One day a teaching intern asked me for some advice about a listening-skills class that she was struggling with. Her internship was for three-month, and she had been assigned to our ESL program. The lesson in the textbook for the class didn’t seem to address a skill that the students needed, but she had an idea for an exercise. However, she didn’t know if she should spend an hour or two or more developing a more relevant activity. Then she added this: “The professor in my TESL Methods class told us that we shouldn’t spend time writing exercises during our internship unless we know that we’ll be able to use them in the future.”
It made me want to cry.
The most obvious reason why this advice is so wrong is that none of us in the field of Teaching ESL can know when an exercise will come in handy in the future. But, besides that, there are more paramount reasons for teachers to write exercises.
There are fewer greater professional thrills in the life of an ESL teacher than going into a class with an exercise that we had written. The first time we try out the exercise, we may feel some hesitancy imagining all that could wrong. But as Tania Luna wrote in The Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, “We feel most comfortable when things are certain but we feel most alive when they are not.”
I can clearly remember early in my career in the late 1970s, pair work in ESL classes was pretty much unheard of. Instead, doing whole-class drills using the audio-lingual approach was in fashion. For example, in our textbook, for working on past tense, the drill might look like this:
I soon realized that in a one-hour class, I was talking half the time and students half the time. This meant that each of the 20 students only had a chance to speak about 1-2 minutes during the class.
So I decided to do something uncertain. I basically divided the teacher’s script into two parts: A and B. The plan was to put students into pairs and give one of them Part A (Student A) and the other Part B (Student B), and have them “drill” each other.
During the hours before the class, I was having second thoughts. These students never experienced pair work in any of their classes. What if they don’t want to do it? What if they change to their native language? What if they just goof around? What if it gets really noisy and the director notices it? Would it end up being just a waste of my preparation time? And topping all my concerns was: what if they made mistakes? (See • Conversation Class: What If They Make Mistakes In Pairs? Myths About Pair Work.
For sure, I was feeling uncertain, but going into that class, I never felt so alive. I’ll sum up the students reaction by quoting what some of them asked me as they were leaving the classroom: “Can we do Student A and Student B again sometime?”
Yes, it did take me about 30 minutes to prepare this exercise which took students only about 10 minutes to complete. But it was very effective and energizing for the students and me. And, I was able to use a variation of that exercise several times over the next few years.
At that point, I started to transition my lessons to become more and more student-centered. Each time I brought in a new activity that I had written, I felt the tingle of uncertainty along with the aliveness. And each time, I felt more confidence in the materials. Needless to say, for various reasons, some exercises were only used once. But that didn’t matter. Writing customized exercises for my students became part of my teacher-identity.
Limitations of many commercially-made textbooks
The goal of most big-named publishers is, naturally, to sell as many copies as possible. To do this, they need to appeal to a broad range of teaching situations. They also need to make the exercises simple-to-follow and often formulaic so potential customers at any level of experience can understand their format. Unfortunately, this process can level large gaps between what the book offers and what our specific group of students actually need. This is why writing our own exercises which are tailored for the skill-level and interests of our particular group of students is so important.
Write to publish?
Although I’ve co-authored eight ESL textbooks, I’ve never written an exercise with the thought that someday it might be part of a published book. My only intention was to put together something that would best address the specific skills my students needed on that day. After seeing how it worked with them (and if necessary, after revising it) I would offer it to colleagues. If it worked well for my students but not my colleagues, it didn’t matter. I had accomplished my goal. But if it worked for my colleagues too, that was a bonus. Only then did the thoughts about publishing start to germinate. I have a feeling that the authors of the best ESL books have followed a similar process.