The importance of warming up
Stick your head round the door of an English-as-a-foreign-language class that has been going for half an hour and you’re likely to hear voices, see interaction. The teacher is doing his or her stuff in his or her own way and the students are answering questions or reading aloud.
It should be a normal classroom environment, with people doing their best, having a go, making mistakes but making progress too.
Wind the recording back 29 minutes to the very start of the class and you could well be listening to the sound of silence.
Students of a foreign language spend almost all their time not only speaking their own language but listening to it and thinking in it. As keen as they may be to master this collection of err sounds that disregard the vowels in English words, they are Spanish, Chinese, German or whatever and they’re proud of it.
On top of that, they instinctively feel that their language is the real one and all others have to be compared with it and understood from its point of view.
We’re all patriotic in that respect. We have grown up with our own language as the key to communication with the rest of the world, and to step outside it and speak something else involves letting go of the rope and trying to swim when we can barely float.
Those first few minutes are crucial because that is when the teacher has to get the student paddling happily with his head above water. The first few minutes are when students remember that a capital i is pronounced like the eyes in their head, rather than the i in sit. They remember, perhaps reluctantly, that regardless of how they say who, what, when, where or why in their own language, for the next 90 minutes or so, the old rules do not apply.
It’s called warming up, because language learners have to get into a state of readiness, just as an athlete needs to get the blood flowing and the muscles prepared, and the musician gets the fingers ready to bring sounds out of an instrument and control what those sounds are.
How the teacher achieves this is up to him. You can get them singing a song or reciting a poem in English. I sometimes play hangman, with the student and I taking turns at the whiteboard (or blackboard or flipchart or whatever). It’s fun, it’s a game and it doesn’t feel like a lesson, but in order to play it they have to say the letters properly, particularly the vowels. And they’re thinking rather than daydreaming – a big difference. And thinking about the English spellings of whatever category you choose.
It’s a country with nine letters. The student says a, as in rabbit. You mean a as in day? Yes.
Okay, it’s a country with nine letters and the first and last are a. The student gets a flash of inspiration. If, according to your rules, early guesses are allowed but subject to a penalty if wrong, they are unwittingly out on a limb when the blindingly obvious Australia is rejected. It can’t be that – Australia has an a in the middle, doesn’t it? Press them for some more vowels, plus some of the more common consonants, and Argentina slowly reveals itself. In the meantime they’re thinking a e i o u, they’re thinking about what a consonant is and how it’s pronounced. They are also working on their spelling.
They’re floating, kicking their feet, moving their arms, becoming safe in the water.
It’s all about confidence. Obviously the teacher has to be aware of the student’s ability. You wouldn’t give Argentina to a five-year-old who has never heard of it. But you might give her the subject of fruit and the easily-discovered banana.
What other methods can you use? You can play simple card games with them. You might have your own brilliant idea that gets them in the groove. Whatever you do, you have to do something to ease them in. If you don’t put petrol in the car, the car’s not going to start.
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