An interview with eltforum.sk presenter: Alexandra Chistyakova
by Martina Bednáriková
All language teachers are very often pressed for time. Trying to cover as much as possible within their lessons, they often have to sacrifice a very important aspect of the language: student speaking time. Alexandra Chistyakova, an English teacher at the Physics Faculty of Moscow State University in Russia, came up with a revolutionary activity that considerably increases student speaking time. She’ll be sharing it at ELTForum in June. Be sure not to miss her presentation with the unusual title “4 min, 3 min, 2 min… Stop!”
SCET: Alexandra, the name of your presentation – “4 min, 3 min, 2 min… Stop!” –immediately grabbed my attention. You say that the main goal is to increase student speaking time in the classroom. What’s the story behind this activity? How did you come up with it?
Alexandra: At the university, I’m working for, second- and third-year students have only one English lesson a week, which makes a teacher set up learning objectives and priorities very clearly. As I have been teaching English in such circumstances for more than 8 years now, I was constantly setting and re-setting my teaching priorities, and finally, some time ago I came to realize that speaking represents the most challenging but at the same time the most needed skill for my students. Living and learning in a non-English-speaking environment makes it difficult for learners find an opportunity to practice English. So I thought that my lessons should provide my students with such an opportunity. And this is why I started looking for, designing and experimenting with various ideas for an activity which would help to increase student speaking time during a lesson.
SCET: What do you think is the main reason for the lack of student speaking time during the lessons? Can teachers alone consciously influence it?
Alexandra: There could be many reasons for that. In my case, this is the mere lack of academic hours devoted to English studies according to the university curriculum. Unfortunately, this is a rather widespread situation in many schools and colleges in Russia. However, the lack of student speaking time can also be rooted in the priorities and preferences of teachers themselves. But whatever the reason, be it a curriculum or personal preferences of a teacher, these are teachers who can directly influence what is happening in the classroom. The only prerequisite for such a positive influence is the teachers’ desire and willpower to bring the change into their classroom and help students achieve their learning goals.
SCET: Do you measure your students’ involvement in your lessons solely on how much they speak? Do you try to get every student speak in every lesson? Is that possible?
Alexandra: Surely I do not measure how much my students are involved in classroom activities solely by how much they speak. This would be a dangerous trap to substitute quality with quantity. But as long as my goal is to give my students as much speaking time as possible, the more my students speak during the lesson, the better. For me as an English teacher, the best reward is when my students leave the classroom still communicating in English even without noticing that. However, having said that, I’d like to point out that speaking for the sake of speaking could be an aimless waste of time which might bring teachers’ and students’ efforts to naught. To avoid this trap, a teacher should first teach students the necessary vocabulary, functional language, speaking strategies and some other things that constitute speaking skills mastery. Secondly, a teacher should give students more autonomy in choosing the content of their speaking activities. The latter principle, which is the core of the activity I am going to speak about at ELTForum, is the guarantee of students’ genuine involvement and interest in the communication with each other and in the classroom collaboration as a result. Moreover, with the help of my “4/3/2 min” activity it is quite possible to give each student at least 9 min of guaranteed speaking time every lesson.
SCET: Was oral communication central to your own language learning as well? How do you personally learn the best?
Alexandra: Unfortunately, there was no such a thing like communication, oral or written, in my language learning setting. All we had at that time was a grammar-translation approach to teaching languages with a teacher occupying the dominant role in the classroom. And though there have been some positive shifts to a more learner-centred communicative classroom in the recent years, the situation hasn’t largely changed in Russia. So now, when I’m a teacher myself, I feel I should bring the change and be that change.
As for my personal learning style, I’m a strong visual and kinesthetic learner: I need to not only to see a word but also to pronounce it a couple of times and, in some cases, create an image to associate the word with. That’s why the lack of the opportunity to speak and use words and expressions many times in various contexts in my school English lessons was a serious obstacle to my English learning acquisition.
SCET: You’ve also written on the importance of personalization in education. How do you make your teaching meet the expectations and interests of your learners?
Alexandra: First of all, I try to find out what my learners’ interests and needs are. This could be done in the form of questionnaires or interviews, in the oral or written forms. And then I try to build up my teaching on or around these needs and interests. But certainly this is only the first step in personalizing lessons. I would call this step a sort of pre-teaching stage because later when the actual teaching and learning starts it is important for a teacher to keep an open mind and to adjust materials and lessons to the emerging and evolving needs of their learners and to new information learners reveal about themselves. And this is the main stage of the learning process where personalization should not be forgotten but continued. So personalization is a continuous process that requires from a teacher a certain degree of sensitivity, flexibility and responsiveness to ever changing learning context.
SCET: You’ve said that you believe that the best source of motivation for English teachers is being part of the international ELT community. What do you mean by ‘ELT community’? Where is it? How does a teacher find it and become a part of it? What aspect do you like most about it? Why would you recommend a Slovak teacher – or any teacher – become a part of it?
Alexandra: The ELT community is made up of other professionals in your immediate circle or all around the world. What makes these professionals a community is the readiness and desire to share with and learn from each other. But the most outstanding characteristic of any ELT community and the international ELT community in particular is that each and every member of it is valued and appreciated not only for their professional achievements but also for the unique personality they are. That is why becoming a member of an ELT community could be a major step forward in a teacher’s professional and even personal development. But what is more, ELT community can give you a strong inspirational and emotional boost. It’s like a springboard to a brand new dimension. So being part of ELT world can bring a lot of benefits to you and your students no matter what your working environment is. If you are lucky to work with like-minded inspirational colleagues who are passionate about teaching, you can join ELT community to tell others about what you are doing in your school and to establish new connections and contacts which in turn can result in new possibilities and new joint projects. But if you’re a lonely teacher who somewhat feels isolated and who doesn’t have anybody to share and discuss your ideas and doubts with, the international ELT community is the best option for you to be heard and to break your isolation.
As for Slovakia, I should say that I have a special bond with this country. Slovakia was the place where I joined the ELT community and started building my PLN (Personal Learning Network) thanks to Surpr@ise Day in Kosice, organized by Vladimira Chalyova (@vladkaslniecko) a year ago. If you’re interested, you can read how I became a member of the ELT community on my blog. And now Slovakia has happened to be the place where I’m going to present for the first time. I believe it’s more than just a lucky coincidence.
Alexandra Chistyakova is an English teacher at the Physics Faculty of Moscow State University, Russia. She also works as a freelance teacher giving one-to-one English lessons to the large range of learners: from preschoolers to senior adults. She received her CELTA at BKC-in, Moscow, in 2011. Her professional interests include: professional development, classroom management techniques, motivating the non-developers, teaching English to young and very young learners, integrating web 2.0 tools in the classroom. Alexandra believes that no success can be achieved without motivation and that there is no better source of motivation for teachers as being part of the vibrant international ELT community.