How I teach

IMG_2939 I posted this photo in another article and received some questions as to how I plan my lessons because it looks a bit different from what they expected. I guess I don’t teach the way people expect English teachers to teach. I teach mainly political English in Parliament and Government. This ranges from conversation groups and 1 to 1 teaching (which is what this lesson was), to interpreting, translating, speechwriting, mentoring, coaching and proofreading. I very seldom work from grammar books or actually teach grammar. My students tend to have a high level of English and need to practise speaking in a safe environment. I work from authentic material and then create my own vocabulary and grammar exercises from that. This was a typical lesson with a government official who needed help with fluency and talking about her area. She has been my student for about three years so we have learned what works and what she likes best. In this case the folded A3 paper in front of her contains copies of two topical articles about her specialist area – one in English and one in Swedish.

  • We discussed the articles and compared them with the system she works with in Sweden.
  • The English one she read aloud and we discussed vocabulary and worked on pronunciation (a big problem for foreign speakers).
  • The Swedish one she read and then orally translated one third word for word at the same time as she read, summarized one third and then debated the final third – all in English.
  • I had previously prepared two vocabulary exercises for her – one  Swedish-English and one English-Swedish. These I cut out and pasted into her book (see below).
  • She then went through the articles, put them to one side so she could work from memory and then used her vocabulary booklet (I prepare one for each student) to write the words down in the exercise.
  • After that we carry on discussing with me asking difficult questions in order to help her deal with journalists.
  • If any grammar issues arise that need to be worked on I bring them up and we work through them.

Each one of my students is given a notebook from my stash. These are used for many things but generally:

  • they are small and light enough to be carried around. Much better than bulky grammar books and files.
  • I paste all exercises I create into the book so they can all be in one place.
  • While the lesson is ongoing I write notes for the student in the notebook. This allows them to concentrate on speaking without having to stop and write down things or worry that they have written them down correctly.
  • At the end of the lesson we go through the day’s notes to make sure the student understands everything.
  • They are then free to add their own notes from the discussion.

I usually teach in 60 minute, 90 minute or 120 minute blocks of time. Students tend to meet me once a week and I teach for about 7 hours a day. Some of my students I have been teaching since 1999. One thing I think makes me a better teacher of English is that I speak many languages myself. I know what it is like to struggle in another language as an adult. I know what it is like to be articulate in your mother tongue but feel like a baby in all others. I know how your confidence ebbs away when you cannot express the nuances that come so naturally in your mother tongue. The way people sometimes look at you as they see you struggle to find a word.  Students know I fight that battle every day (I don’t speak English outside of the classroom) so they trust me to do my best for them and know that I empathize and understand what they are going through. And because I speak pretty good Swedish and have studied it at a high level, they know I can compare English and Swedish grammar and make it easier for them to remember the rules.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

4 thoughts

  1. Very intetesting post, Janet! Thanks for sharing this part of your job. As an English teacher, translator and interpreter l am always intetested in how otjer people teach.

    Now l just have a question: why don’t you use a computer or laptop to teach? I never take notes on paper anymore and everything l need to write down during a lesson goes straight to my computer into different files (grammar, vocab, syntax, culture, politics…) and from thete to my student’s computer. They always have up to date files so they can revise their lessons with what is saved in their files. It is also a gain of time during the lessons.
    The other advantage of ustng a laptop is that you can record yourself (for the pronunciation lessons) and send the file to the students so they can practice.

    I haven’t taught “paper only” lessons for at least 7 years and honestly l wouldn’t go back to that era!

    1. A colleague of mine does that – he uses iPad and Evernote. I generally prefer to do everything on paper as it is less distracting for my students while they are speaking to me. I find the sound of the keyboard tends to put people off their stride, while jotting down notes does not. I also don’t like the barrier of a computer between myself and the student, particularly as I usually do not have a table on which to work on – I normally sit in an armchair facing my student with my notepad on my knee.

      I do always use my computer when people are creating speeches with me. They speak and I type at the same time (I type extremely fast so they just speak at their normal speed). This means that we can create speeches on the fly. I also use my computer if I am editing a speech while they are speaking.

      1. When in the EU Council or Court we use Soundbooth (or something similar) to transcribe speeches into text so they are available on all the members screens at the same time. For more complex procedures which request confidentiality we use shorthand writing before translating as some parts of the speeches won’t be translated.

        I sometimes use shorthand writing duri.g the lessons if l need to take notes down. But honestly l couldn’t do without Soundbooth to transcribe the lessons.

Leave a Reply