How to Deal: Ideas for Language Teachers

SCELTELT, Martina Bednarikova, Reflections on Teaching and Learning, Seminar, Teacher Training, Workshop

 by Martina Bednáriková

Language teachers are the luckiest people in the world. They can actually teach whatever they choose or consider important… because only via language you can communicate any message.     ~Wilga Rivers (paraphrased)

Thursday morning, 9 am. Really tired from studying all night, I somehow found myself sitting in an old chair in an empty classroom with a terrible headache. I was waiting for my first Professional Speaking Skills class that was (according to the information sheet) bound to be exciting. Thanks to the lack of sleep, I did not feel excited at all. I really hoped that nobody would notice my inability to provide meaningful responses. It was by no means what I call a fresh start of the summer semester. Nevertheless, that was soon going to change.

Introducing Professor Tim MurpheyProf Tim Murphey

To my surprise, it was not a regular introductory lesson. Instead, it was a workshop with Professor Tim Murphey. A professor of Second Language Acquisition and Communication Psychology as well as a teacher development researcher at Kanda University of International Studies in Japan, Dr Murphey is also an influential ELT author, teacher and presenter. Due to my own deep interest in ELT, I felt truly honoured to meet him and sit under his teaching.

Three Principles: Action, Speed and Rhythm

Only three words are needed to summarize what Dr Murphey shared with us: action, speed and rhythm. They sound strange in connection with an English lesson, perhaps. But they aren’t.

The purpose of the whole workshop was to show us as teacher trainees how to use the space and time of a single English lesson to its fullest potential. Professor Murphey was ready to share with us the most useful ideas and tips of his teaching career. His enthusiasm and optimism simply made the whole class exciting. And it all began with the action log.

No. 1: Action

An action log is actually a diary that serves as a means of controlling the teacher. That means students controlling their teacher’s way of teaching. Such an idea came as quite a shock to me. What students basically do is an “evaluation process”. After every lesson, they write their comments, and likes and dislikes in their action logs which the teacher collects and later reads. The students really grade him or her, using a point scale from one to six. Unbelievable!

Honestly, I have never experienced a teacher ready to willingly digest whatever stuff their secondary school students write about their lessons. But using this tool truly enables students to exercise power over the whole outcome of their lessons. And they learn much more than how to evaluate. They also learn to show respect and react meaningfully. They learn skills they can use later on in real life.

No 2: SpeedTim Murphey & Mata Bednarikova

The second idea Professor Murphey presented – and one I really loved – was speed dictation. It’s not complicated. You only need to speak really fast which is both fun and demanding for the students at the same time!

For a speed dictation, students work in pairs. The teacher chooses whatever text she wants, be it a sentence, a line of some poem or a part of song lyrics. Then she dictates it to the students really fast, without any breaks. That’s what a speed dictation is all about – learning how to concentrate and record, as well as write down what is important. Students might not be able to repeat the text after only listening once, but it forces them to become resources for and help each other as they collaborate.

No 3: Rhythm

Did you know that rhythm helps learners remember respective chunks of language? Think of your favourite song or melody. It is easier to associate lyrics or words with it, isn’t it? The key is actually repeating and repeating. As long as we are able to hold the rhythm, our brain is able to absorb any unfamiliar or difficult phrases a lot easier than we think.

Look at rhythm from a personal perspective. What is your usual answer to the most common question “How are you?”? Before I sat in Professor Murphey’s lesson, my response had always been “Very well”. However, now I use the phrase “Truly awesome, so tenacious, lovingly vivacious” without thinking about it! I agree that this strange little phrase with such a complicated structure seems impossible to remember. Nevertheless, Professor Murphey taught us that involving in our bodies – in this case clapping our hands – combined with repetition can guarantee the best result possible. Students learn phrases and set of words much faster. We certainly did!

Value Added English

I have to admit, I did not expect the first seminar of my exchange semester to turn out to be something truly meaningful. Nevertheless, it did. Professor Murphey showed us how important it is to communicate well-being, respect to others and fairness to our students. I experienced – and hopefully really learned – that teaching English is not only about grammar and rules, exercises and exams. Learners can learn much more than expected during one single lesson and even have fun doing it.

A lamp, a lifeboat or a ladderThe teacher I want to be is the one that gives her students something more, something extra, something useful for their whole life. I want to be that teacher who’s a lamp and can provide light whenever it gets dark. I want to be that teacher who’s a ladder for those learners who are ready to climb the mountains of knowledge to see the world. But more than anything else, I want to be that teacher who is a lifeboat for her students, a safe haven from the dangerous waves.

Professor Murphey showed us how important it is to be a person first and foremost, and only then a teacher. As a teacher, I want to see the students as people and react accordingly. Sometimes I hesitate from time to time, because living out these principles isn’t easy. But I’m learning that it is all worth it. And that it’s up to me.


Martina Bednáriková is a 1st-year MA student in the English Teaching Program at the Department of British and American Studies of Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia. She is currently an exchange student at the Department of English Studies (Institut für Anglistik) at the University of Graz, Austria.