The Joys and Challenges of Teaching English

One of the challenges of being an English teacher is the plurality of areas that must be covered in class: literature, grammar, vocabulary, and writing. As with literature, creativity is the key for each of these aspects of English education.

"Grammar, which knows how to control even kings" (Moliere).

Grammar need not be tedious. Each school year it seems as if the same concepts need to be retaught because the students have not retained all of the rules and definitions. Try teaching inductively. For example, instead of writing on the board "Verbs--words that represent action," write on the board swim, run, walk, sing and ask the students to draw a conclusion about what these words have in common. Once the class concludes that the words represent action, then label the definition as "verbs." Studies show that students retain principles learned inductively better than definitions and examples given deductively. Of course, both deductive and inductive methods should be used, but teachers tend to lean heavily on the deductive. Give students the opportunity to teach a grammatical concept to the rest of the class. As teachers know from personal experience, it is amazing what one learns when one has to teach it. This activity forces the student to work through the concept to be able to present it effectively to the rest of the class. And often the student is better able to communicate with the class by using descriptions and analogies that are common to the student body.

"The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter; it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning" (Twain).

Words can be fun, but students often complain, "We don't talk that way" and "When will we ever use words like this?" One of my professors gave me a good answer to the first complaint: "You don't use 'horsie' and 'doggy' anymore, do you?" To the second complaint, remind students that throughout life they will encounter words and people who know words. In order for them to be "all things to all men," they too must know words. Bring in newspaper articles or stories from Reader's Digest to demonstrate the use of vocabulary in everyday life. Show them a job application that asks them to give their residence, vocation, avocations, and work philosophy. Learning new words does not have to be merely looking up a list of words and memorizing the definitions. Many literature books include words and definitions with the stories presented. Have the students take the words from a story or vocabulary exercise and write a paragraph or two using as many of the words as they can in a specified amount of time. Encourage them to change the parts of speech if need be to incorporate the words into their paragraphs. Have some of the students share their stories with the rest of the class. As the stories are read, challenge the class to identify any misused words. Assign the students a vocabulary journal. In a small notebook, have the students write down words that they do not know. The words can be obtained from what they read or what they hear in a conversation. Encourage the students to find the definitions of the words and to use the words in their everyday speech. The vocabulary journals can be made more interesting by having the students research the history of words, not only their etymologies but also their use and changes through history. The Oxford English Dictionary is an excellent source for such research.

"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance" (Pope).

I have not yet determined whether writing assignments are harder on the students or on the teacher. Because teachers often dislike grading writing, writing is often neglected, leaving the students deficient in the development of a vital skill. As far as the grading burden, teachers should not feel that they have to grade every composition.

Have the students keep a file of their writings and periodically check their folders to be sure the assignments are being completed. Then have the students select one piece they want you to grade, and you select another piece to grade. Having students grade each other's writing effectively teaches constructive criticism and makes the students more conscientious about their work, knowing that their classmate is going to read it. There are numerous ways to cut the grading burden without cutting the writing experiences of the students. Writing can be difficult for students, but like any other skill, practice is required to perfect the technique. So give students ample opportunities to write. Be creative in your writing assignments. "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" or "What I Want to Be When I Grow Up" is not very creative. However, if you were to have the students pick a career field that they are interested in, research the field (history, education required, etc.), interview people in that field, and write a report complete with pictures and diagrams, then that would be creative. Ask yourself, "What would I enjoy writing about?" And then adapt your ideas to student assignments.

Students often say that they do not know how to write. In a day when reading is not as emphasized as it once was, this complaint is probably true. So expose the students to various types of writing: news reports, journals, poetry, stories, essays, and so on. Discuss what makes certain compositions good and others bad: word choice, imagery, organization, and so on. Give them examples of telling versus showing: "She walked across the room" (so what) versus "She glided across the room as if on air" (ooh, maybe she's in love). Once students have experienced writing as an outsider, they will be better prepared to experience writing firsthand.

 by Becky J. Smith. Updated October 21, 2015.

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