Communication: It’s about Using the Tools you Have

I have told a small circle of people about our new “Talk More!” English conversation classes for the 3rd year JHS students.

The first serious question I repeatedly hear is, “So, how do you get the students to have conversations??”

It’s a good question indeed, because the concept of students actually talking is probably so far removed from the reality we know and see at our schools.

Maybe your experience is like mine. Talking with students and seeing them in English class led me to believe that my students can’t speak English — and perhaps never will.

But I am beginning to think this idea is pure mythology. It is a myth perpetuated in part by the long years of uncommunicative classes students are subjected to for most of their careers as English students.

But these students can talk. One “Talk More!” English class resoundingly demonstrated this fact to me.

As thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell (author of wildly succesful books like The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers) will tell you — change the context and change the people.

Therefore, I have a core teaching assumption that students can become conversational in just a few “Talk More!” classes if they are given the adequate structure and environment — and the right encouragement.

The first trick is having the right structure. I will talk more about this in later posts as I reveal more about our classroom procedure.

The second trick is customization. No class is the same because it is full of different people with different attitudes abilities, interests, etc. Given the basic structure, we as teachers need to tweak the system to accommodate different types of classes and different types of students.

One of the best ways to customize a class is based on the shyness level of a class. This factor alone can make or break the “Talk More!” system, but one can make small, easy changes that make the difference.

But more about structure and customization later…

For now, consider the fact that your students have studied English for 3+ years depending on their experience in elementary school or if they already entered high school.

Most students learned hundreds of words and 30 or more expressions in that time. Yet they can’t talk, you say? How many expressions and words do they really need to start talking then? Do you have a magic number? Is it 60 expressions? 80 expression? 500 words? A 1,000? If so, why is that the case?

Seth Godin, a writer and entrepreneur who has written 13 bestselling books about business and marketing (translated into 30 languages to be read by people all over the world) writes in a blog post titled, “Tools vs Insight”:

“How is your vocabulary? It’s a vital tool, certainly. Do you know these words?

a, after, and, as, die, eternal, first, gets, gun, have, in, is, job, life, me, mouth, my, pushing, saying, step, that, the, to, Tyler, waiter, you.

How about these?

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

The first list contains every word in the opening lines from Fight Club, the second is the entire word list from Green Eggs and Ham. Of course, neither you nor I wrote either of these, regardless of how well trained we are in what the words (the tools) mean.

Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.”

These are profound words from a profound thinker. I think the same rule is true about learning English or any other language. So, it’s not about how many words you know, but about how you use them.

At what point do we stop teaching from the bottomless pit of English vocabulary and expressions and start teaching how to shine a light into the chaos so that students can start to emerge from the darkness of their internal worlds created as a shield against the endless barrage of English vocabulary?