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ELT Book Reviews


Succeeding with English Language Learners: a guide for beginning teachers

Thomas S.C. Farrell
Corwin Press, 2006
pp. xiii-160

Reviewed by :
To the Profile PageRobert J. Dickey
Gyeongju University, Korea

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Finding solutions beyond teacher training
There are lots of teacher training coursebooks (we’ve reviewed a few here), and still more collections of photocopiables and activity guides teachers can use to supplement a coursebook. And of course there are many publishing describing the theories of language, teaching, and linguistics. However, for the practicing teacher, it’s often a challenge negotiating the gap between all these.

The book will stick in your memory, like his example of a teacher building and eating a peanut butter sandwich in class…
Thomas S.C. Farrell, a long time teacher of English in Asia, presents a very useful guide for teachers new to the classroom in Succeeding with English Language Learners: a guide for beginning teachers.

Thinking through the process
Most trainers will elicit ideas from their trainees, and many books do similarly. Farrell’s SELL makes great use of the personalized approach to learning. The “Exploratory Breaks” are not mere diversions, but act as pre-reading exercises and a way to incorporate the reader’s own thoughts with the theory-driven suggestions that follow. These “breaks” often include worksheets and “think about” or “agree/disagree” opportunities based on literature from education’s leading thinkers.

Personalized Learning
There’s no one way to teach, and Farrell makes clear that he is not presenting “the” system. He states clearly that all newer teachers should have a mentor, and his writing style is very much what you would expect in a coffee-chat or series of email exchanges with a mentor teacher: parenthetical asides, comments about his own experiences (good and bad) and tactics in the classroom. Some may not favor this presentation, but it’s a welcomed break from the snobbery of some other texts. Similarly, while this book shows the author’s own responses to those Exploratory Breaks, one doesn’t come away feeling that any other ideas are necessarily “wrong.”

Working through the book
The organization of the book is not much different than one might expect, but the reader could safely shuffle the readings with no difficulty. The opening chapter, “Teaching in the first year,” is more than an introduction to the book. It is an indictment of the situation in which many novice teachers find themselves – expected to bear a full-load (or even more) without much in the way of transitional support from the training center to the front of the classroom.

Chapter Two’s guidance on lesson planning is the best presentation I’ve seen on the merits of and approaches to successful lessons. An important aspect is the recognition that the plan is just that, a plan, and that it may become irrelevant in the course of the actual lesson, but also that it serves both as a stepping-off point for evaluation of the lesson and development of subsequent lessons. Farrell offers a sample lesson plan (from a real class) that has some interesting features, and also makes useful suggestions for the lesson planning process. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Chapters Three (Classroom Management) and Nine and Ten (Language Assessment, Professional Development) are solid sections as well. But for most teachers, Chapters Four through Eight are their initial interests: Grammar, Writing, Speaking, Reading, and Listening.

Practical Classroom Activities derived from Theory
The “Four Skills” plus grammar, these are the core concerns for many teachers, and the focus of most teacher training programs. Farrell presents these as stand-alone chapters following roughly similar patterns: discussion of the topic, then “A Strategic Approach” that provides reason for the specific activities that follow. The discussions are wide-ranging, incorporating thoughts from writers across the education literature (not just ELT), and picking up on questions and concerns voiced by teachers and trainees alike. The activities presented are easy to follow, and based on the author’s many years as a practicing language teachers.

Succeeding is memorable
The book will stick in your memory, like his example of a teacher building and eating a peanut butter sandwich in class as a way to teach grammar. Or his inclusion of Penny Ur’s recommendation to put harder materials before easier in a language lesson for an Exploratory Break (I know that I don’t agree with that one!). Although the opening chapter gets a bit bogged down in the politics of new teachers in state-schools settings, get through that and you’ll find this book a wonderful reminder of how we should be basing our classroom tactics on the theoretical principles we have endorsed. Even if your theoretical stance is different, even if you aren’t a beginning teacher, Farrell’s Succeeding with English Language Learners is a useful re-orientation to the roots of successful classroom teaching.

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