English Inside Out

English for the Digital Age

Out of the Box

In this section you will find a series of short articles about language learning, that aim to challenge and enlighten anyone seeking to learn a new language.

English for Foreign Universities

The aim of this paper is to show the various approaches to helping your children have the English qualifications necessary to gain entry to a British or American University

M A Varverakis 2011

In producing this diagram I have tried to simplify a somewhat confusing situation. It has to be noted that not every university has the same entrance requirements, particularly considering the different disciplines. However these guidelines are broadly correct and at the very least UK Universities will call for a high grade Cambridge First Certificate and most, like the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, will ask for a CAE with an A grade or a CPE at A or B grade. US Universities will typically ask for an ETS-TOEFL but with differing points depending upon the college.

It is  important to note that the level of English competence provided by the Italian state systems is woefully inadequate, indeed the qualification level at which an Italian teacher is allowed to teach English is insufficient even to gain entry to a UK or US university for non liguistic study.

For further details the following link is fairly comprehensive, or feel free phone or email me.

Dr. Maria Antonietta Varverakis Mullens

Conversation Classes

Question: “How important are conversation classes?”
Answer: “Very”
Q.: “Why?”
A.: “Because they are the light at the end of the tunnel”

People often think that conversation classes are of minor importance compared to other kind of classes: some students assume they go to conversation classes for a chat and it is easy for the teacher to do the same, expectations can be lower, its so easy to relax....

Nevertheless a well delivered conversation lesson can only be part of a structured learning plan adapted to the needs of the learner, reinforcing what is learnt elsewhere and adding to it with new vocabulary and above all confidence.

Expressing yourself correctly and with confidence, if you only have the luxury of a few hours of lessons a week, is not the easiest thing and it is thus important to maximise the use you make of that time, hence the great importance of conversation lessons which provide that extra focus on learning - the application of what is the most important usage of any language - when it is spoken.

For the teacher it is of fundamental importance not only to plan the lesson logically and with intelligence but also to state precise lesson objectives and to stick to them. By the end of the lesson the learner should have reinforced what has previously been acquired, as the result of having being stimulated in expressing themselves using old and new vocabulary.

For the teacher, on the other hand, the conversation lesson can be a way of testing, drilling and reinforcing what has been acquired by the learners which is, above all, the ultimate satisfaction.

The teacher is also greatly aided in this if they have themselves been formally trained and have thus been able to experiment with the different tools for different learning styles and situations, with the guidance of more experienced teachers. A good teacher will be capable of using the right tools to develop an outstanding approach: allowing the adaptation of the material to the needs of the students and making the learning process effective as well as enjoyable.

Conversation classes can be quite a powerful tool as they bring out a large range of issues. Let’s go through some of them:
  • Conversation doesn’t come out of the blue and is the result of a targeted learning process which can take some time, especially if the target language is learned outside its geographical boundaries.
  • Conversation is not a monologue, it means not only to be able to express yourself in a clear way but also to understand what is said.
  • Learners must have the right input to be able to hold even a small conversation.
  • Lessons have to be targeted and an integral part of lesson planning.
  • The material has to be varied and carefully selected otherwise it can be misleading – sending the wrong message and hitting the wrong target.

Question: “So, what should I do?”
Answer: "Well don’t assume that because you have a native English speaker in front of you the conversation will add any real value to your learning, teaching well is a real skill,
Secondly, make sure that the lesson is planned specifically for your needs, otherwise you risk wasting your time – and money."

Dr. Maria Antonietta Varverakis Mullens

English Teaching Qualifications

Question: So what qualifications should my teacher have and why should I worry about it?

Answer: Well its all too easy to think that if your teacher can speak English, they will be good at teaching you English. This is a classic mistake as teaching is a profession that requires both knowledge and appropriate training to allow your teacher to pass on and drill information so that is retained; indeed the teaching of English to foreigners is subject to specific qualification for teaching English as a Second Language as the challenge is very different to that of teaching English to native speakers.
In the Italian system of schools the method, almost invariably used, is to work from Italian towards English, using text books that typically assist you to translate the language; text books that are either translated from an original English text or written by Italians (in both cases full of mistakes); text books that are typically not at the right level for the student.

The result is a lack of confidence in use of the language and an accent which, when exposed abroad can seem almost comical. Indeed if you are in a business situation, you are at an immediate disadvantage - in my own experience, having taken teams of Italian senior managers abroad, when placed in a foreign environment, they often present themselves badly due to this lack of confidence, poor preparation and basic difficulties with pronunciation. This is in noticeable contrast to the quality of English spoken in say Germany and Holland, not to mention the Nordics.

Q: Why is this?

A: Well, essentially what happens is that during school years an inappropriate and too academic method of teaching is used, indeed sometimes you study Shakespeare which, while a noble pursuit, is actually of little use in a day to day environment - if you learn the subtle meanings through the translation, rather than the original language.

It would appear to be the height of academic excellence, and indeed in the context of European literature and thought, from the Greek authors onwards, has academic value as a separate subject, whereas in the reality of language learning it is of little practical use.

While an academic approach might be appropriate for Latin, French or even German, it does not work at all well with English, as while the first three have fairly clear rules of grammar and pronunciation this is absolutely not the case, with English - a language full of irregular forms and pronunciations.

Q: So what does this mean?

A: Well if your teacher can speak English - even if they can speak it very well - but has not learnt the varied approaches to teach English, they are at a real disadvantage. It is rather like a mechanic trying to repair your car with just a screwdriver and no instruction manual. They may even know the theory but boy is it hard for them. Typically a good teacher will have lots of pre-prepared materials to assist learning and to make the classes interesting and to reinforce learning.

Q: So what qualifications should my teacher have?

A: Well there are just two with widespread acceptance. They are the Cambridge CELTA (Cambridge ELT Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) and the Trinity TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). They are recognised by the UK government as being equivalent, though the TESOL has the novelty of putting students in the position of having to learn another language (not English) so that they can experience first hand the issues of being students. (SIT TESOL is also good though rather rare in Europe).

Both courses are intense and it is not sufficient to be able to speak the language to be able to gain entry to the course. For instance in our example of 20 native English speakers only 6 were allowed on the course.

For futher good information about TEFL qualifications:

Why to avoid people without TESOL or CELTA:

Q: What about the famous language schools?

A: Well some of these use TESOL and CELTA trained teachers, but they seem to hamper them with a methodology (often very rigid) used to reduce costs (i.e improve profits). Very few students that have gone this route come away satisfied though they may well have thinner wallets...

David Mullens