Does English teaching really make a difference?

by Travel Paulie on July 30, 2010

Fun Teaching

A question has been gradually getting louder and louder in my brain the last couple of weeks and I haven’t been able to provide a conclusive answer either way.  So what’s the question?  Everyday, I spend several hours teaching English to Karen migrant school children.  Some of them try to learn and apply what I teach, many others couldn’t care less.  But that’s not the point.  Even for the ones that do try and do learn, is what they’re learning remotely useful to them given that upon “graduation” most will return to Burma and begin working in the factories or fields, probably never seeing another English-speaking foreigner again in their lives?

What’s the point?  Is this meaningful travel?  Would it actually be more beneficial to them for me to step aside and allow them to have another class in its stead?  What is the efficacy of my role in their education, and also in my growth and learning.  There’s learning on both sides – they learn English from another perspective, and I learn the fine art of teaching.  But is it worth it?

What do I think?

Back when I was first pitched the idea of teaching English, I really didn’t want to do it.  But I’ve since come around and now I really quite enjoy it.  One of the initial reasons I never took up the English-teaching mantle before now was because I could never see high efficacy in it.  I had this discussion with several people before and some agreed, some didn’t.  Yes, it’s beneficial to learn English as it’s the global language of trade, tourism, and business.  But if you’re never going to use it, why bother?

While living in Japan for the first couple of years I busted my gut learning until kanji was coming out of my pores.  I could read and write, and even impress the odd local with writing obscure kanji that they’d either never learned or had forgotten.  Oh, that was a real party piece let me tell ya!  😐

But as the time rolled on, less and less could I see myself living there for a long time and my motivation for learning the Japanese language waned.  Significantly.  The simple argument is this… if I’m not going to use it regularly either for fun or gain in the future, why invest the time and money now to acquire the skill?  Why indeed?  So my ability never really improved, though the hard work early-on paid off as I could live quite comfortably there with the language both written and spoken.  It has no usefulness in my life now except when I meet beautiful Japanese girls on the road and I need a way to impress them.  And that hasn’t happened yet…  FML.

So I guess my hat is in the proverbial ring.  After teaching for over a month, my position on English teaching hasn’t changed – I think that unless the kids are willing to apply their minds to try and lift themselves out of their poverty cycle and aim for something high, my teaching them adjectives, nouns and adverbs is downright friggin’ useless.

Oddly, though, my motivation to go and teach every day isn’t reduced, rather I’m considering ways I can target my time better with them.  For example, in my grade 8 class there are perhaps 1/5 of the students who are very good at English, and 1 or 2 in particular really apply themselves.  I’ve already put a couple of computers in their school and one has been practically inhaling the English learning software on the computer.

So perhaps… rather than teaching the whole class, teaching a few students in a smaller, more intimate setting would be much more potent and both advance their English along faster, and make me feel a bit better about it all.

What do you think?

Is English teaching to the “poor” a worthwhile endeavour or would I be better tanning my pale hide on a Thai beach somewhere?  I’m learning that the general consensus here is similar to that of mine.  Basically: ah, it can’t do any harm, but in fairness, it doesn’t do anyone any good except make the volunteers feel good about themselves.   Sod that!  I don’t tan very well.  What do you think?  And I don’t mean about my tanning abilities… have you experience in teaching English in these sorts of places, or do you have any opinions otherwise? Are you an English teacher?  Are you inspired by what you do?  Do you feel it makes a difference?

[Update 2010/10/02] A follow-up article has been posted to further the discussion this topic.  It can be found here:

I’d love to hear what you think and get your feedback.  If you find this article interesting or a useful discussion, please feel free to share it using Twitter or clicking the Facebook button below.  Thank you for visiting and contributing!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Clive July 30, 2010 at 11:19

I believe that doing what you are doing is extremely valuable. You are giving the children a choice, amongst other things.
And I believe that the children WILL need English in the future, to get on. Or Chinese, perhaps 😉


Paul Goodchild July 30, 2010 at 15:18

Hey dude. See I agree with that, and yet I don’t. Definitely giving them a choice, but my frustration comes with those that don’t choose to take advantage of it.

And your last sentence – that’s just it, I don’t believe that in their future, ALL children need to. If you’re living in the places like I’m visiting, you don’t see foreigners- except of course the odd volunteer. When you “grow up”, (and more often kids don’t get schooled here), you go to work the fields 7 days a weeks, or spend 12 hours a day in the factories. Part of that is my frustration as well I guess, ya can’t help them all, just one at a time.

Funny about the Chinese – the computers I installed, I also put Chinese level 1 on there just to cover as many bases as I could. Ya never know, someone may learn it there 🙂


Ed July 30, 2010 at 11:21

Thoughtful post, thanks, and it resonated for me since both my children have taught English in developing countries, as part of volunteer work. I think this is somewhat flippant:” I think that unless the kids are willing to apply their minds to try and lift themselves out of their poverty cycle and aim for something high”… If only it were that easy!
I do think that learning English can be valuable for kids like these, as can the opportunity to interact with someone of a different culture, which is also part of the experience. As far a language teaching/learning is concerned, I think part of the key lies in this ” my teaching them adjectives, nouns and adverbs is downright friggin’ useless”. I totally agree. It’d be more useful to build their vocabulary on key topics and help them apply it gradually, building sentences using patterns and templates. It’d be more useful to model and guide how to speak the language in simulated situations they might actually find themselves in, and give opportunities to practice these. And finally… I think there’s as much to be gained from such situations, by the volunteers as there is by those being ‘helped’!!


Paul Goodchild July 30, 2010 at 15:35

Hi Ed,
Thank you for the feedback and I’m happy it resonated – I was hoping it would with someone out there!

I agree, there’s no doubt that it isn’t as easy as just applying their minds, but if they don’t do that much, they’re not going to get very far. If they do do that much, then as Clive suggests, they perhaps might have choices and options. All situations are different of course and no one size fits all.

I’ve only been teaching 6 weeks, and they have mostly consisted of me learning how and what to teach based on level. I had fantastic lessons with the children today because I think, for the first time in their lives, someone actually broke it all down for them. They hear “past”, “present”, “future”, “nouns” and “verbs”, all the time but they don’t have a clue.

For the past 5 weeks I’ve been doing what you suggested to model and role-play situations and they were great at that too. I prefer to make them produce the language and focus on speaking. Reading… well we don’t have materials for that at their levels. Their pronunciation and production is vastly improved, but their core understanding was lacking and I think through repeated volunteers, core language principles were skipped. I swear, they came alive today when many of them discovered past, present and future and what it actually means, for the first time.

Anyhow, I’m rambling because I had a good day. But basically, the message I’ll take from what you say and from my experience this week is a reinforcement of the idea that for each class, adaptation, balance, and refinement is key. Production is important, but so is defining certain grammar concepts and rules… just have to strike the balance. 🙂

Just a point on what you said about the interaction for both volunteer and kids – I absolutely agree with you, it is a superb platform for cultural exchange and learning on both sides. And that for me is becoming the over-riding benefit I will feel I have contributed to their lives (and mine of course)

Thanks for taking the time to comment Ed.


Jo July 31, 2010 at 21:53

Hmmm….that’s a very interesting one! Personally I don’t think your teaching English there is useless. I think that it is highly useful for the motivated children and as you say, it is giving them choice. Maybe extra time with those kids would inspire them a little more.

For those children who may not meet another foreigner in their lifetime…there is something more than just their English you are giving them. The fact that you are there is something. They will never forget the experience you have brought to them…like fresh meat say. You are bringing something new to their curriculum something different (possibly with different teaching styles) which will in turn make their day more interesting. Those kids that come across ‘bored’ or just not applying themselves could well have the best time at school in your class! Trust me…you never know what is going through a child’s mind that they are not portraying in front of their peers.
Also…I studied the concept of bilingualism at uni and how to teach children with a different native tongue. Now I know that the context I was learning about is very different to yours now but I think that some of what I gained can still apply. What I’m referring to is how teaching about another language can help a child grasp some concepts of their own language. For example, learning sentence structure and how it differs from their own language can help give a greater understanding to their own grammar.

All in all, for several reasons, I definitely do not think your teaching is ‘friggin useless’ by any means. I think it is valuable in more than one dimension.



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