Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Updated: March 2022
I had an embarrassing experience in France when I was 16-years-old.
No, it wasn’t my French that was the problem (although I’m sure I made lots of pronunciation mistakes). It was my knowledge of English!
Sat around in a communal circle of newly-found friends, I was at Taizé: a Christian retreat in Burgundy. At many points during the week-long pilgrimage, I found myself conversing with people from all over the world. It was my first truly ‘intensive’ exposure to so many people from different cultures and backgrounds.
“You must have felt humble” states a friend during a conversation of which I cannot remember the theme.
“What does ‘humble’ mean?” I asked.
Then the laughter came. “Are you sure you’re British?” asked one of the group.
I was sure I was, and I was the only native-English speaking person in the group. It was rather a bashful moment to be honest, and it spurred me on to read more and more books and get better at articulating myself.
My friends brushed-it-off and were very light-hearted and amused by the matter.
I wasn’t amused though.
English is a massive language
Here are some facts about the English language that I recently discovered:
- A new word is added to the English dictionary every 2 hours! This means that, in one complete year, 4380 words will have been added to the dictionary!
- About 360-million people speak English as a native language. This ranks English third in the world: behind Spanish (400 million native speakers) and Chinese (1.2 billion native speakers).
- Despite the common belief that English has more words than any other language in the world, this is actually impossible to prove. However, English is definitely larger than continental European languages, due to the absorption of German and Latin throughout its history.
- The difficulty of English language learning depends upon the native language of the student. The closer the native language to English in terms of letter shapes, sentence structure, grammar, syntax and logic, the easier it will be to learn. Additionally, in a study conducted by Philip Seymour of Dundee University and his team, it was found that English was the toughest European language to master. Children learning other European languages as a mother-tongue typically master the basic elements within one year. British kids, however, typically take 2.5 years to reach the same level.
Conclusion: English is a pretty difficult language to learn!
Helping our kids to master the language
I’m a high school science teacher. I also have a duty to teach English through my subject.
I have an additional responsibility too: as an international school teacher in Thailand, I must model the very best elements of English pronunciation so that my students pick up the language quickly and efficiently. The local colloquialisms, dialect and accent I picked up from North Wales must go out of the window (at least to a certain degree).
Here are my top five tips for teaching English through your subject:
#1: Book the school library and choose your books beforehand
Getting the kids out of the classroom provides a nice change for them and, if we choose our books wisely, we can get our kids to read around the subject and absorb lots of great information and facts.
Try to make the library task productive too. It shouldn’t just be a ‘sit and read silently for one hour’ task. Give the students a worksheet to complete where they have to source the info from books. Perhaps get the kids to write a one-page summary of what they’ve read in their books. The ideas contained within this blog post may also be of use to you in this situation.
If you intend for your students to use large bodies of text in some way (e.g. for a group project), then there are ways in which paragraphs of information can be made more digestible. My blog post on differentiating texts is worth a read if you’re interested in this.
#2: Be a role-model of good speech and get your kids say words out loud
Most subjects have key words that the kids have to remember. My subject – Science, has many!
When a key word comes up, get the kids to:
- Write it
- Highlight it
- Use it
- Say it
I’ll often get all of the kids to say words out loud:
Me: “So what’s the positive electrode called, please?”
Class: “The anode”
Me: “Excellent. Say, ‘an-ode”
Me: “Not everyone said it. Again please”
All of the class: “An-ode”
I’ve also written a blog post about reinforcing key vocabulary, which you may find helpful, here.
#3: Use ‘Learning Journals’
I wrote a massive blog post about this here, but I’ll explain the process briefly again.
Basically, get your students to write revision notes in a special, ‘non-school’ notebook of their choice. Perhaps one they’ve bought for themselves.
Every week, collect the books in on a fixed day. Write one post-it note of feedback on (or within) each book and hand it back the next day.
This gets kids into the habit of regularly reviewing their work and delineating their understanding of the concepts covered by the course.
It’s an EXTREMELY POWERFUL tool, but it is rarely used in teaching profession (sadly).
#4: Play vocabulary games
I’ve written extensive articles about this here and here. Learning games are very easy to set up and require very little planning. My two favourites are ‘splat’ and ‘corners’, which I’ve included here:
Here’s a short video of me playing ‘splat’ with some of my former students:
#5: Talk face-to-face with students when giving feedback
Marking can be powerful when used properly. Personal, face-to-face feedback is even better though.
About once every two weeks I like to set my kids a task and then speak to each student one-at-a-time at my desk.
I’ll look at his/her notebook and point out the things that could be improved upon (as well as the good stuff). By doing this every two-weeks I can ensure that the changes the student has agreed to make are being implemented. This includes spelling mistakes and the use of key vocabulary. This is known as ‘absorptive live-marking‘, and I’ve written about this powerful technique in more detail here.
Making our lessons more ‘English intensive’ doesn’t have to be intense for us!
By making some minor adjustments to methodologies and feedback systems, we can dramatically increase the English acquisition of our students.