Saturday, April 24, 2004

Conversation Class
And with one big final explosion of an international potluck, the practicum class is finished. No more teaching until 8:30pm! No more having to teach one-shot lessons on whatever topic seems good at the time to people who don't really need it! No more wondering if people ever bother to proofread anymore, especially when making worksheets and overheads!

I don't mean to sound critical, but, well, I am. Let me just take a moment here to reflect on the whole practicum experience. I know that it is important for people in a TESOL program to get supervised teaching experience, so they can begin to apply some of the theory they've been learning in class. Wonderful, great, excellent. But I really have to wonder if the practicum class, in the way we teach it, is useful to our students. Every class is a one-shot session, in which the teacher has to provide the students with enough background knowledge and content to then be able to participate in communicative activities. While the importance of continuity is stressed, it's a little hard to actually put into practice when each class is being taught by 3 teachers, and each class session is often split into two unrelated hours taught by different people. In my particular class, level 5, we didn't do that, so each two-hour session was taught by the same person, but there was still basically only incidental continuity from one session to the next.

My biggest problem is probably that I have never seen the use of conversation classes. I mean, the idea is that you get a bunch of people who don't know each other together in a room and tell them to talk to each other in a foreign language about some random topic that has been arbitrarily chosen. Have you ever tried this? Have you ever had someone find out that you speak some other language and command you to "Say something!"? Generally, the mind goes blank at this point.

The practicum classes are more structured than that, certainly, but it still seems like too much of the class is taken up by the teacher having to introduce all the relevant vocabulary for the night's imposed conversation. Especially at the upper levels, I wonder why the students even bother to come. The students at levels 5 and 6 are quite proficient speakers already, presumably just looking for a place with more people to talk to in English about issues other than their major field of study. Why don't they just go to International Coffee Hour? Why don't they just join a club? Why don't we just make the upper levels into a book club, so they have some kind of continuous content that they're always prepared beforehand to talk about? Making them do all these cute "communicative activities" sometimes seems like an insult to their intelligence.

For the lower levels, I'm not really in favor of conversation classes either. If their level is low enough that they have real trouble formulating simple sentences in English, they should be taking an actual ESL class that teaches them all the parts of the language. Language should be treated as a holistic skill, because knowing how to read and write affects the abilities of listening and speaking, and certainly an understanding of the grammatical structures aids one's understanding and abilities overall.

Maybe there are teachers out there who excell at teaching conversation classes and getting their students to carry on lively and involved conversations about any topic that comes up. Maybe there are people who think that concentrating on listening and speaking exclusively is truly important. I am not one of those people. If I ever end up teaching ESL/EFL as my career, it will not be like this.

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