Session 3: Qualities of a Good English Program

What is the difference between a bilingual program and an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program?

  • In a bilingual program, the goal is to learn both academic content and a new language.
  • In an English as a Foreign Language program, the curriculum and grades focus on English language learning, not on learning other academic content.
  • An English class or program may still be based on specific content. This is called “Content Based Language Teaching” (CBLT). For example, students can learn about robotics, or cooking, or a country. In this case, students continue to be evaluated on their language improvement, not on their learning of the content.

What is linguistic immersion? Can a program or English classes in a school have immersion?

Yes. Immersion simply means that all instruction is in the target language, that is, English. Every English class should be an immersion experience.

Wait… then “immersion” is not just something like an English camp or retreat, or an exchange in a country where English is the native language?

No! Immersion can happen in all English classes, and right here in Brazil… it means that all instruction is given in English, in the classroom.

When English is at the student’s level, immersion produces language acquisition. However, when the language level is above the student’s level, immersion becomes submersion and the learning process is compromised. In both bilingual programs and English classes, immersion in the new language, at the right level, is important for acquisition.

What is necessary for an English program to be considered effective? How can students really learn the language in English classes in a regular school?

Here are some elements of successful English programs:

  1. SUFFICIENT TIME: It takes about 2,000 hours to acquire advanced proficiency in a new language. A school must have at least 5-6 hours of instruction per week over at least 5 years to produce students with high proficiency.
  2. LEVELED CLASSROOMS: Students need to be grouped by English proficiency level, not by grade. Teachers cannot meet the language needs of students at different proficiency levels in the same class period.
  3. COMMUNICATION AS A GOAL: The objective of the English class must be meaningful and authentic communication in reading, writing, speaking and listening. Curricula, standards, lesson objectives and evaluations should be aligned with that.
  4. EFFECTIVE METHODOLOGY: Teachers must use communicative, student-centered, teaching methodologies. Students should use the language for authentic communication as long as possible during class.
  5. ATTRACTIVE CURRICULUM: The curriculum must be appropriate for both student age and language level. The textbook should work as a supporting tool, with classroom experiences comprised mainly of interaction between people, not simply to “finish the book”.

Well, this all sounds great for private schools or even English courses, but I think public schools face so many other barriers to provide classes that take these elements into consideration, don’t you agree?

Yes, of course! So, let’s talk a bit more about these barriers.

Which ones should we consider for the first element, i.e. SUFFICIENT TIME?

I don’t think schools should spread so much language learning along the years in the curriculum. Although they have English classes for 7 years (elementary and high school), students have only one or two 50-minute classes per week, with approximately 40 students in class.

Here is a possible solution: to concentrate English classes more, in a smaller number of years. For example, instead of having two English lessons per week for seven years, we would have four lessons per week for 3-4 years. Perhaps students will only reach a low intermediate level, but more effectively. The progress would be more solid, often different from the results achieved with only one or two lessons per week.

What barriers do you see in terms of having LEVELLED CLASSROOMS?

Some students learn almost nothing year after year. Others attend English classes outside school and learn much faster than within the school curriculum. So the levels of the students are extremely divergent.

Here is a possible solution: If schools have a “period for English classes” in their curriculum, they can group students from 2-3 different grades into 2-3 proficiency levels. This is much more effective than grouping by grade, and much more motivating for the students.

What barriers do you see in terms of having COMMUNICATION AS A GOAL?

Oral communication can be very challenging in large classes. Maybe the evaluation system, tests, etc., are not aligned with the communicative goals. Students may not be motivated enough to communicate in English

Here is a possible solution: Teachers should learn techniques and activities for students to work in pairs and groups, which work well in large classes. As an educational institution, the school can promote discussions to identify its true language goals and then align its evaluations with these goals. Classroom activities can be engaging and motivating (see last point).

What barriers do you see to achieving an effective METHODOLOGY?

Teachers sometimes have not received enough training in the use of communicative methodologies. Sometimes they see their role as teaching about the language, rather than helping their students learn the language.

Here is a possible solution: Teachers should have solid training in the use of student-centered communicative methodologies. The voices heard in class should be those of the students, not the teacher. Schools should value professional development experiences for English teachers, but they should examine these opportunities well, asking: “Will this training result in students using more English in classroom activities?

What barriers do you see to having a more attractive and motivating curriculum?

Textbooks are seen as a curriculum, rather than having a general curriculum in which the textbook is just a supporting tool.

Here’s a possible solution: Present a curriculum that provides a good overall structure for the teacher, not the students. The teacher needs guidance in formulating the tasks in which the students will be involved to use the language. The most effective classroom activities usually do not involve the textbook!