What (not) to do in the EFL classroom

Written by: Valentin A. Videnov, New Bulgarian University

Abstract: The article describes some observations on the effectiveness of teaching strategies in the EFL classroom, concentrating on some dubious practices, such as blackboard use and overuse, communication and free activities and dictation, and further on utilizing classroom time through some elements of the Direct Method, the role of explanation and the realization that learning is a process that happens mainly outside the classroom. Its main idea is that the teacher should be a manager of the learning enterprise.

The observation basis of this paper is narrow indeed: the author’s own practice teaching English at various levels, most currently in the OOOK classes at New Bulgarian University – Sofia, which are used to fulfil the general foreign language requirement for university students of non-language majors. So some caution is to be applied as to the dubious ultimate value of the paper itself, which tends more to prescribe observations rather than present the results of serious investigation and research. Even the perusal of the relevant literature is here spared the reader; the concentration of the paper is exclusively on personal feelings.

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I. Dubious practices

The first part of the paper focuses on some dubious classroom practices, and tries to evaluate their viability in the belief that by eliminating or restricting their influence, and by proper understanding of their significance, their good and bad sides, the EFL instruction could be ultimately bettered.

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1. Blackboard use and overuse

The blackboard is no doubt essential for foreing language instruction. Without a blackboard to write on, the instructor – understandably – feels crippled. But do we not sometimes tend to use the blackboard too much, resort ot it out of habit, and waste classroom time writing on it (and making students copy from it) rather than devote that time to something more valuable?

One of the things a lot of EFL instructors use the blackboard for is to write new words and their transcriptions, occasionally going so far as including the L1 translation as well. But consider such (extreme) examples as film, plan and list? What possible use could writing them and their transcriptions (and even translations) on the blackboard serve? The first word has exactly the same transcrption and (Bulgarian) translation, the second only deviates in the transcription by the open e, and the third has a significant difference in the translation (it is an exaple of the so-called ‘false friend’) which, however, can perfectly be emphasized orally; there is no need to write it on the blackboard. Even more complicated words and transcriptions do not necessarily need to be written on the blackboard, and Danchev et al. warn against such a practice in their introduction to the coursebook English for Bulgarians, stating that all words with their respective transciptions are given at the back of the book, and that classroom time should be more effectively utilized by doing exercises rather than writing words and transcriptions on the blackboard. Endeed vocabulary sections are common in modern instruction materials (see alse Grozdanova et al., A World of English), and some, such as the Headway series, have special word lists, whose idea is to be distributed among the students and used by them during the introduction of the new words and later in studying them.

The practice of writing every new word and its transcription on the blackboard is actulally the excuse of instructors who have no idea of what better to do to spend the classroom time. Not that the blackboard should not be used at all in introducing new words. There are cases in which the pronunication presents special problems, and a point should be made about it, with some things in the transcription and the spelling possibly underlined or written in red; for instance the words colleague, colleagues, even in this case in comparison with the name of Coleridge. In the latter case, as in many others, it is actulally more useful to write only part of the transciption above the respective string in the spelling. The idea is that the blackboard is to be used only for things worth writing, to make a point, which is to be specially meaningful to (and remembered by) the students; for instance writing the three forms of strike – struck – struck, and then the noun stroke and the form for compound adjectives formation stricken. This is a case where students are likely to make mistakes, and putting the whole case, for contrastive purposes, on the blackboard, is a way of preventing that.

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2. Dictation

Dictation is no longer as widely used in EFL instrucion as it was before, including its use for testing purposes. Yet if it is used with a strong connection with the material, such as the dictations offrered in Grozdanova et al., it could be very helpful. The skill to write a text correctly under dictation reveals – especially in the context of English, where such a discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation exists – the ability to recognize new (and old) words, to make sense of grammar, to respond quickly, and often automatically, under the pressure of time. What is important is to know what the dictation tests. For instance in the 1996 State Examination in English at the University of Plovdiv (conducted under the general supervision of Michael Grancharov), the word Michaelmas appeared in an extract from Dickens. Now without a broad cultural knowledge, it is almost impossible to make an educated guess about the spelling of this word, and yet it could be argued that such a guess could be made by analogy with the word Christmas. What I want to empahisize is that dictation should be used with discretion, and then it still has something to offer in the context of the EFL classroom.

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3. ‘Communication’ and free activities

A recent general trend in EFL instruction is the prevalence of the Communicative Approach with practices such as information gap filling and role play. The idea is to get away as much as possible from controlled activities in the direction of maximally free ones. But such an approach presents numerous problems. While free activitieas are no doubt fun and appeal to the students, they require too much organization time and create classroom management problems, not the least of which is the use of L1 among the students, which is very difficult to stop. So ultimately these activities accomplish very little in terms of L2 learning, while eating at classroom time in the course organization.

It is important to understand how valuable classroom time is, and how precious little of it is available in the context of the EFL course. It is also important to understand where (and how) learning a foreing language actually happens. Is it by free activities such as role play (of which no doubt there should be some share), or is it by painstaking learning of vocabulary and structures at home. Finally, it is important to ask ourselves, Which student makes more progress: the one preparing at home, or the one coming ot the classroom expecting the next ‘fun’ activity?

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II. Utilizing classroom time

The next section of the paper is devoted to ideas for utilizing classroom time in the best interests of the students involved. It is nurtured by the belief that learning is a complex process that happens mainly outside the classroom and that the instructor should be the skillful manager of this process.

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1. Employing some principles of the Direct Method

The Direct Method is relatively old in the history of FLT, yet some of its elements are viable even today. L2 should constantly be used in the classroom, starting with the lowest levels. In this way the students gain exposure to the target langauge, and some confidence using it in restricted situations. Furthermore, the context of the classroom is the most authentic possible, where communication serves a well-defined purpose and springs from a genuine desire and need to communicate. If we compare the constant classroom use of L2 with role play (mentioned earlier as part of the free actvities prevalent today), we immediately notice the difference and realize how artificial role play actually is. In his book Assessing Grammar James Purpura defends multiple choice exercises by claiming that they fit in well in the instructional domain of L2 use. In the same way we could say that in the EFL context the instructional domain is the most important, and that communication and exposure should happen primarily there. But we should not forget that, unlike ESL where the target language is the only means of communication between students and isntructor and between the students themselves, the EFL setting presents the danger of slipping back into L1, especially at the critical points. This danger should be constantly kept in mind until the use of L2 in the classroom becomes habitual for students and instructor alike.

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2. What and how much to explain (in L2)

Even though explanation on the part of the instructor is an essential component of EFL instruction, its actual amount really depends on the group. The less advanced students should not be given less attention in terms of explanation however, for the sake of mere speed of progression. What is important is to offer good and penetrating explanations, making the students try to follow. The results would by all means be satisfactory, if we have already instilled the principles of the Direct Method in the minds of our students. Explaining the new material is probably the sole most important part of classroom time (apart from the time devoted to discussion and the more mechanical exercises, elements of the Audio-Lingual Method); it should be given an utterly serious attention. It is almost never the case that explanation proves to be too much: if the students even hear some points from the old material repeated, they are more likely to understand and memorize them.

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3. The learning enterprize

Learning is a process that happens mainly outside the classroom; classroom time is only sufficient to control and channel this process. So we should by all means take time to ensure the process is actually going on. This organization time is never wasted in terms of the overall course, and in terms of students’ learning the L2 in general. This is what instills learning habits in them. Professor Robert Hahn teaches Elelentary Formal Logic at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In his regular circular letter to his teaching assistants he requires them to collect one homework and do a quiz every class. This actually ensures that the students spend time at home working on the material, and their progress can thus be evaluated, so that steps could be taken to improve it.

Using constant control (by means of homework and tests) is one way to manage the learning enetrprize. It requires great pains on the part of the instructor, but gives him or her the necessary feedback for the continuation of the learning process. We should understand how precious little time we have in class and make every minute of it meaningful in terms of the overall organization of the course. Our efforts should center on encouraging the students’ independent (but managed) learning.

By means of conclusion, we should consider the intrinsically unpleasant nature of foreing language learning. Effective learning is not a game, but requires great pains on the part of the students. Classroom management should always keep that in mind, while providing the management of the whole learning enterprize.

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