by Chris Gowland
Chris Gowland and daughter Alisa
"Is Sonk improving with his
English?," his father asks. "Of course, I think he has made a lot of
progress!" That's what every parent wants to hear. They don't want to pay
out a stream of money for lessons & not see much of an improvement in their
child's English speaking skills.
The only problem is that Sonk
has been learning English conversation for just one week. If someone fluent in
English is equivalent to a full-grown plant then young Sonk has only progressed
to the bean sprout stage. What can be done to help his transformation from a
simple little sprout to a hardy well developed bush? The answer is simple. He
needs a lot of top quality manure from the hands of a caring gardener.
The teacher as gardener
regularly adds English language fertilizer to Sonk's brain so he will develop
practical skills like being able to give directions to a lost tourist, rather
than impractical skills such as being able to play scrabble.
This brings us to the biggest
problem for those teaching English: "What to do in each lesson?" If
Sonk has two one-and-a-half hour lessons each week, after four months he will
have spent about fifty hours together with his teacher. He may regard this
experience as a form of torture, or as a good time. He may answer
"pizza" when asked what his best friend is like, or be able to have
simple conversations on a wide variety of subjects, asking & answering
questions, understanding & being understood.
The outcome really depends on
the teacher. Mom & dad will either shake their heads wearily at Sonk's
seeming ineptness, or look on proudly as their son confidently converses,
according to how well his teacher is doing his job. Generally, Thai kids spend
years learning the basics of reading and writing English but all almost all
their teachers explain everything in Thai.
Since Sonk can only understand a
limited amount of English, some preparation is required. He still needs to do
some reading and a little writing but the focus needs to be on discussions using
English. Trying to prepare lessons that gradually build up vocabulary and
grammar as well as regularly reviewing what has already been learned takes a lot
of time. Then the lessons need to be photocopied & the teacher ends up
carrying around a stack of paper. It gets even more time consuming trying to
keep track of what lessons all the students are up to, a nightmare.
One secret is to have a good
English conversation book. A great one is First Impact & it has two tapes
that go with it. I've been using it for four years after having tried many other
books. With First Impact students learn a couple of new words per unit which is
enough to satisfy them. They use a wide variety of spoken English skills &
have a good time doing it.
To finish off each lesson it's
fun to have a game and end the class on an upbeat note. Kids somehow
instinctively sense when game time is approaching & the words "game
time" suddenly begin to burst forth from their lips about half way through
the lesson. The best games require that the students ask & answer questions
in a repetitive format so they memorize sentence structure.
An all time favorite is
"Twenty Questions." Kids learn to ask lots of questions in English
& the teacher is only supposed to answer yes or no. He can choose a word
from any subject such as animals, plants, food, sports, cities, movies, famous
people, places, & movies. Be ready for surprises - some kids don't think
penguins are birds, others think ants have four legs & are mammals, most
don't know who Elvis is, & few know more than a couple of capital cities
Another game is "Word
Up", a board game with thousands of English questions. It can be found in
any department store & only costs a couple of hundred baht. If you have a
deck of cards you can also play "Go Fish" & the kids ask the same
kinds of questions again & again- "Do you have a black ace?"
"No, go fish!"
Helping students develop new
skills is always satisfying for teachers. If you go about it i the right way,
your students will make lots of progress & you'll both have fun along the
way. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go & wash my hands.
Characteristics of the Ideal
1. Learns quickly yet patiently.
2. Lives nearby so the teacher
doesn't need to travel far.
3. Doesn't care how late the
4. Has an air-con room for
5. Provides the teacher with his
favorite beverage & snack.
6. Gives the teacher gifts, such
as a few nice mangos, often.
(Chris Gowlamd has lived in Thailand for thirteen years and is currently teaching in Bangkok. He can be reached at (661-497-2333 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also read: Chris's Excellent Adventure
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