Learning by doing – A personal insight into teaching


My ‘baptism of fire’ experience of teaching came in the 3rd year of my language degree course, when I was despatched to a small town that I had never heard of in central Spain, to work as an EFL language assistant teaching in two Spanish secondary schools. Nothing could have prepared me for what surprises awaited me in that medieval town of Ávila, and certainly not the short taster course provided by the British Council. My stupid assumption was that ‘assistant’ meant assisting the classroom teacher ie providing speaking and listening practice to small groups of students – big mistake! My role was interpreted in different ways, depending on the teacher, to the extent that I found myself on occasions with a class of 40 boisterous, hyperactive teenagers, who generally had no clue about English, and little inclination to learn. It was a case of ‘sink or swim’, and luckily I rapidly found a way, not only of managing them, but actually getting them to learn something too.


4 Key ingredients to the ‘cake’!


My major discovery at that tender age of 19 was that effective language learning is all about FARV (yes, no misspelling there!); my own mnemonic for what I believe are 4 key ingredients to the ‘cake’ of language learning – FUN, ATTAINABILITY, RELEVANCE and plenty of VARIETY! For me, these ingredients are vital to any method of language learning and for any age.


1. Fun


In terms of FUN, whilst some ‘serious’ adult learners may deny it, practically everyone enjoys some kind of fun or discovery activity in their language learning. There is nothing that promotes spontaneous language production and unconscious learning more than the use of a role play, group survey task, flash card game, quiz, puzzle, board game, problem-solving scenario or indeed any kind of activity that enables learners to play act, compete or experiment with the language. Some learners’ favourites over the years have been the Honeycomb game, Snakes & Ladders and the ‘Who/What am I?’ game, which have been adapted to the particular topics, tense/verb forms and vocabulary suited to the learners.


2. Attainability


As for ATTAINABILITY, I found out whilst living in Spain in the 1980s that there’s a fine line between the kind of learning that is ‘challenging’ and the kind of learning that is ‘too difficult’. Whilst working as head of studies and teaching English at a language school in Vigo (in Galicia, south western Spain), my little group of 5 year olds, including one called Julio Iglesias (completely true and no relation to the Spanish singer!) was happy to pronounce the words of objects parrot-fashion with perfect pronunciation, but when I asked them to then produce the words whilst pointing at the objects, that was a step too far! Their bewildered faces said it all. The problem? Insufficient repetition! Be sure that you’re in tune with your learners – be sensitive to their facial expressions, general body language and most importantly, ask them for feedback!


3. Relevance


What I didn’t realise at the time is that another of my ‘cake’ ingredients, RELEVANCE, links in to the key principles behind the universally renowned approach by the educator Malcolm Knowles [1] on andragogy, or adult learning, that is, that adults learn best when the topic or concept is of immediate value to them and can be directly applied to their own work or personal situation. This became immediately apparent to me when I decided to leave the corporate learning & development world over 10 years ago and seek self-fulfilment by setting up as a freelance Spanish language trainer. Having equipped myself with the tools of the trade and achieved my qualification to teach foreign languages to adults, I then embarked on putting it into practice. My first freelance assignment at a well known energy company produced the light bulb moment – excuse the pun! Why would busy professionals give up their valuable work time to learn Spanish unless there was some tangible benefit? And that had better be PDQ!! The key for me was to do my homework! Lots of research on the company, and lots of prep – digging out relevant material, endlessly sourcing appropriate images, identifying the most relevant vocabulary and scenarios which would link in with their industry sector, job roles and interests. As many trainers before me have already discovered, there is no ‘one size fits all’ course book solution, and even more so when it comes to business language course books. Why do the authors of these books assume that complete beginners have some ‘innate’ knowledge of the language that will suddenly reveal itself as from Chapter 1?! When is a beginner level book not for beginners? When it’s a business language book!


4. Variety


The last one, VARIETY, certainly is the spice of life when it comes to language learning! When I first started teaching Spanish, I was very hot on being prepared and having a clearly structured lesson plan. I knew what I was doing! That was all fine until I had to teach a particularly demanding mobile telecoms manager, who stopped me in my tracks by telling me what he wanted to do in his lesson. We of course covered the areas he needed I threw the lesson plan out of the window and bizarrely, it turned out well. Whilst this doesn’t happen too often, I like the ‘basket of fruit’ approach when it comes to lesson prep and delivery. Make sure you are ready to change your timings, approach, materials and activities when concentration and energy levels start to dip. And make sure you are armed with some ‘spur of the moment’, fun, easy activities to re-energise and lighten the tone.



[1] Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913–1997) was an American adult educator and author of many books on adult learning, such as ‘The Adult Learner: a Neglected Species’ and ‘Andragogy in Action’


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