Three things learning Spanish taught me about teaching English

Author: 
James Wainman

I first came to La Paz in January 2013 to participate in the UK Government's volunteering programme for young people, International Citizen Service. We had Spanish classes withInstituto Exclusivo, and for the first time I enjoyed learning a foreign language. I realised I had an opportunity to achieve my ambition of becoming reasonably competent in a second language and returned in January 2014 to teach English, learn Spanish and experience this uniquely diverse country once again.

Instituto Exclusivo is the best of the TEFL world for me. In the English department our students are mostly professionals in individual or small group classes or one-to-ones via Skype. There's also a real sense of community. My colleagues, the other English, Spanish, French and Quechua teachers, are more than just my colleagues, which is a great bonus to a workplace. I've had classes with three excellent Spanish teachers, and in the process learned a lot about how to teach. These are my tips for anyone just starting out in TEFL.

Don't simply beat people over the head with grammar

Even though it can be tempting at times. “He has, not he have!” In my first Spanish lesson, altitude sickness still wearing off, we didn't rehearse verb tables but instead hit the ground running and learned a simple introduction: My name is James, I'm a volunteer, I've been in Bolivia for a week and I enjoy playing volleyball. It stuck in my head, and now I try to make sure my beginners know they can master a useful phrase right from the start.

Make them talk

My second teacher began every class with carefully-pitched conversation practice, and kept the questions coming almost relentlessly. How was our week? How is the volunteering going? What do I think about x? What does my classmate think? Do I agree? Why? Why not? It was an excellent technique. She made it impossible not to practise everything we studied. I use this now with my English students – NGO workers, conservation biologists, engineers – who often don't have the luxury of being able to practise English in their daily lives, so it's essential that they use it in the classroom.

Let it sink in

When I returned to La Paz a year later I re-started Spanish with my current teacher. As the complexity of the grammar topics increased, I noticed the value of really clear, simple, logically ordered presentations and explanations. She gives me plenty of time to think and ask questions if I need clarification. I think one of the most important activities as a teacher is sometimes inactivity or, rather, avoiding hyperactivity. Not speaking too much, not reformulating sentences unnecessarily, not changing subjects too quickly and not trying to do too much in a single lesson. The language needs time to sink in. It's far better for your students to understand one thing well than many things badly. Achieving this is obviously the challenge, and it means knowing a topic inside out before you teach it, explaining something concisely but comprehensively before you practice it, and being absolutely sure your students get it before you move on.

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