Have you ever wondered how to teach English in a way that will actually be of service to your student after they graduate from high school?
Language arts has the potential to become an appallingly unpractical subject. It is a topic which has tended to attract textbook writers who are already passionate about reading, writing, analysing, and classifying. There’s nothing wrong with loving English for its own sake—but the real reason for including it in our school curriculum is, of course, the impact it is going to have on our student’s future life.
Today’s Timeless Tip from Educators of the Past offers three suggestions for making English practical, and comes to us from the 1914 textbook Business English by Rose Buhlig. This practical handbook aimed at equipping students with language skills that would allow them to use English to the best possible advantage in their future workplaces.
As always, this Timeless Tip aims at highlighting useful principles from educators of past generations. It is not a recommendation or review of the author’s complete work.
Developing Oral English
Oral expression is not the branch of language arts that typically comes to mind when we think about a successful English course. Yet, as the author of Business English observes, our spoken language is “important because so many of our business transactions are conducted personally.”
As she goes on to point out, the most important business transactions are almost always made face to face rather than by written communication, “the matter under discussion often being thought too important to be entrusted to correspondence.”
In truth, the majority of students will use far more oral than written English in the course of their work life. Don’t hesitate to put time and energy into developing your student’s oral English. The ability to communicate easily and effectively will prove a tremendous asset, whatever your student’s future occupation may be.
Developing Exact Vocabulary
One unfortunate fallacy of our current systems for grading English literature is that they are based almost exclusively on length. Long words combined with long sentences equal a high “reading level.” This can give the student an impression that there is intrinsic merit in complex or even ambiguous language.
The story is told of a schoolmaster who was making a petition before a bench of magistrates. In the course of his account he wanted to mention a young goat, but feeling that the ordinary word “kid” was far too commonplace, he completely mystified his listeners by making reference to a “small cornuted animal” instead. (“Cornuted” happens to mean “horned,” which incidentally describes a rhinoceros just as much as a goat!)
As Rose Buhlig writes, “On the choice of words depends not only the correctness but also the effectiveness of expression—the courtesy of a letter, the appeal of an advertisement, the persuasiveness of a salesman’s talk. A mastery of words cannot be gained at once. Every time one speaks, he must consider what words will best convey his idea.”
This last sentence contains the true essence of powerful vocabulary. Teach your student to use—not the longest words, not the grandest words—but the words that best convey what he wants to express.
Practicing with Real-Life Assignments
Too often the type of English assignments in a high school course equip the student for future work only by implication. Yes, there are many principles which we can learn from essays, from fiction, from poetry, and then apply to the type of writing demanded by everyday life. But how much more effective might our student’s real-life writing be if they practiced writing for real-life scenarios?
As Daniel B. Duncan remarks in his preface to Business English, “The author believes that the way to become a good business correspondent is, first, to learn what the situation demands and, second, to practice meeting the demands. We must know before we write. Given a knowledge of the subject, we must have much practice in expressing ourselves in such a way as to make our composition effective.”
Rose Buhlig certainly recognized this fact when she devoted almost a hundred pages to assignments drawn from six prominent fields of business: manufacture, distribution, advertising, real estate/insurance, banking, and the corporation. These assignments were intended to give the student ample opportunity to practice not only writing well under general circumstances, but also writing well under the specific conditions and to meet the specific needs they were likely to face in the workplace in future years.
How to Teach English for Real Life
The most important factor in teaching English for real life is quite simply to keep real life in mind as we approach the subject. Well-taught oral English, the development of exact vocabulary, and an emphasis on assignments that prepare students to write in real situations, are in fact outgrowths of this single aim.
The ability to use English effectively will prove a tremendous asset in whatever line of work your student may pursue. Make the effort to develop their abilities to the full. Teach them to use English well in real life!
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