Have you ever watched the beginning to Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet music video and said, ‘hey, that’s just like my class’? The video starts off with Björk moving and singing through a world of quiet. No drama. No excitement. No colors. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the world explodes into life! Singing in an automobile repair shop, dancing with a mailbox, running up the sides of walls, the world has it all: the silence is over, the era of noise has begun.
The worst nightmare for any teacher, but more especially a language teacher, is a quiet classroom. In some subjects, such as math, speaking is nice, but not an absolute must. In a language class students must speak and they must speak a lot. You cannot learn a language simply through rote learning or memorization; to use a language students must speak it over and over again until fluency is, hopefully, achieved. How can we turn our classrooms from quiet meccas into oases of noise?
To solve a problem a teacher must first understand a problem. Why are students quiet? There can be a number of reasons more complex than ‘they are just shy’. Perhaps they really are shy, but perhaps even more perhaps, they feel uncomfortable using a language that is not their own. They do not want to make mistakes, especially in front of the critical eyes of their peers. Or, as is often the case, they are simply not used to speaking in a classroom. The thought of having to do so might be terrifying, or even unexpected.
What can teachers do about it? One solution is a solid foundation. A general does not prepare for victory by throwing his or her troops into battle without the right approach. A teacher cannot expect to teach an effective class without thorough, albeit dissimilar, battle plans. In language teaching the most popular foundation has been the PPP strategy, or Presentation, Practice and Production. In the hands of an experienced teacher, the PPP approach can produce a magical kingdom of language learning. In less-experienced hands, the result can look more like The Lion King after Scar has taken over.
Another approach is Jeremy Harmer’s Engage Study Activate, first introduced in his How To Teach English (1998) handbook. The approach not only includes all of the fundamentals of language teaching, but emphasizes one key part of any effective class: student engagement. It is imperative that teachers try to engage their students, especially if their students have low levels of motivation for learning the language. Maybe they have been forced to learn the language by their university, their employer or even their parents; an engaging approach for such students is a must.
What are some ways to engage students at the start of class, rather than at the end when the bell rings? There are a multitude of ways. Perhaps the teacher can start off with a discussion topic, ‘Why do soccer players dive?’, or a story, ‘Last weekend I went to Tony’s Pizzeria and the pizza was terrible. It tasted like cardboard!’ How about a quiz? ‘Name the capitals of seven countries in Africa.’ A game: ‘Who are The Beatles?’ ala a Jeopardy game. A puppet show, a YouTube video, a popular song…the list goes on for engaging ways to grab students’ minds at the beginning of a lesson.
Successfully promoting a product or service requires personalized marketing. Successfully promoting student talking time requires personalized teaching. What does that look like in the classroom? For a class of elementary school children that might look like a classroom full of Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob Squarepants references. For a group of high school students there may be references to sports stars, boy bands and blockbuster teenage movies. No matter the class, teachers need to know their students and prepare classes specifically for them.
Any successful plan has a back-up plan; the same can be said of lesson-planning. A teacher may have prepared an elaborate classroom recreation of Tom Cruise hanging by wires in Mission Impossible, but if that does not engage the students then there must be a contingency. For most teachers, plan B is a participation system. A system for rewarding speaking time. Such systems usually take the form of stamps, stickers, stars, dollars, badges, tally charts or learning contracts. If a teacher is going to breathe life into a quiet class, then, like the big bad wolf, more than one blow of the breath may be needed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. , Mahatma Ghandi, Winston Churchill: they had a great message, but just as importantly, they knew how to deliver it. The same is true of effective language teachers. Teaching does not take place in an emotional vacuum where lesson plans, participation systems and personalized materials are all that matters. It is the teacher in the trenches who carries the students forward. It is the teacher who motivates students with more than words. How do teachers do that? They build real rapport; they make students want to learn because they feel that the class is important and that they are important.
A teacher can show how much they value the class in a number of ways. Arriving early, learning names, remembering stories their students told them, grading homework quickly, treating students equally and thoroughly preparing for lessons are just some of the ways. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) made it clear: become genuinely interested in your students and they will become genuinely interested in your class. Contrary to the thought that classroom management will suffer, most students will want to work for the teacher because the teacher clearly respects and values them.
Are you struggling with a quiet class? As the aforementioned Winston Churchill once said, ‘never surrender!’ or even more appropriately, ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going!’ Some classes take time, but with dogged determination, a solid foundation built on student engagement, personalized lesson plans, a speaking participation system and rapport-building strategies, the dams of silence will break and your class will burst into life. It’s oh so quiet? No. It Was So Quiet.
Thank you to Deviant Art for the Björk picture.