Successful Language Teaching is about Connection

What is language, if not a means to connect with other people?

We all have an innate need to communicate, to connect with other people.

In education, this is especially important. Too many teachers communicate without connecting. They just ‘don’t care anymore’.

So why does connection matter in language teaching?

Connection with the Teacher

There is a great TED talk about the importance of the teacher-student relationship.

Its message is that a teacher’s ultimate goal is to build connections – “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like”.

Here’s the talk. It’s only seven minutes long, so watch it now.

Connection in Second Language Learning

However, I believe the idea of connection goes much further.

Just as students don’t learn effectively from a teacher they don’t like, they also don’t learn from a coursebook they don’t like, or in a peer-group where there is no sense of community, or if they don’t like the subject.

Some connections are more important than others, but as educators, it’s still our job to provide the best possible environment for our learners.

To solve this, we need to focus on improving the connections that our learners have with language learning.

Successful Language Teaching

Connection with Materials

I know, everyone complains about their course book. It’s almost a joke that the coursebook is too easy, too hard, not relevant, too sterilised, culturally obsolete, doesn’t recycle language, or is just badly written.

What everyone is trying to say is that the course book doesn’t connect to, or ‘fit’ their students. It’s not the course book’s fault; I’d be utterly amazed if it did. No coursebook can cover every interest for every student, and teach it at the right pace.

It’s like the old days in the UK when there were only four channels on the TV. 60 million people watching just four stations… 95% of the time, you were bored to hell, and when there was a program that held your interest, it was over too fast.

It’s the same with our course books. When they do connect with a student, it’s only for a fraction of their learning time.

So what’s the solution?

Use real life, authentic materials that are personally relevant and have meaning for each student. Sounds impossible in a classroom setting, but it’s not.

More to come in a later post.

Connection with Language

Think back to your school days. Which subject did you hate? Did you get good at it?

Chances are you didn’t. We don’t learn what we don’t like.

We don’t like a subject because we’re not given a reason to like it. Every subject is interesting to someone, because it made a connection with them.

  • History doesn’t have to be about remembering dates, it can be about human stories of life and death.
  • Physics doesn’t have to be about equations, it can be about peering into the beating heart of the universe.
  • Language doesn’t have to be about grammar, it can be about learning a new culture and way of thinking.

Connection with Peers

I’ve taught and observed countless classes. The best, the very best, all have a sense of community.

Where the students work together to achieve a goal, rather than compete.

Where students are inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Where everyone is engaged, and achieving, rather than just the ‘best’ students.

When teachers work hard to build a community in their classes, it shows – clearly and immediately. Happier students, higher levels of engagement and a genuine interest in learning are apparent.

If there is no community, no connection with peers, learning can still take place – but it misses learners’ huge potential.

Connection Centred Approach

In the future, I want to see a connection-centred approach.

Language teaching is evolving. We went through teacher-centred, then student-centred approaches. Now it’s time for a connection-centred approach, focusing on the connections that our learners have and make while learning the language.

That’s how we truly support our learners, and stay relevant as language training organisations.

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  • Jack Hart

    Looking forward to reading your how-to ideas concerning connection-centered teaching.

    • http://www.barefootteflteacher.com/ David Weller

      Thanks Jack, I feel that it’s got just so much potential to change the way we teach that I’ve got lots lined up to say!

  • Aimee M Enders

    Great post! I work in Asia where competition is encouraged at all levels of education. It’s slow going trying to convince my students to work TOGETHER and not against each other, but when it happens, it’s magic!

    • http://www.barefootteflteacher.com/ David Weller

      Thanks Aimee! That’s so true, I’m in Asia as well (China), and they’ve
      had a lifetime of being drilled and told to work by themselves. You’re
      right, it is magical when you first see them start to come out of their
      shells and work together.

  • David Barber

    Nice post. When I can get my students to *learn* as a team, everything is better.

    • http://www.barefootteflteacher.com/ David Weller

      Thanks David! It’s so much more rewarding for the teacher too, to see that happen and know it was because of you.

  • Adam Hughes

    Hi David,
    A great post, and I particularly liked the point about working together rather than being competitive. So many of the staple activities of a TEFL classroom are competitive e.g. slap the flashcard, spelling races etc encourage competition in class, and the number of classes which I’ve seen have almost toxic levels of competition between boys and girls (and other peer groups) is far too high. For kindergarten students, the situation can be even worse, as they become stressed and unwilling to participate.

    That’s not to say a bit of fun competition in the classroom isn’t appropriate, but the classes who routinely complete tasks together are much easier to teach!

    Love the Sean Bean meme too.

    • http://www.barefootteflteacher.com/ David Weller

      Hey Adam glad you liked it. I’ve always found that cooperation when
      learning and a little competition when reviewing is the best way to go.
      Otherwise, as you say, there’s too much pressure and it can affect
      students’ willingness to communicate.

      Oh, and Sean Bean is a legend :-)

  • Ondřej Petr

    Wonderful web and articles! I´m starting to teach EFL from Monday (1st time to meet with the real students almost in the end of my University studies) and in spite of all the training I feel absolutely “barefoot”. Thanks!!!