You already speak English like an expert: you just don't know how

I was talking to an NQT on one of my courses recently, who admitted, quite openly, that she was daunted by the amount of 'mugging up' (her words) she'd have to do to get a firm grasp of the English language components that she would be expected to teach to her Primary pupils. Her anxieties were not lost on me.

During my early days in teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL), I was shocked to realise just how little I actually knew about the very subject which I was expected to teach to those with a supposedly inferior knowledge. Obviously, as a native speaker and graduate, I had much higher levels of fluency and accuracy than even the most highly skilled and learned students. However, the actual machinations of the language was an area in which I was, despite my Literature degree, a bit of a novice.

What was really startling was not just realising how how ignorant I was as to the workings of the language but, also, even the most basic terminology; perfect tenses, conditionals, passive and active voices: these were aspects of the language that were delivered to me during my training course, and about which I discoverd more, and explored in more detail, during my early experiences of classroom teaching. How, I asked myself, was I not taught all this in school?

Twenty-six years later, I can still recall foreign students (many of them just out of high school) whispering assistance to friends as to which component of their own language related to the English we were covering at that moment. Okay, "Es el perfecto," may well have been an instance of one Spanish student telling another that we were covering the present perfect tense, but hearing, "Es el sujunctivo" when I was teaching the third conditional was proof that these were people who were not only learning an additional language, but who were able to apply a knowledge of their own to help make sense of it.

It set me wondering if the decision not to teach the fundamentals of the English language was in some way responsible for the UK's unenviable reputation with regard to second language acquisition. More than this, though, I began to realise that this lack of knowledge is a hindrance to native English speakers when using their own language, particularly when it comes to the two skills of writing and speaking.

This became obvious to me when working on numerous literacy courses throughout the UK in the ensuing years, and no more so than when I was called upon to help students with various miscalculations they had made with regard to time. e.g. mixing tenses within the same sentence, or inappropriately within the same paragraph. And whereas many able students can use a tense like the past perfect without even realising it, trying to help pupils who demonstrate an inability to write accurately about events that have occured at different times in the past can be bamboozling for them, and frustrating for the teacher. Imagine having to teach the rules of football to a complete novice, and being forced to begin with the offside law: well, if a student has never even heard of the present perfect and the present perfect continuous, this is what it can feel like.

The result of this, of course, is that the foreign students I have taught have possessed a higher technical knowledge of English than the native speakers I have taught of the same age and older. Surely it can't be right when overseas students have more language choices than native speakers, not only in their own language but in English, too?

Thankfully, changes have been made to the curriculum which address these issues, with some of the knowledge I was so lacking prior to my EFL training now being delivered to all students, not just those in private education.

To have a grasp and understanding of how a language works equips us all with the power to put across and argue our points of view in an articulate and concise manner. To those mainstream teachers who worry about having to deliver this content, I would say that you already have 90% of the ability: you don't have to learn how to speak near-perfect English, you just have to learn how you already do. Understanding this will enable you to help your students get to the core of how English works, thus opening up a world of opportunities for them in the process.

 To find out more about my EAL in the Mainstream course, click here


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