Teach English to Speakers of Other Languages

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This is by no means be an exhaustive guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), which includes Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL). It is only a way to promote the modern method of immersion in English: a short, pointed demonstration of the bankruptcy of outmoded methods and the virtue of actual practice. It is biased in favor of the whole language philosophy of instruction.

Math or Bike?

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This demonstration may be made both to students, even those with no English ability, and to teachers trained in traditional methods. The best possible presentation requires an actual bicycle and enough room to ride it a little bit.

1. Begin by chalking the given two figures on the blackboard.
2. Point to the math figure and recite each sum. Encourage students in choral drill with gestures and facial expressions. This entirely familiar method will be taken up quite quickly.
3. Invite a student (or student teacher) volunteer to imitate the last step. Be sure to recite along with the class.
4. Invite the volunteer to teach the class, using the bike figure and the same, choral drill method. Encourage the class to recite in unison after every utterance of the volunteer.
5. Now, take the class out of the room, demonstrate bike riding, and invite a student or two to ride.

The point has been made: Rote drill is not an effective method of teaching bike riding. Actual practice is required. This may be all that can be done in a class with no prior English ability; they will have to make the connection themselves when lessons continue in an interactive, immersion, whole language style.

If the class has some English ability, discuss the demonstration:

  • Ask the class if choral drill is an effective method of teaching bike riding.
  • Construct actual practice as an alternate, more effective method.
  • Ask if learning language skills is more like learning math or learning bike riding.
  • Prompt: How did you learn your native language?
  • Discuss the need for actual practice in realistic situations. Compare choral drill and other outmoded teaching methods with modern language learning methods.


Mass education was invented largely in England during the 18th Century. Before that time, general education was reserved for the privileged few. Teachers were generally hired by wealthy families to teach their children only, in their own homes. The Industrial Revolution demanded an army of semiskilled workers able to read, write, and do basic arithmatic. Before industrialization, this sort of work was done largely by clergy, hired out to those few nobles who required it. Now clerks were needed in great numbers and a new tool was developed to produce them: the classroom.

Progress in method has been so slow that we today would find familiar many of the significant features of the early classroom: seats and desks in rows; a single teacher at the front of the room at a large desk or lectern, who dominates the room and controls all activity; a pattern of lecture from text, choral recitation, and examination of individual students. The chief skill required to succeed in such a classroom is the ability to sit still, listen, and memorize what the teacher says. The physical structure of the room, with furniture bolted to the floor, is designed to focus students' attention on the teacher and inhibit any student-to-student interaction. This has been compared to Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a design for a prison in which the inmates can have no contact with one another.

British, and later, American teachers spread the early classroom and its methods wherever the dictates of empire and mercantilism took them. In many countries, the Westerners are no longer in charge of general education but the locals have continued to build classrooms and train teachers along these 18th Century lines. Furniture is bolted to the floor in rows and all involved -- teachers, students, administrators, and parents -- consider it a good day if spent almost entirely in reading aloud from the text.

This type of classroom, and its method, yields acceptable results if the goal is merely to cram students' heads with facts by rote. These are indeed suitable for menial clerical work in, say, the office of an 18th or 19th Century mill or foundry. Rote is quite useless, though, for teaching true ability in many fields, of which TESOL is prime. The student who wishes to acquire a working knowledge of the English language must be able to use it: learning by doing. Language is not a basket of facts to be memorized; it is a complex art that translates thought into sound (and glyphs) and back into thought again. It can only be learned through actual practice. For this, students must be allowed to have genuine thoughts and to attempt to express them; they must be exposed to utterances and have the opportunity to process them into ideas.

Old-fashioned classroom drill is useless here. Consider the simple example of the following exchange:

A: Where is the post office?
B: Walk two blocks up, turn right, go another block and it's on your left.

This means nothing unless the speakers are standing somewhere in a town with a post office nearby. Perhaps more to the point, it means little unless A has a genuine desire to locate the post office and B has actual knowledge of its location. Students may memorize this dialog and find themselves completely unable to manage the real-world task. Which way is "up"?

TESL students have the benefit of daily immersion in English; they live in an English-speaking country. So, they may benefit from traditional classroom instruction while simultaneously spending their daily lives learning to use the language in actual practice. TEFL students, living in their own country, do not have this additional time to learn. They leave the classroom for no practical opportunity to exercise what has been taught. Therefore, the rote method yields but a bitter fruit.

Modern TESOL methods emphasize real use of language in the classroom -- when possible, outside as well. Students are often paired or grouped to conduct student-to-student conversations. In the traditional classroom, only one voice at a time is ever heard: usually the teacher's, sometimes the individual student's when called upon, sometimes the entire class reciting as one. In the modern classroom, perhaps half the people in the room are talking at any one time -- each one attempting to use available skills to achieve a real, if limited, goal.


Author "Bear" Longyear created this demonstration while teaching English as a foreign language to students in China, originally for the benefit of local teachers who wished to know more about modern methods. He subsequently employed it as an introduction to all students, at all levels, with considerable acceptance and enthusiastic welcomes.

Chinese students, teachers, administrators, and parents are wedded to traditional methods to a degree that seems hardly credible.

  • A state-owned university spent a great amount of money in a complete renovation of the main building. Some 30 brand-new classrooms were built -- mostly unchanged in design since 1820.
  • A class of college-level English majors, uncomfortable with modern methods, demanded that all class time be taken up by the instructor reading from the text.
  • After successfully motivating a class of elementary students to engage in pair conversations about simple shapes and colors, the author found the entire remainder of the school -- students, teachers, and administrators -- looking in through the windows and doors, attracted by the "disturbance".
  • One privately-owned "English school" employs local teachers who speak no English. They spend, of any hour, about a quarter haranguing students in Chinese; half watching silently while playing a prerecorded cassette; and another quarter demanding that students recite what they have heard.

In contrast, the Math or Bike? demonstration opens doors. The bicycle is ingrained in contemporary Chinese culture; all participants ride and all know they did not learn to do so by way of classroom drill. They see also that they did not learn to speak their own language that way. Given the least encouragement, they come to see the potential of the whole language approach.