but it got them speaking in sentences, and learning proper word order.
Learning vocabulary words is not enough!
We spent a month in Spain as students in a language school. They told us to make flash cards of the vocabulary words. After a month, we both had about 600 to 700 cards, and we could parrot back the correct words pretty consistently. However, when we went into town, we were completely tongue tied when we went into a restaurant. After the waiter had left, we could carefully put together what we should have said.
Teachers all over the world know that the drop out rate of ESL students can be quite alarming. In the first cold winter we spent teaching in Eastern Europe, we found that the students were likely to get sleepy after the first half hour. We found that many got up at 5 or 6 in the morning, worked all day, and then came to class at 4 PM. Sitting comfortably in the warm room made them sleepy.We decided that it was our job the design activities that taught English, and were lively and fun enough to combat this sleepiness.
A curriculum should have lots of activities that keep students on their toes. Remember, we all like to win; we have seen lots of surgeons, lawyers, and politicians grin all over when they get a stamp on their books for winning a simple Bingo game!
From childhood, most people have been taught that they shouldn’t make mistakes. It is the job of the teacher to show the students that mistakes are OK; they are an essential part of the learning process. A curriculum should utilize the mastery approach. Students should master each segment of their learning, before they are given a lot more information to deal with. A curriculum that has a test after every few lessons accomplishes this.
I remember a class of beginners that had a test after only four lessons. All of the class got marks in the high eighties and nineties. One girl got 98% and her friend got 99%! By using the mastery approach, students can get marks like these, which abolish fear, and build their confidence.
An ESL curriculum should include small group activities in which the students work together. In this way, they help each other, and overcome any reluctance to speak English to each other.
Every school has to consider affordability. So while all of the above are major considerations, the students are going to have to be able to afford to pay for the books.