Nevelina Pachova





My teaching approach

My Teaching Approach

Nevelina Pachova

 

Teaching is a challenging but potentially highly rewarding profession. In my view, the challenge as well as the cornerstone for unleashing its potential lie in recognizing, accepting and facilitating the democratization of education, which to me means enhancing the capacities of learners to take an active part in (re)creating the meaning and value of a given field of study, thus enhancing their own knowledge, that of the group they are a part of, and possibly the knowledge of society as a whole. Traditionally seen as a top-down transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, teaching is increasingly recognized as an interactive process, in which learners are autonomous individuals capable of making their own decisions about their educational interests and goals and entitled to take an active part in choosing the direction and shaping their own learning process with view of achieving them.

In the case of English teaching, contemporary teaching methods have begun to reverse traditional teaching practices. The communicative approach, which has become an accepted standard for language teaching in recent years, does so by contextualizing language learning, relating it to real-life situations outside the classroom, emphasizing the importance of a learner’s personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning and encouraging learners to focus on the learning process itself. Those, together with the paradigmatic shift of the view of language as a means of communication, rather than a collection of constituent elements bound together by grammatical rules, constitute gigantic steps forward in bringing language education closer to the changing needs of learners. To some extent though, even the communicative approach, like earlier methods, such as the Grammar-Translation Method, the Audio-lingual Method, the Direct Method, the Callan method, the Silent Way, Suggestopedia and the Total Physical Response method, is based on a presumption, even if well-founded, about the needs of language learners, namely to be able to communicate in the target language freely, and utilizes advances in understanding of the psychology of learning  to suggest a generic approach for enhancing learning outcomes by taking into account relevant affective factors, learning styles and individual intelligences, instead of enabling learners to experience and (re)create the meaning and value of the target language while taking an active part in shaping the learning process in accordance with their own goals, needs and views.

Content-based instruction methods, such as subject-focused, task-based and participatory language teaching methods, which are focused on teaching through, rather than for communication, go a step further in that direction in as far as they allow individual learners a greater scope for experiencing the use of the target language in an interesting and meaningful context of direct relevance to their own interests and goals, rather than through most often hypothetical discussions and communicative activities as in the case of the communicative method. Unfortunately, given the specific socio-economic, cultural, philosophical and linguistic context, in which most of them have emerged, they are often seen as too targeted and specific for the needs of the general learner. Indeed, a number of barriers may constrain the applicability of the different content-based instruction methods in a general context. I trust, however, that a partial integration of the principle of allowing learners greater autonomy in co-determining the learning process and certain elements of content-based instruction could, and arguably should be increasingly combined with communicative teaching methods to enable a more meaningful and enriching experience and arguably better results.

Depending on the context and the interests of learners (or their custodians in the case of children) in engaging more actively in the learning process, different degrees of hybridization could be introduced. In the case of more conservative and time-constrained learners, eliciting their goals, interests and preferences with respect to the target language at the start of the course and integrating them in the course syllabus and teaching method, while providing additional resources for independent study in the course of implementation may be sufficient steps forward. In the case of learners with shared interests or characteristics related to the target language, more targeted applications of content-based instruction methods would be an option as already practiced, e.g. in the case of immigrants in the United Kingdom some of whom have benefited from more targeted participatory approaches to language teaching in line with Freire’s original idea of education as empowerment and as a means of addressing social injustices due to illiteracy or in the specific case to limited proficiency in the host country’s language.

I trust, however, even general learners of English would benefit from a greater degree of engagement in shaping the language learning process than is normally the case. One possible way to do so would be to structure a syllabus partially or fully around themes related to the interests, needs and goals of the participating students, rather than just to integrate them as topics for discussion. Individual students or small groups of learners with a shared interest would then be encouraged to prepare and co-teach some of the classes, using educational material on their topic of interest, co-developed with the instructor in advance. The idea of structuring the syllabus around broader themes is not to do away with functions, grammatical structures and vocabulary but to integrate and contextualize them in an organic and interesting manner that stimulates communication in the target language and facilitates learning.

The assumption is that most themes can be broken down and adapted for use at different language levels. Traveling, for example, can be used for contextualizing beginners’ level vocabulary and discussions of different means of transportation or places of interest, functions, such as expressing likes and dislikes, asking for directions, help or specific services in a hotel, but also higher level description of past experiences or future plans, and advanced discussions on the social, ecological and economic implications of traveling. Similarly, the seemingly complex topic of art could be adapted for use in beginners’ level courses, e.g. by looking at how the location of objects in paintings differs in different periods and styles as a basis for a visually and intellectually interesting introduction and practice of the use of prepositions.

In other words, the teacher’s role in the proposed model, like in standard teaching practice, would be to develop a syllabus and guide students through the learning process in a way that allows them to acquire the necessary knowledge of vocabulary, grammatical structures and language functions appropriate for their level. The difference is that he/she should situate that knowledge in themes of specific interest to the learners and work with them to present them in an engaging and educational way. The specific learner’s knowledge of a given theme or subject would guide the choice of authentic material to be used in class, including podcasts, videos, news articles, visual aids, or realia, while their language knowledge would ensure an adequate level of presentation, at least for the part of the class that is taught by them. The diversity of intelligences a group of learners is likely to have can also be expected to ensure an adequate mix of audio, visual, kinaesthetic, linguistic, logical, as well as intra and inter-personal activities and aids. Needless to say, though, it would be the teacher’s task to supply additional learning themes and/or tasks as needed to cover grammatical structures, vocabulary and functions necessary for a given language level but ones that cannot be easily integrated in the themes of choice of the participating students and to ensure the learning needs of all students are met.      

The type of language competencies to be developed at a given level would be guided by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) or relevant guidelines provided by testing institutions in cases when preparation for specific exams is the goal. In order to ensure a holistic learning experience and process, and in line with CEFR guidelines, all four macro skills, both receptive, i.e. listening and reading, and productive, i.e. speaking and writing, would be developed with a stronger but not exclusive emphasis on speaking, particularly for beginners, so as to encourage the development of fluency. Similarly, all relevant micro skills, i.e. vocabulary, grammar, spelling, pronunciation and intonation would be covered but with a particular focus on vocabulary and grammar.

In line with the above, each lesson would then be a combination of three main sets of activities, namely, listening, reading and speaking with new vocabulary (including spelling and pronunciation) and grammar presented in the first two parts. The third one will focus on providing opportunities for integrated practice of the target language and grammatical structures through interactive communicative activities, including real-life tasks, such as preparing the menu for a cocktail party or giving and following instructions for making origami figures, for example, as well as individual and/or group presentations and discussions, with a stronger focus on the former in beginners’ classes. Some writing practice as related to listening, reading and speaking activities would be conducted in class but most of the writing capacities, if/as desired by the students, would be developed through home assignments. A warm-up and a wrap-up would be an integral part of the class to enable revision of past materials, concept-checking, clarification of problematic issues, correction of key mistakes relevant to the level of learners and the focus of the given activity, and to provide opportunities for feedback or proposals for adaptations of the teaching plan and methods used.

Interlanguage and continuous assessment of individual work would be used as a basis for formative assessment and improvement of teaching methods and lesson plans in the case of small groups. In larger groups, and as needed for formal reasons, summative tests could be developed and administered as well. 

In the case of young learners and beginners, opportunities for class presentations or other student-led activities based on individual interests rather than co-teaching per se would be encouraged with view of enabling learners to engage with the language in a personal way, developing speaking capacities and confidence building. In both cases graded language and scaffolding will be used to ensure understanding and learning. Also, only major mistakes will be corrected - as much as possible through opportunities for self-correction - with view of encouraging the development of fluency. With respect to children specifically, their short attention span and locus of interests will be taken into account and shorter, more varied and task-based activities with a stronger use of music, crafts and movement would be developed and used.

To sum up, in my view language is a means of communication, but communication is a means of value and meaning creation. Unfortunately, those are often lost in standard communicative practice. The goal of the proposed approach is thus to engage learners in experiencing and (re)creating the value and meaning of communicating in the target language while acquiring the necessary knowledge, confidence and skills in using it freely in accordance with their own goals, interests and views and those of the learning group they are a part of. The approach is based on the assumption that allowing learners to take an active part in shaping their own learning process, and to some extent that of their learning group, would provide a more enriching, motivating and effective learning experience.

 



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