Tuesday, November 25, 2008

TEFL Notes

The past few weeks have been good ones for my little English-teaching business. I now have four very regular students. One of them, however, is in Brazil until December, so I've had an easy schedule with six lessons per week. Two of the students I'm currently working with are beginners, and the third is at the low intermediate level. It's been particularly exciting to watch this third student blossom. The first time I met her was at the tea that we had here at our apartment. She was very quiet and spoke only in Ukrainian to her friend. I was nervous about teaching her because she seemed distant and unfriendly. But after only six weeks of lessons, she has gained a tremendous amount of confidence! Now she regales me regularly with tales of her weekend and with what she's cooked during the past week, and she cracks me up with a great sense of humor. She ran into Glenda at the bus stop last week, and Glenda reported that they had a conversation in English. It's amazing how much good a chance to practice conversation skills with a sympathetic listener will do.

I am very much enjoying teaching my two beginning students. They are both Brazilian, and they are both doing great. I've decided that I really like teaching beginners because it is so easy to see them make progress. It's easy to find vocabulary that they will hear often, so they have lots of chances to practice. The grammar they're learning is simple and easy to teach. I do miss the chance for more advanced readings and discussions, but I suppose that will come in time.

I am particularly amused by the system one of my Brazilian students and I have cobbled together to communicate. It works like this: she rattles off a long string of Portuguese, accompanied by diagrams or hand gestures, and I, miraculously, understand her and respond in English. She usually understands, and so we grind on through basic grammar points, using our multilingual skills. Every once and a while, we stop and laugh at how our languages have become mutually intelligible through not much more than our sheer determination to be understood.

My Ukrainian student pointed out to me this week how difficult she finds it to read in English. I gave her a short passage about fashions as an introduction to the past tense and some vocabulary about clothes. She said she hates reading in English, but that she could read when she studied German. I always talk to my students about how difficult spelling is in English because the letters of the alphabet do not correspond one-to-one with sounds. For example, g can be pronounced "hard," as in gentle, or "soft," as in girl. So it's hard to know how to write a word that you know how to use in conversation. I try to sympathize with my students on this point. But I haven't been as sympathetic about reading until Elena pointed out how frustrating it is for her. Then I remembered how hard it was for me to read Polish, even though it does have a one-to-one correspondence between the alphabet and the sounds the letters represent. Sometimes I'd have to actually say words outloud before I'd realize that I knew them or that they were similar to their English counterparts. So, my other students can thank Elena for making me more sympathetic to the unique trials of learning to read English. On the other hand, only practice can ease these trials. So maybe they shouldn't thank her yet.


Solson Scherman said...

Ellen I think I can sympathize with anyone trying to learn English. I'm glad I'm native because there are no rules especially when reading/writing. When I compare it to Spanish I can see why it would be very difficult to learn English.

Jamie said...

It's funny how the process of teaching your own language makes you so sensitive to its peculiarities . . . so entertained by colorful variations, so amused by mistakes, so analytic of unexpected dialectical differences. After my four days in rural central Kentucky, I'm blown away by the diversity of vowel sounds and diction. And after four days sharing a car and a hotel room with my sis, I am hyperaware of her palatalized "r" production.