Putting yourself in their shoes

When language teachers become language learners they learn much more than a new language.

Written by Graham Skerritt for TEFL.net

I started studying Japanese not because I wanted to learn about language teaching, but because I was living in Japan and I wanted to be able to order food, go shopping and understand some of the things people were saying to me. However, I soon found that experiencing language lessons as a student was making me think more about what I was doing as a teacher.

One of the ways it helped was to enable me to see what a lesson was like from the perspective of a learner. I was able to find out whether I enjoyed the activities we did, watch how the teacher ran the class, and see how I felt about the things we were learning and the materials we used. For example, I found out that:

  • I wanted to feel like I had learned something new each lesson.
  • I could only cope with a few new words or phrases at once.
  • I really didn’t like being singled out for extra practice in front of my classmates.

Becoming a language learner also helped me to understand what it was really like to be a student. I knew what it was like to have a lesson where you just can’t remember anything, what it was like to struggle to find the time to do your homework, and what it was like to not understand anything the teacher just said. All of these things helped me understand my students a little more – and the size of the challenge they were taking on when they decided to learn another language.

I could then use the experience of being a student to help me reflect on the way I was teaching – and I am certain that my teaching improved as a result. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a record of all my thoughts and feelings, so many potentially useful observations and reflections have been forgotten.

Luckily, these days I am better organised and understand the importance of writing down thoughts and ideas before I forget them! In fact, I have recently started a blog about my attempts to continue learning Japanese online. I want to find out what it is like to study a language through my computer so I can develop better online study materials. To help me reflect on the courses and materials that I try, I am writing a regular study diary under the following headings:

  • What I did
  • What I learned
  • What I liked
  • What I disliked
  • How I felt

Following this simple but regular format means I keep a record of the basic lesson content and activities, but I also have freedom to reflect on whatever I learned from my experiences. I intend to go back to my diary entries after a few months of study to pull out the key things I learned and the most interesting ideas I had for creating new materials.

Keeping a self-reflective study diary like this is not a new thing in ELT. For example, these two articles are by people who have learned about language teaching by studying a language for themselves and keeping a record of their experiences:

  • Diffey: The other side of the desk: experiencing learning a new language in the TESL Canada Journal (1990)
  • Thornbury: A language learner’s diary in the IH Journal (1998)

Why not give it a try for yourself? Try some different ways of studying (private lessons, group lessons, online lessons, one-hour lessons, two-hour lessons, textbook-based lessons, discussion classes) and see what it is really like for a student. You might be surprised about what kinds of things you like to do when you’re trying to learn a language yourself. They might be very different from what you usually tell your students to do!

If you have already tried studying another language, did it help you to think about the way you taught? What did you learn from the experience?

Written by Graham Skerritt for TEFL.net
August 2010 | Filed under Teacher Technique
Graham is studying for an MA in ELT and is particularly interested in materials development and teaching with technology.