The Common Sense Approach
How One Teacher Organized A Speaking Course
For 200 Chinese Graduate Students
by Steve Schackne
Most efl-esl training programs around the world try to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Depending on the department, some leans towards the theoretical, others towards practical classroom application. Indeed, the move away from theory in the United States has transformed applied linguistics courses into narrowly focused teaching methodology courses, and prodded many colleges and universities to move applied linguistics from the linguistics department to the English or education department.
In a previous paper [see Schackne, 2002] I argued that there was a lot of relevant research on second language acquisition that was not being applied in the classroom. However, if we accept that successful learning strategies and styles differ depending on personality, educational and cultural background, and personal preference, then applying a theory may only benefit some of the students. The missing component is a knowledge of the students, specifically their current academic, political, and socio-economic pursuits, and, just as importantly, their attitudes towards, and experience in, language learning. While a needs analysis can shed light on student attitudes and desires, actual teaching experience might be the most crucial variable in intuitively tapping into what approaches will both benefit and satisfy language students. Bearing in mind these three crucial factors--second language acquisition theory, classroom practice, and student insight--let us now use a common sense approach to develop an oral skills class.
In the fall of 2002, a Chinese university asked me to teach speaking-listening to about 200 graduate students (4 sections x 50). There were no materials, no guidelines, simply the general goal that the students "learn something" from the course. The students ranged in age from 21 to 50, and came from various departments, including hard sciences, social sciences, liberal arts and fine arts. They were evenly divided between Masters students and Ph.D students. They were in class approximately 90 minutes a week over the course of 2 semesters (approximately 30 weeks). Their levels ranged from low intermediate to low advanced.
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