How to teach English | Inquirer News

How to teach English

09:10 PM February 26, 2012

“Help! Her college students don’t know their grammar” a plea from college English teacher Sandra Mijares-Tolentino (PDI Feb. 20, 2012), elicited tips and suggestions from readers, many of whom are teachers.

Here’s a sampling:


Sylvia M.Ventura

Professor Emeritus


Dept. of English & Comparative Literature

University of the Philippines, Diliman

In the first place, the expression is “IN the family way” not “ON the family way.” In the second place, the correct word to use is “pregnant.” Nobody uses “the family way” phrase anymore.

Nicanor Legarte Guinto

Faculty, Dept. of Languages, Literature and Humanities

Southern Luzon State University


Lucban, Quezon

The plight of Ms. Tolentino is perhaps the same as what professors in far-flung provinces are experiencing.

In the first place, the country has no consistent policy on English language education or, in the most basic sense, on language education. We don’t even have a clear language policy, which research in the local and international setting has proven to be the primary tool in developing functional literacy in the early years of education.

Another contributing factor is the culture of correction and punishment attached to the English language, which is perhaps the hallmark of elementary education in the country. For not speaking in English, a pupil is punished by requiring him/her to pay a fine. If one tries his/her best to translate his/her patriotic thoughts into a language deemed foreign to him/her and commits grammatical mistakes, he/she instantly becomes the subject of ridicule and is laughed at.

Nobody wants to be punished. Nobody wants to be laughed at. The result is nobody, save for a few, in a college classroom attempts to communicate in the language they are supposed to be well-versed in given the level of their education.

The sad part about being a college teacher is that certain personal, social and intellectual factors found to hinder genuine learning are, more often than not, irreparable since the students are past what neurolinguists call the “critical age period.”

No matter how much input you provide to transform hesitation into motivation to use the language, it would still be like talking to a vastly empty space.

Gone are the days of Spartan teaching philosophies. You can’t expect these mature students to have fears in bending the rules because most of them have the money, power and influence to jolt you out of your sanity.

Instead, be friendly with them (without forgetting the teacher-student border) because only then could they be open to communication in the English language, devoid of anxiety.

These students are at their most crucial period of growth. They would need a grown-up who offers an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. By instituting this kind of atmosphere in class, they wouldn’t mind making mistakes because they wouldn’t feel embarrassed. Let them feel that you appreciate them talking regardless of mistakes. After all, we learn from our mistakes, right?

In composition writing, show them their [edited] paper so they can see how much they need to improve, but without forgetting to inform them how much you appreciate their effort in sharing their ideas with you, who is almost a stranger to them (or similar words of encouragement).

Scrap the old movie and/or story collection (if possible) and try to explore the better things offered by their fellow outstanding youth that could serve as an inspiration.

If you can’t get away from the classics, treat them to a joyride in your story land. But don’t forget to leave them hanging so they would feel the urge to read the stories themselves, now made more vivid by your insightful storytelling, so they can find out the ending on their own.

Let them realize the beauty of being proficient in the language without you saying it by letting them feel it through dynamic activities that are less stressful but enhance their communicative competence in the language.

It is true that changing our teaching philosophies is tough. But, among all the many professions in the world, we are the ones who have to adhere strongly to the calls for unquestionable flexibility and perpetual adaptation to change.

A good teacher, therefore, is one who can initiate change overnight. Sometimes it’s difficult, but we have to. After all, we teach not for our own advantage, but for the next generation’s success.

Maheswary Das

Teacher and author, English as a Second Language (Malaysia)

The grammar rules of the English language, like those of other languages, can be learned and understood. Students have no problem completing written exercises on the present tense, prepositions and conjunctions, just to name a few. Some even get full scores in such grammar tests.

Yet language teachers are baffled when students, who get perfect scores in grammar tests, cannot speak or write correctly.

One reason is that grammar taught and learned in class does not focus on usage.

A meaningful way to teach and learn grammar would be to use the grammatical unit in a meaningful context. After all, we use language in various social contexts—at home, school, hypermarket, office, airport, medical center, etc.

Sandra Mijares-Tolentino found her students clueless about the phrase “in the family way,” meaning being pregnant. Instead of guessing games and rewards, students can be asked to role-play a situation where the phrase is used.

Initially the script can be supplied by the teacher, with students either memorizing or reading as they act out the scene. Gradually students can be made to deduce the meaning by themselves. An example of a role play to learn about “in the family way” is as follows:

Levi: Hi James. I have not seen you in ages. How are you? Where to?

James: Good. By the way, meet my wife, Janie. We are on the way to the Medical Center.

Levi: Visiting a patient?

James: My wife is in the family way. It is our first child.

Levi: Congrats to both of you.

James and Janie: Thanks.

Apart from meaningful learning within a context, the short role play provides some fun. Students also get to deduce the meaning of the grammatical unit by themselves, which helps in better retention. The teacher can also take the opportunity to introduce another phrase, on the way, to the students.

Grammar is best learned when incorporated into the four macro skills—listening, speaking, reading and writing.

For example, the phrase “in the family way” can be introduced in a listening activity. The teacher can find opportunities to insert the phrase into speaking, reading and writing activities. Constant reinforcements will eventually lead to proper usage.

The “only speak English in my class” rule will only create a very quiet and disciplined classroom.

A student’s first language, for example Tagalog, can be used in the classroom to help out initial learning. A student can code switch from English to Tagalog if he or she cannot find the right word to express a certain meaning. The teacher or a more proficient student can supply the right word or sentence and this will eventually motivate the student to use the language that is being learned in the classroom.

Such code-switching techniques can also foster a better teacher-student relationship, which is so important where learning is concerned. It is better to speak in some English than not to speak at all.

Many teachers are not motivated to mark essays when they see every single line in a student’s essay needs to be corrected. A better way is to mark selectively. Tell the students that only two or three grammatical items will be monitored.

For example, the teacher can look out for the correct usage of conjunctions and subject-verb agreement for the first three essays. Once the students are aware of their mistakes the teacher can go on to tackle other areas of grammar.

When students see small improvements they will be inspired to learn further.

A good book to refer to on classroom teaching and learning is “Methodology in Language Teaching: An Anthology of Current Practice” by Jack. C. Richards and Willy A. Renandya (editors), 2010 Cambridge University Press.

Johanna Rose D. Briñas

Bachelor of Science (English)

I do not think it was fair of you to assume that the reason behind your students’ poor grammar skills was their public high school education.

It is true that public high schools are at a bit of a disadvantage compared to private schools. One big reason for this is they lack books and other reference materials to supplement and enrich the learning experience. However, there are many public schools with excellent teachers who more than make up for the shortage in books and materials.

I know because I am a “product of the public educational system in the provinces.”

You can’t put all the blame on your students’ former schools. Perhaps the quality of their education was poor, but learning language and grammar isn’t done only within the four walls of a classroom.

Not everyone is privileged to be surrounded by English-speaking people every moment of every day, or to have plenty of reading materials on hand. As grammar principles are absorbed in conversation and in reading, perhaps this is another reason for their poor English.

This is why your strategy of requiring your students to speak in English at all times during your class can be an effective technique. On the other hand, I think “penalizing” them for breaking your rule would make it seem like talking in English is an unpleasant chore they have to endure. Try to make it seem as casual and enjoyable as possible. For example, instead of penalizing them, why not give rewards to those who do well?

Don’t be too hard on them if they let slip in a Tagalog word or two. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong if you intersperse your sentences with some Filipino during class. If it will make your students less intimidated, if it will lead to them understanding the lesson better, then why not?

The same goes for when you talk to them outside the classroom. No wonder they avoid you; you make it seem like talking to you is a “practice session” where their grammar will be judged and graded. Try talking to them in Tagalog first before gradually switching to English.

Then there’s your movie report. Based on my own experience, I think watching movies is another way to get their ears more used to hearing spoken English. Only perhaps your movie choices were a little out of their league. For one thing, “My Fair Lady” and “Schindler’s List” aren’t new films.

Perhaps you could choose movies that are a bit more contemporary and a little less complicated—something they can relate to and enjoy. You need to catch their attention first, otherwise how can you effectively teach them to like the language?

With regard to your students who “copy-pasted” their book report, my brilliant (World Literature) teacher had this strategy: At the start of the semester, she would give us a list of more than 200 recommended novels and their respective authors, ranging from George Orwell to Nick Joaquin.

From this list, we had to choose the book that we had to have read by the end of the semester. In our final exam, we had to answer questions about the books we chose. The questions were tricky ones. Not only [were the answers] completely “copy-paste” proof, they also required thorough understanding of the book chosen.

For example: We were asked to write a journal entry from the point of view of any of the characters at any point during the story. We also had to write a letter to the author, plus an alternate ending. (I chose to read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” so imagine my horror when I found out we had to make an alternate ending!)

I’m sorry to hear your book club didn’t work out because, of course, the best way to improve one’s English is to read, read and read some more.

Perhaps if you decide to revive your book club, you can make your students participate more by first recommending books that are easy to read or something they can relate to and would pique their interest.

There are plenty of Young Adult (YA) books out in the market, which are all the rage with teenage and young adult readers nowadays. I know they’re not exactly the ideal books if one is aiming for a more “literary” read, but if it would get them to read then it will be worth it.

One other thing, if you think the students are not able to appreciate the author’s words, then let them appreciate the story at least. Try to make them understand the story, even if you have to translate some of the words into Filipino.

Not everyone has the ability to recognize and grasp the nuances of an author’s prose but everyone can appreciate a good story and, ultimately, the purpose of books is to tell a story.

Joan Valenzuela

English lecturer, backpacker and runner

My reading of your piece tells me what you do is teaching—also called cheating, a seminar speaker once said. It happens when we assume we know what to teach and how to go about doing it.

You wrote you gave [your students] stuff—readings, DVDs, that are culture-bound, and I assume you did pick them yourself. You confessed this approach didn’t work. Who are these students? What are their backgrounds (socially, culturally, ethnically, educationally, etc.)?

I see what you’re doing is middle-class schooling. You come from this orientation and that’s what you’re doing. You certainly don’t know how to “teach” even if you think you do.

This is problematic and symbolically violent: feeding Western stuff. Pulitzer-prize winner [Frank] McCourt did away with this practice. He used recipes for writing class.

Oh, forget about flaunting our reading repertoire! Leave (Ernest) Hemingway, (Leo) Tolstoy, (Virginia) Woolf, (William) Shakepeare, etc., behind for now.

The two-bucks penalty and P500 and P1,000 rewards are funny. No amount of external motivation can result in meaningful learning. That’s very lame and can be degrading. Classrooms are not kids’ party houses.

Also, forcing students to speak in English outside the classroom is a violation of their right to their native and indigenous language. The English-only policy is absurd. It’s unconstitutional and insulting.

You need to deschool yourself, purge yourself of your German nun-run way of schooling, of the elitist view of what it means to be literate.

Hard to accept, but it’s a disservice when we force students to swallow a bitter pill and scold them when they puke.

Mainstream schooling values standards, propriety, values of a small fraction of our society—the elite.

Ask them what they want to read, or what they don’t want to read. Perhaps they love reading—reading tattoos, graffiti, mountains, forests, rivers, corn fields, etc.

Most of us still look at literacy from “white studies’” perspectives. It’s time we quit and go back to our roots.

Tips for reading, in case you haven’t: McCourt, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Claude Alvares.

You may also want to check out the Multiversity in India. Google it, please!

Anthony Eric S. Son

Currently employed in the IT industry

First of all, I’d like to say I feel your pain.

From the time I graduated in 1992 (Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, Ateneo de Manila University), I have slowly but surely witnessed the deterioration of the English-speaking skills of Filipinos.

Back in 1992, even a company driver who only finished grade school could speak English. Although his English was limited to simple sentences, they were correct. If he used Filipino at all, it was only to substitute single nouns or verbs.

Around 1995, I started to notice that we were having problems with verb-tense agreement: “The store is close.” “Don’t get closed to me. Get closed to God.” “Reserve parking. If you parked here, you’re tire will be clamp and you will be fine 1000 pesos.”

Come 2000, and all hell broke loose!

I’m afraid I have no other advice but to ask you to abandon your college students. I think they’re incurable. Instead, attack the problem at the foundation—grade school and high school. I believe that having a good foundation in English in GS and HS is much better than trying to fix things in college.

Anne H. (aka Mrs. English)

Your article made me smile, as I understood your comments totally.

For many years now, I’ve encountered teachers who share your frustrations; struggling to engage pupils in wonderful English literature (and other subjects), but (defeated) by their lack of basic knowledge and correct use.

Having taught EFL (English as a foreign language) for many years now, I created recently a free social network website to encourage students to:

— Watch videos that explain important grammar points;

— Encourage students to answer questions to reinforce understanding of points explained; and

— Participate in a forum where questions are answered by peers and fully qualified teachers (including myself).

While still in its very early stages (second week since launch), I have members from Asia and Europe, some of whom are my former Manchester Business School students. In fact, the website aims to provide them with a platform to continue to practice their skills.

If you think your students might enjoy the “fun” aspect of improving their language skills (as social networking seems to be a major part of student life these days), then please feel free to share this website link ( with them and your colleagues.

My aim is to increase member numbers, while providing a “one-stop community” to improve English skills worldwide.

Name withheld upon request

I can relate on so many levels to [Ms. Tolentino], as I am a tutor to elementary grade students and have seen enough of their tired, preschool level essays and compositions to know that what you are lamenting is indeed a real problem.

Reading your article, though, makes me sadder because it seems to prove even more that both you and I are just beating our heads against the wall in wanting our students to enjoy English reading and writing— and to actually be good at it!

Unfortunately, a college course, or years of English classes, for that matter, is highly unlikely to change the mindsets of our young people today.

Let’s face it, Ms. Tolentino, children these days would rather play Angry Birds or Cut the Rope on their iPads than read a nice Beverly Cleary or Encyclopedia Brown book.

There are no nice public libraries in Metro Manila that I know of. Kids instinctively turn on the TV on weekends and are dumbed down by noontime shows with inane parlor games. They go to the mall where they are further dumbed down by arcade games.

Parents who read to their kids and encourage reading from an early age are a dying breed. In my daughter’s school, parents actually bring their kids to the arcade on weekends to play for hours so they can amass those “collectible cards” to show off to their classmates on Monday.

Then these same parents bemoan the lousy grammar and low grades that their kids get in English.

I think this problem is totally beyond ourselves.

A love for reading and the English language should start in the home, in childhood. The influence of parents who don’t foster this or even make fun of the language themselves or willingly patronize idiotic noontime programs is impossible to undo even through the sincerest of intentions of English teachers.

Add to that our current society, which places more emphasis on building malls and carnivals than putting up quality public libraries and museums.

And then we wonder why kids would rather have a root canal than read classic literature, or why “they would all scamper away in different directions like I had leprosy” when they see you coming.

I’m sorry to sound so negative, but years of disappointment have turned me into a cynic over the English skills of our youth.

I will totally understand should you change your mind and choose to save your monetary incentives, DVDs and books instead.

In the meantime, I’m going to look at pictures of the vast children’s section at the National Library of Singapore, with parents reading to their kids in their laps, and shed a few tears for the future of our poor Philippines.

Richard Keeler

Workplace Writing Seminar Speaker-Facilitator

Perhaps using PowerPoint might help in teaching English to students. Also, using lots of exercises tailored to the students’ writings might help. Asking them to read in the classroom is another option. And avoiding too many lectures while using practical approaches to inspire them to like learning English might help.

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