How I became a language Geek
I’ve just taken an intensive CELTA course, and I passed. This means I can teach English to adults and teenagers without being too much of a danger to them or to myself. When I was an undergraduate I taught English in a Paris lycée very badly. It was a lycée technique that turned out stonemasons. Faced with classes of 25-30 teenagers, I asked what they did on holiday. They said they went shoplifting. I was totally unprepared for teaching, and decided that it wasn’t for me.
Now, thanks to CELTA, I’m ready to give teaching English another go. I’ve learned that lessons can be about knowledge or skills. I’ve learned that speaking and writing are productive skills, and that listening and reading are receptive skills. As a native English speaker, why didn’t I know about receptive and productive skills? I’m like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain who was amazed to find he could speak both poetry and prose.
Checking meaning every which way
At the beginning of the course I thought that my experience of training and coaching would stand me in good stead. I plan and deliver training systematically. I go to great lengths to create positive learning environments. I try to show, not tell. But as I soon found out, having a training background was not enough. The CELTA approach to teaching vocabulary and grammar is surgical. CELTA teachers work quickly and methodically, checking pronunciation and correcting mistakes. CELTA teachers ask questions to check whether students understand the meaning of vocabulary. They draw pictures and timelines. They use their faces and their bodies, they gesticulate, they act out. They teach every which way except telling students what the words mean.
CCQs: The secret weapon in the CELTA arsenal
So I’ve learned a bunch of tools and techniques to help students discover the meaning of words and phrases for themselves. The secret weapon in the CELTA arsenal is a concept checking question, or as I now know, a CCQ. Like a picture, a good CCQ is worth a thousand words. Sometimes it’s enough to show students a picture of whatever it is you want them to learn e.g. a guitar, a mug or a banana. But when you need to explain a sentence like, ‘He didn’t mean to break it’, only a CCQ will do. To be precise, you need two CCQs:
Teacher: ‘Did he do it?’
Teacher: ‘Was it an accident or was it on purpose?’
Students: ‘An accident’.
Now here are CCQs for climate change:
Teacher: Is the weather getting more extreme or less extreme?
Students: More extreme.
Teacher: Is the weather harder to predict or easier to predict?
Creating CCQs is an art: it’s how you involve learners
The theory behind CCQs is that students are more likely to remember what they have learned if they have to work out the meaning for themselves. CCQs are a good thing because they force students to get involved in the learning process; and if students have to struggle a little to get to the meaning, the learning is more likely to stick. This makes perfect sense to me. As a trainer I was brought up on the saying from Confucius, ‘Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I’ll remember, involve me and I will understand.’
They say the best way to understand something is to teach it someone else
People learning English aren’t the only ones to struggle. After a few days on the CELTA course I felt exhausted. This was because I learning how to teach, and at the same time, I was re-learning long forgotten English grammar. This was hard. Luckily, help was at hand from Wiola, a Polish classmate. Wiola was never phased by tenses. She knew English grammar better than most native speakers.
I must think of a CCQ to elicit the meaning of ‘geek’
I’m not sure if I’ll use any of the CELTA tools and concepts in my work as a trainer. I doubt a group of senior managers would appreciate CCQs. Nevertheless, doing the CELTA feels like an achievement. I’ve got a teaching qualification that is recognised all over the world. I’m enjoying noticing how people use language in different ways. And I’ve got seven new best friends who like to have fun with CCQs. I must think of a CCQ to explain ‘geek’.
PS Thanks to my classmates who encouraged and supported me, and to all the students from Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lithuania, Spain, and Thailand who agreed to be taught by us beginners.