New ESL school plans to avoid impersonal, preset, cookie-cutter lessons



kristen thompson/for metro vancouver


Teachers Cathal Byrne, right, and Graham Lavery, at their Gastown ESL school, Students First.


It’s been a busy few months for Cathal Byrne. Not only does he have a new wife and baby, but after years of working for big ESL companies, he now has his own school in the heart of Gastown.

Students First, which opened its doors — and books — last month, is still small, but Byrne is confident that his unique approach to English language instruction and the school’s friendly atmosphere will see it grow.

What makes his school special, he says, is that lessons are student-driven, focusing in large part on individual students’ unique problems. So instead of being forced to stick to rigid, pre-determined course material, students can bring in things like recipes, receipts and forms and learn how to understand them.

Byrne said this can be far more useful than focusing heavily on grammar and structure, which students often have little chance to use in their daily interactions with native speakers.

“A lot of it was based on my experience as a teacher, and bringing into effect the ideas I had that I couldn’t implement at my (former) schools,” said Byrne, 37, who studied English at University College Dublin and worked as a property developer before moving to Vancouver in 2001 to teach English.

Many students, he said, feel cheated with what they refer to as “McDonald’s English,” a kind of impersonal approach to teaching where classes are big, instructors are swamped, and the curriculum focuses on cookie-cutter lesson plans that don’t cater to students’ needs or wants.

“We’re small, our classes are small, and we’re going to keep it that way,” said Byrne.

There is no staff room, and teachers are available for students outside the classroom every day from 3 to 5 p.m. The school stays open until 9 p.m., so students can study, play video games, use the Internet, or just hang out.

Classes focus on “real english,” which often uses media such as TV and newspapers as a focus for lessons.

“I’m sick of all the textbooks,” said Byrne. “(Students) notice there’s a huge discrepancy between what they read in books and what they hear on the streets ... There are so many possibilities you can use (TV) for,” such as acting out scenes, focusing on pronunciation, improving listening comprehension or learning slang. “We’re just trying to make (students) aware of the English around them,” he said, adding that he helps provide students with the tools they need to continue learning English on their own, after they have closed their books — or turned off their TVs.