Intensive English: Speed up or slow down?

{Sorry about the lack of posting lately. Between two children, 20 hours of classes per week, buying a house, and squeezing in some reading, time for blogging has evaporated}

I’m sitting here with a 300 page textbook (Q: Skills for Success, Listening and Speaking, Level 5) wondering how I will use it for the next 8 weeks. This will be used for a five-days-a-week, 50-minute course I teach as part of the intensive English program I work in. And it has me wondering about the adjective “intensive”.

Am I the only one who thinks the word “intensive” is a contranym? (A contranym is a word whose meanings may be opposites. For example, “to cleave” means to stick together or to cut apart.) An intensive workout could be either a fast-paced circuit training workout or a really long run.

So, is an intensive English program supposed to cover a lot of material and skills in a short period of time, or is it supposed to involve intense focus on a singular skill in a short period of time? The former feels like you are spreading the language too thin, only touching on the surface and not really learning much. The latter feels like you are not learning enough – just mastering a little. As I now teach in an intensive English program, I am often torn between these two concepts: speeding up or slowing down.

This internal debate pops up often through the semester as I work out the students’ pace and needs. Usually, I lean towards slowing down. In fact, I’d say I am now partial to slow teaching.

According to Shelly Wright:

Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality.

Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections with people — culture, work, food, everything.

A slow teaching movement (inspired by the slow food movement) has begun to take place. In slow teaching, things are not done “at a snail’s pace” – they are “done well and at the right speed.” It focuses on personalization (going slow means you have more time to connect with students), formative assessment (which allows for reteaching as well as judging proper speed), depth, creativity, exploration, collaboration, reflection.

This sounds absolutely wonderful, and aligns with all my teacher beliefs. I think TESOL needs a slow teaching manifesto like the one linked above (idea for a future blog post?). The problem comes when depth means focusing only on noun forms until students no longer make these errors. They come away with amazing plurals, but nothing else. Or focusing solely on exploiting one single listening text by focusing on comprehension, strategies, accent, inference, pronunciation, bottom-up, and top-down to the point where the course should have been called “CD Track 3”. Or completing four of the ten units in the book, knowing that the student will never use that book again, and that a forest of trees was likely felled for this set of books.

An alternative would be to dogme the course and make it completely focused on emergent language, but that’s not always practical. In fact, dogme is one of the reasons I have slowed down! That focus on emergent language really gets in the way of covering the material. I suppose that’s why dogme completely abandons material. However, that is not practical for me. You could make your own materials, but who has the time? I teach 21 hours a week, and need time for life outside of teaching. Flipping, e-books, paperless classrooms. There are lots of alternatives. I do a little of everything. But the books are still there, and there is material to be covered. No matter the methodology, program, or idea, we still have to consider fast and slow.

All this being considered, in the end, I stay (mostly) slow, but try to manage breadth with depth. I accept the fact that the Earth is taking another one for the team, and hope that by going slow students not only walk out of the classroom with an oversized paperweight but with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of English, their classmates, and their teacher.

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