Friday, March 20, 2015

Teaching English has never been about grammar tests

I tell stories in English. I write (and publish) in English. I got a Fulbright Scholarship, and I am doing my PhD in the USA. I read books in English for fun. I watch TV shows in English. At this point, I am technically bilingual.
None of this would have happened, if I didn't have great English teachers.
Including my mother.

My mother never sat down with me to fill out grammar tests; she never made me practice Past Perfect, or Spanish conjugations in the afternoon. What she did was a lot more important, and a lot more effective than that: As I grew up I watched her, day after day, take honest enjoyment from using the language. I saw her with English books in her hand, reading for fun. I saw her watch TV shows and movies. I heard her sing along with English and Spanish songs, and she taught them to me too. And, most of all, I watched her prepare for all of her classes with incredible excitement, passion, and attention to detail.
She didn't make me learn the language - she made me LIKE the language.
And she does the same with her students.

Too many language teachers in Hungary think that language is about grammar. They make the students painfully fill out pages after pages of grammar tests and incomplete sentences - often explaining all the rules in Hungarian, and barely speaking English in class at all. This is due to our national system of "language certificates" that are based on tests, with a smaller oral component. The general belief is that once you have the grammar down pat, speaking will come easy (that is not how it works at all - people will stress out about perfect grammar, and rather not say anything they are not sure about). Hence, most English teachers regard anything that is not a workbook as a complete waste of time.
Things like singing.
Things like playing.
Things like watching TV shows together.
Things like riddles.
Things like tongue-twisters.
Things like reading Harry Potter.
Things like storytelling.

Things like a Creative English Contest.

My mother works for a bilingual vocational high school. In the past five years she has been organizing a regional English contest that fit her philosophy of teaching: It was supposed be, above all, FUN for the students. It was a kind of talent show where participants could sing, or tell stories, of perform scenes from a play, or even rap. There were cookies, and drinks, a general good mood, and multiple prizes. Not because of the "everyone gets a trophy" mentality - but because my mother understood that teenagers standing up in front of a crowd, performing creative work in a foreign language, and enjoying it, is one hell of an accomplishment in itself.
(An accomplishment that would even make most English teachers break out in hives, I might add)

This year, they decided to take the contest away from her. They said they will make it better. More respectful to the reputation of the school. They will have frontal audiences, sitting politely. No food, no drinks, no music, and, most of all, no English. There will be a hierarchy of winners, from best to worst. It will be great.

I have seen my mother, and her way of teaching, work wonders on highschoolers. They passed language exams with flying colors (to the endless surprise of Team Dry Grammar). I have seen many of them go on to scholarships, semesters abroad, or bilingual jobs, and I have read the emails they send her years later, when they finally realize how much of an advantage her teaching style has given them.
It is not about grammar.
It is not about Present Perfect.
It is not about Perfect at all.
It is about Self-confidence, Creativity, and Fun.

Some teachers will never understand  that. But the good ones do.


  1. That's excellent. As an English teacher myself, I can't express how wonderful it is to work at a school in Japan whose philosophy is "Fun first." It really is the most important thing. :)

    Alex Hurst, A Fantasy Author in Kyoto
    A-Z Blogging in April Participant

  2. Your Mom is to be commended for her years of success, and I am so sorry to hear that her wonderful event has been hijacked. Future students will be the losers in this game. ;(

  3. Doesn't matter where you live, the higher up the hierachy a thing goes, the more it will be messed up. It's a law of physics. ;) I'm sure the students your mom has had still will benefit no matter what the "system" throws at them.
    Life & Faith in Caneyhead

  4. It really boils down to the love of words and how we turn them into art.

    That's too bad about your Mother's contest but just reading about her I believe she will find another venue in which she will surpass the competition.

    2015 A to Z Challenge Ambassador

  5. Sorry about your mom's contest. That's terrible.

    I just stopped by to say hello before the 2015 A to Z blogging challenge begins and thank you for co- hosting such an extraordinary event.

  6. Stopped to say hello initially because of the title of your blog. You are to be commended for such hard work. Kudos. I totally agree that teaching is supposed to be fun. I think that's what helps others to learn.