Learning from hobbies
Most schools organise after school activities ranging from sports teams to drama groups, science clubs, choirs, orchestras, pop groups, hobby clubs, debating societies, quiz teams, explorer clubs and dance groups. These diverse associations are usually supported by teachers who provide guidance and expertise. These groups put on various performances, plays, exhibitions and take part in competitive matches with other schools.
These events are an important link between the school and both parents and the local community. For the pupils, who are members of the groups, they offer challenge and the thrill of public performance. The clubs allow pupils a chance to develop relationships with teachers in a non-classroom context, giving them contact with interested adults, who are not following a defined syllabus.
In British education, there is a lot talked about building character. This vague term includes developing stamina, ability to accept and learn from failure, attention to detail and cooperation with others. Character building also involves dealing with nerves before a public performance or important contest, the value of planning, attention to detail and many other attributes of mature adults. These attributes are valuable to the learner as a future worker, entrepreneur, parent, voter or citizen.
Activities which are not school related
The students may participate in various youth groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, ballet classes, drama groups, or sports teams which are not connected to the school in any way, but also contribute to building character. The students may have some kind of part-time job in addition to their school responsibilities. These jobs demand punctuality, an ability to follow instructions and perhaps, an ability to analyse the task and find the most efficient way to achieve the desired goal. These tasks may include helping on the farm, looking after animals, baby-sitting, delivering newspapers, car washing or a host of other types of work. The work requires responsibility, a pride in successful achievement and a recognition that work needs to be done, even when you don’t ‘feel like’ working.
On one level, this exploitation of child labour may be seen as a necessary source of income for the child or the family, but it is also an important source of character building for the young labourer. At Primary school level, I have often noted that children from large families, who may have been required to look after younger siblings, or may have played and competed with older siblings, were often much more mature and independent than children from smaller families.
Foreign language learners
The attributes and behaviour patterns described above are also valuable to students as foreign language learners. Young foreign language students need these attributes and others, to become successful foreign language users.
Students who take part in these many after-school activities either bring to, or discover, a level of enthusiasm for development which we, as language teachers, would welcome in our classrooms. How can we bring the same level of enthusiasm which students find in dress making, rock climbing, learning a musical instrument, acting, playing basketball and computer games to the process of learning a foreign language?
Feeling valued as human beings
One of the keys to successful teaching and motivating is making students feel that they are valued as human beings. They are not just empty vessels which the teacher is obliged to fill with knowledge. Just like anyone else, students like to be liked. Part of being liked, is the feeling that their teacher shares in the joy of their successes, the disappointment of their failures and their skill in overcoming failures. If we want students to bring their enthusiasm for hobbies to the English language classroom, we should use that experience as source material for our lessons and activities.
How can I bring hobbies into the English classroom?
Students are interested in, and gain pleasure from, their hobbies. They experience challenges and success is only achieved through effort. On the road to success, they may experience repeated failures which damage their self-confidence, but, eventually, they learn tricks and strategies which lead to success.
We can exploit this experience and enthusiasm in the English language classroom by encouraging students to talk, write, prepare presentations and refresh websites concerning these hobbies, jobs and adventures. They can also read books, listen to recordings and do research related to these activities. They will bring their knowledge and experience, gained through the mother tongue, to the task of understanding or producing this material.
If you show a video of a football match with an English language commentary, the footballers in your class will understand it more easily than those who do not play this sport. They will be able to demonstrate this advantage in the class, the footballers will feel better and their confidence in understanding and using English will develop.
Ask a class, the correct way to pick up a rabbit and the rabbit keepers will be eager to demonstrate and explain. They may need help in composing this demonstration in English but the language will be particularly valued by the rabbit keepers. The other students in the class may retain less of this language, but they will have experienced on of their classmates speaking enthusiastically in English about an unusual topic. They will also have the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about rabbit keeping.
As reading, listening and video viewing material, we can use personal success stories of achievement in hobbies. These will be inspiring but particularly useful if they mention learning techniques which have led to the achievement. These may include learning from others, rehearsal, repetitive practice, progress monitoring or a graded series of examinations and diplomas.
Talking about yourself
A key language need is the ability for learners to introduce themselves. One of the first language functions which students learn involves introducing themselves, talking about their home, family, occupation, hobbies and interests. In the classroom, teachers present the language needed to talk about name, age, nationality, family, home, home town and the geography, climate and history of the home country. We don’t teach the language for describing a ballet class, the rearing of pet chickens or procedures for editing a video clip. Since we teach students in groups, we can only deal with popular shared basics.
Learners will often gain mastery of a separate vocabulary set which is related to their hobby. They will be motivated to learn and remember this vocabulary because of their enthusiasm for the hobby. The teacher may not know this hobby-related vocabulary but should be able to tell students how and where they might find it.
Hobbies and learning skills
If students are acting in a play, singing in a choir, or playing in a pop group, how do they memorise the words they should say or sing, or the notes they have to play? Can these skills be utilised in learning English? Although, on the surface, these may seem very different activities, if prompted, learners can transfer these skills to the challenge of foreign language learning.
Hobbies and learning attitudes
In their hobbies, learners are frequently confronted with, what may seem, unachievable challenges. Rather than abandoning the challenge, the learners make a start, achieve a modicum of success and then make further developments. Mastering English may, at first, appear to be an unachievable task, but, if the learner makes a start and is praised for early achievement then the learner will have the stamina to get better and better.
But stamina is not the only thing learned through hobbies. Learners will have contact with others who follow the same hobby and they can learn from their greater experience. Football players, dancers, violinists and actors will have their heroes and they can learn by copying their role model’s behaviour. In the foreign language classroom, the learners’ role model is the teacher, particularly if the teacher is not a native speaker of English and has learnt English as a foreign language. Teachers should share their experiences of foreign language learning and pass on their learning tips and techniques.
In many hobbies, technique can be improved through rehearsal and repetitive practice. Rehearsals, piano practice and athletics training can seem very boring for the learner and teachers should search for techniques which will make this necessary repetitive practice more enjoyable. Teachers should recognise the distinction between practice and performance. Practice is an opportunity to learn by making mistakes. Mistakes during practice should not be punished, but should be recognised as learning opportunities. Teachers monitor learners’ progress, but learners should be taught to self-monitor, recognising their mistakes and tracking their own improvement.
Step by step
When learning a musical instrument, learners progress through defined standards of performance. These standards are defined, in Britain, by the Royal Academy of Music. Learners progress, step by step, through different grades. There are publications of music for each grade, recordings and U-Tube clips showing the expected level of performance. If learners are in the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides or similar youth groups, they will be attempting to gain badges, which they can sew to their uniform, showing that they have developed a defined skill level in First Aid, map-reading or hiking.
Many hobbies have defined grades of achievement and participants are motivated to achieve these grades. In language learning, there are tests and exams leading to the award of certificates and diplomas. The grading system of these tests and exams define a learning path leading to improvement in performance. Exams and tests should not be presented as a barrier to progress but as a step to progress. Often learners can be demotivated by exams but they should be motivated by the potential reward for their achievement.
Using recording technology
Golfers make video recordings of their golf swing. Using these recordings they can watch their swing in slow motion and then identify their mistakes. They may show the video recording to friends who can help in identifying mistakes and can give advice. Tennis players use the same technique for improving their play. In foreign language teaching, we don’t exploit sound and video recorders as much as we should. We should record students as they act out dialogues, perform role plays and read aloud. These permanent recordings of performance allow students to make a detailed analysis of their own performance. This makes the identification of errors easier.
Learners can benefit from listening to and watching their own recordings. They can also benefit from the recordings of their classmates’ performances. We can all learn from our own mistakes and the mistakes made by others.
Recordings are not only for identifying and solving personal performance problems. If the recordings are stored, they can be a powerful demonstration of personal progress. I know a teacher who asks students to record themselves speaking English during their first year of learning and again during their second and third years. By listening to these recordings, learners have an accurate tracing of personal progress.
Using internet technology
The Internet is not only the largest library in the world, it is also a cheap and powerful channel of communication. Learners can use the Internet to learn more about their hobby from web pages, U-tube videos and many other resources. They can also join international associations of people who share their hobby. These associations not only publish information about the hobby, they frequently have Q&A pages where you can publish questions and get answers from other members. Through these associations, it may be possible for the learner to start email links with other members.
Interests and hobbies are part of an individual’s identity. Friend ships, both locally and internationally, are likely to be developed through shared interests and hobbies. When speaking or writing about hobbies, learners will use all the core vocabulary and structures which they learn in English classes. They will also use a set of specialist hobby-related vocabulary.
Learners will be eager to read texts, listen to broadcasts and recordings and watch or produce videos related to their hobbies. This enthusiasm can be exploited in the English class. We should encourage learners to talk, explain, demonstrate and report experiences related to their interests. Learners are keen to share their interests with others and talk about their achievements successes and failures.
Developing a hobby, sport, skill or collection is a learning process. We should encourage students to talk about this learning process and use the same strategies when they are learning English. Hobbies and interests are a fundamental way of making friends. We should encourage students to make international friendships through their shared in judo, shell collecting or ballet.
Nick Dawson 2014