By Shanthi Streat

23 April 2014 - 11:52

Setting goals is an essential step to becoming an autonomous learner. Photo by Matthias Werner on Flickr under Creative Commons licence.
'Setting goals is an essential step to becoming an autonomous learner.' Photo ©

Matthias Werner, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

How can we get adult learners of English in a one-to-one classroom to take charge of their own learning? English language teacher and trainer Shanthi Streat, who won the latest British Council Teaching English blog award, argues that teachers need to use coaching techniques.

Teaching one-to-one

As teachers of English we often make great efforts to focus students on the target language so that they have all the tools they need to use the language effectively in their lives. We spend hours preparing lessons, finding creative ways of introducing different aspects of the language through new materials, and so on.

This has led me to wonder if teachers should spend time coaching their students to become ‘autonomous’ and take charge of their own learning. Admittedly this is challenging in most classroom environments where the opportunity for individual attention is limited. But I’ve come to believe that coaching should form a vital part of any one-to-one language course.

What is coaching?

Coaching has recently become a buzzword used by freelance English language teachers or trainers on their websites. Indeed, many freelance teachers or trainers now refer to themselves as ‘coaches’. Wikipedia defines coaching as ‘a training or development process via which an individual is supported while achieving a specific personal or professional competence result or goal.’ As I see it, English language coaching is all about helping and motivating learners to make their own decisions about their language learning journey. We shouldn’t restrict ourselves to simply teaching the language.

Setting goals

In my experience of teaching adults, the primary reason for learning English is work-related. Often, my students (who are also my clients) want to find a better job or do business with international colleagues and customers. The most common area they want to focus on is their fluency.

Of course, as trainers we will ask detailed questions to understand our learners’ needs. However, once we obtain that information, clients often expect the trainer to come up with a course plan for their lessons with very little input from themselves.

I think that’s where coaching comes in. First we should discuss goals and agree on a timeline. I have found that learners can achieve a short term goal in six to 12 months. Some clients will be surprised by that, but as Gabrielle Jones outlined in her excellent post, one of the biggest challenges in coaching adults is managing their expectations. Some learners think they will achieve their short-term goal in a matter of weeks! That’s fine so long as that goal is realistic and clearly defined.

Taking responsibility

If your students want to improve their speaking skills, you should try to get definite answers to the following questions:

  • How do you think you will achieve your goals?
  • What is your time scale?
  • What do you want to be able to achieve within that time scale?
  • Who could you practise speaking English with outside the lessons?
  • How much time can you dedicate outside your lessons to practising English?

By asking and answering these questions, learners begin to take responsibility for their learning. They are helping to create the right course for themselves rather than being spoon-fed by their trainer. Tailoring the course to fit just right can take a few weeks and is an ongoing process.  For this reason I have found students often resist the idea as it takes them out of their comfort zone. Often they just want to attend the class and not think about much else after.

But for those learners who really come to ‘own’ their learning, the experience of learning English is all the more rewarding. And the more our learners see us as coaches rather than teachers, the more fulfilling and motivating it is for us too.

Join our Teaching English Facebook community for further tips, resources and discussions, and see our offer for teachers.

Read Shanthi’s winning post on how to use the present perfect tense.

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