Language Teaching is not Memorization

Rebecca Reymann

Rebecca Reymann

‘Hello, how are you?’ ‘I am fine, thank you, and how about you?’ The expected mechanical response that I usually get when greeting the children of rural Nepal. The memorized responses of students as taught by teachers. Adult says X, child responds with Y. Check plus.

As teachers, do we recognize the importance of the way that we are teaching language? Is this mechanical question and answer pattern the way that we will be able to communicate love? Is this the way of communication needed to let go of prejudice and bias that are deeply engrained by years and years of tradition? Are we solely teaching mechanical repetition? Or are we teaching the most beautiful tool for expression?

These questions need to be reexamined. Teachers, ask yourselves: what is the practicality of my teaching? When we ask students how they are doing, do we really want to know how they are? Or are we simply satisfied to hear the textbook response that they have memorized in classroom?

I am currently teaching English at an English medium school in the lower Solukhumbu district of Nepal. As an American who was trained as a teacher in the United States, studied in New Zealand, and has spent the last three years traveling, I have formed my own biases and perspective regarding education. However, I can say with great confidence that I believe that we are all striving toward the same overall goal; to better ourselves in some way. One way that we can achieve this goal is through the gift of language.

Language is the freedom to express how we feel. The freedom to share what we experience from moment to moment. The ability to communicate and understand others. This ability to communicate is what makes us such a unique species. But we need to use this communication in an effective and realistic manner. We need to let go of the old school style of textbook teaching and evolve with the times to give our children the ability to communicate in a real world setting. We cannot continue limiting them solely to their ability of properly filling in blanks and matching words with the correct definitions, while we look over their shoulder with a red pen.

We are human beings, not robots. We learn by doing. Why do we forget this when we walk into a classroom? ‘Okay kids, please open up to lesson two and finish activity three from yesterday.’ Is this exciting? No, in fact, it is absolutely dreadful.  So why go on with this mundane style of teaching? One external reason is the parents. The parents are the real challenge, not the children.

The majority of these parents do not speak English, nor do many of them have any formal education at all. They want better for their children than what they had, so they have provided the gift of education- what an opportunity! Little do these parents know- they are the main obstacle standing in the way of the very opportunities that they are trying to provide. The parents are only worried about the tangibles. Does my child have homework? What grade did they get? Are they in the grade level that suites their age? The parents are stuck in the past, even if the teachers are looking toward the future. They question the teachers blindly, pushing their child helplessly into places that they should not be pushed. For example, I have a grade 6 student who should be studying in grade 1 (just one case of many). She is eager to learn English, but cannot understand the language of this strange Western woman standing at the front of her classroom. In the initial weeks, she would even be brought to tears out of complete frustration. When I ask why such a situation has become reality, the answer is- the parents.

How can a tree grow when a seed has not yet been planted? How can a 13-year-old write an essay, when she cannot even respond beyond ‘Hello, how are you?’ The parents are having the final say in their children’s English education, when they themselves do not even speak the language. The child leaves school, goes home, and justifies their English education to their non-English speaking parents by the homework that they have completed in front of them. Does this make any sense?

We cannot let this habitual cycle continue. The teachers are the people who spend the time with the students, the teachers are the people who speak the language, and the teachers are the people who know what is in the child’s best interest. As teachers, it is our responsibility to ensure that no child is left behind. This can be done only with confidence and perseverance. The current reality is that there is a distinct separation between the parents and the teachers, and the parents are winning. This is only creating a long trail of students suffocating somewhere in the trail of dust that their fellow students leave behind. This is unfair. We must merge this gap immediately. Parents need to be willing to trust the teachers and let them make decisions about what is best for the child. Parents and teachers need to collaborate. The child needs to be put first.

So as teachers, we are the internal challenge- our own worst enemies in some cases. We have created our own major roadblocks along the way. Because of the old school style of teaching, we now have serious obstacles in cultivating genuine learning.

What students truly need is practicality and life skills. One of the most critical life skills of the 21st century is indeed communication. As teachers, it is our job to give students this tool by changing our teaching to a kinesthetic style. Make learning fun, memorable, and cognitive. Stop taking ourselves so seriously with box ticking, textbooks, and red pens. What about games and creativity? What about getting outside of the classroom into a real life setting? Let’s give the kids the freedom to learn in a sustainable way that will allow them to express through the gift of English language, opening nothing but doors for in the future.

At the start of each class we can give children two minutes to practice their conversational skills, building upon what is discussed each day. What about rather than textbook blank filling, we have them write letters to the United States or Australia? What about making them a tour guide, where they get to pick an area of significance and give the class a tour in English? What about engaging their senses- writing it all down in English, and then sharing. What do you see? What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you hear? Let the children express their own personal experiences, which are all so incredibly unique. This is why we use language. This is practicality. If we spend a year teaching like this, not only will students be much more interested in learning, but will also be able to confidently communicate with people from all around the world.

As teachers, we must value the students and understand them as human beings so that we can teach them in a way that resonates. Value the child’s experiences and opinions. Let them share. Put the child first. What is their experience like at home? What is their family background- caste, religion, occupation? Do they have to go home to milk the buffalo and work in the field after school? Are their parents abroad? What sort of support are they getting outside of the classroom? The responsibilities of most of these children at home are extensive. This will absolutely play a role in the child’s interest, attention span, and attendance at school. We must tend to the child with great care and compassion before they can possibly blossom.

Once we know the child we need to assess their prior knowledge. What do they already know? What sort of foundation do we have to build on? It doesn’t make any sense to teach sentence structure when a child doesn’t know the letters of the alphabet. It is our responsibility to bridge the gap between understanding and misunderstanding. We do this by giving the child connectors, one step at a time, meticulously building on their foundation of previous knowledge- not leaving any piece behind.

Next, what does the child WANT to learn? What does the child care about? What are they interested in? How can I relate this material to their prior knowledge AND interests? Usually we do this by allowing them to talk about themselves. In English- tell me about your family, where you are from, what you do in your free time, what do you like to eat, what sports do you play, what do you want to be when you grow up? Once we show the students that we are interested in them, they then become interested in the material that we have to teach.

Teaching is an exchange. We must show the child that we genuinely care in order to gain their interest. Allow them to express by asking them questions, not repress by preaching at them with meaningless information. Language is communication- communication is a two way street. We cannot forget the importance of the child’s role in this process. Allow them to free themselves through expression right from the beginning. This gives them confidence to build on. Value their ideas. Listen. Value the communication with them, inside and outside of the classroom.

Language is the power to express. It is not memorization. Sure, we cannot let the parents limit our creativity. But before we even think about the parents, we need to reevaluate ourselves as teachers, and give significant value to the young people that we are teaching. We need to stop setting our own limitations to the endless creativity and empowerment found within education of the English language. In order for students to think outside of the box, we as teachers must first get out of the boxes that we have created for ourselves. It is time to free our children through changing with the times.

Rebecca Reymann is a 26-year-old traveler from Baltimore, Maryland in the United States. Her background is in Education and Tourism Management. She has spent the last three months teaching English in the lower Solukhumbu district of Nepal. Rebecca plans to continue pursuing work in the outdoors, education, and healing practices between America and Nepal. 

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