In January (this year) I was looking how to restructure my teaching practice and stumbled upon the idea of language coaching. Soon I found three books and one course available on the topic. The course was with a generous discount and coming soon, so I decided to jump in and join without much further research. The reviews were excellent, the method called somewhat close to revolutionary, very effective and efficient, and there was a certificate at the end. And the big idea of using neuroscience for language learning.
Well, I hope it was the last time I joined a course without reading a single book on the subject matter. It was the same mistake as with CELTA – practice and communication before theory, which means not enough time to analyse the input and materials available. Actually, I finished the review of the course materials only last week. So the goal of this review is to further clarify it for myself, as writing helps me think and structure the newly acquired information.
As I mentioned in my update, it’s probably something to do with my way of thinking that I’m unable to take any method and just use it. I like to look for both sides of the argument. I need to put this method into the system of my knowledge. I need to practise it for a while to see whether it really works for myself and to what extend I agree with its main concepts.
So I have a lot of thoughts that I can’t fit into one post. Here I’m going to 1) give some basic information about the course and its contents, then 2) I’ll outline what I liked about it. In the next one, I’ll say 3) what left me in doubts and 4) how I’ve used the information I got in my teaching practice so far. Here we go.
The course was online with three three-hour sessions per week over four weeks. That made 36 hours of input and practice in total. After the course, we had to submit a recording of the first session following certain guidelines to get certified by the International Coaching Federation and the company that offered the course.
The course was complemented with a 200+page manual, which basically gave the same information as the trainer, and a 40-page coach package, with some scenarios for role plays, examples of goals and forms to use. These are the ones I’ve been mulling over for some months. However, it seems I’d better not elaborate on details or quote the manual because there was something like ‘do not disclose the contents of the course or the manual’ in the terms and conditions – copyright. So I’ll have to make do with ideas.
When I looked at the course contents back in January, I thought it wasn’t well structured, but at that moment I didn’t trust myself. Now I look at it again, and it seems the same – a number of concepts and models, not gathered under more general categories to provide a system of knowledge.
This is hard for me because I’m spoiled by MOOCs where there’s a very clear structure – several main blocks divided into sections divided into particular topics. But here it looked like a mismash of different topics with some of them repeating across several sections. Maybe that is why it took me so long to put it all together. The manual made it a bit better, though.
Roughly (roughly because this is how I structured it for myself after reading the manual), the course covered the following topics:
- basic information about coaching – core competences, ethics, key skills, models;
- introduction to neuroscience, neuroscience of learning, neuroscience in coaching;
- motivation and goal setting in language coaching;
- language coaching – principles and models.
We were a group of twelve or so teachers, as one of the requirements for the course was a valid teaching qualification. At the beginning of the course, we gave a short presentation of ourselves and said what we hoped to achieve by the end of it. And at the end, obviously, there was a goal review to see if we’d done it.
In general, the sessions were quite slow-paced (compared to CELTA), on a platform similar to Zoom but not that advanced and with worse video quality. We started each session with a check-in or a short exchange of feelings about the course or how we’re implementing its contents. The trainer then gave a presentation and sometimes paired us to practice some techniques. No written or other assignments or a required reading/ watching material (only recommended).
I sent the recording at the end of May and got my certificate in June. I was also added to the network of coaches, used to promote this method, and created my profile there. So far it hasn’t brought me any clients. At least, there are quite a lot of additional materials to use – texts and videos, both on the method and marketing. There are also some free webinars and events available to certified coaches, but I’ve been to only one so far.
So, it’s not just a course and the method, but a whole ecosystem created around them. New way of doing things, they say.
What I liked
There are quite a lot of things, actually.
Way of speaking
It was interesting to observe the trainer’s manner of speech – very calm and adapting, as if with the purpose to make us as comfortable as possible to avoid amygdala hijack. She also had a very warm and genuine attitude, like that perfect parent who is always on the child’s side helping her to go through life. It worked well for me for a while because, rememebering my CELTA experience, I was pretty nervous at the beginning, especially as it was my first course in English with teachers from other countries.
She would also go into excitement quite often, trying to ‘pump us with dopamine’ – with ‘did you know that?’, ‘can you imagine?’ and ‘how exciting is that!’ types of phrases accompagning some facts about the brain. Quite soon everyone was feeling quite enthusiastic about this new method and the prospects it offered. Dopamine did its work.
We did have an open dialogue and were invited to ask questions. I, probably, was the most active in this, and the trainer patiently dealt with my questions and doubts. However, I wouldn’t say that the atmosphere allowed much disagreement with the trainer or not-so-positive feedback.
The whole idea of coaching helped me explore and adopt a new way of thinking and reflecting on things. As well as a particular style of speaking with other people.
I tend to get stuck with whys, analysing hidden reasons and feelings that get in the way. But, as we were explained, whys trigger some emotional areas in the brain, so it’s easy to dig out some pain and then you have to do something with it, alone or with a specialist. Not always convenient. Can be time-consuming.
The coaching way is well explained by the GROW model – goals, reality, obstacles and way forward. So we don’t really look for reasons why something is not working, but more on what can be done here and now.
I think there are serious limitations to applying this model, like when there are deep emotional issues/ trauma that need to be addressed first, but as a way of thinking it’s nice. After all, when those inner conflicts are solved, it helps to focus and go towards the goal step by step.
I liked the idea of setting language goals together with the learner (or client within this perspective).
This reflects the whole idea of coaching: not to do books/ courses or go from level to level, but to focus on what’s needed now and to start with it right away. To focus, we need to set goals. The method suggested we choose two types of goals – those related to the construction of language (grammar, pronunciation, word formation) and those related to the use of language (vocab and functional), make a list of them with the learner and prioritise them. Then the goals can be broken down into smaller chunks to create a roadmap.
A small number of goals, 4-5 in total, for example, makes it look more manageable than covering a book or a course, especially because with goals we set time limits after which we review them. Breaking down is supposed to make the process ‘brain-friendly’. So after the initial session the client will know exactly what is there to cover in the upcoming sessions. That is, for me, the perfect entry point into language learning.
Before, when I discussed with a prospective student what they wanted, I would try to match it to a certain level and some useful books. For example, if they needed to actively participate in meetings in English, they would need about B2. So we had a choice between several Business English books. From lesson to lesson, I would go with lesson aims as they are given in units. In other words, I had a big goal and small steps in mind but I’m not sure my students saw it the same way, they just trusted me. The intermediary link was missing.
The problem with my approach was that it takes a long time to cover any book, so it was unclear whether the student got what they wanted or not. Mostly, I managed to get them involved and interested in the process; we used the book as a scaffold and still talked about them and their lifes most of the time. But I think there still wasn’t enough clarity. Now I know how to bring it in.
It’s true that books also have a syllabus, so one can look at the contents and know what awaits them. Or choose the most interesting topics/ units. But with goals, it’s much more personalised and flexible. Goals may work better when addressing short-term needs, like preparing for meetings or presentations.
Focus and signposting
Goals also bring more focus to every session. Otherwise some learners easily go into chatting or sharing quite personal things, and then it’s sometimes difficult to choose the course of action – bring them back to the book or allow to speak and then focus on emergent vocabulary. With clear goals and a ready roadmap, we can always remind the client that they are trying out language coaching exactly because it’s goal-oriented.
To direct the client’s attention, get them focused and calm them down, we can use signposting. For example, ‘We’re going to start with the review of Present Simple, then we will create more examples with it and move to talk about book’. The idea is not novel but in my teaching I used to avoid this. It seemed boring. I wanted to go through all the lesson stages without mentioning them, more like in the flow of a natural discussion/ communication. But in the end I got tired of it.
So now we agree with my students what we will be doing next time, and then I use signposting to make sure we cover what we agree on. Seems to be working. And I don’t have to invent how to smoothly transition from one item on our plan to the next one. I just ask whether they are ready to move on or need more practice.
Types of activities
The idea was not only to set the goals together, but also agree on what types of activities the client prefers. That is something about learning styles or even multiple intelligences. While Wiki says, these approaches lack empirical evidence, they make sense to me. Anyway, we don’t have to define a particular learning style or type of intelligence and stick to activities associated with them. But they can give an idea of what works for a particular learner, be it exercises, books, presentations, songs or something else.
Before I’d tried to find what works better with my students, but I didn’t discuss it in the open. Surely, I’ve developped some gut feeling as to how to approach different students, but when they too have a say in the choice of activities, that may make them more motivated and accountable for the results.
I’ve also understood my learning style better and that clarified why language apps and the communicative approach don’t work well for me (I’m too analytical to start there). And why I should read books on the topic before going to any courses (I need to see the bigger picture before I deal with details, practice or discussion).
The idea is that when people come to coaching they want the coach to hold them accountable for their actions. They are the ones responsible for their change. The coach is only there to accompany them along the way and help find what works best for them.
I like the idea. In the end, it’s impossible to put a foreign language into somebody’s head. We as teachers can organise the process or suggest certain materials, but if the learner does very little on their own, or cancels classes, or can’t find time for revision and language input, what can we do?
Asking for feedback
The idea of constantly asking for feedback from the client also makes sense. With teaching, I struggled with it. I had a feeling that I had to prepare a lesson that would be engaging and useful for my student. So I would think of the lesson aims, going from one stage to another and organising enough practice of the target language. With coaching, it’s much easier, because asking ‘How do you feel about this… (structure, topic, etc)?’ is part of the process. This type of question helps the client feel more in control and choose the direction to go.
So, now, instead of working on the target vocab for the video we’ve just watched, I may ask about the student’s feelings. If she didn’t like the video (even if she had chosen it herself), or if it turned out to be too difficult, we can just move on. The same goes for grammar. Some people get tired of it very quickly, others can spend the whole lesson practising the same structure. The more feedback I have from them, the easier it is to meet their needs. Finally, I don’t have to guess anything.
Apparently, some research (which I can’t find) shows that when a person needs to produce something in a foreign language, first networks of their mother tongue gets activated. So it does make sense to look for similarities between the two languages and look for ways how L1 can help acquire L2, especially in terms of grammar.
Somehow, for a long time I tended to avoid using or referring to L1 unless there’s a good translation of a word and it’s easier to remember it that way. I thought it would prompt students to avoid making effort to produce something in L2. But, honestly, when I learn languages, I use translation a lot and I think it speeds up the process significantly. So why not use this explicitly, especially for beginner students, if it can help.
To sum up
I’ve defined language coaching for myself as the process where the client has more control over it that the coach/ teacher. I wouldn’t say this is exactly what the course taught me; that is my best guess and my best summary.
With teaching, it’s the teacher who makes a lesson plan, decides on the goals, stages and activities. The teacher then has to involve the learner and maintain their motivation, focus and engagement. However, this is something I’ve always had problems with. What if the learner is not in the right mood for my lesson plan? What if they are not interested in this topic? Or too tired for it? Or the circumstances in their life have changed and for exactly this lesson they need something else? So, not once I had to change my lesson plan on the go because it didn’t work. But I always worried that we were not going as we were ‘supposed to’. Then why spend time making it?
With coaching, we can agree on everything together. True, as a teacher I can suggest in what order we can cover certain grammar, or what skills and microskills the client needs to achieve their goals, or what activities they might find useful. But in the end it’s their choice – what to do, how much, how fast and so on. In this case I don’t have to worry about their motivation or engagement, because they lead the process.
And I like it.