Learn English

Words into worlds

Our latest guest post is by Nick Bilbrough, founder and coordinator of the Hands Up Project, a charity which teaches English to children in challenging circumstances in Palestine and Jordan through online storytelling and other remote learning activities. Nick is the author of 3 resource books for teachers, Dialogue Activities, Memory Activities for Language Learning, and most recently, Stories Alive.

Like language learners in many diverse classroom settings around the world, children learning English in Occupied Palestine have a localized course book to help them to do this. English for Palestine, published by Macmillan, is a very good series in my opinion, covering all the grades of primary and secondary, and doing everything that a course book should do. By this I mean that:

  • It focuses on the development of all four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • It carefully grades language so that learners are challenged but not frustrated
  • It covers an appropriate balance of vocabulary-based versus grammar-based activities
  • It includes a balance between activities which teach new language, and those which activate language that has already been taught
  • Where possible, it personalizes the content so that learners can connect the material to what is going on around them. For instance there is a unit about the olive harvest in Palestine, and others about traditional Palestinian weddings and handicrafts.

But however well written a course book is, there are things that it cannot do so well of course. Only the teacher really knows the level of the learners in the class, their personalities, their interests and their individual differences; so the teacher becomes a bridge between the course book and the learners, doing remedial work when necessary, but also pushing them to go further where they can. More importantly, only the teacher is able to really show the learners that language learning is as much about creating as it is about consuming; that English is a tool for communication, for establishing relationships and presenting yourself to the world.

Lots of English teachers in Palestine are doing a great job in very difficult circumstances. Whilst simultaneously preparing the students for exams which are entirely accuracy focused, they are also encouraging the learners to reach out and use language communicatively in whatever ways they can. I’d like to share a neat way of doing this which is used by Atiyyeh Hussein, a teacher in a boys secondary school in a small village in the West Bank. Atiyyeh gives his students a topic that they need to prepare a short personal talk about. The topics are usually something connected to the language presented in English for Palestine, such as food, homes, hobbies, etc.  When they’re ready they try their talks out on each other in pairs. Then they connect to someone in a different country through simple video conferencing tools and do their talk again to them. Here’s an example that was done through the Hands up project to me in my kitchen in the UK. You’ll see in the video that although the internet connection between us was very weak, it’s a useful opportunity for Ahmed to use his English skills to communicate with someone from a different context. It’s true that I am doing a lot of the talking, but Ahmed is still being pushed to operate at the limits of his ability, and to use a broad range of tenses and areas of vocabulary. These types of conversations create highly personalized contexts for using English, and can help to bring the language from the course book to life.

About the author

Nick Bilbrough

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