“Confidence isn’t built in a day.” — We recently met Monica Ruda-Peachey through her blog where she publishes her own work and introduces teachers from around the world. We talked about being a materials developer, helping students set achievable goals, and speaking English with confidence.
How would you summarize your journey in English Language Teaching (ELT)?
It’s always difficult to summarise a ten-year long experience, but mine was a pretty straightforward one. My ELT adventure started in December 2009, when I obtained my Trinity CertTESOL qualification – I remember being the only non-native trainee teacher in a class of thirteen. Three months later, I moved to Prague, in the Czech Republic, for my first teaching post, and then to Bergamo, in Italy, teaching Business and General English to adult learners. I made the most of my time during school holidays, teaching young learners at various summer schools in the UK, where I then permanently moved to. After my DELTA qualification, I was promoted to Senior Teacher at an international language school in Cambridge, where I was involved in designing and delivering syllabi for short special interest courses, as well as professional development workshops for teachers. In London, I trained as a CertTESOL teacher trainer and was accredited by Trinity. Meanwhile, I was encouraged to continue my own professional development by writing ELT-related articles, and I was lucky enough to have them published in major ELT magazines. That’s when I realised I enjoyed writing more than I had thought!
As a non-native teacher, how has your experience learning English made you a better teacher?
For the first few years of my teaching career, I felt that being a non-native English speaker was a burden, but I was wrong. It was challenging at times, because I had to develop my teaching as well as my language skills (and I still do!). However, experiencing both sides of the same coin helped me better understand my students’ needs which, in turn, helped me see the advantages of being a non-native teacher. During the lesson planning stage, I was often able to predict what language areas could be more difficult to grasp; during classroom time, I could easily offer different ways to help students overcome their language obstacles. Most importantly, being a non-native teacher has allowed me to better connect with my students: we have all faced the same language struggles!
For almost ten years, you taught English in the UK, Italy, and the Czech Republic. You then pivoted your career towards materials development. What does materials development entail and what inspired the change?
After eight years in the classroom, I felt the need of a new challenge within the ELT industry. First, I had the opportunity to work as a consultant for Cambridge Assessment and then I had the chance to write digital materials for a social enterprise. That was the beginning of my career as a materials writer!
Materials development can be quite broad: from digital to print, from general English activities to specific exam tasks, for students or for teachers. The key factor to writing good quality materials is understanding your target audience – who is going to work on these materials? What are the students’ objectives? What is their background? Just like any teacher, the more you know about your learners, the better you can address their needs, by tailoring your lessons to their specific language goals. In materials writing though, I need to keep in mind not only the students, but also the teachers who might be using my materials. As there is a variety of teachers out there, it is important that materials and instructions are clear and easy to follow.
In your blog post, you write about how some teachers think that in-class pronunciation practice might be replaced by apps which teach and correct pronunciation. While a lot of class-time is often devoted to pronunciation practice at beginning levels, what role do you think pronunciation practice plays in an advanced classroom?
Well, this question is quite tricky to answer because it depends on the students’ pronunciation goals. I would assume that at an advanced level, the students’ pronunciation is (mostly) intelligible, i.e. their pronunciation is easy to understand, regardless of their accent. In this case, pronunciation practice could be limited to fine-tuning, dealing with some minor and less frequent issues. However, if their goal is to, as they say, ‘speak like a native’, then there is a different kind of work that needs to be done: on pronunciation problems as well as on individual accent. This is challenging and it can lead to frustration, especially for adult learners. As teachers, I feel that part of our role is to question their pronunciation ‘beliefs’ – why do they want to ‘speak like a native’? Would a different accent really bring any advantages to their personal/professional life?
The Internet has changed education in countless ways. Students now have limitless free resources, can watch informative YouTube videos, and can be connected to a tutor from around the world. How do you think the Internet can best be used by students to supplement their English learning?
With so many websites and YouTube channels dedicated to teaching English, students truly are spoiled for choice. However, not every teaching method is effective for every individual, so it would pay off to test several videos and sites, before choosing the approach that best suits the student’s learning style. I would like to add here a word of advice – don’t stick to one tutor/website alone, pick your favourite two or three and compare their lessons on the same topic, whether it’s about a grammar point, exam tips or pronunciation goals.
Many companies advertise that their services will help students “speak English like a native speaker.” Do you think “speaking like a native speaker” should be a student’s goal?
This is an excellent question and, in my opinion, the answer would be ‘no’. Nowadays, we speak English to communicate with people from across the globe, not just with those who have English as their first language. For this reason, I believe the students’ goal should be to ‘speak intelligibly’ or to ‘speak clearly so that they are easily understood’. I think it’s worth pointing out here that accents do not interfere with intelligibility: you can speak clearly AND have an (foreign, regional, etc.) accent. Basically, the vast majority of students could have the best of both worlds by achieving a clear pronunciation, while keeping their own unique accent that is a part of who they are. Unfortunately, as you say, many language schools make false promises and set (often) unrealistic goals.
Many of our advanced students are able to easily maintain a conversation in English. Their grammar and pronunciation skills are stellar, yet they lack confidence when speaking English. What advice would you give to these students?
If I can adapt a well-known phrase, ‘confidence isn’t built in a day’ – but there are some steps that students can take to become more confident when speaking English. First of all, I would encourage them to be completely honest with themselves in understanding the cause of their lack of confidence. Is it too much focus on accuracy, at the expense of fluency? Are they self-conscious about their accent? Is it fear of making mistakes or of being misunderstood? Whatever it may be, once the reason has been established, I recommend talking to a teacher about it, who should be able to suggest techniques to improve the situation. It will take time and effort, but it is worth it.
To get students started, here are some tips that can be applied straight away and can give immediate results:
- Slow down. Speaking at a slower pace has the advantage of giving your listener time to process what you’re saying, while giving you the chance to formulate your thoughts more clearly in your mind. Speaking fast doesn’t mean speaking well.
- Simplify your language. There’s no need to use complex sentence structures or difficult vocabulary. The goal is to be understood, not to impress your listener.
- Practice makes perfect. Find a speaking partner who feels the same way as you do about speaking and arrange a couple of informal conversation meetings a week. Have some magazine or newspaper articles ready to discuss, or you’ll end up just staring at each other!
Thank you for reading our interview with Monica Ruda-Peachey! Are you an English instructor or have a cool English-learning story to share? Contact us if you would like to feature your work or story on Language Snaps!