Language coaching: a different approach to language teaching

Instead of strictly following a pre-defined syllabus, the content of tuition and the pace of work are determined according to the student’s individual needs. Instead of teaching a lot of language theory, the emphasis is on the practical use of language and the development of communicative skills. Instead of working with large groups and doing the typical schoolwork assignments, classes are usually conducted one-on-one (or in very small groups) and in a more informal setting.

This might be a very brief description of language coaching, an approach to language teaching that’s been gaining popularity in recent years, especially among freelance teachers. The word coaching itself alludes to a certain similarity with the world of sports: a coach takes into account an athlete’s individual skills and needs, continuously monitoring his or her progress. Similarly, a language coach helps a learner to achieve and maintain his or her language fitness, as well as to make further progress. I should hasten to add that a lot is required of the learners themselves: language training leads to very little progress unless students are dedicated and willing to actively participate in the learning process. In that sense, it is no coincidence that the papers on the subject of language training routinely emphasize the importance of personal responsibility.

In order to make the concept of language coaching clearer, here are some comparisons with the traditional school teaching:

Within the concept of language coaching there’s no room for traditional lectures; a learner is not a passive recipient of knowledge but someone who dynamically acquires second language through interaction with a language coach, as well as through independent work and practice done outside classes. The main task of a language coach is to continuously monitor, steer, and facilitate the learning process. In relation to students, his or her stance is not that of superiority, but of empathy and mutual trust. Instead of focusing on a coursebook accompanying a pre-determined syllabus, different kinds of teaching materials may be used, while the content of tuition is defined, changed or adapted according to specific individual needs of the student.

Given the highly personalised character of language training, in my own work I somewhat depart from the sort of language coaching previously described. For instance, I do use coursebooks, but only as a teaching / learning aid aimed at providing long-term structure and exposure to different segments of grammar and vocabulary. In the case of popular conversation classes it often happens that the final outcome is less than satisfactory due to heavy emphasis on only one of the four language skills, namely that of speaking, while the others end up being seriously neglected. I feel that a language coach needs to provide a far more challenging content than that, in order to ensure exposure to more complex vocabulary and syntax.

Additionally, there’s another risk inherent to student-centered teaching that language coaches need to avoid: that of spoiling and pampering their students. Topics that learners might deem uninteresting get skipped; homework assignments are abandoned because students may find them boring and tedious, and so on. Here I aim at a compromise: I do not require my students to read poetry, novels or articles that I personally find enjoyable, but they do need to read something, either of their own choice, or something we have chosen together. My role here is simply to ensure that the reading material is linguistically challenging enough. Similarly, I insist on homework, including frequent writing assignments. However, I try to introduce the practice and habit of writing as effortlessly as I possibly can, educating the students on the meaning and practical value of such tasks.

Whenever necessary, different aspects of the learning process can be altered to suit the student’s immediate needs without the risk of losing the big picture, and perhaps therein lies the single most important advantage of language coaching. This can be rather difficult to achieve in the context of school or group work, where the teacher – even with the best intention in mind – simply cannot dedicate enough attention to every single student. This is difficult to manage even in language school courses which follow a pre-defined syllabus, where a student is supposed to automatically progress from one level to the next after attending a certain number of classes. The process of language acquisition does not work quite like that, which is known to everyone who’s attended language courses even at higher levels, while at the end still feeling incapable of uttering the simplest sentences (been there, done that!).

The concept of language training successfully avoids these and other shortfalls of conventional teaching methods. If you are not satisfied with the sort of progress you’ve made through the use of traditional language school approaches, either in the role of a student or a teacher, give this one a thought.

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