EuroCALL 2002, Aug. 14-17

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Theories are Wonderful, But What Works, Works!
Joyce Mandell Takes An Experiential Approach to ESL

Here's how Joyce Mandell introduces herself: I live in the heart of Greenwich Village, NYC, and teaching is but one of the many things I am involved in, but somehow they all come together once I'm in the classroom. Jazz and music are used to teach pronunciation and accent improvement skills, the vitality of the city is used to create wildly funny and meaningful debates in class. I hate seats; everyone gets a chance to "put their bodies" into the act. Make it real is my motto, because my acting background and the talented people I studied with would never accept anything less than honest acting. You can't do line readings and be a good actor, and you can't be afraid of mistakes if you are to become a good speaker, a passionate speaker of English.

Ms. Mandell contributed as an article for ESL MiniConference Online the following remarks from her TESL-L listserv posting during a discussion about the relative importance of experience and theory in determining the beliefs which guide our teaching decisions.

I find the discussion on the importance of SLA theory versus practice to be quite useful, and has stirred up a few of my own ideas. As Bill Snyder recently wrote, I think that both theory and experience are inseparable; they work hand in hand in directing one's teaching in the classroom. As I am currently in a graduate program, taking SLA this semester, I find that a lot of the theories tend to clarify what I have seen in the classroom over a period of 13 years teaching English to adults.

On the other hand, theory never takes the place of "what works, works", in my humble opinion. I read the theories and see if they match my experience, and I don't alter things to adjust to a theory that I have read. And again, if you force a teacher to teach according to some learning theory which is wholly against her belief system, chances are it won't work.

I always think that being knowledgeable and aware of theory can never hurt. You have to sift through what makes sense to you, based on your own experience as a teacher. I ask my adult students a lot about their learning. I reflect on my own language learning, share what worked for me, have others brainstorm ways of mastering certain things, etc. I don't have all the answers, but if students believe they are learning, enjoy the process, lose some of their fear and shame about making mistakes, and come away with a positive feeling about speaking English - well, I feel I have done my job.

Comment by Joyce Mandell
Adult Education Teacher
New York City

2002 ESL MiniConference Online