Relaxing at a cozy table at the local café, chatting around the kitchen table, browsing clothing racks at the mall, treasure-hunting at a garage sale, strolling the Summer Palace grounds in Beijing, hiking a mountain in Japan, people-watching in Hollywood, playing games with friends, making a dish for a special holiday—what do all these have in common? These, and so many more, are the perfect activities for teaching English as a foreign language.
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Perhaps like me, you don’t have the credentials for teaching English as a foreign language in an academic classroom, but perhaps, like me, you want to teach it anyway as a volunteer and as a friend. There’s just something about being outside on a beautiful day, or at a favorite place inside, that makes learning more natural and effective. Outside the classroom walls, the structure is more free, teaching aids are everywhere, and goals for learning can be individually tailored. The tutor and learner can also have more of a social relationship which can really enhance learning and friendship.
So how do you start?
1. Find a learner. If you’ve never done this before, start one-on-one. The principles and ideas described here can be adapted for groups, but you don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Consider contacting your local library about their literacy program, or, contact a literacy organization, the international student office of your local college or university, or a local church. Some churches have free “English corner” activities and social events for learners of English as a foreign language. Sometimes literacy organizations have lists of learners just waiting for tutors. Search online or use the good old phonebook. Chances are there’s someone out there looking for you too.
2. Schedule a meeting. Determine when, where, and how often you’d like to meet. If you’re going through an organization, be familiar with any guidelines the organization may have. The first meeting will help you determine compatibility. I’m not just talking about personalities here—there are other considerations as well. For example, the level of your patience and understanding will have to be commensurate with your learner’s level of English (or lack thereof). You may also want to consider whether you would be comfortable meeting in the learner’s home, or, if you would prefer a more public location.
3. Find out your learner’s goals. Have the learner write them down if possible. Make no more than about three and make sure they’re clear, simple, and accomplishable within the short-term. You can always adjust these goals or make new goals later. Maybe your learner wants to concentrate on one skill over another—for example, she wants to improve her writing. Or, maybe your learner wants to become a citizen. Maybe she is a highly-educated professional who wants to work in her field, but doesn’t yet know the professional jargon in English. Maybe she just wants to be able to ask for directions or go shopping by herself.
4. Help the learner decide on supplies. These could include writing utensils, paper, a white board with marker and eraser, textbooks, or easy reader books, magazines, or even movies of the learner’s choice, a tape recorder with a microphone, or even a laptop computer. If the learner can’t afford to get the supplies, you could talk to someone in the sponsoring organization to determine how they can help. Maybe the learner just wants to practice conversation and doesn’t even need supplies—review the goals to find out.
5. Ask for help if you need it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re not an expert in what your learner wants to learn. There are a lot of resources in this world and many of them are free, but sometimes you have to be creative. Ask the organization that paired you up, or your friends and family, go online, and don’t be a stranger to the library—the folks there can be pretty helpful sometimes.
6. Get to know your learner. Find out about your learner’s country of origin and culture. Find out a little about his personal and family background if your learner is willing to share. Discover what you have in common—could be more than you think. Ask about hobbies and interests and tell about your own life if the learner seems interested.
7. Facilitate. Be willing to adjust. You’re there to help the person improve their English. You may need to adjust your tutoring style depending on the learner’s goals, level of English, and personality. You may need to be more or less outgoing than you’re used to. You may need to speak louder or quieter than you’re used to. You are probably going to have to slow down your normal rate of speech and enunciate more clearly than you would in a conversation with another native speaker. You may also need to meet at a place you’re not familiar with to accommodate the learner.
8. Use whatever works to communicate. Do your best to ensure your learner truly has some understanding of what you are attempting to communicate. Some learners may feign understanding because they’re embarrassed or to avoid offending you. Read your learner’s facial expressions. Glazed-over eyes or a blank stare are good indicators that the learner does not understand. No worries—just change it up. Speak more slowly, more clearly, and use different phrases (the simpler and shorter, the better). You could also add some hand motions or body language (careful-know the culture first). Drawing pictures or pointing to objects could also be helpful communication methods. Maybe it’s simply time for a break—whatever you do, make sure you both take a little break during the session.
9. Mix it up. When the two of you are fairly comfortable together, you’re ready for a nice change. Based on your common interests or hobbies, find a place outside of where you usually meet and, using English, “do life” together. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. If you’re short on cash and the weather cooperates, spend some time in the great outdoors. Yes, your local park definitely counts! Another option is a shopping trip. You don’t actually have to buy anything. There are lots of words and ideas to be learned just by window shopping. You could also attend an art show or concert. Sometimes your local community college or library hosts these types of events at little or no cost. If you’re unable to switch locales, switch topics. Set a date for a lesson with a fun theme that interests the learner. Plan how you will guide the session based on the theme and bring some special props and pictures if possible.
10. Maintain a balance between learning and the activity. Once you’ve selected an activity or place outside of your normal routine, strike a balance between doing the activity and focusing on learning. The idea here is to create a relaxed learning environment. So, as always, if the learner is able, make sure she is doing more talking than you are. If your learner isn’t a big talker, ask questions related to the activity that go beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Make sure that you’re not so focused on giving a lesson that you don’t enjoy the activity, and that you’re not so focused on the activity that you aren’t interacting much together. If the activity dictates certain etiquette for the participants, such as the silence of an audience during an orchestral concert, make time to discuss it afterwards. You could study the program in advance and make a list of questions, or, just play it by ear.
There are limitless possibilities in the classroom of Life. So get out there and have some fun while you’re helping out, and, don’t be surprised when you learn a little something too!