English Teaching – Not Seeing The Wood For The Trees

There is a draw back to all the well intentioned effort put into teacher training programs on how to organise, manage and execute lessons. This is the danger of the teacher losing perspective due to detail overload, causing them to concentrate on matters which are not of such crucial importance. The next few articles will give guidelines on how to get straight to the heart of the matter, and place your focus where it needs to be.

Back to basics: What is our goal?

The objectives of a language teacher can be varied, but all coincide on at least one point. The aim is to teach the student to successfully communicate in the target language. This may be through the written form or spoken form, but is most often desirable in the spoken form, and here we shall concentrate on this aspect.

Language learning is a skill comparable to others.

There are many language acquisition theories with their consequential classroom techniques, and the debates will continue to rage on how to most efficiently create a language learning environment to maximise learning efficiency. However, it should always be remembered that the process of learning a language has very similar parallels to other skills that humans learn, and when compared, we can see that too much attention to detail in the theory department may be blinding us from some fairly simple, self evident principles that should take the lion’s share of our consideration.

An illustrative comparison:

How many physical education instructors teach their students football by sitting them down in a classroom and explaining how to kick a football, how to control it, how to use the space on the field to your advantage, or when the best moment is to shoot at goal? I’m confident you will agree that none take on this ‘theory of football’ approach, with the exception of top professionals who get a blackboard explanation of tactics. Students of football are told what the objective is, and then they are given an example of the desired method and outcome. They then practise.

Learning a language and learning to play football have a lot of similarities by virtue of the fact they are human skills.

Action comes as a result of a stimulus (e.g. a footballer receives a pass, and a speaker hears an utterance). The stimulus is received (the footballer controls the ball, the speaker understands the content of the utterance), this in turn causes assessment (the footballer determines what his options are, the speaker analyses the input with feelings and logic), and finally, a course of action is taken (the footballer shoots, passes, or moves with the ball as appropriate, and the speaker affirms, negates, apologises etc as appropriate).

Don’t miss seeing the wood for the trees:

How sensible is it then, that as English teachers, we devote large amounts of classroom time to the theory, when what the students really need is practise?

It’s time to take a step back and stop dedicating an inordinate amount of time to written exercises, drilling, blackboard presentations, meaningless songs and stories, perfecting pronunciation and a host of other considerations. They all have their importance and due applications, but what could be more important than setting up activities which allow your students to practise speaking. This aim should take up 80 to 90% of the classroom activity time. It’s the wood. Don’t just see the trees.


Invest time in improving your techniques that allow you to optimise the effect of the 80 to 90% of the student’s talking practise classroom time. This will release you from a lot of work load in terms of trying to wade through the interminable mountains of teacher training information that often leaves us feeling swamped and confused, as well as achieving that all important aim of making your students communicatively competent.

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