Use ‘less is more’ formula

FOR many teachers, teaching English is a chore and for students, learning it becomes a bore. Is there a cure? Teaching English is hard to do. Understandably, teachers keep trying harder, in a desperate bid to get learners interested. But this gives rise to a paradox – the harder the teachers try, the harder it becomes for students to learn it.  

This is because often the teacher’s heightened sense of desperation soon reaches an unbearable level only to explode, and insidiously manifests itself in high levels of stress in the classroom. Stress if left unchecked can become a major hindrance in the language learning process as it upsets student-teacher chemistry, undermining student attention, motivation and ability.  

How then to beat stress in the language learning process?  

Try the “less is more” formula. Teach less to permit more learning to take place, at its own pace. Yes, because it is more profitable for students to become language literate in the process of learning than to race them through the syllabus for the sake of exams. (In any case, one should not equate completing the syllabus with mastering the language.)  

Teachers need to be mindful of their dual role in the classroom as enablers of learning and as instructors. To enable learning, a teacher has to create conditions under which learning can take place (the social side of teaching); this in turn enables the teacher to carry out the instructional function (the task-oriented side of teaching).  

It took a nine-month long experience in a private college for me to conceive and deliver the verdict that teaching English as a second language (or foreign, as it may be) to school students in Malaysia is by far easier. Teachers in school ought to feel comforted by this.  

I also feel persuaded to share my experience with other college language teachers on how to create a stress-free language learning experience.  

Picture this – students from Mongolia, China, Japan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia (failed in SPM English) – all bunched together in a class to learn English. Not at all unlike Mr Brown’s class in Mind Your English!  

Many students arrive with zilch ability to use English though they may have studied and even passed exams in it (like our students). Naturally, to break down barriers to communication, all initial basic verbal expressions are accompanied by body language and gestures as large as life. I have resorted to TPR (Total Physical Response) and “I Jane, you . . .?” methodology when even a simple “What is your name?” fails.  

It is a definite challenge for the teachers to be thrown into the deep end and struggle every semester to arrive at a happy equilibrium to enable the use of English as a means of inter-cultural communication.  

I say “deep end” because unlike our ever so fortunate government teachers, many college language providers have not had similar training or exposure, nor do they command an extensive repertoire of language teaching strategies. Perhaps, this very lack makes them willing learners, eager to try something new. In such a context, mentoring and in-house training help in their ongoing professional development. 

Faced with the above cultural diversity of students, not to mention their diversity in ability, it becomes imperative that every step students take is progressive in nature. Students need to feel that they are steadily making some headway and they need to feel good about their involvement in the learning process. This is essential to avoid frustration which might upset the entire learning process.  

It is not easy, but I am happy to report that by the end of the course our students are adequately equipped with the essential linguistic tools to pursue either professional training courses or tertiary education. We rejoice in their success as we feel proud of them and of the fact that we took pride in the quality of our work. This is reward enough for my staff and me.  

How do we do it? I am happy to share some success pointers – staff quality, interest, methodology and nurturing an ongoing learning environment, all play a pivotal role. 

  • Materials development and utilisation – Use a range of meaningful raw materials as input to generate a density of language for spontaneous use/practice and to encourage a high level of student involvement. I have never been a straitjacket coursebook-based practitioner or advocate as I find it too restrictive, but you can always add a dash of creativity to coursebook conventionality.  

    I prefer to help my staff source and develop materials. As Brian Tomlinson pointed out at the 2003 Melta conference, the best way to help teachers develop is to help them develop materials. Material input can take any form – a happening, or an event such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc. 

  • Find out why students want to learn English – Foreign students come to us from a great distance just to learn English. Surely, it is mutually benefiting to find out their reasons. Information obtained helps us to formulate the aims of the course, that is, the purposes to which language will be put to use, and in material selection and utilisation. 

    I agree with Alan Maley that in the context of learning-centred methodology, long-term aims are important since objectives tend to focus more on pedagogic outcomes and are short-term measures. As language educators it is imperative that we be concerned with both learning outcomes and psycho-social aims. 

  • Mentoring – Provide teachers support for learning through practice. The language head has to be directly involved in developing the staff. This involves a painstaking one-to-one mentoring in planning, producing materials, utilising materials, appraising and monitoring staff and encouraging ongoing learning.  

    For professional development to take place the head must be knowledgeable about her staff – what is their commitment? Do they have a philosophy of teaching? What are their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses? How best can I help them develop? Only then can staff be given the right experience, guided to reflect on it and use it to improve.  

    It is equally important for the mentor to engage in ongoing reflection, re-examination and re-appraisal of herself to ensure ongoing learning. Self-knowledge is an important aspect of the mentor’s knowledge – I need to ask myself the following questions: What do I stand for? What is my commitment? What is my philosophy of teaching? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What sustains me and prevents me from getting stale and bored? 

  • Teamwork – Nurture a working environment that places a high premium on consultation, co-operation, collaboration and collective decision making.  

    These are team-building blocks which when put together create synergy and the capacity for mutual learning and growth. Synergy enables creative endeavours that sustain momentum and the excitement of exploring unending possibilities to enhance professional commitment. 

    Success at any level is achievable only through teamwork. And teamwork gives you the much needed rest from stress. 



    Head, Centre for English Language  

    KDU College, Penang 

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