How to pitch your lessons correctly
I am currently learning a new language – but this new language also comes with a new alphabet! Having bought a flat in Crete 10 years ago, it has become more and more imperative that I can speak more than the usual holiday language that most of us pick up when we travel. ‘Good morning. How are you? Can I have a beer please?’ These are the phrases I have been carrying for several years now, without moving forward. So, I have a small sphere of reference, a desire to learn – and a smattering of words at my finger-tips.
When Stella started teaching me Greek a month ago, I realised very quickly that this would take some time! However, I have an advantage: the biggest difference between learning now, and when I last learnt a new language (at school) is that I have a good understanding of how we learn effectively! So, with each activity, each piece of homework, each time I get something right – or wrong – another part of my brain is analysing what I need to do next to embed the new knowledge.
Let me be more specific.
I am an avid reader, but also a busy person, so I have learnt to scan texts. I am aware of this – but didn’t realise how I would now need to read, not just every word, but every letter of every word! ‘Hello’ in Greek is γεια σας. Phonetically, this is pronounced ‘yassas’ It couldn’t look more different to how is sounds!
When I translate a sentence from Greek to English, I have to focus on each letter in each word until I have the correct pronunciation – and then I have to translate it into English too. As the sentence is already in a context, in this case meeting and greeting, I can take a good guess at what the next sentence may be. So following the question ‘how are you?’, will probably be something like ‘very well, thank-you’! However, out of context I am relying purely on learning brand new words from scratch.
Καλημέρα κυρία Kαστανός (actually says 'Good morning Mrs Brown'!)
Imagine that this is how a sentence using key terminology or new vocabulary might look to a student. Their brain has to 'read' the letters, put the sounds together to make the right words, and then work out what they might mean. I would consider myself a bright student – but even so, I need time to take on the new learning.
I have started with the following: a desire to learn; ability to sight read; understanding of what sounds certain groups of letters make; confidence to try out sounds; some small sphere of reference to place the words in context - and I have an Greek alphabet sheet next to me so I can refer to it.
If there was just one aspect of this list that I was weaker in – including a desire to learn – then it would take much longer and need more support from my teacher. You have up to 30 students who all have different starting points in your class. They all have different rates of learning and understanding, and they all need absolute clarity in your explanations of the new information.
And this example was just for reading. When I listen to Stella speak to me, she needs to speak slowly so I can hear the new sounds that I am unused to, work out which of the words I recognise from those I have just been taught, translate the sentence – and work out the reply! On top of that, I need to ensure that the information is stored in my long-term memory and won't disappear as soon as the class is finished.
You are delivering a topic to students in your class. There will be concepts and vocabulary that they may not have heard before. Even if you have been studying this topic for the last two weeks, don’t assume that they can remember this and then apply the new knowledge to a different context.
Stella spent an hour teaching me the verb ‘to be’. There are different endings depending on whether I want to say ‘I am, you are, he/she/it is, they are’ etc. I then had homework to learn another 5 verbs and their endings. I was very good and did all of my homework! I asked my husband to test me, and was really chuffed that I could remember the new words I had learnt. Next lesson, Stella asked me a question which required me to answer – ‘They are working in Athens.’ I sat for some time, trying to find the words in my brain and eventually said – ‘have we done ‘they’?
Fortunately, Stella is a great teacher. She gives me the time I need to find the right place in my brain where the word is sitting, and to put the words together into a sentence. When I tell her that I find a particular thing difficult, she gives me lots of repetitive practice so I can really embed the learning. I can now – after four lessons – construct a paragraph which describes me and my family, where we live and what we do during the day to fill our time.
It takes time to plan a lesson structure which enables students to be able to take something new on board, assimilate it, make sense of it, and play it back with understanding! From the teacher, they need time, patience and clarity of expression. The teacher needs to know how much each of them have understood, and what they need next to improve their learning.
Granted, I am having one-to-one lessons with Stella – but the concept remains the same. However bright your students are, however great their desire to learn, when any of us is learning something new, we need it to be delivered carefully, patiently, and with the analysis of a good teacher to assess how much we have understood before moving on.
καλά διδασκαλία! (Good teaching!)
Dr Sharon Williams