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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 3; Issue 1; January 2001

Now and then against the grain

Seth Lindstromberg

This column gets its title from the fact that now and then I run counter to what is currently viewed as best practice in UK EFL circles.

A small idea for mixed-proficiency classes--film transcripts off the internet

For some years now there has been considerable interest in 'mixed level' teaching--also known as 'mixed proficiency' teaching, and, in the old days, as 'mixed ability' teaching. Everybody knows—even if some don't like to say so—that it tends to be hard to teach a class that is very mixed in proficiency. All else being equal, this is true even if a class only has two students in it who differ widely in proficiency. But if a class has 35+ students in it, acceptably effective mixed proficiency teaching is something mostly found in the fantasies of cost cutting politicians, stingy (or poor) taxpayers and teacher trainers/educators who don't have to teach any such classes themselves—let alone several during the same term.

Sadly, the fact remains that many teachers have little choice but to teach large classes—if they want a job at all.

So how can teachers of large classes measure up to the generally unreasonable expectation that it is possible day in and day out to satisfy all the students in a big class which is widely mixed in proficiency? Personally, I think the answer is mainly that it is likely not to be possible and we do no one a service by pretending that it is. Maybe by practically killing themselves some teachers can work wonders with a class or two for a term, but the effort involved seems rarely to be sustainable over years. If a high percentage of students are poorly motivated—let alone disruptive--the difficulties rapidly become extremely daunting.

All this (and more) explains why so many teachers of large classes (which are almost always mixed in proficiency) are desperate to find some…any…secret to success. Hence too the books and articles whose authors suggest this or that way of helping teachers and students who are trapped in large classes. Some of these 'experts'' ideas are very interesting and some even work to a certain extent (though always better in a smallish class than in a huge one). And so, for example, we have the recent interest in learner independence and in using the internet. I think I can make a small, very small contribution—one for your very best, most motivated students (who may get overlooked while teachers are coping with slower or disruptive students.) It has a foot in the two currently fashionable facets of TESOL just mentioned—learner independence and using the internet. Added, for good measure, is use of video recorded films. In a nutshell, the idea is to obtain filmscripts and commentary, and then supply them to well-motivated, good proficiency students in order to help them learn better on their own. Instead of describing the idea as a recipe, I'll relate it in the form of a story…a true one.

I had a highly intelligent, very self-directed Korean student. Fresh out of the army, he wanted no more—for the time being—of following anyone but himself, nor any more of going slow when he wanted to go fast. He rarely came to class even though he had paid quite a lot for the privilege. One day I happened to mention a website, www.filmsite.org , at which you can find (and, if you want) copy the most wonderful material on some 200 Hollywood classics…free and perfectly legal. Take The Third Man, for example (included even though both the director and scriptwriter were British). What you get is a couple of dozen single spaced pages comprising an excellent overall review followed by scene by scene review with much of the dialogue. I happened to have at hand a complete print-out and a copy of the film on video. I loaned him the former. He took it away, read it and came back to me with questions. Then I loaned him the film. Later, he borrowed only videos and got the filmscripts for himself. His progress was excellent (better than that of regular attenders, I confess) and at the end of the course he extolled the course. (He was kind enough not to dwell on the fact that the course was his own.) What could be simpler? One small step for…well, for some people perhaps in your current/next very mixed proficiency class. Here's hoping. I have seen it work.

There are other ways of using (partial) transcripts. The next column will say more about this. Column three will be about finding on the internet and what to do with them.

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