In some colleges or language schools, there is the opportunity to create a week-long ‘Intensive Course’ course for new students.
This challenging and enjoyable course has the aim of quickly addressing skills issues before the semester itself begins, and it can be a priceless opportunity to improve vital areas of your students’ language ability. It also allows us to work closely with management and colleagues, designing and delivering the course as a team. My own chance to create just such an ‘Intensive Course’ came at two different Teacher Training Colleges in rural China, but I know of teachers at private language schools and colleges in the west who have found this a very beneficial way to begin a new academic year.
Improve Your Students’ Language Quickly
Why Run an Intensive Course?
There is substantial preparation and hard work involved, but I became certain that, as the saying goes, ‘the juice is worth the squeeze’. Rather than spending the whole semester reiterating how to properly pronounce ‘th’, or trying to eradicate examples of Chinglish (or Konglish, or Spanglish), these remedial tasks can be carried out in a focused way, right at the outset.
The students are thrown into an intensive but safe environment, where much is expected of them, but they find themselves in the same boat, facing the same set of challenges. This builds camaraderie and encourages new friendships to form. The course also raises awareness of the key language issues they will all face – pronunciation, fluency, grammar and structure, vocabulary and intonation, note-taking, etc – and usefully highlights these areas. It also gives the students the chance to quickly become used to their teachers’ methods; in China, our students were from rural areas and had little experience of Communicative Methodology, so the notions of pairwork, asking questions, or creating dialogues were all rather new.
For us, one major reason to run an Intensive Course was to develop our relationship with the college hierarchy and our teaching colleagues. Delicately requesting permission to run the course gave us a good reason to genuinely consider the idea in a cost-benefit analysis; teaming up with colleagues showed us what was possible when enthusiastic professionals work closely together. Skills sharing became a theme of our preparations, and the newer local teachers observed the first couple of their colleagues’ classes, making notes for a methodology discussion afterward. Part of our remit was peer-training, so this was a great opportunity to raise awareness of Teacher Talking Time, the importance of planning and preparation, questioning and checking strategies, lesson structure, and much else.
How Do We Know What the Students Need?
ESL has borrowed the term ‘diagnostics’ from the medical profession. Upon first encountering a new group, we carried out interviews and tests, looked at applications materials, and came to some decisions regarding those areas of language learning our students lacked. We analyzed everything we could, as the more data we had, the better tailored the Intensive Course could be, but focused primarily on these aspects:
Confidence. Shyness is the most natural thing in the world, but we were determined to inculcate a bold, ‘just try it’ attitude from the beginning. Simply put, shy people produce less language than their more confident classmates, and production is the passport to progress.
Vocabulary. An area where quick improvement is possible, vocab selection tended to reveal a small ‘active’ vocabulary, i.e. those words which the student knows well and uses every day. However, listening and reading exercises demonstrated a much larger ‘passive’ vocabulary, that group of words the students recognize and understand, but do not actually say or write. Our task during the Intensive Course became the quick movement of words from the ‘passive’ to the ‘active’ areas, thereby greatly enhancing the students’ capacity for self-expression.
We made a point of checking the students’ knowledge of the days of the week, months of the year, numbers, compass directions and mathematical operators (plus, minus, divide, multiply), as we found these words opened a lot of doors. We also worked on the names of countries and continents, and clarified the English names of famous people; almost every famous person has a Chinese name which bears only a passing resemblance to their actual name, causing endless confusion.
Pronunciation. Another area where intensive practice quickly pays dividends. Even before meeting the students, we can predict their pronunciation problems with some certainty based on their first language. For our Chinese students, we tooled up to deal with the classic issues: th/s, s/sh, v/w, and the tendency to add a schwa sound after final consonants (e.g. ‘knowledge’ would sound as ‘no-lej-ee’).
Grammar. The Intensive Course would not, we decided, be particularly grammar-heavy, as this rather dry content had already dominated our students’ lives at high school. Instead, we targeted a small group of essential grammatical functions and ensured that any problems were nipped in the bud. Our choices were: 1) Correct conjugations of tenses, especially for the past; 2) Use of modal verbs in the present and past; 3) The first and second conditionals (‘if I go…’, and ‘if I went…’); 4) Countable and uncountable nouns, and measure words (some, any, a liter, a meter, ten kilometers).
How Is the Course Organized?
We were given relatively free reign to organize the course, and used our diagnostic experience to prioritize a handful of language areas. Dividing up the week along the lines of a regular school schedule, we then spread the necessary material between the available class periods, ensuring that there were never two consecutive ‘heavy’ classes, lest we burn our the students in their first week.
We included an ‘English Corner’ class, to let the students become familiar with another new format, and created evening games sessions using Jeopardy, Call my Bluff, Hangman and a host of other classic ESL games, all of which had a strong language focus but promised to be good fun for all.
A more delicate task was to divide the work between our colleagues. Some of the teachers were in their sixties and had taught in the same way for their entire careers; this would be a special challenge, we recognized at once, and we resolved not to try to ‘baby sit’ professionals who were nearly forty years our senior. Instead, we wrote clear guidance material for each class, in the hopes that the content would be delivered in a roughly uniform way. We emphasized a reduction in Teacher Talking Time and the idea of student-centered learning; these methods were adopted slowly, as can be expected, but the chance to bring Communicative Methodology, with all its benefits, to a group of colleagues was too good to pass up.
Intensive Courses have proved to quickly address major underlying language issues and clear the way for more advanced work during the semester.
They introduce methods and learning styles which might be new, but which the students will face together, as a team. Such a course is not suitable for every college, but if the leadership shows interest, I cannot recommend it highly enough as a way to break the ice and work closely alongside your colleagues.
I would like to thank Matt Perrement, my Voluntary Service Overseas teaching partner, for guiding me through my first Intensive Course at Zunyi Teachers’ College, Guizhou Province, China.