By RICHARD LIM
A little extra effort goes a long way, especially when teachers are dealing with students who have different levels of English proficiency.
KEEPING a lesson lively is hard enough, but in a diverse classroom where some students can speak English fluently and others not at all, how does a teacher ensure none of them are bored or left behind?
For instructional specialist Judith Dillon, establishing a bond of trust is crucial before an English teacher can be effective in a multilevel setting.
“I show the students that I appreciate them in verbal and non-verbal ways,” the 2010 ELS Teacher of the Year said to around 200 participants in a workshop held at Tsun Jin High School, Kuala Lumpur.
“If we’re talking about new students, I learn all their names within a week and I find ways to care for them to earn their trust.
“Constant communication is practised and the students receive constant updates on their strengths and weaknesses.”
This, she said, was necessary as teachers could not allow their students to feel betrayed.
She added that if a bond of trust was in place, a student would value a teacher’s opinion on his or her progression – even when the damning verdict of a semester repeat was issued.
Like all bright ideas, the concept is simple but the execution – or rather the build-up – is far from easy.
For starters, teachers need a lot of preparation to communicate effectively to today’s learners and this involves both the intellectual and the emotive spheres.
“No textbook can help you on this and you need to be aware of the little things like cultural sensitivities,” continued Dillon.
“Most student groups are not homogenous these days and teachers need to learn the do’s and don’ts of each culture to win mutual trust and respect.
“This requires teachers to prepare more and it’s hard. However, not doing so would do a disservice to the students.”
At the workshop, a number of teachers admitted to making their lessons simpler to accommodate weaker students, but Dillon stressed that the well-intended action posed different problems as it could bore students who were ahead of their peers.
“Many teach to the majority but this bores good students and confuses weaker ones,” she said.
“We need to ensure no child is left behind and address the needs of each student group.”
To this, a participant ventured that she gave top students – and herself – more work while providing extra support for weaker students.
However, this indicated quite a toil and Dillon passed a timely reminder that even “super teachers” could die of overwork.
Dillon pointed out that teachers could actually depend on their top students to ease their toll by assisting their weaker peers.
“Get the top performers on your side and everyone wins,” she said.
“They will enjoy the satisfaction of being able to help and contribute in a greater way and peer-to-peer support groups will keep the interest up.
“When students have an active role, results will be better for everyone and you’ll be surprised how motivated students could make a world of difference.”
Dillon – also the recipient of the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (Tesol) award in 2008 – went on to elucidate how motivation could be carried out effectively.
Kicking things off with positive reinforcement, Dillon stressed the need to for teachers to constantly drive the agenda for students to know how an activity was done.
This was followed by the setting of clear goals and instructions and the availability of surprise elements to keep interest up among students.
Greater variety in lessons, she said, was an added advantage.
“A teacher who only teaches one thing for 15 minutes often loses half the class,” she said.
“Additionally, competitions could be another good element in classrooms as it inculcates the winning mentality and enthusiasm by encouraging students to try harder.”
Hailing from Oklahoma, the United States, Dillon has more than 30 years of teaching experience under her belt. This includes a fair bit of international exposure including conducting workshops in Vietnam, China and Turkey, as well as a tour of duty as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia.
Speaking from hindsight, Dillon said that overcrowding, a lack of equipment and the unrealistic evaluation of student progress were common problems in developing countries and the best countermeasure was the availability of informed and prepared teachers.
Apart from encouraging the participants to go the extra mile, Dillon also suggested a number of activities – icebreakers, video clips, field trips, demonstrations and memory games, among others – that teachers could use to keep attention levels up.
Breaking the participants up into groups of threes and fours, Dillon encouraged the teachers to brainstorm on how they could make a topic like acid rain interesting.
“Draw and explain the cycle which leads to acid rain and test the students’ comprehension by asking true or false questions,” she encouraged.
“Genuinely seek to understand how they feel and the subsequent discussions could see them taking a stance on serious issues.”
Although Dillon’s recommendations meant more work for teachers, many were delighted with the insights they picked up at the workshop.
Workshop participants, Pin Hwa High School teachers Anita Ramalingam and Vidaya Dhalinthi said they were excited to incorporate the activities in their respective classes.
“It was helpful as today’s students expect a lot and we must keep up and learn new ideas,” said Vidaya who has taught for seven years.
“I’ve learnt how to approach lessons effectively by using interesting classroom activities.”
Meanwhile, Anita said she would follow Dillon’s lead and be fair to all her students.
“Some don’t speak English often as they are afraid of making mistakes but I won’t give up regardless of the circumstances,” she said.
Organised by ELS Malaysia, the workshops were provided free to commemorate the organisation’s 20th anniversary and participants will be awarded with a certificate of attendance.
The training programme was approved by the Education Ministry’s Teachers Training Division.
Similar workshops were held in Penang and Johor Baru.