The English language teaching industry, and that’s exactly what it is, an industry, is mainly focused on teaching to pass exams not in using English for communication. From a business perspective, this is only natural, as teaching to pass exams allows the industry to sell not only exams but also the books to support those exams. Yet far too many students who pass their exams find it difficult or impossible to speak English in any meaningful way. I have spoken to many students here in Spain who have passed the Cambridge First Certificate exam (FCE) but quite frankly cannot hold a conversation in English. Why is this?
If you focus your teaching on passing an exam, you immediately make several mistakes. Firstly, you’re putting unnecessary pressure on your students. Exams are stressful. Failing an exam is extremely demotivating. Secondly, you are limiting their vocabulary to that vocabulary that you expect to be used in the exam. You’re doing the same in regards to their grammar, too. Very often, the grammar is taught out of context, and without a meaningful relationship to the real world use of English. Thirdly, you’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of language, which is to communicate with our fellows. Teach to pass an exam, and your student may well pass that exam, but will have little preparation for the real world of English. Teach a student to use English for communication, however, and your student will be able to pass any exam set before them.
Personally, I teach all my students to communicate. I do this by using normal, everyday language when speaking to them. If you think about it, this is exactly how we learn our first language naturally. Your mother didn’t teach you grammar. Your mother didn’t ask you to memorise lists of vocabulary. Your mother didn’t ask you to sit an exam once a year to prove what you had learned over the previous 12 months. No, your mother spoke to you naturally, using everyday language in real situations. When you made a mistake, she gently corrected you by mirroring the correct response. Yes, you made mistakes constantly. You made mistakes, but you noticed that those around you were using language in a particular way and you copied them, and by copying them, you improved your own language, expanded your own vocabulary, and figured out the grammar as you went.
There is a theory that we have an inbuilt grammar, a universal grammar which is hardwired into the brain, as it must be necessarily for us to be able to learn any language in the first place. Even if this theory is wrong, we each of us have a first language, and our first language is imbued with grammatical concepts and understandings which are common to most languages. When learning a second language, we can easily compare the grammatical structures of the new language with our first language. English, having one of the simplest grammars of all languages, is very easy language to learn grammatically. The difficulties arise from its immense vocabulary, the largest of any language, and the insistence of native English speakers in using idiomatic expressions in abundance.
I’ve been teaching online using Skype to students around the world for the past decade. I’ve taught students from 40 countries and of many first languages. My students have been of all ages from 10 years of age to 18 years of age, and of all abilities. What I’ve learned during my years of teaching is that the communicative approach to teaching is the most effective. Those students who learn to communicate through my lessons quickly achieve fluency that most students in traditional classrooms and language academies can only envy. Many of my students have not opened a textbook during our classes, preferring only to enjoy communicating directly with a native speaker in English. Yet all of my students, regardless of age or ability, can, within months, hold complex conversations on an infinite variety of interesting subjects.
First Language Acquisition
If you’re a teacher, consider how you yourself learned your first language. Consider how demotivating it is to pass an exam yet be unable to communicate with a native speaker. One of the saddest moments of my teaching career was when I was working in the language academy here in Spain. I was teaching a group of teenage girls, all of whom had been studying in the academy for anything up to a decade, and all of whom had recently passed their FCE. I had only been taking the class for that particular academic year, and had been following the prescribed syllabus from the schools chosen textbook, which, incidentally, the school happened to sell in its shop. Several of the girls were treated to a week in the UK by their parents as a reward for passing their exam. When they returned from the UK, they were quite literally in tears. “Nobody understood me, and I didn’t understand any of them”, was their litany.
It was this incident above all things that made me question the effectiveness of the “teaching” method that private academies were utilising. It also made me realise that the English language teaching industry was just an industry, and was more interested in making money than in teaching people to speak English effectively. It was these realisations that actually drove me to abandon teaching and academies and switch to a communicative teaching approach online. With the successes of my students online, and their rapid progress, not a day passes when I do not bless the day that I came to my senses and really began teaching.
Learn to Communicate
If you’re a student, and you would like to learn to speak English fluently and effectively, check out my teaching website at Britlish.com. While I will happily help you to pass any of the industry’s exams, I will first and foremost help you to be a communicative user of the English language. After all, with a multi-million dollar industry pushing its exams as a way of “proving” English language abilities of those passing such exams, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that in certain situations you will need to have one of the certificates. However, I will always encourage my students to be communicative in English before they try to pass any exam. As I said before, if you can communicate effectively in English, you can pass any exam.