“Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family”
Virginia Satir, author and psychotherapist (1916-1988)
My experience as a teacher of English is not vast – I am currently in my third year as a full-time teacher and have taught in Spain and the UK – but seeing my learners as individuals is something I have always tried to do. I actually had to trawl the net for the above quote, but I think it was worth it. It encapsulates for me what a good learning environment, with teachers and learners included, should be.
Individual differences first came to my attention during my initial teacher training, as it was something we trainees had to investigate. I’m hoping to share with you what I think are 3 main differences to be aware of when teaching English as a foreign language, as well as any practical tips for how to think about them in relation to teaching. They might not all apply to every teaching situation, but I hope you get something out of them.
First of all I’m going to introduce J and Z, who are going to help me illustrate some individual differences.
J is 26 years old and from Germany. He’s currently taking a year out from his university course to study English in the UK. He’s also working as a language assistant at a local secondary school. In Germany his studies include English and Physical Education, and he plans to become a teacher after completing his undergraduate degree. In the UK he’s preparing to take ESOL Level 2 exams (roughly equivalent to the Common European Framework level C1/C2). He’s been going out with his girlfriend for 2 years and in Germany has moved out of his parents’ house.
Z is 20 years old and comes from Iraq. She has been living in the UK for about 3 years and studying English for coming up to 2 years. She started at Elementary level and is currently in an Intermediate class preparing to take her ESOL Level 1 exams (similar to CEF level B1/B2). She wants to go on to study medicine and become a doctor. At home she lives with her family, who have also recently moved from Iraq to the UK. She has to take her younger brother to school and so is sometimes a little late for college.
J and Z come from places that differ in so many ways. On the one hand, the economic powerhouse of Germany situated in Western Europe. On the other, Z from Middle-eastern Iraq. I’m sure I don’t need to outline how different these places are in terms of geography, culture and tradition. Tip: never take for granted where your learners come from. Even if you teach a monolingual group from the same country (either in that particular country or elsewhere) the learners may be from very different places. Get to know your learners and where they come from.
J is nearing the end of his formal education, and on completing university is likely to find a teaching job in his country. He has probably been learning English for nearly 15 years, perhaps more if he started at primary school. Z’s education was disrupted when she and her family left Iraq. Consequently, her English lessons are her only current formal education, and she has only just come back to education after a gap of a couple of years. What does this mean? Well, perhaps J has better study skills since he is using them and has been using them more recently? However, maybe Z’s motivation to succeed is higher? Tip: remember that your students experiences of education can differ, even if they are at the same school and in the same year in the same city. Additionally, don’t disregard any country’s education in relation to that of another – there are highly educated people the world over
J and Z have different responsibilities. J is working as a language assistant. This means he is probably putting in about 20 to 30 hours contact time at the school where he is working. His classes at college are in the evening, so naturally he’s a little tired in the lessons. As mentioned above, Z has to take her brother to school which affects how much time she is actually at college and studying. Tip: remember that your learners are humans! They probably have responsibilities and interests outside the classroom, whether looking after family members or going to an after-school football club. Get to know what your students do outside the classroom and if necessary make arrangements for dealing with or incorporating these into your planning.
That’s just three, I’m sure you could write a whole chapter for a book, if not a book itself, on individual differences. I’ll sign off by explaining the title ‘Individual Differences Count’. I believe not only that these differences are what make teaching so interesting, but also that no one difference is more important or less worth our time than another.
Image from http://layered.typepad.com/antidote_to_burnout/images/2007/10/06/4b14310b020017cf.gif found via a Creative Commons search
Mike Harrison is an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher currently based in South-East London in the UK. At the moment he mostly teaches General English to adults, but also teaches a group of teens. He has previously taught adults, teens and young learners in Pamplona and A Coruña in Spain. Outside the classroom he loves Spanish cinema and tries not to fall over too much when doing capoeira. Find him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/harrisonmike/ or at his blog http://mikeharrison.edublogs.org/