ERIC Identifier: ED406848
Publication Date: 1997-05-00
Author: Snow, Don
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages
and Linguistics Washington DC.
Teaching English Abroad: An Introduction. ERIC Digest.
Each year, thousands of men and women from English-speaking nations go abroad
as English teachers through agencies such as the Peace Corps or Voluntary
Service Overseas, or through myriad other government, church, business, and
academic organizations. For these novice English teachers, the challenge of
learning what to do in the classroom is compounded by the difficult process of
adjusting to life in a foreign culture. Teaching English as a novice teacher in
a foreign country is very different from teaching as a trained professional in
an English-speaking country, and knowing how to speak English is not the same as
knowing how to teach English. Learning the craft of language teaching by trial
and error is a process that can take a long time and involve considerable wear
and tear on teachers and on students. This digest offers novice English teachers
an introduction to teaching English abroad.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Before leaving home, there are several
ways you can prepare to teach abroad. One way is to talk to people who have
lived in the host country, especially those who have served there as teachers.
Through a local university, you can often locate native citizens of the host
country or other individuals who have lived or worked there. It is also a good
idea to start looking for books about the culture and history of the host
country before you leave. Books in English in the host country may be scarce,
and often those that are available provide only a limited perspective.
Another form of predeparture preparation is English teaching experience. Many
community organizations and churches run volunteer- taught English classes for
immigrants and refugees. Although teaching English to immigrants in an
English-speaking country is different from teaching English abroad, the
experience can provide opportunities for learning to communicate with people
whose native language is not English. One of the most important skills a
language teacher should have is the ability to make instructions understood.
Practicing in your home country helps to hone that skill. This kind of teaching
experience will also put you in contact with people who are undergoing the
difficulties involved in adjusting to a foreign culture. Understanding their
culture shock experience may help you as you adjust to life in your host
A final way to prepare in advance is to collect resources for your classes.
This may be difficult, as you may have little or no information in advance about
your particular teaching situation. The best solution is to be prepared for a
variety of situations; flexibility is key. Because you may be unsure of the
teaching context, a general repertoire of useful materials should include one or
two books on language teaching, a book on English grammar, a writing text that
contains ideas on how to structure a writing class, a book of listening and
speaking activities, and a book of cultural information about your home country
that can be used for culture lessons. Photographs of your country, family, or
hometown are good conversation starters, and a tape recorder and a short-wave
radio will give you access to worldwide English news broadcasts and allow you to
tape listening materials. The materials that you choose should be adaptable to
students of different skill levels, work in large or small class situations, and
not require audiovisual or duplication equipment which may be unavailable.
AFTER ARRIVAL: BEFORE THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS
adjusting to your immediate surroundings, your priorities may center around
planning the first day of class. No matter how strong the desire is to jump into
preparing the first lessons, it is important to devote a day or so to getting a
lay of the land. As part of the self-orientation process, it will be helpful to
find out as much about your teaching situation as possible. Here are some
questions to which you might want to find answers before the first day of class:
Why are your students learning English?
What are reasonable expectations for student progress?
What are the students' goals? The goals of the school?
What teaching methods is a teacher expected to use?
What learning strategies and styles are students accustomed to?
What kinds of teaching materials and equipment are available?
How readily can materials be duplicated?
What is available in the classroom?
How many students will be in your classes?
How much are teachers expected to know?
How are teachers supposed to behave in class? Expected to dress?
What expectations exist about teacher-student relationships?
FIRST DAYS OF CLASS
It is often after you have made contact
with your students that you are able to make good decisions about specific goals
and methods for your course. The first few class periods are an important part
of the information-gathering process. In addition to learning students' names,
it is equally important to get a sense of their English skill levels, their
attitudes toward English study, how easy they will be to work with, and how well
they understand explanations and classroom instructions.
PLANNING YOUR COURSE
First, you should have a plan that
gives direction and coherence to your course. Initially, your plans will be very
general as you are most likely not in a position to lay out your daily lesson
plans for a whole semester. However, having an initial set of goals and plans
for materials, methods, and evaluation will help ensure that both you and your
students know where you are going.
Goals. The objective of a course will vary depending on the students' needs,
skill levels, study habits, and expectations as well as on materials,
facilities, equipment, and institutional guidelines and expectations. Goal
setting will depend on the teaching context; different situations call for
different kinds of goals. For example, if all participants in the course are
high school students preparing for a nationwide standardized exam that
determines their opportunity for further education, the goal of the course is
clear: help students develop the skills they need to pass the exam. In other
settings, students come to class with varied needs, making it difficult to
tailor the goals of the course to specific needs. In such a context, the
following approaches may work best:
"Focus on developing a balanced, general set of English skills." It is no doubt
desirable to develop all of the language skills to a high level, but time
limitations often demand that you make choices. For example, it is usually
better if students' listening skills are more advanced than their speaking
skills. Even native speakers of a language can generally understand more than
they can say, and there are many situations that depend entirely on listening
Emphasize "basic knowledge and skills." Rather than emphasizing
situation-specific skills, stick with the basics. For example, stressing general
communication skills is more important than stressing the fine points of job
"Include a mix of skill goals and content goals." Some students are better at
memorizing, while others may be better at communication or grammar. By including
both skill goals (e.g., listening, speaking) and content goals (e.g.,
vocabulary, grammar), you give students with different strengths the opportunity
to demonstrate their ability.
"Attend to affective factors." Having explicitly stated goals can make students
feel better about their language study, thereby improving the chances they will
learn willingly and be able to sustain that willingness over the long haul.
General long-term goals enhance student morale by giving a sense of direction;
short-term goals let them see their progress in the duration of the course.
Materials. Unlike goals, the choice of materials may be limited. In some
situations, the curriculum may prescribe a specific textbook. Other situations
may provide a text but allow opportunities for using supplementary materials. In
some cases, the available text may be old and uninspiring, and the institution
may not require that you use it. There is merit, however, in trying to make some
use of the textbook rather than abandoning it all together. Having a textbook
saves time in lesson preparation, provides course continuity, makes it easier
for students to review, and can help students feel better about their English
Methods. The best way to develop a skill is to practice it, and the more the
practice resembles the actual application of the skill, the better. Simply put,
the way to learn to speak is to practice speaking. This might seem obvious, but
often methods are passed down from earlier generations of teachers and students,
and the methods do not always fit the goals of the course.
While methods should be chosen on the basis of pedagogical soundness, they
should also be acceptable to the students. Methods that are educationally sound
may not work in a course because they are too unfamiliar or uncomfortable to the
students. In English as a foreign language settings, this is particularly
important as students in the class will share a number of common beliefs and
customs about language study, and you run into resistance if your methods
conflict too much with your students' ideas. It is important for students to
learn how to design and carry out their own language learning plans because this
is what they will do when they leave formal instruction. The best study program
is one that is realistic given the time and resources available.
Evaluation. Evaluation methods have tremendous power to affect positively or
negatively the ways your students study, and you need to make good use of this
impact to encourage students to study in productive ways. You need to begin
thinking about evaluation when you are planning your course rather than waiting
until the middle or end of the semester and then wondering how you can put
together a midterm or final exam. In addition, you will need to learn the
language and culture of grading of your host country; otherwise, your grades may
not communicate what they intend.
LESSON PLANNING AND CLASSROOM SURVIVAL
During the first few
months, your main priority may be getting through as many class periods as
possible without disasters, such as exercises that take twice as long as planned
or instructions that students completely misunderstand. In a study of one
effective reading teacher, Richards (1990) concluded that several qualities were
inherent in the lessons: (1) they were designed around the goals set for the
course; (2) the instructor made his theories of language learning and teaching
explicit to the class; and (3) the lessons had a clear structure--there was an
order to the activities, and students were given an idea of the length of the
activity in advance. The net effect of constructing lessons as above is that
they have a strong sense of direction. Not only were course goals translated
clearly into lesson plans, but the connection was made clear to the students.
The best way to make sure you have enough material for a class and that the
lessons have a clear sense of direction is to plan each lesson. Two habits help
ensure that you prepare adequately. First, set aside a block of time for
planning lessons. While time is usually scheduled for class or set aside for
grading, lesson planning is often relegated to what is left over from other
activities. Second, write lesson plans out rather than memorize them. This
forces you to think through your lessons carefully and helps you refine the
details. It also provides a written record for future planning.
Another way to give your lessons continuity is to use a set of techniques on
a regular basis. Drawing from a set menu of tasks also reduces the amount of
time you spend explaining the activities to the class and helps the students
relax, as they have a sense of what they are doing (Stevick, 1988).
ADAPTING TO YOUR HOST CULTURE
Adapting comfortably to life
in the host country is important for both your well-being and your teaching. You
may find that the efficiency or living conditions of your host country or the
organization of your host institution are not what you had imagined; careful
consideration of your expectations before you enter the new culture is
important. It is not uncommon to experience culture fatigue or burnout as part
of the adaptation process. Until you have gained a comfortable mastery of life
abroad, life in your host country will place considerable demands on your
reserves of energy. Learning about the host culture and learning to speak the
host language can help speed the adaptation process, while offering you the
significant rewards of living abroad and increasing your self-reliance.
Richards, J. (1990). "The language teaching
matrix." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stevick, E. (1988). "Teaching and learning languages." Cambridge: Cambridge