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>By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui Gongye Daxue, Ma’anshan, Anhui, China

In my first year in China I was really disappointed in how my students (mostly college freshmen) were doing group activities – or not doing them! I was stumped as to how to manage the classroom to achieve anything better. Various people gave lots of suggestions, and I want to say thank you again for all the help.

This semester all my classes are college freshmen – many barely able to say anything. This semester I got the college to get us the Cambridge Skills for Fluency Speaking (2) book, which I’m now using with them. It’s a task/activity book, unlike anything they’ve ever used or done before, and there are lots of group activities in it. I have 7 classes, all of 30 to 35 students. Each class is now divided into 5 groups, on the basis of their exam marks from last semester’s oral classes. Each group has a manager, a secretary, a monitor (responsible for collecting and returning any written work, etc), a timekeeper and a coach. For a couple of weeks this all felt a real uphill struggle, but suddenly they’re getting their heads round this way of working and the classes are working much better. I’m asking groups to do many activities ending up with a presentation to the whole class, which I tape and mark, and which they’re getting better and better at both doing and listening to.

During the activities I can spend a few minutes with each group, and a bit more time with one particular group. But what’s really nice is that I’m able to relate much more to the students as individuals this way – even though there are exactly the same number of students in the classroom. In their small groups, I can relate to them much more personally, and even though it’s only ever for a short time, it seems to have much more effect than when they were either in the whole class group, in pairs, or in changing groups (i.e. different people in a group from week to week). I feel that they’re developing a different sort of working relationship with me now, as well as my getting to know each of them better. This has been an unexpected bonus and helped me greatly to start to get my head around how to teach using group-work as well as using task-based activities as the dominant method.

This experience has also made me think about some of the recent discussion about our various training courses and qualifications (or lack of them). I did a CELTA course and have about 7 years teaching experience, most of which has been TEFL. I’m in my second year here in China. On reflection, I think my CELTA course assumed group activities would work, it certainly didn’t go into any depth about how to literally train students to work in this way. I think I’d have only got that sort of depth of training on a one-year full-time sort of teacher training course. In Europe I’d used group work and used it successfully. I’d never before had classes entirely of students with no experience of this as a way of working, and didn’t really appreciate how alien it would be to them. My students are not high-scorers in the college entrance test, so will possibly have taken longer to get their heads around this than maybe students will in some of the places other people are teaching. But nevertheless, I’m having to learn as much as they are as regards methodology – and I do wish I’d got more training, not less.

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>By Jennifer Wallace – Anhui University of Technology, China

I’m 54, and a couple of years back, fed up with the admin job I was doing, decided to head back into TEFL – something I’d done for a few years about 15 years before. I had about 7 years’ teaching experience altogether, all done back in the days when a degree was the only essential qualification, and as mine was BA plus MPhil in Linguistics, I never had trouble getting reasonable quality work. I wanted to come to China, and VSO (a UK based international development NGO) has a sizeable China programme. But to be accepted by VSO I had to be a qualified teacher. So I went off and did an intensive one month course to get the CELTA (Cambridge basic EFL qualification). I’m glad I did – for my sake.

The situation here’s very different from my previous teaching experience – in the UK, Portugal and Spain. I’d taught all sorts of age groups, all levels, private and public sector, most nationalities. But the course (which was a good one) sent me off very up-to-date on current practice, and pointed me in the direction of what to follow up in terms of current new developments, and full of fresh practical ideas. As I’ve worked my way through this first year teaching in China, I’ve been very appreciative of all that. Even when my lessons have been crap, I’ve known I was trying to do something reasonable, and I’ve been able to learn from the disasters as I had a reasonably robust framework to look at that disaster in. It’s also meant I’ve done some work which has been very successful.

I plan to stay here longer than the 2 year contract I have at present, so my doing training is in the context of a rough plan of at least a decade of TEFL work. I now think of doing more training in a few years’ time. There’s a higher level Cambridge qualification (DELTA) which interests me. There are things in this TEFL work in China I’m definitely very interested in. I’ve been given a complete timetable of oral English classes for English major freshman (college/university) for next semester and am planning both pronunciation work and conversation skills work for that. I’ve done a little of both this last year, enough to realise how valuable both could be, but how much more I need to plan to do both well.

For example, there was a point that I realised my students could hold forth, declamatory-style, reasonably well. But they had no conversation skills in English. I suppose I expected them to transfer Chinese conversation skills – listening, responding, turn-taking. They weren’t, so I set to and systematically taught those three things. I made the rules explicit and the conversations are still slightly formal-sounding, but the overall effect has been good. For their exam these students discussed a randomly allocated (but prepared) topic in a randomly selected group – and they did it well. But I could see how much they’re having to work at including others, picking up and making conversational links, driving a conversation forward. The best ones, though, were excellent conversations – something they couldn’t do a semester ago.

Could I have taught this sort of thing without training? I’m obviously drawing as much as anything on my linguistics knowledge and interests. It’s the same with the pronunciation. Unlike many people in TEFL, not only am I not afraid of phonemic alphabets, I enjoy getting students to start to get to grips with both phonetics and phonology, and am enjoying helping them make real improvements in their pronunciation, almost working in a speech therapy fashion, I think.

But I think the TEFL training and qualification has given me a clear sense of what’s expected in this field nowadays – what good practice is. That framework’s invaluable. I can see what particular interests and skills I have and how they can develop within that framework, and I think it’s making me a much better teacher than I was before (and I don’t think I was crap before).

On a purely selfish note, I’m also learning Chinese, and much I learnt on my TEFL course is helping me with my own language study!