Christopher Watson’s Academic English class
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.