I’m not much of an athlete. But, I’ve found the vocabulary of sports is pretty useful in the classroom. There are a few parallels that people can intuitively understand.
After explaining to my students that I like to run, and that I’m going to be a marathoner when my gets are out of the house, I say that they can think of learning English like training for a marathon.
The English lesson is your ‘long run’
Most training programs for runners include one long run per week. After all, a marathon is just the ultimate in long runs, so it seems logical that we’d work towards them.
Here’s the thing though: you can hurt yourself if your long run is right after — or, even worse — on the same day as some other training. Your body needs time to regenerate.
The ‘other stuff’ is your other training
Whether you have a grammar worksheet that is basically a strength drill for one muscle group (or grammar), vocabulary practice with flashcards or worksheets, or a reading exercise that should just get the metaphorical blood pumping once again between your long runs, the other stuff is also important.
At this point, I point out that they’re effectively paying me by the hour and I have no great incentive to teach them as fast as possible. (You can tell I teach adults.) The same way that you will eventually become fitter by running once a week as opposed to never, only coming to the English lesson will improve your English. But you’re not going to be reaching your own learning potential.
Then, I point out that nobody has ever suffered an English-related injury. (Some teachers, I know, would like to inflict the occasional injury, but most of us restrain ourselves.) Nobody will get hurt if they do their homework in the car before coming into the English lesson.
But neither will they have that great training effect of doing something, letting their brain process it in their sleep, and then doing it again in the lesson.
“Imagine,” I say, “that I am a fitness coach. We all run twelve kilometers. That’s not nothing. We’re tired. But, next week we want to go twelve and a half, so I say ‘Before the next training run, try to get in two runs, six and seven kilometers long. And, it wouldn’t hurt to try to knock out three sets of twenty push-ups.'”
“Now, some people write this down. Others get out their phones to enter it. A lot of people just think they can remember it without recording it. But this guy” — here, I usually pick a student to pick on — “he figures it’s easiest to start doing the pushups while we’re still talking and he then goes home to run twelve more kilometers that same day and says ‘Now I can forget about the homework, it’s finished.’ How useful is that?”
They agree it’s not useful.
Know what your marathon is
Not all marathons are the same. Some have hills. Others are at high elevations. Some are in intense heat. Others are over forest trails. Training for all of them is basically the same — you run — but also very different.
When you’re learning English, if you don’t tell your teacher what your marathon is, the teacher will train you for a pretty generic marathon. Mostly, by re-using training materials he’s made for other runners. And you’ll be in better shape when you’re finished.
But, you might not be ready for your marathon — whether it’s a business trip, driving across the US, or meeting your soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s parents who only speak English — and it’s not fair to blame your trainer for not getting you ready if you didn’t communicate what you needed.
“So,” I tell my little athletes, “you need to always be looking forward and saying ‘what will I have to do in English soon? Does my teacher know about that?’ and let me worry about getting you ready.”
My feeling of it is that only about half of my students have ever said “this is why I’m learning English, this is what I want to do,” even after being asked. Most just know “I need it for work” or “it’s important for travel.” But the students who do know are the ones I’m able to help the most.
That was a long ramble. And I’m sorry.
I just wanted to take the opportunity to share with you a strategy that has helped me help students. I don’t talk in the vocabulary of marathons in every lesson. It’s something I bring up once per block, or so, or when I’m explaining why there is a worksheet to drill a grammar that they now, in this moment, think they have mastered.
Let me know if this helps you. How do you talk about these things with your students? Or do you maybe not have to?