Posted by:

Unpopular EFL teaching principles that work

It’s been almost 35 years since I started teaching English, back when the internet meant some kind of reinforcement fabric, when cell phones were those contraptions that wardens called on to give death row convicts last-minute reprieves, and Krashen was what teenagers did with their Chevy Novas on summer nights after quaffing too much Baby Duck down at the gravel pit. 


Over that time, I’ve picked up several ‘bad habits’ that have helped me immensely as a teacher. I say ‘bad habits’ because, although they are unpopular beliefs and practices, they work and I recommend them to anyone entering or new to the EFL teaching game. Here are five of my favourites:


  1. ‘Learner centered’ classrooms should be viewed with suspicion


Comment: A lot of EFL rhetoric assumes that the teacher’s choice of classroom focus is binary: one must be either teacher or learner centered in their pedagogical approach. However, this ignores the crux of our teaching purpose, which is to facilitate learning.


A learning centered approach, on the other hand, focuses primarily on the content or skills that the teachers hopes or expects the students to acquire during the class. No matter how kind, gentle, and empathetic a teacher may think he or she is in terms of allowing the students autonomy and self-expression in the EFL classroom, if due consideration has not been placed upon the actual learning content, and how it is likely to best be internalized by the learners, all that goodwill plus $6 will get your students a tall mocha at Seattle’s Best.


  1. It’s rarely worth teaching pronunciation


Comment: Is it a sin for Japanese people to ‘sound Japanese’ when they speak English? I’m not talking about those Japanese who force English into a rigid katakana grid, but the majority of proficient English-speaking Japanese who, naturally, maintain hints of their mother tongue. After all, why should my students in Miyazaki feel the need to sound like a white dude from Vancouver?


Sure, exposure to intelligible English (not necessarily Anglo-American) early in the learning process is essential, as is weaning new learners off of English implanted onto the mother tongue syllabary, But beyond that? Occasionally, I do pit-stop quick fixes when my medical students cross the line (‘blood’ as ‘blued’, ‘analysis’ stressed more like the verb than the noun, the second syllable in ‘epilepsy’ being lengthened) but these hardly constitute the focus of a lesson. Intonation, particularly in longer turns, is a much worthier focus, and one that likely has more positive communicative uptake.


  1. Most EFL teaching should not be for ‘practical’ purposes


Comment: The notion that students should learn English so that they might retrieve individual gambits at some indeterminate point in the future, when they encounter ‘the foreigner’, is a bit like learning quantum physics just in case you are suddenly asked to design a nuclear reactor. We learn maths and physics because it is good brain food, because it sets a cognitive foundation for intellectual growth, only a very few specialists might actually apply it in the future.


Sure, grooming a Japanese academic for a conference or a group of company employees for some international collaboration is fair game for teaching ‘practical’ English, but for your standard institutional ‘required’ English program?? This is why, in teaching my nursing students, I focus upon having them learn cognitive categories: What types of questions are suited to patients? How should they prioritize data in reporting to co-medical staff? How might a health survey be constructed? Doing these in English may stir nascent English skills but more than that, they serve to reinforce nursing concepts and stimulate active thinking, the presumed purpose of most humanities teaching.


  1. Teaching English in the learners’ mother tongue is healthy, productive, and natural


Comment: in EFL settings, L1 is a resource, and a tremendously powerful one. Why a teacher may ignore it in order to maintain some kind of air of ritual classroom purity, is beyond me. Maintaining the pretense, while teaching in Japan, that somehow the entire class has suddenly been ensconced into ‘foreign-country land’, where familiar linguistic reference points are evil entities and English has the force of magical fairy dust, will have a novelty value for… oh… about 30 minutes.


When I tried to learn Thai, my Thai friend mediated much through English, allowing me to gradually piece together the grammar, to compare lexical ranges with English, to check, confirm, and filter. I am, after all, an adult – meaning that I cannot bypass my mother tongue during acquisition. Indeed, the habit occasionally observed in children’s English classes, wherein a Japanese person translates absolutely every utterance of the English teacher, is self-defeating. So, too, is the indulgent propensity to ‘explain the grammar’. What I find most helpful in the learners’ L1 are giving succinct outlines and/or instructions to save time and frustration and, especially, quick fixes, like one I used recently with my medical students to help them separate two English notions of clinical duration:

‘One type of duration is from the onset of the symptoms, the other is for the length of each attack.’ Such quick, surgical, first-language strikes allow the rest of the lesson to kick into gear more efficiently.


  1. Most ‘culture’ language teaching is a superficial waste of time


Comment: Let’s face it. Partaking in a traditional Skopje folk dance is not somehow suddenly cause a massive leap in your Macedonian skills. Despite the nonsensical trope that ‘language and culture are inseparable’ (somehow I’ve acquired a deep appreciation and knowledge of Belgian beer culture without developing any ability to parse Flemish verbs) being widely used as a justification for frivolity, most ‘culture’ lessons are pedagogical window dressing, disguising the fact that little of substance is actually being learned. Yeah, show some Aussie Rules Football highlights and claim that you’re teaching Aussie ‘culture’, bring some Colombian coffee beans for tasting and tell yourself that this is magically empowering your students’ Spanish skills.


Actually, there is a place for ‘cultural side bars’ in the classroom – once again, those quick, surgical, orientation strikes. Here’s one I regularly bring up with my medical students:

In Japan, the patient is usually called by the doctor (or nurse) and the patient then enters the doctor’s room, but in many Western countries, the patient is placed in a room in which the doctor enters later. Therefore, some type of entry line, like, ‘May I come in?’ is required by the doctor.’


Another culture nugget I use with many students:

In most Western countries very few people give self-introductions of the kind that Japanese do when joining a club or workplace. A greeting and, possibly, your preferred name, is enough. The rest can come out when the need arises. The exception might be somewhere like a job interview.’


The point Is that these types of socio-cultural pointers are never the center of the lesson, they are incidental items of interest that could influence behaviour.


Agree? Disagree? This is 35 years of experience talking. Acquired wisdom? Or the rantings of an old washed-up pedagogue?




Mike Guest

One Response to Unpopular EFL teaching principles that work

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *