Some Reflections on Teaching Cambridge Courses
One of the most challenging teaching situations I have been faced with is the teaching of students who want to sit for an international exam. I am currently teaching a group of adult students (18- 45+) who want to obtain the Cambridge FCE. These students are mostly young professionals who see the English language as a necessary asset to advance in their professional life. For the most part, they seem to enjoy communication with foreigners and look forward to becoming proficient in English in the near future.
The teaching of the FCE course has posed different issues I have been reflecting upon for the last five years. They may be summarised as follows:
1. Striking a balance between the language and exam skills that need to be taught.
2. Creating student awareness of their linguistic needs and directing their efforts towards the course goals.
3. Keeping motivations levels high in spite of the routine of past papers practice.
I will briefly discuss each of them stating the procedures I have tried to follow to deal with these challenges.
Meeting the objectives of the course
The FCE course requires a solid base of basic language structures that will be tested in a standard format. Students tend to be too focused on learning the ‘tricks’ of the exam and move away from the learning processes and time needed to master a second language. It is difficult to make them reflect on this point. They frequently request copies of teacher's books and answer keys to every exercise they do in class. Many times they will have read the lesson from the teacher’s book before I present it. In spite of the language school specific instructions not to advise students to buy books with answer keys, I have decided to integrate them sparingly in my class. The results have been, if not revealing, interesting at least. I have found that students at this level enjoy playing part of the teacher's role in providing answers to exercises or sharing information about how written assignments are corrected, as they read in a teacher’s book. My role at those moments is that of a moderator, trying to segment the amount of information these teaching-students want to volunteer in class. I have found that learning from peers keeps the class alert and the student who acts as a source of information is often challenged with questions from their classmates. All in all, a new door is open for reflection.
The students’ needs
Upper-intermediate students start the course with a set of assumptions as to what their linguistic strengths and weaknesses are. They need not coincide with my own assessment of priorities for each of them after listening to their first contributions or correcting the first written assignments. Needles to say, to make things more complex, individual needs differ from group needs. The ability to withdraw and observe their performance is one of the first objectives I have at the beginning of the course. Without succeeding in making the student aware of what must be improved, conflict will soon arise: corrections may either not be understood or considered not as important as to focus on them. I try to create in the student a sense of team with the teacher who provides feedback and assessment. I generally write a small paragraph to each of them as a mini report that they receive after the first written assignment they hand in stating the focus areas. In the second or third assignment, I ask the students to write a mini report for a classmate’s composition in class passing it on to a third one to give his/her opinion about the assessment previously made. Students tend to face this task quite seriously and the addressee of the report finally has feedback from three different sources as to their real linguistic strengths as perceived by others compared to the writer’s original assumptions.
The need to frequently do classroom and homework practices in exam timing conditions can affect student’s motivation to perform past paper tasks. Once again, discovery combined with peer feedback and reflections seem to work well as an antidote. Student's books often provide a prescriptive list of dos and don'ts for each part of the exam. Organising debates and sharing experiences as to work best for them and not an ideal student proves to be a way to get ahead with tasks. The tasks remain the same, but the students are always given new tools –learnt from the teacher or the classmates- to face them. The voicing of what students actually do at home when performing tasks helps them to challenge the course book weaknesses and localize the instructions to their real reading and listening skills gaps. This I find very important to do all the time to avoid students reaching the conclusion that they are simply not good at certain skills and stop trying to learn.
The profile of the FCE students as people who have experienced no less than six years of formal instruction is challenging to deal with. It generates a reflection to bridge the gap between institutional, linguistic and learning needs. To focus on peer discussion and assessment has often illuminated the way to adapt materials and classroom practices. Students who are given the chance to perform a more active role as directors of their learning paths tend to keep motivation levels high throughout the course. Learning autonomy is perhaps reinforced at the working environment of these students who want to progress in their professional lives. Bringing a sense of team work balanced with autonomy to the classroom practice probably makes them face cognitive gaps under familiar conditions in their jobs.Note: This reflective essay was written at the request of Mr Efrain Davis at CAECE University
Afterthought: This essay summarises the ideas and concerns that underpin my FCE Blog project. How my FCE Blog was born
Related Post: A Blog Genesis