Language Development: A short self-study guide for teachers

“A teacher who loves learning earns the right and the ability to help others learn.”
― Ruth BeechickAn Easy Start in Arithmetic, Grades K-3

In my last post, I talked about writing. The reason why I wrote about it is because I write, and writing is my journey into the core of the English language. The more I write, the more I learn about collocations, spelling, and how words are combined to form sentences. I also learn how words can impact one’s understanding and how they can persuade, motivate, inspire, and invite people to reflect and act upon things. Ultimately, I learn by doing.

I’m a non-native speaker of English and don’t live in an English-speaking country, either, so for me, writing is a way for me to keep in touch with English.  Chatting online, reading, watching TV series and movies are also incredible ways to practice English. I have already mentioned their importance in previous posts, but what I’ve never written about is how teaching helps me learn new things. Having said that, this post is about learning and how teachers can continue to learn English even when they’re busy teaching a class.

I teach all levels and all age groups. Teaching higher levels and exam practice classes surely encourages us to study the language we are going to teach. However, most teachers would say that teaching lower levels doesn’t help them improve their vocabulary or grammar because the language is too basic. So, how can we keep on learning even if we only teach lower levels?

  1. Study the target language no matter how simple it looks

I have observed several beginner classes and I have noticed that many teachers don’t go to the trouble of preparing to teach the language because they assume it is all too easy. Well, they couldn’t be more wrong. The simple past of the regular forms takes an -ed ending, right? Yet, I have seen teachers ignore simple pronunciation rules and mispronounce the -ed forms; I have seen teachers teach ‘funner’ as the comparative form of ‘fun.’ Language is never obvious even if you are a native speaker. Do you pronounce ‘on’ and ‘own’ in the same way? It’s time you considered studying pronunciation basics.  Even beginner level lessons demand preparation. It all starts during lesson planning, so we can get rid of fossilized mistakes by revising simple rules and by doing research.

  1. Pay attention to how other people speak and write

I have observed how teachers talk with each other in English in the teachers’ room. I also talk with other teachers in English. Sometimes we have a chance to interact with English speakers or speakers of other languages in English. Here is a wonderful opportunity to practice our conversational English. I also see it as a great opportunity to pay attention to how they speak. It isn’t about judging other people’s English. It is about learning from our colleagues. I have observed that some teachers continue to make a mistake despite having heard their colleague say it right several times during the conversation, perhaps as an attempt to help them. Yet, many teachers don’t respond to that; it seems they are not attending to form. The same principles of pair work can be applied here: We can learn from each other. All it takes is a bit of curiosity and awareness.

  1. Variety is the spice of language

Expose your students to different accents and varieties of English. Even beginner students should be exposed to different varieties. Learn together with them. There are several videos on YouTube that show how you can speak with different accents. Show them a snippet of Billy Eliot, a British musical drama set in northern England and observe how they pronounce simple words such as  ‘don’t’ and how they say longer stretches. Select sentences they can understand and focus on intonation and pronunciation. Select other sentences and pay attention to the vocabulary, too. Let go of the idea that there is only one ‘acceptable’ variety of English in your classes. Play with the different sounds of English with your students. You’ll learn a lot!

  1. Your Facebook friends can be your teachers

PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) and online friends can be a great source of language. If you are reading this post it means that you’re very likely to be on social media. Use twitter and Facebook posts to your advantage and observe how  people are communicating in English.  What words and expressions are trending? Borrow these words and expressions from your friends and use them in your classes. Encourage your students to use them, too. Simple as that.

  1. Check your spelling, your grammar,  and your vocabulary

Sometimes we need to write a word we aren’t very familiar with on the board; sometimes we need to check our students’ spelling when we are grading compositions. Do you check your spelling and your grammar? Do you look up words in different sources just to check if something a student said or wrote is used in that context? Do you ever wonder when we can use ‘a vacation’ instead of ‘vacations?’ Do you try to push your beginner students beyond their course book vocabulary and grammar by exposing them to synonyms and new expressions? By doing that, you’re also pushing yourself beyond your level.

My English isn’t flawless, but I give myself short-term goals which involve learning from my environment. One of the biggest pitfalls of being a teacher is that we take English for granted just because we teach it. Each day represents a new chance to enhance our ability to learn and to help others learn as well, and these steps could be just the beginning. Language development is in your hands, so it’s up to you to decide what steps to take next.

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

  • Roddy Kay
    Posted at 16:14h, 04 fevereiro Responder

    Great post, Teresa. I agree with all of it. One little but important thing that you hint at is the importance of pointing out to a repeated mistake to a colleague. This is never easy to do. It is a question of speaking to them quietly about this out of the earshot of others.
    Another self-teaching task that is worth doing is to listen to a repeatable piece of video and attempting to write down words that you hear but don´t understand, This is a high-level skill. A classroom approach to this is to read aloud sentences appropriate to the level that contain one word of one-syllable that you the teacher do not expect learners to know but are spelt phonetically. For example, I like BUNS, do you?; He says it is important but I don´t give a FIG for it!; I love to put LEEK in chicken soup. Tell the learners: I am going to read out some sentences. Write down the word I stress. Then get them to compare in pairs or small groups what they wrote down. Then get feedback from them; and tell them or get them to find out what the word or expression means.

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 08:30h, 14 fevereiro Responder

      Hi Roddy, thanks for your feedback. Yes, it is never easy to point out a repeated mistake to a colleague. During the time when I was a mentor, I was expected to do that, and even so it was never an easy thing to do. None of us speak English as a first language in my teaching context, so we must find creative ways to keep in touch with the language and also to keep up with the changes. Teachers need to be attentive to detail; however, I know how difficult it is to be attentive during everyday conversations in the staff room. I would really appreciate if a colleague pointed out a mistake to me, but not everyone feels comfortable about it, so having in mind my context, I shared something that I started doing when I was living in the US. I would pay close attention to how people said things during interactions and this habit helped me grasp the grammar rules, and more importantly, the context in which they said things.

      As for the activity you suggest, I will definitely try it out with my students. A language is a big puzzle, and the more room we give students to figure out things by themselves, the more independent they will be. Also, I like this activity because it’s very brain-friendly since it involves a lot of problem solving and collaboration.

      One thing that I do is give my students a phonemic chart with some unknown words transcribed to phonemic script and ask them to figure out how the words are pronounced. Then they must check the spelling in a dictionary. They love the challenge.

      Well, thank you again for your comment and I hope to hear from you again in my next posts.

  • Rachel M
    Posted at 09:17h, 05 fevereiro Responder

    So interesting! Thanks, Teresa!

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 07:51h, 14 fevereiro Responder


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