Since the English teachers at the Lao-German Technical College managed to start teaching with an international coursebook, i.e. Technical English 1, this semester, Prof. Martin asked us (Tasja Reule and Anna Hajek) to bring the new book and its three main components closer to them: The course book, the teacher’s book, and the workbook.1 During the preparation lessons with our tandem-teachers we had noticed that some of the teachers were still insecure about how to include all three books in their preparation. Therefore, we decided to invite all the English teachers – and anyone else who might be interested – to our workshop “How to work with Technical English”. We are happy that nearly all of the English teachers were able to attend the workshop.
During our bi-weekly meetings with our tandem-teachers – to help them prepare their English lessons – we had noticed several issues and chose the following for addressing in our workshop:
- Timing differences between the different English teachers concerning their lesson planning;
- sticking to the order of the tasks and exercises in the course book;
- working with the teacher’s book;
- vocabulary learning and testing.
This is how we then structured our agenda for the workshop:
- Testing vocabulary
- Teacher’s book
- Lesson plan
We started each topic with brief explanations.
During our observation lessons, we noticed that a lot of students are lacking in English vocabulary. This may result from not getting explicit vocabulary-learning for homework, not knowing how to learn new words, or not having the (any) coursebook. Therefore, we devised guidelines to illustrate how to ritualize giving vocabulary for homework and then testing the vocabulary in the following week.
These guidelines do not only apply to vocabulary, by the way, but also general methodology, namely how to structure a lesson.
- To enable the teachers to work on the same number of units within roughly the same time frame as their colleagues – which would facilitate the transition of classes to the next teacher, the next year, or block of units – we set the overall guideline to cover one double-page in the student’s book per 90-minute lesson, following Prof. Martin’s recommendation in this case. Like anything else that is new, managing this, too, will take time and practice, but it is a realistic goal.
- Another important aspect to share with the teachers is that when one works with a new coursebook for the first time, it makes sense to stick to the order of the tasks and exercises – and also to begin with Unit 1 instead of jumping from the last to the first task or teaching later units before earlier ones. As in the sciences, language-learning needs to be organised progressively because one structure builds on the next, and also because some structures are naturally acquired before others.
In the normal course of events, the experienced teacher will rearrange the material here and there, leave out certain things and add his or her own material, but good coursebooks are written by experts in the field who usually have decades of international teaching experience behind them, they are also revised many times and carefully edited, and therefore they are a reliable tool for the novice or little-trained teacher.
- The teacher’s job is to select the best book for his or her particular group of learners. This is a big challenge in itself, especially in a country like Laos where one does not have access to a lot of different material (or “even” Amazon2), and where intercultural filters for teaching materials and techniques are not yet in place.
The coursebook Technical English was therefore chosen by Prof. Martin and the first two LGTC-volunteers Lena Wink and Denise Burkhardt (Team III) after many weeks of research in Germany and after comparing several dozen different course books on Technical English, in the summer of 2016. The books were brought along to the LGTC in September 2016, but somehow, despite many reminders – TheLaosExperience? – it took 1,5 years and 3 more German teams until everybody involved had seen, understood, accepted, or remembered the necessities and practical steps involved, e.g. unpacking the box with the books for starters…
- One of the other necessary next steps was: Use the teacher’s book for preparing lessons. This book was completely new to our tandem-teachers since they had only received their own copy just a few weeks before. It was therefore a big novelty to come to terms with, and it took a special meeting with Prof. Martin to explain why and how a teacher’s book can actually save the teacher time instead of adding to the workload. We are also happy to say that our Lao tandem-English-teachers’ language levels are well enough developed by now to understand the book.
- For vocabulary-training, we recommended to explicitly note down the unknown vocabulary on the board, visible for the students, and to give the corresponding page in the workbook for homework additionally.
We could now easily move on to the more time-consuming topics.
When we thought about this issue during our own preparation at home, we came up with some ideas.
When we first asked the teachers to brainstorm and collect some ideas themselves, they suggested similar techniques to the ones we had prepared for them, so we only needed to add some of ours and then turned this list into a step-by-step plan.
- Write down new vocabulary on the board.
- Combine the “energizer” to activate your students with learning the new words. (You can use material of the Didactics Room, e.g., some balls, for a quick question-and-answer game.
- Ask your students to copy them into the vocabulary sheets you have prepared.
- Ritualize writing vocabulary test after each unit, so your students get used to practicing vocabulary on a regular basis.
All teachers present really liked the ideas and techniques, so we suggested they try them out in theor lessons next. They were eager to understand every little detail we then went through the steps in practice and discussed them, and they were not satisfied until they could reproduce every single step we had introduced in their own words.
Teacher’s book and forms of class organisation
The teacher’s book gives an overview of the content of each unit. It explains all technical tearms to the teacher, gives examples, explains how to present/instruct the tasks/exercises and says which additional material, e.g. models, might be useful.
After we went through this general structure of the book, we addressed the next important issue. The English teachers already learnt and practised to use different forms of class organisation during their lessons, e.g. pair work or group work, with the previous teams. However, it sometimes takes very long until the class is actually ready to work on the task. We also experienced this ourselves during our own student lessons: The students are not really used to working like this yet – and they are certainly not used to doing anything straightaway, or in non-slow-motion.
For this reason, we introduced pictograms for each form of class organisation, and we discussed under which conditions which forms can work, e.g. the students need to sit together for having small-group discussions. For this they first of all need to face each other and not just sit in 2 rows behind the other partners, still facing the teacher in the front. To change their seats, they need to be encouraged to get up or turn around. The next time, they will know what to do.
To finish our workshop and finally apply the input, we gave the teachers a specific unit to exercise themselves, by preparing a sample lesson about the unit we had just dealt with. This also included repeating how to write a lesson plan, which Janina (Team V) had already practised with them in her workshop “How to teach with TechTalk”.
As could be expected, this took very long as it involved going through the explanations, tasks, and exercises in three separate books, and then to see how all this could be implemented in a Lao classroom and summarized in a lesson plan.
Since we can only observe one class of each tandem-teacher each and our stay here at the LGTC is rather short, we will not be able to follow if and how each of our guidelines is used during the different English lessons. However, we will have successors soon, and we definitely got the impression that the teachers were convinced and would try to do their best, even on their own.
We encouraged them to keep their chins up even if they will sometimes struggle. We understand that changing one’s outlook on teaching and learning is a long process and that there will always be differences in methodology and style, between the Laotian teachers themselves as well as between German teams or even within one. Nonetheless, with the new coursebook finally set now, all the teachers are highly motivated to continue to improve their English lessons, step by step.
Rome was not built in a day, either.4
Text by T. Reule & A. Hajek
Photos by S. Röhm & A. Hajek
1 Bonamy, David (2008). Technical English. London: Pearson International. Vols. 1-4 (A1-C2).
2 Amazon is an Internet retailer which started out as an online bookstore. Its services are not available in Laos, where streets often do not bear names and people or houses do not need papers for identification. There is also no need for a (Western-style) postal delivery service in Laos because the transmission of information is still done mostly orally (and as regards business: by phone).
3 Bingham, Celia (2008). Technical English 1 – Teacher’s Book: Pearson International. Page 48-55
4 “Rome was not built in a day” is an English proverb which describes the need for time to create great things.