Sustainable learning

Students go at their own pace – down a long and winding road…

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Isn’t it strange that students don’t seem to learn what we teach them?  We might be said to spend a lot of time and effort moving through a list of items on the syllabus, focusing on lesson aims and deflecting questions which are ‘off the topic’ until the end of the class (if they are reached at all).  But maybe it is these questions which should be the focus of the class rather than the topic which may indeed be quite distant and out of touch with students.

There seems to be some truth in the suggestion that ESL students learn in a similar way to infants discovering the world for the first time.  They look at things in awe and try to work them out, based on their current knowledge of the world.

If you think about many interactions with babies in English (and probably in other languages), the concept of an object or person being “here” and in view and “gone” is very common.

“Where’s the ball?  Where is it?


“Yes!  Here it is!”

“Where’s the ball?  Where is it?”


“Yes!  It’s gone!”

In contrast, if we look at our teaching resources, and the list-like progression of many ESL syllabi, you could be forgiven for considering if it is all a little bit ‘upside down‘.

Let’s take “gone” for example.  Conceptually it is quite straightforward.  Something or someone is either here or not here.  But this is just one word, and may be frowned upon in a language classroom.  “Use a full sentence!” you might hear.  However, babies manage to say “gone” and their parents don’t mind.  In fact, they’re quite ecstatic.  “She said a word!”

However, if we analyse the desirable sentence, “he has gone (home/to work)”, we may latch on to the fact that it involves the infamous present perfect.

O oh!  It doesn’t exist in many of our students language.  So, don’t introduce it until late elementary or pre-intermediate classes.  They won’t get it!  They won’t be able to use it!

Babies “get it”, albeit in a simplified form.  This kind of linguistic hiding of language in the classroom could be said to slow students down and even confuse them later on when the item appears magically from no where.

Instead, have we decided that students should first use verbs without auxiliaries?  The ‘useful’ though often contextually void present simple, used to talk about “habitual actions” according to some textbooks, is the place to start.  However, in practice it is used to talk about pretty much anything, habitual or not, just as long as this grammar sounds good to us.

I always get up at 6:30.     [Habit]

I understand.                        [Now]

I’m getting up.                      [Now]

Information about when you get up and brush your teeth is an endlessly fascinating topic if you think about it.  I mean, wow, you mean you get up at 8am, and then you brush your teeth.  Wait wait, back up the truck!  After getting up, you brush your teeth, oh and then you shower.  Fascinating!  Thank you for sharing these monotonous details of your life.  Simply amazing!

Why don’t we instead take a look at our fascinating students – if we’re in a multi-lingual, – they’re often from quite diverse backgrounds.  I want to know the following:

  • What languages do you speak?
  • What food do you have in your country?
  • Which religions do you have?
  • Which language do you speak  at home?  At work?  At school?

What do you notice?  If we look at the above, we can take these two verbs and mould the vocabulary that students already have around them, and learn something useful and insightful in the mean time.  I suggest that we forget about brushing our teeth, and find out more about our creative and interesting students.

Similarly, we should look at the environments in which are students are interacting.  There are no toys, unlike the example of children learning above.  But maybe there are colleagues, other students, subjects and degrees to be studied.  Let’s look at this content, which is immediately relevant and accessible.

Maybe this way, students can guide us more about what they need to learn, then just maybe they can learn more of what we teach.  Fingers crossed anyway!


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