What method should I use to create a good learning environment in my classes?
When teachers learn methodology for teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL), they often encounter an alphabet soup of acronyms meant to help them remember the steps to good teaching.
Two of the most common methods used when teaching English overseas are PPP and ESA. PPP stands for Presentation, Practice, Production. ESA stands for Engage, Study, Activate.
Confused? Don’t be. Bear with me for a moment—don’t get lost in the soup of terms—and I’ll explain why and how either of these methods, or even your own unique method, can create a great environment for learning.
Structure is key
The most important thing about method in EFL is that teachers should provide their students with a very structured feed of information—so that after this structured input, the students can walk out of class understanding how to use their new language points—and walk out with the experience of already having used that language in a place where it’s safe to make mistakes and have been successful using it.
Let me show you what I mean.
The ESA method (as presented by Jeremy Harmer) is, as I said before, Engage, Study and Activate. So, using this method, the first thing a good teacher might do in their English class is begin to elicit some ideas from her students.
Eliciting information makes class fun – in many ways
Let’s say we were teaching a Business English class focused on how to politely manage complaints in the workplace. We first might pose the idea of complaints, and then ask the students to volunteer up what are some of the most common complaints. What, in their experience, do people say when they want to complain? We’ll get the students to brainstorm ideas, which makes the class interesting, active and fun. This is the part that Jeremy Harmer— or any good teacher, in fact—is such an advocate of: student participation.
When you elicit ideas and language from your students, you are giving them a sense of ownership in your class. Now, they have a stake in what is going on: “I told my class about a problem in my life, and now they’re going to help me solve it.” Elicitation empowers students, invests them in their own learning and increases the motivation of the class as a whole.
This is great for the students—and it’s also great for the teacher. There’s nothing better, teaching-wise, than a group of motivated students who are ready—and excited—to learn the lesson you are teaching.
In our Business English class example, after eliciting the types of things people complain about in the workplace, we would then get them to narrow down into the structures and form the exact language people use when posing a complaint. “What do people complain about?” would be the first question. “What do they say?” could be the second.
At this point in the lesson, it may be useful to put up some of the target structures on the board. For this example, those structures might be “I don’t like…,” or “I have a problem with…” Or, “Can you help me?” This teaches the students to identify complaints right away so they can begin to compose an accurate and respectful response.
During this whole process we want to keep eliciting from the students—what language do they remember having heard before? What language structures do they use themselves? Fit that language that is brought up into the structures you have planned to teach. Then, after having given the students practice using the language in a structured manner, start to remove the constraints and let the students speak more freely.
Practice, of course, makes perfect
For example, when teaching the target language segment, we might tell the students to “listen and repeat,” and then teach them to respond to complaints by saying, “I’m sorry this has happened. Let me do XXX to help you. Let me do YYY to solve that problem.” The students listen and repeat this several times with different variations.
As we go through the lesson, we edge into the the Study and Activate section (or the Practice and Production section depending on which method you might prefer) By the end of the lesson, the students should be able—and eager—to use the language without you laying out the structure for them.
To review the basic idea of this methodology:
First, elicit from the students some ways they can see themselves using the target language for the day.
Then, supply some structure to the lesson and practice, practice, practice.
Finally, remove the structure and let the students explore the language point more freely. By the end of the class, they will be using the language in ways that are relevant to their daily life or life on the job (Business English, remember?).
So, is this method only good for adults, students who are mature enough to think about the ‘big picture’ of their daily life? No! This method also works for children. Let’s say you want to teach a class of kids about the language of requests. Show them a toy. Now elicit from them, how would they ask for it?
For all learners, adults and children, if the language they learn in your class is crafted to be personally relevant, then it becomes much more motivating and interesting.
The bottom line is that these methods, ESA and PPP, and the simple technique of elicitation are all about creating an environment where students learn, where they want to learn, and where what they learn is useful to them.
Not only will your students be motivated to come to the next class, but you’re likely to have less problems disciplining your students, because they will want to learn what you are teaching, they will be actively involved in your class.
New teachers often worry that their lesson plans need to fit precisely within the boundaries of PPP or ESA, or follow step-by-step what Jeremy Harmer says, or even step-by-step by what I write on this website. They shouldn’t worry, because teachers need the flexibility to be able to tweak their lessons to the needs of their particular batch of students. Pay attention to your students’ needs and address those in the classroom—even if you have to change your method. Don’t get stuck on just one style if it’s not working for your students. But do get stuck on the ideas of elicitation and providing a structure that is slowly removed.
In a nutshell
The basic idea I think all teachers should really absorb from this is: Elicit language that is important to the students. Provide structure. Remove the structure. Let the students gradually speak more independently as you move through the lesson, so they can begin to use the language to address their personal situations and use English to make their lives better.
TED’s Tips™ #1: In the ESL classroom elicitation can equal motivation.
TED’s Tips™ #2: Your students deserve to learn language that will help them in the real world.