By Chris Gowland and daughter Alisa

Private English tuition

"Is Sonk improving with his English?," his father asks. "Of course, I think he has made a lot of progress!" That's what every parent wants to hear. They don't want to pay out a stream of money for lessons & not see much of an improvement in their child's English speaking skills.

The only problem is that Sonk has been learning English conversation for just one week. If someone fluent in English is equivalent to a full-grown plant then young Sonk has only progressed to the bean sprout stage. What can be done to help his transformation from a simple little sprout to a hardy well developed bush? The answer is simple. He needs a lot of top quality manure from the hands of a caring gardener.

The teacher as gardener regularly adds English language fertilizer to Sonk's brain so he will develop practical skills like being able to give directions to a lost tourist, rather than impractical skills such as being able to play scrabble.

This brings us to the biggest problem for those teaching English: "What to do in each lesson?" If Sonk has two one-and-a-half hour lessons each week, after four months he will have spent about fifty hours together with his teacher. He may regard this experience as a form of torture, or as a good time. He may answer "pizza" when asked what his best friend is like, or be able to have simple conversations on a wide variety of subjects, asking & answering questions, understanding & being understood.

The outcome really depends on the teacher. Mom & dad will either shake their heads wearily at Sonk's seeming ineptness, or look on proudly as their son confidently converses, according to how well his teacher is doing his job. Generally, Thai kids spend years learning the basics of reading and writing English but all almost all their teachers explain everything in Thai.

Since Sonk can only understand a limited amount of English, some preparation is required. He still needs to do some reading and a little writing but the focus needs to be on discussions using English. Trying to prepare lessons that gradually build up vocabulary and grammar as well as regularly reviewing what has already been learned takes a lot of time. Then the lessons need to be photocopied & the teacher ends up carrying around a stack of paper. It gets even more time consuming trying to keep track of what lessons all the students are up to, a nightmare.

One secret is to have a good English conversation book. A great one is First Impact & it has two tapes that go with it. I've been using it for four years after having tried many other books. With First Impact students learn a couple of new words per unit which is enough to satisfy them. They use a wide variety of spoken English skills & have a good time doing it.

To finish off each lesson it's fun to have a game and end the class on an upbeat note. Kids somehow instinctively sense when game time is approaching & the words "game time" suddenly begin to burst forth from their lips about half way through the lesson. The best games require that the students ask & answer questions in a repetitive format so they memorize sentence structure.

An all time favorite is "Twenty Questions." Kids learn to ask lots of questions in English & the teacher is only supposed to answer yes or no. He can choose a word from any subject such as animals, plants, food, sports, cities, movies, famous people, places, & movies. Be ready for surprises - some kids don't think penguins are birds, others think ants have four legs & are mammals, most don't know who Elvis is, & few know more than a couple of capital cities outside Asia.

Another game is "Word Up", a board game with thousands of English questions. It can be found in any department store & only costs a couple of hundred baht. If you have a deck of cards you can also play "Go Fish" & the kids ask the same kinds of questions again & again- "Do you have a black ace?"  "No, go fish!"

Helping students develop new skills is always satisfying for teachers. If you go about it i the right way, your students will make lots of progress & you'll both have fun along the way. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go & wash my hands.

Characteristics of the Ideal Student

1. Learns quickly yet patiently.

2. Lives nearby so the teacher doesn't need to travel far.

3. Doesn't care how late the teacher arrives.

4. Has an air-con room for classes.

5. Provides the teacher with his favorite beverage & snack.

6. Gives the teacher gifts, such as a few nice mangos, often.

(Chris Gowlamd has lived in Thailand for thirteen years and is currently teaching in Bangkok. He can be reached at (661-497-2333 or by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Also read: Chris's Excellent Adventure

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