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I Teach English

Dana Watson from the U.S.

Program Coordinator, Asian/Pacific Studies Institute at Duke University

Dana Watson
Photo from Dana Watson
Content-based teaching just seems natural to me. There is just so much a teacher can get from authentic, thematically linked teaching material.

One summer, I worked at a daycare center which prided itself on providing high quality service to the businesses it contracted with. As a result, they gave us a lot of teacher training. It was the first teacher training I had, and I had no idea how generalized it would turn out to be.

One exercise in particular has stayed with me. As childcare providers, we were supposed to be working with the children on everything from fine motor coordination and language skills to basic math and science.

We were divided into groups and given some teaching materials to develop as many different ideas in with as many different skills involved as possible. My group received an apple. another group received a picture of an apple.

My group came up with idea after idea and could have kept going when the facilitator called time; throwing and rolling the apple for motor skills; cutting the apple into segments for an introduction to simple math; cutting the apple across the core to see the star-shape the seeds form, and then reading the accompanying children's book on that theme; discussing the different colors that apples come in, which could lead into larger social discussions with older pre-schoolers; planting the seeds to learn about how plants grow; making apple sauce to follow instructions; and on and on.

The other group had far fewer things, such as coloring the picture to work on motor skills, and perhaps a discussion of the different colors possible for an apple. The obvious conclusion is that working with authentic materials, instead of a simplified facsimile, is far superior and offers much more to the teacher.

Maybe this experience had more of an effect on me than I originally thought. It came to me that the moral of that story can certainly apply to the issue of skills-based vs. content-based teaching. Content-based teaching just seems natural to me. There is just so much a teacher can get from authentic, thematically linked teaching material.

Splitting a language up into isolated skills seems like working with a simplified facsimile of the language. Yes, language is made up of listening, speaking, reading, writing, and grammar skills together. By teaching students in a skills-based environment, though, they are in danger of assuming that language is not an interconnected whole, but instead a disconnected set of individual things to be mastered apart from one another, rather like how physics and literature are separated in the rest of the school curriculum.

It rarely helps that skills-based programs tend to have different teachers for the different skills. This only serves to further separate the various "skills" of language in the students's minds.

While every program no doubt hopes that its teachers will coordinate and link their classes, the reality is rarely so. Teachers are busy, and individual, people. The listening/speaking teacher may adore the chapter on advertising, but the reading/writing teacher may have little use for it, despite the fact that their textbooks are meant to be used in conjunction. They may not think to ask the other which chapters they'll be teaching when.

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