I asked to observe a 1.5 hour English lesson that the talented artist was running at CEAL. In addition to having a jealousy-inducing artist talent, the young man studied for a year in Yangon under the tuition of an American native speaker and speaks impressively good English with a noticeable American twang.
At the lesson were many of the students that I had met for morning beach exercise, and again at the sessions run by the Peace Officer. Including a couple of new faces that I hadn’t seen before, there were a total of 8 girls and 4 boys in attendance.
There were around 4 trestle tables making up one long table down the middle of the slim room. The artist sat at the head of the table as the teacher, alternating between sitting and standing during the lesson. Each student had a copy of the textbook Interchange 1 student book and workbook. My initial thought is that lessons would benefit from a different table configuration, although I am still processing how this might work. There are strict limitations in the size of both the room and the tables. I think that traditional rows would work better for teacher access to students, the downside being some students are far from the board. Although I would argue that is a moot point because of the distance of the far end of the current setup from the board and teacher. I am considering the possibility of having smaller groups of tables. The problem is that each student needs space to write and the text books are quite unwieldy.
There was chatter in Arakanese before the lesson officially opened with the teacher enquiring “How are you?” collectively to his students. This was followed by the same counting and shaking activity that I had encountered in the Yangon practical lessons from the student who had also studied with the American teacher. It was a practice that he had begun. It gets the students moving; I still find it comical and unrelated to English. The teacher reads aloud from the text book. He asks some pretty good questions of his students, but there is still a great deal of focus on him leading and I observe that it is easy for some of the students to let their attention wander. He reads the passage aloud twice before moving methodically through each sentence, translating it to Arakanese. The students repeat the Arakanese but make no attempt at the English words. The students are not taking notes of the translation and I wonder how they will remember all of the words, some of which are probably new to them.
I think something that would be good to do for a reading passage is split it into three sections and have three smaller groups. Each group gets to read one passage, translate it, and work out the meaning. Next, representatives from each group will form new groups and each student or pair of students will explain or summarize their passage to the representatives from the other two groups. In this way, more students are able to access the text at once and the students must synthesize and process the English in order to be able to then explain it to a new person. It is this direct interaction with the text that will improve students comprehension as well as teaching transferable skills of teamwork and teaching that will be useful in today’s job market.
I need to ask if this is the first time that these guys have read this page. It seems like it; it appears to have been homework. I think that it would be useful to have a little more of a topic orientated warm-up in order to engage schemata before launching into the reading. I think making a list of jobs on the board or something like that would have been a no effort way to engage the students and focus them on the topic.
The teacher's reading is very good; it is natural and he clearly understands the sentence in order to put the right emphasis on the words to bring out the full meaning. As I mentioned in a previous entry relating to the Yangon weekday course, reading aloud naturally is something most students find very challenging. I am highly impressed with the teacher.
I also find his focus on correct pronunciation to be noteworthy. He picked out a few words from the text, around 10 to focus the student’s attention on. They repeated these as a group and he made the sounds a few times at them. I would recommend a little more time on this activity - hearing individual students pronouncing the words rather than as a group would help to check who really has the sound and who is hiding within the group dynamic. He also helps the students by telling them when a cluster of words go together; instead of each word being monosyllabic, this should help to bring a sense of cohesion to the reading.
Each of the students then reads aloud, with immediate correction from the teacher. The overall level of reading is pretty good. Better than I would anticipate from a low level group; this is clearly something that the teacher feels is important. The reading is quite fast-paced, and there are a lot of students to get through. I appreciate that the teacher was reading aloud as a model in the beginning. I still think that it is of more use to students to have them engaging and interacting with the text from a much earlier point in the lesson.
The next exercise in the book is a pair activity to choose the most suitable job for each of the people described in the reading passage. This is a pretty standard activity across textbooks and levels. I think that the choice of 12 jobs to match with 3 people is overwhelming and lends itself to students getting off-topic for a variety of reasons: there is too much information to deal with so they just don’t. Or they make a snap judgment and use the remainder of the time to chat about their weekend plans and outfits. Only rarely do students properly engage with this task. That is not to say it has no merit, simply it needs to be managed in a more controlled way by the teacher. Perhaps this management could be achieved by giving each student one job and they must decide which person it best suits. Or by giving a random combination of one person and one job, students might stand up and switch people or jobs until they get a pairing they like. This gives a less random choice and helps the students to retain the information.
The lesson then changed pace to a list of all of the tenses onto the board and a brief, fast explanation in Arakanese of each tense. This seemed like a very odd thing to do to me. The students had spent the previous hour reading about occupations, and now they were being told about the past perfect continuous, a tense which is rarely used and is only usually introduced at advanced levels. I got the impression that this was a rote learning exercise which happens each lesson. I do not approve of jumbling the tenses together like this. I have only once done so in teaching with an exceptionally smart Greek doctor who was very motivated. She undertook her medical degree in Romania, arriving just 2 weeks before the start date to learn the language!
Observing lessons is always a good way to see teaching in a more objective light; thank you to the teacher for agreeing to let me into his lesson!
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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