Life at the university

I’m not exactly anti coursebook, in fact, I’m always very hopeful when a new one comes out. Maybe this will be the exciting new course that is perfect for my learners? This, however, is almost always impossible. To be fair to coursebook writers, having done some writing myself, I know the constraints, and apart from the limitations posed by the publishers there is also the simple fact that no group of people is the same, no teaching situation is exactly the same, and as a result, it is almost impossible to produce a coursebook which will meet all the needs of a group of learners. Having said that ‘Inside Out’ by Macmillan does a good job and in their new version they have added the CEFR “can do” statements, adapted for each level and for each module of the course.

I was looking at the Upper Intermediate level (B2) this week and wondering how I could use these statements with my students. There are of course, various ways, and the most logical would be, as the teacher’s book suggests, to use them as a detailed needs analysis before doing each module, so that you could then decide what to focus and expand upon and what can be left out.

In small groups this works very well. The learners are enthusiastic and it helps me a lot with the planning. I feel as thoug the work we are doing is really useful to these learners and they are not wasting time on things they are not interested in. As a result they like the coursebook, which provides practice work that I can relate to very well. So, thanks Macmillan, Inside Out gets a thumbs up from me!

This of course led me to thinking about how nice it would be to have time to tailor my course in the way to the needs of all my learners. I can do this when I work freelance, with small groups or in one to one situations, but in university classes of anything from thirty to a hundred students it becomes difficult to provide tailor made courses which really meet learners’ needs.

Large classes are not the only thing that limits our students either. Our learners are also bound by exams that they have to pass which sometimes give rise to absurd situations, such as Economics students from my university,who are complete beginners, obstinately demanding to be allowed into a B1 level course, because “That’s the exam we have to do!” And you can explain until the cows come home on Farmville that if you are a beginner you should first do a beginners’ course (Seems obvious, doesn’t it?) but they don’t listen. This is a minority, of course, but it illustrates some of the surreal events that we have become so used to that we think of them as being normal. Learners who are in a class that is completely wrong for them level wise, will not be able to benefit from the work being done. At best this is a total waste of time for them and at worst they become a disruptive element for everybody else. This should actually not be happening any longer as they are supposed to already have an A2 level before they can go to a B1 class, but with large numbers there are still one or two who slip through the net.  So it comes back to the large numbers once again. 

In the “world of TEFL there is so much emphasis on learner centred work, stressing the need to cater for the real requirements that learners have, but our university students often find themselves in classes that are so large that it is difficult for their teacher to even remember all their names. How can teachers do learner centred work if they do not even know the names of the students? Once again, the answer is simply that they don’t. They focus on the exams and what is in them. We know what sorts of “typical areas” our students will have difficulty with, but in no way are we able to look at every learner as a whole individual.

My solution is to show them the “can do” statements and to ask them to assess themselves, which is a far cry from what I would like to do and can do in small adult groups, where I can look at the results with them, provide teaching in class that focuses on their needs and then direct them towards out of class work that will interest them and be relevant to them.

I try to do the same in the university and, don’t get me wrong, sometimes the numbers are not so big and I can, but I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the line our students are getting rather a rough deal, and I would like to be able to do so much more for these intelligent, often much maligned young adults, who when given the chance can actually absorb and contribute so well.

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