David Kehe has taught ESL for over 35 years in four countries. He has co-authored nine textbooks, including the award-winning Conversation Strategies. He has an MAT from The School for International Training, in Brattleboro, Vermont. Currently, he is a Coordinator and Academic ESL Instructor at Whatcom Community College, in Bellingham, Washington.
Tell us about the first time you really felt like you helped someone learn English.
I started teaching ESL in 1975 for the Peace Corps in Niger. We were trained to use the audio-lingual method, a teacher-fronted approach (in which the teacher “drilled” students by asking questions and eliciting certain responses), giving prompts and calling on individual students to answer or having the whole class respond chorally. As time passed, I began to wonder whether students were really internalizing anything or not. In 1979, I got a job at a language school in Japan. That’s when it hit me that with the audio-lingual method, I was doing half the talking and each student was given only a few chances to say anything during a class. One day, I decided to put students in pairs (Student A and Student B) and gave half the prompts to Students A and the other half to Student B, which I hoped would greatly increase the amount of practice each student would get. The activity was a controlled dialog, in which students listen to their partners and then choose the correct response from pair of choices. It was something like this:
3) • I’m fine, thanks. Where are you going?
• Today is Friday. Do you like coffee?
2) • This is a pen.
• Hi. How are you?
4) • This is my dog. His name is Joe. Do you have a dog?
• I’m going to a movie. Do you want to come too?
The night before I tried this new exercise, I had trouble sleeping because I had no idea if it would work. To my relief, it worked like magic; everyone was engaged and energized. I remember specifically two students, Atsuko and Yumi, laughing and even extending their conversation, something previously unheard of in my conversation classes. This was a transformative experience for me. The next day, the students asked me if they could do a Student A/Student B again. My only worry was that a school administrator would walk past my classroom and notice the loud noise as all the students were talking in pairs and wonder whyI wasn’t standing up front conducting the class in a teacher-fronted manner. In other words, the administration might think that I wasn’t “teaching.
Who has influenced you the most?
Stephen Krashen has. When making lessons, presenting them and interacting with students, I’ve been particularly influenced by his input hypothesis. For example, when I choose reading passages for students, I try to be aware of the “i + 1” level of difficulty of the input; i.e., the level of input should be slightly more advanced than the students’ current level. Krashen’s view that there is a difference between acquisition and learning has been a consideration for me when preparing lessons. Also, he made me aware of the importance of the affective filter in language learning.
What is the first thing you would do to create an environment where motivation can thrive?
After I had been teaching for several years, I think I perhaps took the “student-centered” approach to an unnecessary extreme. I tried to limit my “teacher-fronted” talk so much that I missed opportunities to more effectively explain and exploit my lessons. I would often just jump into a day’s activities by telling my students what the assignment was, for example, read page 19 and do Exercises 1 through 5. As the students were working individually, I’d circulate and help them. I assumed that they could (on their own) understand the point of a lesson–as well as appreciate its intrinsic value. Then, one term, I was teaching in an instructor-training program, and during a class, I told the trainees about the importance of always introducing an exercise by explaining the purpose of it. At that moment, it dawned on me that I hadn’t been doing this myself with my own ESL students! Since that day, I rediscovered the tremendous value this provides in motivating students, and now I see it every day in the response my students have after I explain to them why we are going to do certain exercises. Some examples of this are:
|• Use a hypothetical situation.||This is a technique that you can use in almost any essay. It’s a good one for helping you explain an idea, and you can use your imagination.|
|• Use rejoinders (e.g. “I see,” “Really!” “That’s great!”) in a conversation.||We are going to practice expressions that you can use in a conversation that will make the person whom you are talking to feel really good. You’ll show them that you are listening to them and that you are interested in what they are saying.|
|• Practice using commas in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.||A lot of students seem confused about when to use commas. We’ll practice a common situation to use them. Many American students don’t know this, so if you can use them correctly, you will impress your college instructors. Some American students told me that when they read their sentences out loud, if they take a breath, that’s where they put a comma.|
|• Read an article about high- and low-context cultures.||You are going to read an article about some cultural differences. Former students who read this told me that the information helped them understand the behavior of their foreign roommates and classmates and even the people in their own culture better.|
|• Use expressions like “It’s interesting that …” and “I found it interesting that…” in papers and on tests.||I’m going to show you a secret technique that you can use to impress your instructors. All instructors think that their subjects are the most important and interesting in the world, so if you can use expressions like these in your papers, they will think that you are very intelligent because you like their subject.|
What is one of the most critical current issues affecting teachers of ESOL?
When I was notified by the Peace Corps that I would be going to Niger, I responded by asking, “Where is that?” Then, the Peace Corps representative told me that I’d be teaching ESL, and I asked, “What is that?” (Needless to say, I was clueless in several regards!) After about six weeks of training, I started teaching. I soon realized how little grammar I understood but also how important it was. I was terrified that a student would ask me what “a participle” was. Not until I truly became comfortable with my command of grammar did I feel like a competent ESL instructor. Unfortunately, I find many people these days coming out of ESL teacher-training programs and grad schools with little understanding of basic grammar. I don’t mean to imply that they should be grammar “experts” or capable of explaining grammar rules off the tops of their heads, but I wish that being able to identify grammar errors in students’ writing and having a basic understanding of common terms like “gerunds,” “conditional,” “subordinators,” “comma splices,” and even “participles” were a requirement for anyone getting a certificate or MAT in ESL. ESL students are aware that they are creating an impression on the readers of their written work through their control of grammar. With an understanding of grammar, instructors can help students develop the ability to more clearly explain their thoughts.
Tell us something unexpected about you.
Nobody who knows me well would ever expect that I would be linked in any way with musician Ted Nugent. A friend of mine from high school in Palatine, Illinois, was John Nugent, Ted’s brother. Anyone who knows about Ted Nugent (and who knows me) would understand why I’ve kept this “two degrees of separation” a secret all these years.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger teacher self?
I always had a feeling that the countless number of hours that I put into writing exercises for my students would never be a waste of time, so I would reassure my younger self that my instincts were accurate. I’ve spent two hours working on an exercise that ended up only taking 15 minutes for the students to complete. But it turned out to be a very productive 15 minutes for the students, and thus, at total pleasure to administer. And I was able to re-use that exercise several times after that. I recently came across some large boxes containing file upon file of activities that I had written. Some I had used only once, but from each one I had learned valuable lessons that can come only from writing and then using exercises with students. Although some of those activities ended up being published, I would not tell my younger self about that. The audience that I was writing for was my immediate class of students. I never thought that any materials that I produced might be of use to anyone else, so I was liberated from the pressure of feeling that I needed to write “publishable” materials. In sum, I’d tell my younger self that every minute spent developing exercises and activities for students would be worth it because any exercise has the potential to change a student’s life.