It’s important to ask our students for feedback about our class. What do they like about our class? What do they not like? How did our class make them feel?
I typically give my students a paper survey to fill out at the end of the semester. I tell them not to write their names on it (in hopes that they’ll give more honest feedback), and I ask them to respond to a series of questions about what we did in class.
I use these surveys to help me determine what worked well for my students and how I want to change my classes in the future. Another benefit of surveys is that they can be used in conversations with administrators. In fact, it was because of student surveys that I was able to stop using the “required” textbook series for one of my classes. One day when I was talking to my administrator about wanting to move away from using the textbook, he seemed interested in the idea but said, “But our students are Chinese! They love the textbook! We won’t be able to tear them away from it.”
I had just surveyed my students a few days earlier. On the survey, I listed out several of the activities we used in class, including “using the textbook.” For my students, “using the textbook” ranked near the bottom of the list in popularity. I hadn’t originally planned on showing my administrator the surveys, but after hearing his response, I told him about these results and showed him the surveys. After looking them over, he changed his mind and told me I didn’t need to use the textbook.
Survey results can be powerful tools, both for our own improvement as teachers and in explaining our practices to administrators.
In December, I decided to experiment with making a quick video of my students (in addition to my usual paper survey). On our last day of class, I asked each student one question: “What was your favorite thing we did in class?”
With my students’ permission, I’m posting the video here. The video includes two different classes of adult ESL students, all students from either Mexico or China. Both classes were around the intermediate level. We did a variety of different things in each class, but these were the main components:
- Listening to stories: I told stories to the students as they listened, using the Story Listening Supplementation Toolkit developed by Beniko Mason and Stephen Krashen.
- Whole-class novel reading: We read a whole book together as a class—in one class, we read Felipe Alou; in the other class, we read The Sugar Glider.
- Free reading time: I gave students 10-15 minutes in class every day to read books that they chose. I have a library of books that they can choose from (all at an appropriate language level for them), or they can bring their own books to read.
- Life skills topics: These were topics that my students said they wanted to learn about, such as going to the doctor, applying for jobs, etc.
- Videos: We occasionally watched short videos—sometimes about things happening in the news, sometimes on totally random topics that I thought might be interesting to the students. In one class, I showed the students a full-length movie and used Ashley Hastings’ MovieTalk technique.
Here’s the video:
There is some variety in the students’ responses, but there is also a common thread—the students enjoyed listening to and reading stories. They enjoyed a class that focuses on meaning-based communication and comprehensible input in the form of stories and interesting topics.
I know that many teachers feel nervous when trying to move away from a traditional, textbook-centered curriculum and replace it with a comprehension-based approach that focuses more on shared stories and giving students choice in what they read. I sometimes hear other teachers—especially teachers of adults—say things like, “I wish I could make my class more communicative, but my students are so dependent on the textbook! They love their grammar rules!”
There seems to be a fear that if we don’t spend enough time doing grammar practice activities, our students will revolt.
Of course, I can’t dispute anyone else’s experiences. But I can talk about my own experiences—and in my experience, there are a lot of students who are happy to be in a class that focuses on the real exchange of meaning, not a class with a strong focus on learning about and practicing grammar rules or on completing worksheets. It’s true that I do sometimes have a few students who ask for more explicit grammar instruction and practice; however, those students are in the minority. In my experience, most students are glad to experience a class where the focus is on meaningful communication, not on memorizing vocabulary words or completing grammar “practice activities.” I’ve had several students tell me about previous classes they took where they felt extremely frustrated, confused, and/or bored because of an intense focus on learning grammar rules. As one of my students recently expressed, “I don’t think it’s good to focus too much on learning grammar. Grammar rules don’t really help us if we want to have conversations with people!”
I’ve found that, for most students, a communicative, comprehension-based class is more interesting, enjoyable, and less stressful than classes that follow a typical textbook-based curriculum.
I’m posting this video in hopes of encouraging other teachers who want to try out a comprehension-based approach, but the video is encouraging to me, too. I know that the way I teach is different from the way that a lot of others teach, which sometimes makes me question what I do. Sometimes I wonder, Am I really making a difference for my students? Is the time I spend finding and preparing fun stories to tell my students worth it? Are my students truly learning to enjoy reading, or are they only reading in class to be compliant? Is this approach helping them to develop positive attitudes about learning English over the long term, even after they leave my class?
This video helped remind me that the work I’m doing is important and does have an impact. To me, it’s worth it to spend time finding and preparing stories for my students. It’s worth it to give them time in class to read books of their choice. A couple of the students in the video said that they have started reading more on their own at home. And that is my main goal: for students to enjoy learning and reading enough that they want to continue outside of class time.
Of course, not all of my students have fallen in love with reading. There are some students who are still on the journey of learning to enjoy reading and haven’t quite arrived there yet. I like what Pernille Ripp says: “I cannot expect all students to love reading, but I can help them hate it less.” We can’t change every student’s mind and make them love reading just in one semester or one year, especially if they come in to our classes already hating reading or feeling like it’s a chore that is only to be done when necessary or when forced to do so by a teacher. For many students, it will take a long time to change their negative attitudes. But we do our best to provide fun, pleasurable experiences with stories and books to help our students start developing a love of reading.
I hope that this post can be an encouragement to those teachers who are considering getting rid of the textbook or who are at least considering taking a step back from the textbook and trying to structure their classes around meaningful communication and providing students with a lot of comprehensible input. It’s not as scary as it might seem! Most students enjoy it, and most teachers do, too.