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July 2019
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An Interview With Dorothy Zemach: "Don't Be Easy, Be Effective"
interview by Charles McKinney

Ms. Dorothy Zemach kicked off the 2019 TESOL Arabia international conference and exhibition, whose theme this year was “New Beginnings in English Language Teacher Development,” at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dubai, 21–23 March, with her opening plenary session titled “The Chocolate Museum.” The inspiration behind her session title came from a textbook reading lesson on unusual museums, a topic that didn’t resonate with her students; she reminded teachers that the point of a reading lesson is primarily teaching reading, though she did also discuss ways to make difficult topics more accessible. Known for her humor and publishing expertise as an international EFL educator, author, teacher trainer, and frequent conference presenter, Zemach made a case for not disregarding tough subject matter or hard work encountered in the English classroom in favor of the more fun content that may tickle students’ fancy—because, as she put it in her presentation, “the hard stuff is all part of learning English.”

Having a versatile command of English will only benefit students in the long-term goal of developing both fluency and accuracy. The approximately 1-hour session certainly constituted food for thought all while promoting an ambiance of laughter and joviality. I had the fortune of sitting down with Ms. Zemach for an informative and interesting interview that touched on different aspects of the TESOL industry from both her personal and professional perspective.

What’s been your most rewarding teaching experience in your career so far?

I’m not sure I’ve had any teaching experiences that were not rewarding, but I would say that one that changed the way I teach and think of teaching was at the American Language Center (ALC) in Rabat, Morocco. What was great for me there was students’ attitudes toward learning English. They’re already good language learners. But even compared to other bilingual students, Moroccans have this belief that learning a language is easy. And if you asked a student at that institute, “How long will it take you to get from zero to fluent?” they would say, “About a year.” And sure enough, about a year later those students would be at the proficiency level, where our top class was reading The Grapes of Wrath.

In some other countries where I taught, the students believed that English was difficult and would take a very long time. But Moroccans have this attitude that English isn’t going to be hard, that it can be enjoyable and useful, so I also began to believe that English is achievable within a year, and I began expecting more of my students, using empowering language such as, “You can do this. You got this. English will be nothing.” For me that was a transformative experience.

How can teachers use humor to facilitate a more positive and productive learning milieu?

I understand your question, but I’m going to answer a different one. Because I think that teachers probably already use humor in the classroom to the extent that they are comfortable with. But I would like to see more humor in teacher organizations, conferences, and professional development in general. Those conferences that have, for example, evening events that embody a different atmosphere. It’s that kind of mental energizing and recharging that attracts teachers to conferences in addition to the sharing of knowledge.

I’d love to see more deliberate scheduling of humor. A conference committee could say, “Okay, let’s have a talent show.” I was just at a conference in Slovenia where they had a dance party one night and a lip sync battle the next night. The people in the audience were having the time of their lives even if they weren’t all participating. You relax and have a good time with your friends, so when the next day when it’s all presentations, presentations, and workshops, your mind is engaged and you feel renewed and refreshed.

Why not have some evening events of theater or poetry reading or some sort of open forum? Teachers are endlessly creative. TESOL Greece this year had a 1-hour slot one evening where people did theater, and it was the board members, who’d been practicing by Skype all year. It was wonderful for the audience. Humor and art and entertainment…we could schedule those things for ourselves, for teachers to energize one another.

Where do you see the TEFL field going in the next 5 –10 years?

My particular area is textbooks. I have so many thoughts about publishing and ELT course books. We need to bring down the price of student print textbooks drastically. We need to start versioning more so that you have maybe one syllabus or curriculum, but content tailored to individual contexts. You can print locally. You can print on cheaper paper. Make them black and white.

Publishers are astonished that nobody wants just their digital products exclusively, inside some branded “LMS.” Well, of course not! Teachers want to have digital materials that can be integrated with everything else; they’re not going to use materials from only one publisher. And if a consumer can’t pay what it costs to develop a certain digital product, then don’t make that digital product. We should pay good authors to write good content first, because that’s what people want. Even if you the consumer is only spending a dollar, what you want is something good.

Does active learning pedagogy create students who are more motivated to learn?

I hope so. I think it also comes down to the individual teacher and how well you pitch anything and what students bring to it as well. If they are really determined not to learn, they probably won’t. What you can do is explain what English will do for them in their lives and what education will do for them in their lives and hope they buy it. If you really believe what you tell them about why English is important, I think most students will credit that.

If I had one piece of advice for learners in general, it would be to learn to read and then read a lot. Start extensive reading. Start reading in English. And it doesn’t even matter what you read. You can read a gaming manual, a magazine, a novel, a comic. Anything will help your English and your language and your ability to do well on tests because you’ll have more knowledge about the world in general as well as more exposure to language. You can’t do much extensive reading in class because it’s extensive; you have to be doing that outside of class.

….There’s all sorts of info online about how to set up an extensive reading program and how it can be done digitally as well as with paper books, and how to give students credit and how it figures into their grade. I think every language institute should be making their students read.

All in all, it was a pleasure to converse with Dorothy and to pick her brain on the issues and solutions applicable to the kaleidoscopic global TESOL industry. You can learn more about her and her work by visiting her website, and you can find her on Facebook. Also, feel free to check out her publishing company, Wayzgoose Press, and her highly rated book, English for Scammers. In the conclusive words of her plenary presentation as it concerns successful language teaching: “Don’t be easy; be effective!”

Charles McKinney is a TEFL educator, part-time freelancer, and current School for International Training (SIT) TESOL graduate student with nearly 9 years of global teaching experience in Asia, Africa, and Europe. His research interests are many, some of which include active learning pedagogy, English as a lingua franca, and cultural intelligence (CQ). With work published in EFL Magazine and English Teaching Forum and featured on Spotlight, a new podcast he helped launch at his former university employer, Charles anticipates heavier involvement in TESOL-related endeavors (e.g., Diverse Voices Task Force). He recently attended the TESOL Arabia annual conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Understanding Small Talk for Professional Development
WhatsApp: A Tool for In-Company Training
Professional Learning and Social Media 101
An Interview With Dorothy Zemach: "Don't Be Easy, Be Effective"
From the Executive Director: Can TESOL Bring the World Together?
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