English Comes Alive!
While walking in Vilnius, Lithuania, I met Giedrė, one of our EFL students, who introduced me to her girlfriend. Surprisingly, Giedrė introduced me as her boyfriend from America. She and her teenage friend spoke glibly in English for 10 to 20 minutes about this fictitious, decades-older boyfriend, only occasionally involving me in the conversation.
What a fluent surprise! Here were two teenage, Lithuanian girls from an intermediate-level class speaking rapidly, repeatedly in English, without faltering. What got them started? Was it the informality of our encounter? There were no grades involved, no correction of English--only two friends and a professor having fun.
Our classes, I think, should be a lot like this sidewalk in Vilnius: places to talk, laugh, and role play. The nearer we get to this ideal, the quicker our students will lose their fear of English and become fluent.
Walking and Talking. We teachers often walked with students along the streets and through the parks of Vilnius, Lithuania. The same was true in Ürümqi, China, and in Szeged and Eger, Hungary. And sometimes we took them to more distant sites, for example, to Istallosko Cave in Hungary (shown at right). Most of these walks and talks were optional get-togethers, something we organized outside our classrooms, so we usually had just ten to fifteen students walking with five to six teachers. Notice the ratio. Only two to three students walked with each teacher, and they occasionally shifted from one teacher to another, getting exposure to different accents.
As we walked, our students described the surroundings they knew so well, told us their thoughts and feelings, and asked questions. At the entrance to this cave, for example, we were talking about Neanderthals. The Neanderthals lived in this cave tens of thousands of years earlier, they said. We could imagine them standing at this very entrance planning their day's hunt for a mammoth.
Think about it--this walking and talking with students. Can there be any better way to learn English? Can there be any better way to become fluent speakers?
Role Play. The ideal role play is informal, as were our walks, and it works almost as well in the classroom as outdoors, particularly if the conversation involves something colorful and unexpected.
For the classroom, write different role plays on notepapers and distribute these papers to pairs of students. Have each perform one of the roles--with drama. If a father cannot hear well, for example, the son or daughter must SHOUT. And the father, being partially deaf, will sometimes confuse one word for another. If the class is large, let many pairs of students do this simultaneously, giving them more practice with English in a short time.
Here are three role plays to get you started:
1. Your father does not hear well. He often confuses one word with another. Tell him gently but insistently that he must buy a hearing aid.
2. Your sink is leaking badly, pouring gallons of water onto the floor. You phone a plumber who says he can’t come until next week. Convince the reluctant plumber that he must come now.
3. You are a wife whose husband wants to give up the town life of St. Louis, Missouri, and join the covered wagons going westward in the 1850s. Your parents and friends live nearby, and you don't want to leave. What do you say?
EFL in the Park
Why not invite your students and their families to a picnic in the park? The book cover at the left shows my wife, Becky Witherspoon, in 1988 with her students in China. We had just had a glorious potluck picnic and were now boating together, walking together, and playing at the playground with the children. What a great way to teach language. As we ate and played, we continually spoke English--informal, spur-of-the-moment English--the kind that encourages students to speak freely.
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