Always check instructions, always check instructions, always check instructions, always check…………
If you look up the word ´mantra´ in a dictionary, you will probably come across one of two defintions. Firstly, it can be a sacred verbal formula used in Hinduism, which is repeated in prayer or meditation. Or secondly, it is a commonly repeated word or phrase, which often becomes a truism, regardless of its validity. Both definitions can be applied to language teaching.
I recently helped run a CELTA course here in Brazil. In the final fourth week of the course, I decided to ask the trainees what ´mantras´ they would take away from the course with them. After a couple of days thinking time, here is what they came up with:
- Always drill the new language before showing the leaners the written form;
- Strong students should always be paired with weaker students;
- Always give the instructions and then hand out the materials;
- Always do a warmer;
- Always do a gist reading or listening task;
- Always check students have understood the instructions;
- Always get learners to compare before feedback;
- Never echo;
- Always get to the freer practice stages;
- Always correct on the spot during controlled practice and after the activity in freer practice.
I was not so much surprised by the fact that they had picked up mantras at sometime during the course, but by the fact that they had picked up so many. Where did these ideas come from? From the tutors? From Harmer or Scrivener, who were on the pre-course reading list? Or had they manufactured these mantras themselves?
What´s more, the other really worrying thing about these mantras is their longevity and how they permeate the thinking of even very experienced teachers. The majority of teachers who were doing a DELTA course I was running last year, for example, still believed that you should never correct on the spot during a freer practice. Which is probably one reason how they get passed down from one generation of teachers to another.
Regardless of where these mantras materialise from, I think that it is a duty of trainers on these types of courses to challenge them.
Firstly, because each of the mantras above can be refuted quite easily. I can think of least 5 instances when the above dictates do, or should, not apply.
Secondly, they can confuse trainee teachers. A trainee of mine a few days ago was tying herself up in knots about how she was going to prevent the students from seeing the written form of the target language in a reading text before she had dealt with the pronunciation.
Thirdly, and worst of all, applying such mantras does not allow trainees room to make informed decisions based on what is best for their students in terms of learning.
And shouldn´t this, afterall, be our objective? To train teachers to be able to plan for and make informed decisions, based not on very questionable mantras, but on what is benificial for their learners. If I was the owner of a school, these are exactly the sort of teachers who I would want working for me.