Learning TESOL by Doing

In Spring 2009 I volunteered to teach a conversational ESL class without any formal training. My class consisted of 10 students from 7 different countries. All of them tested at the basic level, but their speaking abilities ranged from an Uzbekistan woman who could barely understand “How are you?” to a Chinese man who could explain his chemical studies with minimal struggle. I had attended a single one-hour orientation prior to stepping into the classroom; it explained what potential topics I could teach and how to handle students who failed to show up. That was it.

In my first class I learned why the students had made the decision to pay $20 for a non-credit class taught by someone lacking any formal training. Their reasons varied: “to meet people, my husband wants me to, so I can communicate better with my colleagues, to pass the TOEFL, to better understand the culture, to improve my pronunciation.” The majority of the students were Post-Doctoral Fellows or wives of Post-Doctoral Fellows at Cornell University. I doubt they had hoped for the English department receptionist who looked young enough to be their little sister as an instructor.

I made it through the semester and taught on practical skills like how to ask for a favor, names in the family tree, holidays and traditions, grocery shopping, clothing, and music among other topic. I would have been grateful for some sort of TESOL preparation course, but I survived without it.

Matsuda makes a valid point that TESOL and Composition should be distinct fields, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with him that Composition instructors should be required to take a second language course. If Composition instructors have experience with teaching ESL students, shouldn’t they be able to transmit this knowledge without requiring students to look outside the field? If students have an understanding of English and are deemed adequately competent to teach Native English Speakers, shouldn’t they be skilled and flexible enough to also teach Non-Native English Speakers? As a person in both RTW and TESOL, I’m not trying to discredit the value of TESOL courses, but if someone made a conscious choice to not go into TESOL, should they be expected to take a course in that specialty? If Composition and TESOL are two distinct concentrations, comprised of two distinct sets of instructors, where is the motivation for Composition students to enroll in a second langugae course? With instructors not practicing what this article preached, wouldn’t it be slightly hypocritical for this to be expected?

I managed to tread water in the TESOL sea with nothing but tutoring experience and a B.A. in Writing and Rhetoric, but some sort of TESOL preparation course would have proved valuable a year ago. Because I made it without a required TESOL course, because I was able to explain grammatical concepts when they came up, and help students improve their communication skills—the goal of the class, I am not entirely sold on the idea that Composition students should be required to take a second language course.

1 comment for “Learning TESOL by Doing

  1. uzma
    April 22, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Understanding L2 Learners

    The question is not that the Composition Studies is considering the problems of L2 learners or what is the obligation of ESL teacher. The issue is to realize the needs of L2 learners and TESL or TESOL are trying to fulfill the requirements of foreign students. TESL is fully developed discipline all over the world. Even in the universities of under developed countries department of TEFL are effective. Mutsuda has addressed the core issue of the different approach of the Composition Studies and ESL. It is a fact that the learning patterns of L2 learners are not radically different from those L1 learners but still the linguistic and cultural differences of L2 learners can cause unique challenges to writing teachers. So the old notion of being native speakers makes one to qualify for teaching is questioned here; one requires a training to observe and analyze one’s own language processes. My native language is Urdu but I cannot understand many of the structural devices and sound pattern of Urdu as I have never learned the language consciously.L1 learning is an innate process, many of the structures of L1 are innate in us but the process of acquiring L2 is bit different. Though ESL teachers try to follow the natural approach but it cannot be followed in its entirety. The situation of adult learners is completely different as interference of L1 is quite evident in the learning process.

    The presence of multicultural learners is a common phenomenon now days. With it the stress of teaching has also multiplied and teachers’ responsibilities have become manifold. I agree with the two approaches of Mutsuda; one to give them practice in basic writing and second is to systematically integrate native and non native speakers. I think it can work but we have to take care of the level of learners as teaching multilevel and multicultural class at the same time is going to be a nightmare. Placement test are really crucial. Another important point is the training of teachers and many forums and organizations are working on the world level to discuss the concerns of ESL teachers. No one can deny the contribution and efforts of these organizations.

    But the real test of training of teachers is on the daily basis in the class. The needs of ESL students differ from individual to individual and from institution to institution, and it is not possible to create one solution that fits all situations. (717)It is high time to realize that neither one method nor one discipline can solve the problems of L2 learners; rather we integrated efforts to understand the issues concerning L2 teaching. Composition studies and ESL can learn from the experiences of one another and can come up a solution that can get to the bottom of the question and resolve the matter for ever.

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