Relevant Language Teaching and How Far is too Far?

I believe in teaching language via relevant subjects.  This triggers authentic communication and holds students’ interest. I believe so strongly in this that I let relevance derail my lesson plans.  For instance, take this true story.

I arrived in class, lesson plan in hand. However, I first had to read the announcements, one of which was about services related to new immigration policies. Student A then interrupted with a question about this policy.  Before I could answer, student B offered a strong opinion on the policy.  Then student C offered a strong opposing opinion.  Then B & C started debating — in English.  The rest of the class looked on with interest, occasionally participating.  I took one look at my lesson plan and put it aside; I hadn’t found the lesson, the lesson found me.  I let B & C debate for a bit, then I started steering, giving the debate more of a language focus.  I introduced some relevant language — vocabulary like “opinion” and “fact” along with ways to politely express disagreement.  I then let them continue the debate, asked students for their opinions and reasons, and then had them do an in-class writing assignment about their opinions on this policy.

Class went well that day.  My main contribution was to steer and get out of the way. Still, sometimes I wonder if I go too far.  Here’s another true story:

I opened class with a discussion on how to pronounce and write numbers, especially large numbers and fractional ones. Then student X arrived late and upset.  X had just heard of an earthquake in her country that left many dead and started talking about it.  The rest of the class was interested, so I used this opportunity to introduce them to an ESL news site called News in Levels which had current event articles and videos in 3 levels of difficulty (with a definition of key terms).  I provided students with the text of the article and we practiced matching the text to the audio, watching the video and then reading the text out loud. Finally, I resumed the original lesson and gave it relevance by applying it to the earthquake.  I showed students how to use (and pronounce) numbers related to the earthquake (magnitude, death toll, etc…).  

I was very respectful of the fact that we were talking about an awful tragedy, and the students responded favorably — including the upset student.  Still, did I do the right thing?  Did I trivialize a human tragedy by using it as a topic for a language class?

7 thoughts on “Relevant Language Teaching and How Far is too Far?

  1. In my English composition class in college (in the mid 1980s), we talked politics and contemporary news far more than in any other class I had, at least aside from the political science ones. It made the composition assignments more interesting, although at the time the instructor’s passionate political views made me leery of writing anything he might disagree with.

    1. Interesting!

      As an aside, I’ve had classes where I was afraid the instructor couldn’t see beyond a disagreement to the merits of my paper. I handled that by writing what the instructor wanted. Not exactly academic integrity, but then I wasn’t in college to learn, but to get a degree 🙂

  2. ” Did I trivialize a human tragedy by using it as a topic for a language class?”

    Not at all in my opinion. In fact, going on with some lesson plan while everyone’s thinking of something else would have been pointless. I think using those moments of natural discourse to teach is perfect…what is learned there is more likely to be remembered. It also gives your students the freedom to express themselves, to communicate their feelings and opinions, which is a real impetus for learning. Isn’t that what language is about? Plus, they might not feel secure enough with their language skills in the “outside world” to talk about these things. You’ve given them a place to do so and I bet you anything they’re learning a lot from these days.

    When I had my adult class, I liked to bring up controversial topics to get people talking. I might point my thumb behind my shoulder while someone was speaking (a non-verbal sign for “past tense”…something I only did because they were at that level) or if someone made a grammatical error, I might repeat it correctly without making a big deal of it, but otherwise I’d let them talk. (You probably know that trick…”I went to grocery store yesterday.” “Oh, you went to the grocery store yesterday and…?)

    They’d stop, not knowing some word, and they’d describe it and pantomime. After a while I’d figure it out and write it on the board. Sometimes some student still wouldn’t get the meaning of the word, so I’d make the others describe it or try to define it. Sometimes I wouldn’t get the missing word, and the students would try to come up with it. I didn’t let them use their dictionaries in class because when you’re out in the real world, you don’t always have a dictionary to consult and it interrupts the flow of conversation, plus doing this work makes the meaning stick. This became an impromptu vocab list that stayed up for the duration of the class, sometimes I left it up all week. Students could glance over at the list from time to time and continue discussing.

    The only caveat is to make sure they’re getting that grammar too. But this can all be done at the same time. It’s not one or the other.

      1. The thumb trick has its plusses and minuses…but sometimes when you get someone who keeps using present tense and you know that student knows better, it’s a nice reminder without being too intrusive. I had a class of adults from all over the world, so I generally used it on people who were really outgoing and talked a lot (for some reason, mostly Chinese folks), but never on those who had a hard time speaking up. (Anyways, those quiet people usually spent a lot of time thinking about grammar and making sure everything was perfect in their heads before chiming in.)

  3. I think you did the right thing – you let them focus on what was important to them in the moment, and gave them tools to discuss it and learn about it in a new language. I like how you described the style: “steer and get out of the way.” That’s what I aim for in the classroom. Set up a situation where they can discover relevant problems to solve in the name of some greater goal. I think you’re teaching them the real use of language, rather than separating their “real” conversation from some impersonal vision of “what they’re supposed to be learning.”

    1. I’m still trying to master the art of steering and getting out of the way, as I find I still jump in too often and micromanage the process. I do aim at exactly what you describe; I try to set up a context in which authentic language can arise. I still have to present content, but I try to do so in as interactive a fashion as possible, while balancing several learning philosophies I think are sound.

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