Agile English teaching. What is it?
Modern-day agile English teaching has come to take the place of rigid, cut-and-dried lessons that are fast becoming a thing of the past.
Let me clarify what I mean by agile teaching that is bound to substitute conventional teaching.
Some decades ago and up until recently it was perfectly valid to choose a certain textbook and go through it module by module together with your students (be it a group or individual learners). Given the abundance of high-quality materials readily accessible online and offline, it is completely unthinkable to proceed with this outdated approach.
What teachers / tutors should do instead is not only to customize the course but to customize ALL the lessons of the course (each and every one of them) to make them relevant and true to life. It sounds like an awful lot of work, which it is. However, these tailor-made classes are a product of continuous self-development and self-perfection — so, this kind of teaching involves learning (for teachers) as well. All the students who start learning English have their own reasons for doing so and most of them need a set of specific topics or skills. Believe me, no single textbook can meet their requirements in full. A halfway decent solution would be to select a few textbooks and shortlist the topics from them that might be relevant for the trainee at hand and then to align your choice with the student’s vision of what’s necessary for him or her. This is an acceptable approach, but not the ultimate one.
Let’s now move on to a more desirable option — agile teaching.
Its core principle is to customize whatever is customizable:
- when and where the lesson takes place and how long it lasts, whether it’s online or offline
- the range of topics (technologies, books, films, hobbies, education, etc.)
- the set of skills (presenting, negotiating, email writing, etc.)
- the vocabulary and grammar (based on the student’s needs)
- the home assignment (depending on the student’s knowledge gaps and interests: if they prefer to read articles or watch videos, etc.)
- the small talk topics (at the beginning and end of the lesson)
- the attitude to mistakes correction (which errors to correct and whether to correct them at all)
- the attitude towards tests and any form of assessment (some trainees appreciate evaluation, while others are still haunted by nightmares connected to school exams and tests)
- the level of strictness (some students like to be punished with extra homework or hate to be praised for fear of becoming too confident or lazy)
- first language usage at English lessons (some students’ English fluency is not affected by using a few first-language words at the lesson for the sake of clarity, whereas others’ English acquisition can be seriously impeded)
All the above-mentioned points should be taken into consideration before and during classes. Ideally, the teacher must go to great lengths to remember details about the trainee’s personal life in order to maintain bespoke small talk with him or her. For instance, if your student loves fishing, make sure to keep returning to that topic in order to kindle their enthusiasm and get them all warmed-up and ready for the lesson ahead. Alternatively, if they had said at the previous class that they were going to attend a birthday party at the weekend, ask them if they had a good time at the party.
As a rule, language schools usually take sides with this or that approach demanding all their teachers to never ever speak the first language at the lessons, unfailingly provide tests at the end of modules / semesters, or to compliment students on good results and give some punishment for bad results in the form of extra home assignment, etc. These are just a few examples that go to illustrate that teachers at language schools (even the best ones on the market) are not given total freedom to be resilient and this is completely justified: there must be a clear-cut frame of reference, a clear statement of what the company offers its clients. When it comes to freelance teachers, they are literally free to adopt resilience to be able to deliver made-to-measure lessons.
By way of illustration, take an experienced tutor who has quite a high level of English (C1 / C2) and specializes in IELTS teaching. An acquaintance asks him or her if he or she has a desire or an opportunity to teach English to a young programmer who has just started working and whose English leaves much to be desired. What this developer needs is to improve general English speaking skills to be able to keep up a small-talk conversation with colleagues. In addition, they would like to become better negotiators, as they are going to work in a small team in a startup, where there could arise a lot of potentially problematic scenarios. An old-school tutor would most probably shudder at the thought of having to adapt so much to the needs of one trainee, as opposed to the agile tutor who would thrive on a challenge like that.
To recap my method of customization, it is necessary to:
- find out the requirements of the student (regarding the topics, skills, home assignment, tests, etc)
- do a reality check from time to time to see if your vision coincides with theirs
- memorize the student’s interests, hobbies and whatever personal information they share with you so as to be able to have meaningful small talk (instead of mere time fillers)
- research huge volumes of relevant materials (textbooks, online articles, YouTube videos, Ted presentations, etc.) and select exclusively the most useful links to use at the classes and send for homework. The chosen materials must correspond to the trainee’s needs and interests, they must be up to date and thought-provoking, ideally boosting not only language awareness but also general knowledge.
Despite the fact that the tutor has a lesson plan and a few additional links and exercises up their sleeve just in case there is spare time at the end of the lesson, it’s essential to be spontaneous and not to be afraid to incorporate other materials and topics that pop up during the lesson or to alter the content on the go. For instance, if you have found a perfect video about a modern art exhibition in Tate London museum and your trainee admits that she can’t stand modern art, then it would be wiser to switch immediately to something else instead of imposing the hated topic on the student (for example, your best bet here is to hold a debate where you will try to persuade the student that modern art is not deprived of meaning and value).
Please write your comments and share your ideas as to how to personalize lessons even further. I’ll be immensely grateful!