On Teaching History

Many educators have argued that the best way to learn something, anything, is through context. For ELT, this often means language through content. In fact, content-based instruction (CBI) is an approach predicated on this idea. I had the great pleasure to actually experience the power of CBI recently, and came from the experience with a new appreciate for the wonders of teaching content more than language.

Last year, I came to learn that American history was a required course for all international students at my university. In fact, I learned that this is a requirement at many US universities. I also had learned that international students struggled with this course – and why wouldn’t they? Being raised in entirely different cultures, many whose histories did not intertwine much with American history, lacked the necessary background. If American students raised in American with high school history courses under their belts have trouble with American history courses, then the trouble is likely to increase exponentially for international students.

Since part of my job is to prepare pre-university students for academic study, I felt compelled to introduce American history as a supplement to the EAP curriculum already in place. Through my own fascination with history, especially with watching the “Crash Course” series on YouTube, I had been reminded that history should not be viewed as a collection of facts and dates (the whats of history) but rather an understanding of causes and effects (the whys of history). Going into this history supplement, I also knew I would have to make it relevant to both their various cultures and life in the twenty-first century.

Before beginning, I worried that students would be resistant to learning a foreign country’s history. However, I remembered when I lived in South Korea and was eager to learn as much as possible about Korea’s language, culture, and history. I was never resistant to or bored of learning the history of my host country. I hoped my students would feel the same. How relieved I was when, after presenting the idea and the reason behind it, my students thought the idea was great. I had the green light to continue.

I was the reading and writing teacher for this course and I worked with a colleague who taught the listening and speaking portion of this course. We identified broad themes in the mandated coursebook that we could connect to different periods in American history. We then scoured an amazing online resource for American history accessible to English language students: Voice of America’s “The Making of a Nation,” a 246-episode radio program that covers Columbus to the 2004 presidential race. Each program contained a transcript and an audio file. What made “The Making of a Nation” even more exciting to use was the fact that it was written in Special English. This meant that, without worrying about complicated grammar or vocabulary, students could focus more on the what, whys, and hows of the events that took place in history.

In my classes, I used the transcripts as readings integrated into almost all the work we did. For example, in a coursebook chapter on multiculturalism, we read the coursebook readings – tales of two immigrants adapting to life in a new country. We then read an article I adapted from two articles on immigration from “The Making of a Nation” (I combined and reduced two articles, replacing vocabulary with vocabulary we had learned from the book). After reading and working with that text, we then read, for an Academic Reading Circle, a current events article about young migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Europe without parents. All the work here involved comparing, contrasting, evaluating and synthesizing concepts of immigration. Students gained a very holistic view of immigration and were able to ground their opinions in both historical and modern experiences.

Other tasks we did involving history were based on readings about World War II, first taken from “Making of a Nation” and then an excerpt from one of my favorite books, “Rise to Globalism“. In particular, we focused on the differing theories of whether the dropping of the atomic bombs were justified. Using the information found in these articles, students wrote argumentative paragraphs which integrated what they read as evidence.

The highlight of the course, for both myself and the students, was a field trip to the local history museum and a local historical site. We got a guided tour of the artifacts and displays of the museum. Much of what the guide talked about (native Americans and settlers, the Civil War, and World War II) was covered by our classes, so students had the already existing schemata necessary to comprehend what they were seeing and hearing. During the museum tour, we asked students to take lots of pictures of the objects. Then, we asked students to look through the objects in order to identify a socio-cultural trend (e.g. self-reliance, division of labor, women’s rights, trade). They then wrote expository essays about these objects, integrating research into their papers in order to support their arguments.

Working with content over language was an exhilarating experience which gave students greater insight into America and Americans. By learning about history, students were able to make sense of many issues affecting the country, and even themselves as immigrants in America and citizens of the world. I was very happy with not only their progress in this course but their genuine enthusiasm for learning the history of their host country. I hope it had as much of an effect on them as it did on me.

4 thoughts on “On Teaching History

  1. As the listening/speaking teacher-partner in this endeavor, I can say that this was one of the best advanced courses I have ever taught. As you say, the focus on authentic history allowed for vocabulary expansion and critical thought at very high levels. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Sounds like an excellent course, Anthony. I totally agree with you about the power of CBI too – learners are so much more motivated when their English classes give them the opportunity to learn about history or literature. Incorporating field trips to local museums sounds like a great idea too. Plenty of food for inspiration here! 🙂

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