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Christopher Watson’s Academic English class

Part I

The most effective environment for language learning is one where the learner is personally engaged with material that is presented in a realistic way. Old-fashioned didactic teaching methods should take second place to immersion and interaction, activating the mind’s innate language-learning capacity.

In my class, specific test skills are thoroughly taught and test-specific material is used, but these are embedded in the context of a wide range of language resources – such as original material, test material from various tests, media material, extracts from magazines and books – selected and designed to make the subject matter ‘real’ and to foster development of the underlying skills.

There are three main differences that students notice when they enter the class:

  • The class is not run as a fixed-term course, but has a ‘rolling-intake’, where students arrive at different times;
  • The ability band is wider than some other classes, typically in the B2 to low C1 band; and
  • More than one test type is taught.

The ‘rolling-intake’ began in response to the needs of students, who arrive in class or in New Zealand on different dates, but it has distinct advantages. Students enter a class that has already developed a unique chemistry. Learners are welcomed into an existing ‘family’, where the members know and support each other.

Because students enter class at different times, theoretical material, such as grammar concepts, are not taught in a dry, block-by-block manner, but are largely presented within the context of source material (of all kinds) and an analysis of learners’ own writing. Thus, grammar, word-formation and the other theoretical concepts are most often taught in ‘small bites’ which are repeated. The repetition facilitates retention and, occurring in a variety of contexts, deeper understanding.

This approach is complemented by occasional short ‘mini-seminars’, where the structure and sociological uses of more difficult constructions (such as the Perfect Aspect, the syntax and cultural uses of Conditionals) are explored and discussed in detail.

The wider-than-normal ability band is another non-typical feature of my Academic class. This has some unexpected benefits. Firstly, this type of class structure is considered ideal in educational theory, as it is produces a more realistic environment with a wider range of interactions. The class is not like a race, where every student begins at the ‘start line’, competing with their classmates as they progress. Instead, a more common experience is for learners to begin in the lower band of the class, to be presented with an array of material, much of which is challenging, some of which is a little beyond their ability, but all of which has features they can grasp. They are often a little overwhelmed by the intensity of the immersive environment, but they are stimulated by the fact that they are working with real English in a realistic setting.

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Continued

Part II

The warmth of class ‘family’ assists learners at this stage and, as they remain in class, these learners rise through the class to become the social core of the class and its most accomplished members – as earlier classmates leave and new ones arrive. Where once they were at the bottom, they now rise to the top, discussing and explaining things to the newer students in team activities. This results in a tremendous increase in learner confidence and the consolidation of understanding. For those who may not have been the best in their class in school, this can be a wonderful boost to their confidence. I make a great effort to engage learners at the level appropriate to them. More penetrating questions are directed at the higher-level learners, so all are challenged regardless of the material being discussed. I have had a number of successful, satisfied higher-level learners even up to the C2 band.

Many learners are initially surprised, as my methodology is completely unlike the manner in which English is taught in high schools abroad, but my experience is that they come to love the class and my style.

I do not rote-teach to the test. That would be a bad teaching style. In speaking, they are familiarised with the format of the test, but the emphasis is on helping them grow their ability to speak intelligently, freely and unselfconsciously on any topic, particularly the kind of serious topic that may arise in a test.

Likewise in the other skill areas, an optimum score will not be achieved by trying to ‘second-guess’ the test designer, but on understanding the material and the relevance of the question. Of course, candidates must be familiar with the format of the test and the types of questions it contains, but good grades result from understanding and skill, not tricks. For example, in reading, learners should not be searching a reading like a puzzle, looking for where the answer to a particular question is hidden, but should be reading with clarity and understanding, navigating structure, skimming and scanning, isolating information, making inferences, decoding structures and so on in a confident natural manner. Variety in resources builds and extends these skills.

In addition to test skills, cultural aspects of language are discussed – such as indirect language and the ‘discourse markers’ used to signal parts of a conversation.

The feedback from students to this modern, interesting and needs-focused teaching methodology has been extremely positive – progress is rapid and natural, test outcomes are very good, students grow in confidence and they have a wonderful experience in a warm and supportive environment.

Address:
Level 2, 204 Willis Street, Te Aro
Wellington
New Zealand

Phone:
+64 4 385 0066

Email:
marketing@etc.ac.nz

Postal Mail:
PO Box 9787
Wellington
New Zealand

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