Teaching & Learning

The Mathematics of English Language Teaching

I often feel that one of the main obstacles or barriers that English teachers face is expectations.

There are a number of reasons for this, but the two major causes of unrealistic expectations are basic underestimation of the difficulty of learning a language and the dishonest marketing of so many English language learning providers.

Where I live, I see multiple banners, billboards, magazine ads and the like telling me that I can learn English in no time at all with this or that provider. There are courses that will teach me to read in English in three weeks and others that will teach me to speak English confidently and fluently in a matter of hours. One of these even runs with the tagline “Tidak mungkin tapi bisa!”, which effectively translates as, “Impossible but you will!” Indeed.

It’s not just on posters and impersonal ads that these claims are made. Providers are making similar promises in person when they approach clients, too. One of the institutions that I consult with and represent provides English teachers to teach in schools around Indonesia. This is becoming a rather popular concept across the country as the importance of quality English language learning becomes more widely recognised and with the difficulties that school face hiring expatriate teachers directly.

As such, many of the extra curricular, evening class institutions, such as EF, Wall Street and the likes, have started sending their teachers out to schools in the morning in order to fill up their timetables and make an extra buck. Unlike the competition, the institution I work with is dedicated solely to schools—there are no evening classes; teachers don’t have to teach-and-run in order to get back to the centre for their extra curricular classes. They teach at school all day along with the local faculty and then they go home at the same time as the local teachers.

Tricky Competition

Often, when I approach a new school to promote the programme, they will have been approached already by one of these other providers. This often adds an extra hurdle in my promotion, because these other providers invariably raise expectations beyond reality, which leads the client to make unrealistic demands of my programme if they are to sign up for it.

They often say things like, “we met with [insert name of world-wide language school here] and they told us that all students would be fluent by the end of the first semester. Can you offer the same?”

In the face of such claims, I choose honesty. I tell them that no, I cannot offer that, and that in fact, nobody could. I tell them that if they really believe these lofty promises, they should go ahead and sign up with the other institution. But I also warn them that they will be disappointed and that I will be waiting for their call next year. This is surprisingly effective in a culture where people are rarely so direct with one another.

More recently though, I have added a little information to this response, something based more in the realm of fact that intangible promise.

A Matter of Hours

What many people don’t realise—students, parents, even the schools and teachers—is the sheer lack of time that students actually get in school to develop their English language ability.

Schools using the Indonesian National Curriculum have a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to organising their schedule, but there are parameters that they must work within. While each school differs slightly from the next, on average I find between four and six periods  per week dedicated to learning English. For Upper Secondary students, a single period is 45 minutes, so four periods is 3 hours a week.

Given that there are major holidays for Christmas, Easter, Lebaran (the end of the Muslim fasting month) and the semester breaks, we begin with about 43/44 weeks of school a year. Then, we can remove another couple of weeks for end-of-year exams. That’s just the predictable, official items on the calendar. Aside from this, there are frequent national holidays of one or two days throughout they year, which easily adds up to another couple of weeks. On top of this, there are the overly frequent quizzes, exams and unit tests that are conducted in Indonesian schools, which easily replace learning opportunities at least once a month.

After all this, what we’re left with is something like 36 weeks of actual study time in the year. With three hours a week dedicated to English classes, thats about 108 hours throughout the year or 54 hours per semester. If we compare this to what we might consider the most effective learning environment, a bilingual or immersion scenario, then we can assume perhaps 8 hours of English language exposure per day.

Cambridge, in its implementation of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, recommends that students will require approximately 200 hours of guided learning to progress from one level to the next. Something that might be considered basic fluency doesn’t set in until around B1 on the Framework. For a beginner to achieve this level would require at least 600 hours of study by the Cambridge estimation.

Even then, Cambridge adds the caveat that this depends heavily on the student’s background, age, the intensity of study and the amount of exposure outside of the classroom. Here in Jakarta—let alone the rest of Indonesia, which is much less cosmopolitan—a surprisingly large number of students still get little to no English language exposure outside of their English classroom.

Immersion versus Weekly Classes

Schools, teachers, parents and the students themselves are often disappointed at the progress made in a year. A whole year, they think, and this is all we have to show for it. They look at friends or colleagues who moved overseas and were fluent within mere months and expect much more for one year of study. However, based on the numbers above, the reality is that across the 12 months of the school year, students actually spend  an equivalent of less than two weeks studying English.

Whatever the hours, no one will deny that an immersive environment is far more effective for language learning that weekly meetings will ever be. When students come to class for a 45-minute or 90-minute lesson, unavoidably a chunk of that is lost to classroom management in various forms. Also, when you only have a few hours per session spaced out with a couple of days between each session, the retention rate is significantly lower than if you’re using the language all day every day. Not to mention the sheer difference that momentum can make, by which I mean the level of effectiveness of practising something for 8 hours straight throughout the day compared with practising something in 45-minute chunks across several weeks.

With this in mind, even the hours are not comparable. 108 hours across 12 months is not the same as two weeks of solid immersion. It seems reasonable to me to say that these short weekly meetings are perhaps at least 25% less effective for learning than the immersive environment. So really, how much should we expect our students to achieve within a year?

Time Plus Technique

And of course, it’s not just about the sheer time spent. Immersion requires application at all times; everything that is learned is of immediate value and is applied and practised in real life and real time. Much of the English language learning that takes place in Indonesian schools is based on the outdated and largely discredited Grammar Translation and Audio Lingual methods, which even further degrades the value of an hour.

Throw on top of that the problems of class size—sometimes more than 40 students in a class in the public schools—and mixed ability groups, and it is no surprise at all that many students make little progress over the course of a year. Even though 12 months have passed by on the calendar, the students have only been learning for a very limited time. The study time could be realistically compared with spending a long weekend, or a week at most, in an immersive environment. Of course there will be some progress made, but how much can we really expect?

That is why I get so frustrated when I see the kinds of promises that so many institutions make. Yes, some of these institutions have quality teachers and sound methodology on their side (though by no means all of them!) but even so, at the end of the year, the maths just don’t add up.


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