I Worked for ESL Companies with Lousy Curriculums. Here’s What I Learned — And What You Should Look For.

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In my first-ever job, I sat in front of a computer teaching English over the internet to a group of students in South Korea. I would introduce the students to new vocabulary words, correct their grammar and monitor their progress. Overall, it was a low-stress job I felt indifferent toward, and maybe, at the time, it was enough.

My then-employer was part of the growing education industry in the Philippines. Over the past decade or so, the Philippines has seen an explosion of language schools that attract students from around the world, but, mainly in East Asia, online tutoring companies that specialize in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) have also emerged, recruiting Filipinos to teach students who can’t travel abroad to study or who want extra lessons to supplement their English-language classes in traditional schools back home.

Likewise, this trend took off in China and grew to be worth many billions of dollars, thanks to companies like VIPKid that eventually hired upward of 100,000 foreign educators—mostly Americans—to tutor millions of kids in China. (China has since cracked down on the online tutoring industry there and now prohibits any classes that pair Chinese children with foreign teachers.) Tutoring companies have since formed and grown all over the world, from Eastern Europe to Canada, from the U.S. to Japan. Millions of students take English lessons online now, and I’d like to think at least some ESL companies are doing good work, though the extent of their impact still remains to be seen.

But not all ESL programs are created equal. Content and curriculum quality vary considerably. Low-quality programs actually do students a disservice and sap teachers’ enthusiasm. Over the course of my career, I’ve learned what makes a good ESL program (and a bad one). Here’s my top advice for tutors, parents and anyone looking for a program worthy of investing in.

When Rote Memorization Rules the Day

When I started my first tutoring job, I was hardly concerned with the caliber of the content I was teaching. (The recruiter who hired me told me flatly that the company was not a good one.) I learned quickly what the recruiter meant. For one thing, the curriculum I was expected to teach asserted that learning English is a matter of memorization.

Take the sentence, “I like ice cream.” Instead of teaching learners how to build this sentence from scratch, the company wanted us—the tutors—to have the students memorize the phrase “I like,” for whenever they had to say they liked something, then encourage them to replace “ice cream” with other words. It was a plug-and-play approach.

The reading materials were also too simple—intermediate learners, for instance, would read articles with sentences like “I like popcorn. Popcorn is fun to eat. I eat popcorn every day.”

Still, I kept my head down and my mouth shut. I was going through a difficult time in my personal life and just didn’t care enough.

Eventually, I started looking for a new job and found one, again, in ESL tutoring—this time with a Japanese company.

This one, I soon discovered, was worse. It had students reading terribly written articles by people who aren’t fluent in English and asked them to work through poorly thought-out exercises, one requiring students to give a pro and a con opinion about a statement and to provide reasons for each, instead of, say, letting them express their opinions and articulate their reasons for holding them.

Then the pandemic started, and my company’s clients canceled their classes. As a Band-Aid solution, we tutors were outsourced to another company, whose curriculum was hardly better. In two of the four courses they offered, students learned common expressions, such as “May I have a cup of coffee?” for ordering at a restaurant. In class, I role-played with the students, using language the company provided, and once again students were asked not to learn the phrase but to substitute “coffee” with another item, also provided by the company. There were no questions that tested students’ comprehension, or vocabulary words, or writing exercises.

Discerning Good Versus Bad Curriculum

It was during my time here that I finally started questioning the point of what I was doing. What was I even teaching them? What were the students learning, beyond rote memorization? Was I actually accomplishing anything or doing any good?

Much later, I would realize the difference: tutoring with substandard materials really means teaching with one hand tied behind your back. It doesn’t help you gauge students’ understanding or, in the case of new students, fluency, so you can’t know what you should adjust. And, supposing you do figure that out, you still have poor-quality materials to select from. And if the curriculum isn’t even written by fluent speakers, students get exposed to sloppy or improper language and don’t learn correct usage. It also impacts tutors’ well-being—it really does demoralize you and takes purpose and meaning out of the work.

In contrast, a well-designed curriculum allows students to actually learn the language, and helps tutors as well: it lets you discern how much students understand and enables you to address their needs, which assists you in evaluating new students in particular. And let’s not forget how it affects tutors emotionally—it motivates you to teach and makes you feel that you really are impacting your students’ lives.

What Tutors Should Know Going In

My word of advice: assess the curriculum in any company you’re considering. Use the internet’s resources—some companies upload their materials online, but if the company is well-known enough, you can find YouTube videos for job applicants, from mock class demos to class flow samples. Tutors can also get a peek at the curriculum during the demo class.

No company’s curriculum is perfect, but ideally, a curriculum should be a comprehensive one—one that covers not only grammar, pronunciation and punctuation, but also develops all language skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing—the last of which, unfortunately, some companies don’t focus on enough). Also, look for a curriculum that encourages critical thinking. Comprehension questions should not merely require students to scan the material for details—they should also make students think.

The curriculum should also be the right level of challenging. Beginners, for example, should encounter simple sentences and easy questions (“What do you wear to parties?”). Intermediate learners should come across compound and complex sentences and questions that ask for their opinions and reasons (“Do you prefer to follow fashion trends? Why or why not?”), while advanced students should see complicated language and thought-provoking questions (“What do you think of the opinion that ‘clothes make the man’?”). If you can, try to find a company that includes fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.

Besides this, the curriculum should have reviews and ways to evaluate students’ improvement. Some companies don’t offer assessments and other ways to measure student progress and outcomes, which means that the only way tutors can tell they are effective and successful is if students apply what they learned in subsequent classes. These elements would add more tools for tutors to adjust as needed.

Lastly, look for a curriculum that offers materials for people maintaining their fluency. Since fluency is like a muscle that atrophies with disuse, ESL companies should see to language learners’ whole lives, not just the relatively short period when they learn the language.

Rewind to my second tutoring job, at the Japanese company: I would quit after a year and accept a position with another one. This time, though, the curriculum was overall excellent. The articles were well-written, the vocabulary words well-chosen. The company’s grammar course provided sample sentences and sentence-construction exercises. They had vocabulary-expanding materials that introduced students to idioms. They even provided test preparation courses for students who wanted to work or study abroad.

So, reader, I fell in love with teaching.

That’s right: All it took to overturn my ambivalence toward tutoring was a decent company with a good curriculum that can actually help students learn.

Just imagine the impact on the students’ end.

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