>English Safari – 10 students at the mall

>I just got back from an English Safari to the mall this morning with 10 of my students. This time it was with a group of students from a training center. Most are adults with a couple young people.

I’ve been doing about one or two safaris with students every week. This was the biggest group. We attracted some attention. Some shoppers realized there was something special about us and some stood near to hear what we were talking about. The training center sent along a minder in anticipation of this. She gave out flyers about the school. Generally, I don’t think you would want to attract too much attention as the mall management may be disturbed if you have a big crowd or are blocking entrances or aisle ways.

What do we do on an English Safari?

Well, in a way it is odd to even ask the question. After all, we are out in the real world. We are surrounded by realia. The environment is dense with the necessities and even luxuries of life. As long as everyone is speaking English about the things they do and experience there then it is improving their English.

Look at a definition of Task Based Learning:

“A task-based approach assumes that speaking a language is a skill best perfected through practice and interaction, and uses tasks and activities to encourage learners to use the language communicatively in order to achieve a purpose. Tasks must be relevant to the real world language needs of the student. That is, the underlying learning theory of task based and communicative language teaching seems to suggest that activities in which language is employed to complete meaningful tasks, enhances learning.”[1]

If we are in a mall how can we not be talking about things of the real world? This is no book learning and there is no book.

But if you want to make a clear outline or have some goals to accomplish or check your students on here are some competencies taken from the “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment”. In the scale given below, A1 is beginner and C2 is the most advanced.

Can speak well about…


Themselves & others

Simple routine
Limited work and free time activities
Simple directions & instructions
Pastimes, habits, routines
Past activities

Detailed directions
Accumulated factual information on familiar matters within their field


Where they live

People, appearance [they could describe people in the mall, even mannequins]
Background, job [jobs of people who work there, what duties do they have]
Places and living conditions [nice and poor conditions, luxury]
Objects, pets, possessions [their possessions compared to those in the shop]
Events and activities [what do you need/want on holidays]
Likes/dislikes [preferences]
Plans/arrangements [what big things do they plan to buy, when, why and how often] Habits/routines [how often do they go shopping, to the restaurant, to movies, what do they usually do when they go there]
Personal experience [did anything funny or exciting ever happen when they went to a mall]

Plot of book/film, reactions [the mall has a cinema, this is a good one to talk about there]
Experiences, reaction
Dreams, hopes, ambitions
Tell a story
Basic details of unpredictable occurrences, ie: accident

Clear detailed description of complex subjects

Want more ideas?

Here are some topics related to our society, also from the Common European Framework. Nearly all of these topics can be touched on or discussed in detail during an English Safari to a mall. You could get ideas from below and together with your own ideas make a checklist and check items off as you discuss them with your Safari group. If your students show difficulty in some things you can make a note and cover it more deeply in class. Sociocultural knowledge

1. Everyday living, e.g.:
• food and drink, meal times, table manners;
• public holidays;
• working hours and practices;
• leisure activities (hobbies, sports, reading habits, media).

2. Living conditions, e.g.:
• living standards (with regional, class and ethnic variations);
• housing conditions;
• welfare arrangements.

3. Interpersonal relations (including relations of power and solidarity) e.g. with respect to:
• class structure of society and relations between classes;
• relations between sexes (gender, intimacy);
• family structures and relations;
• relations between generations;
• relations in work situations;
• relations between public and police, officials, etc.;
• race and community relations;
• relations among political and religious groupings.

4. Values, beliefs and attitudes in relation to such factors as:
• social class;
• occupational groups (academic, management, public service, skilled and manual workforces);
• wealth (income and inherited);
• regional cultures;
• security;
• institutions;
• tradition and social change;
• history, especially iconic historical personages and events;
• minorities (ethnic, religious);
• national identity;
• foreign countries, states, peoples;
• politics;
• arts (music, visual arts, literature, drama, popular music and song);
• religion;
• humor.

6. Social conventions, e.g. with regard to giving and receiving hospitality, such as:
• punctuality;
• presents;
• dress;
• refreshments, drinks, meals;
• behavioral and conversational conventions and taboos;
• length of stay;
• leave-taking.

7. Ritual behavior in such areas as:
• religious observances and rites;
• birth, marriage, death;
• audience and spectator behavior at public performances and ceremonies;
• celebrations, festivals, dances, discos, etc.

I make note of the new words we learn together. I sometimes do this on my cell phone and after the class is finished I send a copy to each student.

[1] http://iteslj.org/Articles/Rabbini-Syllabus.html

>What to teach? What not to teach?

>A teacher in America said: “I asked my students to learn the 50 U.S. states, with capitals and what each state is commonly known for. There was some grumbling about ‘Yankee imperialism’ or some such comment, but it was important for context knowledge in conversation.”

I think such ideas should be tested with the “You don’t have anything better to teach them?” question. The same goes for teaching things like Shakespeare. All of this is great to teach students if you have taught them everything else that they need to know.

There are many Americans who cannot recite all 50 states (myself included) and don’t know all of the capitals (myself included). There are many native English speakers who have not read one complete work of Shakespeare (myself included).

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t teach these things to students. It’s just that we should have a priority list and I suspect there are a lot of other things that our students will use everyday, every week, every month or even every year that they should learn first.

It would be nice if we could equip our students for everything. But, as our students pack their bags for their journey through life, we must make sure that we only add to their burden the things that they will use the most.

>Know thy student

>Yesterday, I passed out a slip of paper to my college students and asked them to write two things, their English learning problem and anything else they’d like to say to me. I also asked them to put their name on the papers.

I have only done this with 200 of my students and I’ll do another 100 on Wednesday but I don’t expect the feedback to be very different.

The main thing they tell me is that they have a real hard time learning new words.

I believe this is because they believe when they “learn” a word then it should be “known”. I’ve been trying to steer my students away from deeply ingrained this idea but I can see how difficult it is for them to give it up.

At best, our students can only be “introduced” to a word in much the same way we introduce one friend to another friend. At that point, the friends will only know each other’s name and a couple facts like their jobs and place of origin, etc. They will only know each other about 1%. If these two newly acquainted friends got married and would spend a year together, work together, play together, go through hardships together, they would know each other more completely but still not completely know each other.

So the only way students can really learn words is by constantly coming in contact with them. That is why I favor English learning approaches that lean towards extensive contact with English such as Extensive Reading and also watching a lot of English TV, movies, etc.

The second biggest lament was learning grammar.

I am not the grammar teacher in this school so I don’t know how that goes but I can imagine. It makes a lot of sense that our students should be able to learn a lot of words and then learn all the grammar rules and put it all together into sentences and communication. It makes great sense but it doesn’t work. The mind is unable to mechanically put it all together at the moment of communication. Again, that is why I favor an approach which leads to massive exposure to the language as well as using language to communicate as per the Communicative Approach.

I was not surprised that my students had those feelings about vocabulary and grammar. I was surprised that despite my bringing this up with them a couple times already they are still thinking they have to do it the old way. This shows me that they haven’t bought into the better idea and I haven’t done a good job in helping them understand.

Photo: My students giving me feedback.