Have you ever asked your students any of the following questions?
Where do you feel stuck?
What makes you frustrated?
What do you most love about English?
What do you feel most proud of?
Even if you are a well-informed teacher, with an amazing connection with your students, there might be loads of things you don’t know about your students. Thank God! There are loads of things you don’t need to know, but there might be relevant student insights that can actually help deliver a better and more meaningful learning experience.
These days we hear lots of buzzwords such as user experience, user research, user-centred design, user mapping, user journeys, user stories, user personas… it’s all about the user. They talk about the philosophy of putting the user at the centre in order to have a deeper knowledge of their problems, and to be able to come up with more targeted solutions to tackle them. Applied to learning environments, we can talk about Learner Experience Design. I like to think of it as a reminder of the importance of putting yourself in the students’ shoes – the idea of giving empathy the value it deserves.
In this post I share 6 experiences, both good and bad, that have been key in my own English learning journey. I’ll start from the beginning.
1. The English division at school
I’m very lucky to have had my education at the coolest school in town, based on projects rather than books, student-centred rather than teacher-centred, continuous learning rather than final exams, and many other values I truly admire.
We started learning English at the age of 5, for about 1 hour per week and up to 2 when we were older. When we grew up, we had the pleasure to have the foreign teacher: a funny young British lad who supposedly didn’t understand Catalan or Spanish. However, when he really wanted us to get the message, he could shout: Tu estàs fora con un insuficient (You are out of the class with a fail), in a very loud broken Catalan. We felt empathy: we were all learning. We laughed with him, he’d do funny little drawings on the board, and if we behaved, he’d let us watch Wallace and Gromit; the episode where they go to the moon and it’s made of cheese completely blew our minds. At some point, older kids spread the rumour that in his ID card he was pictured with a white mohawk! Hell yeah! Who doesn’t want the complicity of a punk teacher?
Now let’s introduce an experience-changing detail: in Primary School the student–teacher ratio per class is up to 25 students, and up to 30 in Secondary School.
***One minute of silence for our beloved language teacher***
Sometimes we split into two groups to reduce the class size and increase the quality of teaching. This groups were officially called ‘Group A’ and ‘Group B’, and unofficially ‘The Silly People’ and ‘The Intelligent People’. We were lovely kids, weren’t we? The interesting bit is that this division had some foundation, but intelligence had nothing to do with it. It equaled, in most cases, ‘Students who learn English at school’ VS. ‘Students who learn English at school plus attend after-school lessons’.
My parents enrolled me in after-school classes, so you can guess which group I was in. English at school was easy. I didn’t have to study at all to pass the exams, I just had to read through my notes to get a 9 or 10. In this scenario, English gave me a big confidence boost, a positive reward, and my experience overall was very satisfactory. But… what if I hadn’t gone to after school classes?
2. The unprepared teacher fail
I was about 10 when I started at a local private language school. I had no clue I was about to face the worst English learning experience of my life.
My teacher was a young native speaker guy, very blond, very tanned and with a white shiny smile. He was calm, polite and stress-free, which shouldn’t have been a bad setup. But, he would talk about princesses, fairies, teddy bears, cute dragons and… caterpillars! I’m not in Reception class anymore, mate. His input was making us go backwards, when we had proudly left all of these things behind. I guess in his mind he was teaching ‘Young Learners’ as if it was a single classification block: 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 year olds, they’re all kids, aren’t they?
As if that wasn’t enough, we didn’t understand his instructions, we didn’t understand him conveying the meanings, we didn’t understand the listenings. On the one hand he was over-childish, and on the other hand, he was a couple of levels above the Lower Intermediate we needed. English seemed a very difficult thing, which I didn’t enjoy.
It’s very sad that sometimes the less prepared teachers are sent to Young Learners groups. Even if you are a ‘Young Learner’, you can tell who is a good teacher and who is not. I still remember.
3. The ‘Aha’ moment
After the last experience, my parents enrolled me at a different local academy, known for being strict and focusing on achieving high results. The course I joined was 4.5 hours per week – that, added to my 3h from school, made a total of 7.5 hours of English per week.
I was quite motivated to learn English: I listened to Green Day and Offspring and I wanted to understand their lyrics.
I remember a lot from those days. Some random new words, like ‘smuggler’ or ‘UFO – Unidentified Flying Object’, the voice of the listenings saying ‘Section B. Dialogue A. Listen’ (on cassette, yes), or a great bunch of stress time dialogues still BY HEART.
From ‘Elements of Pronunciation’ (Mortimer 1985: CUP)
The class couldn’t have been more teacher-centred. There were about 10 of us sitting around a big white rectangular table, headed by the teacher, by the whiteboard. We only spoke with the teacher’s permission, one by one, usually in seating order. Breaking that thick silence was a bit scary. Even coughing was a bit stressful.
In every lesson we did a unit of Streamline English Departures (OUP: 1978), which consisted of a reading, its pertinent listening, vocabulary and exercises in the workbook for homework. The materials felt old-fashioned for the 2000s, but I loved them. The illustrations (finally nothing too childish or pretentious!), the pages weren’t too shiny so you could write notes on them, the composition was balanced (not too much information) and they had a subtle sense of humour. They were designed for adults, but I’m glad we used them instead of any flashy modern book for teens. They mentioned alcohol and smoking like a natural thing, and I’m sure being exposed to that content had no connection whatsoever with my future consumption, or not, of them.
Despite this old-school setting, it was in that room I had the ‘aha’ moment: I felt I understood English, I got it and it would stick there forever. Like when you learn how to ride a bike, drive a car or swim, there is a moment that you can ride, drive or swim. I felt I could write down a sentence or say it out loud, and I would be able to tell if it sounded good or not, like if I had a native English inner voice (!).
I feel very proud of this moment, and I am sure it made a difference to my journey. Having a solid foundation made me feel motivated to keep walking ahead.
4. 12 weeks in Malta: the intermediate euphoria
This was the time when I was a lucky newly qualified Primary teacher, and I was given a grant by the Spanish government to go to an English speaking country to take a 12 week English course. BRAVO! I chose lovely Malta and a General English 30h/pw course.
I felt I was doing the best I could do at that point in my life: personal development – new country, new friends, new experiences – plus accelerating my English proficiency, that at some point would help my professional development. Being there meant what in Catalan we say ‘el seny i la rauxa’, which means the right balance between obligations and pleasure, acting sensibly and having fun.
My fluency was improving at an incredible speed. I could speak with everybody, understand everybody, even have meaningful conversations. My friends were students from the Czech Republic, Japan, Korea, Germany, Turkey, Spain… so none of them was a native speaker. We were communicating through intermediate level English, and I had the illusion that I could speak English. In fact, I could speak, but I would find out later I still had many rocks to climb…
5. Blended learning: lack of UX is lack of joy
A few years after passing my First Certificate in English (FCE), I found some time to prep for the Certificate in Advanced English (CAE). I thought of it like the English ceiling: that’s pretty much it, isn’t it? Or maybe it was just that I knew very few people who had passed it.
I found a private language school that suited my needs. The course structure was one hour face-to-face and one hour ‘English Lab’ AKA ‘independent study’, two days per week. I loved the face-to-face classes, and my chatty Scottish teacher, so that was a green tick. There were only three of us enrolled on the course, and not everyone always turned up, so I had one-to-one lessons very often. That was another green tick.
And here comes The ‘English Lab’. Imagine a hot room, filled with PCs and students with headphones and bored faces. The first day they showed me around, and told me: ‘do as many exercises as you can’. I was shocked. Is that actually an instruction? A goal? How do I know I am doing it right? Students didn’t have a personal account, or any sort of scoring system where you could track your progress. It was more like do ‘as much as you can’ and then… you’re lost in the middle of the ocean.
But hey, I’d paid for my course and I thought I should give it a go. Well, sometimes the headphones weren’t loud enough to be heard over the background noise, so doing listenings was a struggle. I had no teacher checking my progress, so I started questioning why I was doing all those boring exercises. And finally, the PCs were older than mine. You know how that feels.
I ended up skipping ‘The English Lab’ and going to the library to do (printed) practice tests. You had to be really motivated to learn English in that room.
6. Everything is a lie, but EUREKA!
After passing CAE, I moved to London to au pair for a native speaker family. I’d never heard such words as ‘supper’ – all my life it was ‘dinner’! And the same for ‘loo’, wasn’t it ‘toilet’? Also no one had ever told me you could say ‘telly’ instead of ‘TV’, or ‘specs’ instead of ‘glasses’ or that ‘monkey’ could also be a verb, or that you could just make up words by adding a ‘y’ or ‘ish’ at the end, like ‘thingy’, ‘techy’,‘yellowish’. Did I just say I passed the Certificate in Advanced English?
I felt almost as frustrated as I ever had before in my English journey. I thought CAE meant I spoke English fairly well, but I was still struggling to communicate naturally in everyday situations. Maybe because I never did before?
Kito and Mila were 6 and 8 years old back then, and they are the the best teachers I have ever had. They showed me English in action, and this is what I exactly needed. They corrected me if I was wrong – especially my pronunciation when I was reading them stories – and they taught me extremely useful words such as ‘gooey aliens’ or ‘dandylion’. Sometimes they explained words to me and we recorded it on video. This is one of my favourites:
Dandylion is a plant that grows in the ground, when it’s a teenager it grows some little spikes, when it’s a grown up it has lots of them all around it. When people walk passed them they think they have to say some wishes, and I just picked up one and I made a wish. I am not telling you though!
About 6 months after living with them, one night I was falling asleep watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I used to watch it with English subtitles, otherwise I missed too much. To be honest, though, it was a bit of a hassle, because I had to find them and load them separately. That night I forgot to load them and guess what?! EUREKA! I understood Larry David.
I learned English in many formats: locally, abroad, face-to-face, online, one-to-one, in a monolingual class, in a multilingual class, with and without books, in General English courses, Exam preparation courses, compulsory, after school, in a language exchange, in summer camps, at University, informally, with a native speaker host family, with native speaker colleagues…I even speak English with my boyfriend!
The amount of time put into my English learning is uncountable. If we tracked the time spent – if we toggled it, as we do at ELTjam – it would be the most expensive project ever. I could have built an app with all that money or travelled the world by bicycle many times!
So, why did I do it?
This month it’s been 1 year since I passed my CELTA. My approach to teaching was, without doubt, shaped by my experience as a learner: I was one of them not so long ago. I really wanted to care about my students, understand their needs and help them, while having a good time. The truth is that I was deeply worried about their reactions. I feared them not paying attention, speaking about other stuff, feeling bored. I wanted to come up with very engaging activities that they would love. In a nutshell, I wanted to provide an amazing learning experience.
That could sound a bit ambitious, as there are many things to handle when doing CELTA, and I am not sure if student engagement is yet an evaluation criteria on TP2. But I had a bunch of principles that I unconsciously followed. I would love my students to be able to say…
- The class is a comfortable space where I feel safe to participate.
- Everyone treats each other with respect, all being from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
- I can approach my teacher and tell her any problem I have.
- We laugh – and laughing is proven to help learning!
- Every day there is an element of surprise that makes me want to go to the lesson.
- My teacher helps identify my weaknesses and gives me solutions that I can use to tackle them.
- I enjoy the materials we use, from books to real pieces of news, songs…
- I feel motivated to keep learning English.
Nick Robinson wrote a post once about Apple’s self-driving car and the threat of AI to language teaching and learning. He said he loved driving so much that even if he could avoid driving with a driverless car, he would still choose to drive. I would still choose to learn English, even if there was an in-ear translation device.
As ELT professionals we have the power to make this happen: provide amazing learning experiences to ensure that students will want to study English, or any other language, because the experience of doing so it’s a delight.
Berta has worked at ELTjam since 2014. She is from Barcelona, and currently based in London. She has a degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology and is a qualified Primary School Teacher. She is a native speaker of Catalan and Spanish, who started learning English at the age of five and hasn’t stopped yet.