Number one for English language teachers

Diary from London: Out and about

Type: Article

In his eighth diary entry, David Foster organizes an alfresco activity and hits the city streets.

It’s always exciting when you try something new with a class. There is a sense of risk, a few butterflies in the stomach when you go into the classroom, unsure if your lesson is really going to pay off. Today, I’m asking the students to go out of the class and do a survey with members of the public. The students will go to different areas near the school and ask people for recommendations of good cafés, restaurants and shops.

It’s the first time I’ve asked the students to get out and about, speaking to the public, so I’m worried that students might not feel confident approaching or understanding strangers. Or even worse, Londoners might mistake my students for the charity collectors who often approach strangers on the street. These are the concerns I have going into the class, but fortunately I’m lucky enough to work with some really creative teachers who suggested this idea and they encourage me that it will all go well (thanks Ann-Marie!):  

To build student confidence, the class starts with some role-play preparations. ‘’scuse me. Do you know of any good cafés nearby?’ is the simple question I get the students practising with each other. But it’s not as easy as it seems. Students have to make that first syllable of excuse me disappear and then really stress the second one in a ‘Hey stranger! Stop! I’m talking to you’ way. Furthermore, do you gets shortened to a one-syllable /ʤə/ and the students get a bit confused between the words café and coffee. Is it really necessary to focus on all these intricacies of pronunciation? I understand that students might not need this level of training in every phrase they use, but it certainly makes the students aware how different everyday spoken English can sound. The pronunciation work also gets a definite thumbs-up from the class too. The students really enjoy trying to ask their questions in a London style.

Fish and chip shop

Battered sausage, anyone?

Now it’s time for the students to get out onto the street and to use the English they have been practising. This is where I step back and watch things unfold from a distance. What a relief! The students are up for it and people seem happy to stop and talk. I can see the students tentatively approaching a stranger, then smiling as initial questions quickly develop into conversation. Although I gave them the starter phrases, I can see their conversations develop naturally in all sorts of different directions.

One of my concerns before setting out on this activity was if it would get all the students to use their English. Sure, the more confident students will chat to strangers, but what about the more timid ones? Alberto, a raucous outgoing Italian, comes back to me and tells me his group have already finished. ’You’ve finished Alberto. Now I want you to listen to conversations. This time let the other students ask the questions.’

There are also students in this intermediate class whose speaking and pronunciation abilities lag far behind their grammar knowledge. They complete most exercises from intermediate textbooks with ease, but need to put their knowledge into practice. Such students often avoid speaking English outside the classroom by spending time with other speakers of their native language. Sound like a familiar problem? This is a task to push these students into language production. I try to place these students into a group together so they can’t rely on one of the more outgoing members of class to do the speaking. Also, they can support each other in completing the task.

All this talk about food has made the class hungry. In the next class, the students present their recommendations and decide it’s time we went for a class lunch. The task finishes with the students negotiating which restaurant they want to visit. In the end, none of them! The sun has come out and we abandon the restaurant idea for a class picnic in the park. Chatting with the students outside in the sun feels different to the atmosphere of the classroom. I wasn’t sure if the class would work, but it goes to show that taking a risk is worth the butterflies. It has created a memorable learning experience and a great picnic. 

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