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Diary from London: Educating Felix

Type: Article

In his ninth diary entry, David Foster abandons his student in a pub to teach him a life lesson.

It can be a privilege to teach some students. Not just because they are interesting people who are good company but also because teaching them makes you think about the learning process and ultimately informs how you teach other students.

Felix is a good example. He is a Spanish guy improving his English before doing an Erasmus year in Ireland and I’ve been doing one-to-one classes with him through the summer. When I started teaching him, he was a low intermediate and quite self-conscious about his abilities. Within a few weeks, however, he has got himself a job in a Japanese café restaurant in London, working in a team with people from around the world. His exposure to English every day in a chaotic kitchen environment does wonders for his listening and speaking skills. As a result, every class we have starts with him asking me questions about the language he is hearing around him or how to express things he wants to say. Here are some of the phrases we work on. It’s easy to see how important they would be in a working environment.

Where have you been?
Where’s it gone?
What do I have to do now?
Am I allowed to take a break?
Would you like some / a little soy sauce?

All of these short phrases are perfect stepping stones for building realistic dialogues. They are also great examples of phrases to kick off discussion about grammar points like the present perfect, modal verbs or quantifiers. Say them out loud and you’ll find they have all sorts of pronunciation features that are both challenging and interesting. In other words, Felix provided his own curriculum for us to work on. We were learning English that was relevant to him and which he could put into practice the very next day at his workplace.

It also helps when students are curious about the culture around them. Felix is always entertaining me with his off-beat observations on English culture so I decide to work on his ability to retell anecdotes in a concise and pithy way. His stories about working in the restaurant or losing car keys at a Spanish music festival are hilarious but just need to be delivered without the hesitant stream of hmmms and ahhhhs. To combat this, I get Felix to tell me a story several times giving him two minutes, then one minute, then thirty seconds to get to the punch line. Feeding in useful collocations and phrases like ‘so in the end …’ or ‘it turned out that …’ really help to build confidence and delivery.

Towards the end of my time teaching Felix, I have the opportunity to see how far he has progressed over the summer with a little test. Not exactly a traditional test but a good one to test the overall fluency of students. Take them to a bar and see if they can hold their own in a conversation with some random people! I have to confess that when I was teaching in Spain this was my main method of learning Spanish conversation. Not a great way to learn grammar but it does wonders for your listening skills and your ability to bluff it.

So, I duly introduce Felix to a couple of mates in the pub then deliberately wander off to the bar to watch things from a distance. Felix is fine; the conversation has turned to football and he’s got plenty to say on that topic. My friends might be aware that Felix is Spanish, but they’re certainly not grading their language or speaking slowly. I ask Felix later how he got on chatting with the group. Although he admits that he found it hard to follow everything the others said, we both agree that he was confident communicating with them. I tell him that he passed my test with flying colours! His confidence with language has taken giant leaps forward during the summer. That’s not because of my teaching but because of his motivation to get out there, take risks and practise new language.

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