With such a wealth of methodologies at our finger tips, how do English teachers choose how to approach their lesson planning and activity creation to ensure the very best experience for the student during class and during the process of language acquisition?
The very basis of any approach to teaching should be the student’s goals, objectives and motivations; and the related student needs. This endeavour becomes all the more interesting when we are presented with different age groups, learning styles, and class sizes – the teacher must be constantly adapting and creative to ensure the student is successful within the framework of their own objectives.
Debates around approaches to best teaching practice are ongoing and constantly evolving, what was perceived as effective yesterday may be critiqued today as outdated; as teachers we have a duty to stay up to date with this conversation, and to remain open and curious to change, while maintaining flexibility in identifying what aspects of different methodologies work best for our students. Being a good teacher is about more than understanding the technical aspects of our occupation, it is equally important to embrace and display the human qualities that contribute to a positive learning environment and atmosphere.
Properly prepared classes are the pivot by which our students’ experience is maximised, but in order to do this all the aforementioned elements of teaching a language must be considered – what are my students’ objectives, and what do they need to ensure they achieve these? What are the most appropriate aspects of the various methodologies at my disposal? How do I treat my students with empathy to gain their trust so that I can create an environment and atmosphere conducive to their learning? In this essay I will consider these questions in the context of class planning and activity creation, using real life case studies to reflect on how teaching ideas are executed in a classroom setting, the empirical challenges faced in reference to this, and how we adapt as teaching professionals to be the very best teachers we can be.
Each person decides to learn a language for individual reasons, these reasons vary by whether this was a self-motivated decision or something imposed by a learning institution or a in a professional context. Someone who chooses to study a language for themselves will tend to have wildly different goals and objectives than someone who needs to learn for a role at work, for example. Furthermore, the student needs will vary depending on their motivation for learning, their age, their learning style, and their current knowledge. Handpicking different aspects of methodologies, and throwing your own creative spin on it, is always going to benefit the student when this is properly thought-through.
Jimena wants to learn English because she feels her level is much lower than it should be considering she has been learning intermittently for years. She explains that her learning experience has largely been based in grammar and written exercises, and that the most progress she feels she made during her entire SLA experience was during a two week stint she spent in Scotland when she was completely immersed in the language. Her level is better than she thinks, she simply lacks confidence and this causes her to doubt herself and to become inhibited. She isn’t required to learn for work, but she would like to develop vocabulary that would be useful to her in a professional context.
Sofía is thirteen and Carlos is eleven, their level of English is very low, although Sofía has a slightly higher level than Carlos, and therefore tends to translate into L1 (Catalan) to help her brother when he doesn’t understand. Because of this, Carlos has a tendency to rely on his sister’s translations, rather than concentrating on the information provided to acquire understanding. They are siblings and therefore have a tendency to bicker during class. They often forget drills we have just been practicing if these lack dynamism, and they are easily bored. They come back from school late afternoon, and our class starts at 6pm, they are therefore often tired. Furthermore the environment we have to study in is their living room, and the only place to sit is the sofa, they therefore have a tendency to slump down and become distracted. Sofía has a smart phone, she often looks at this during class. The adolescents’ mother instigated their extra-curricular classes, they therefore have little self-motivation for participation.
In Jimena’s case there is never any justification for using her native tongue, her English is far too advanced, she has a capacity to explain any TL she is missing through description. Although she sometimes displays inhibitive behaviour, it quickly becomes apparent that when engaged in a context-based discussion that interests her, particularly those that introduce vocabulary relating to her profession, she is enthused and thus relaxes. She responds especially well to acting out scenarios, and appears to be largely uninterested or uninspired by images. She responds well to suggestion and signals, and benefits from silent teaching that encourages her to take a lead on activities and to do the majority of the talking; talking about herself and her own experiences motivates her. Though she is not heavily reliant on structure explanations, she solicits these more frequently than the majority of students.
Jimena requires little support to stay concentrated, she chose to commit to learning English by her own accord.
Sofía and Carlos need to be constantly energised, they respond excellently to techniques endorsed by the Total Physical Response method (TPR) – where physical movement is used to build recognition. Keeping them active prevents them from becoming bored or tired, and it also seems to encourage them to interact positively, minimising sibling rivalry and bickering. They love anything visual, watching clips of TV programs they like and using images of famous people they love to inspire them to speak is very effective. The whole syllabus can be adapted and applied to their personal interests, which is much more effective in keeping them alert and concentrated. Taking this approach with them tends to minimise how much Alex relies on Sofía to translate because they are both actively engaged and having fun. When this does happen, I tend to make an observation about it, but always in a non-critical and jokey way, because the reality is that in some circumstances, it helps Alex. Because we use drills and repetition (Callan method and Audio-Lingual method), and through acting out, Alex’s understanding of the TL is nevertheless reinforced. We often use objects to promote language acquisition, hiding a pen in the room can be used to learn the verbs to lose, to look for, and to be found in their various tenses; and the use of objects tends to distract Sofía from reaching for her phone.
The methods used in both cases are a combination of the Callan method, the Direct model, the Audio-Lingual method, The Silent Way, Suggestopedia, and TPR; although the format of the class is entirely different in both cases, and is designed to respond directly to the specific needs and goals of the students themselves. To rely too heavily on one methodology, and to be too rigid in my teaching techniques, would be of detriment to my students. Currently none of the students mentioned are at a point where they require components of the Grammar-Translation method, however this won’t always be the case – when they reach a point where this method fits their objectives, I will incorporate it willingly. It is widely accepted that we must listen to speak, and speak to pronounce before we can properly read. Once we can read, writing becomes all the easier. A student with very advanced English, who is required professionally to translate complex texts, may well benefit from the Grammar-Translation Method, which has very little emphasis on speaking and pronunciation. Although this method has been subject to much criticism, we as teachers must recognise that at some point in a student’s SLA trajectory, there may be aspects of this methodology that are highly relevant to their ongoing learning.
In both cases I try to be empathetic and gentle, but I am constantly challenging them to step slightly out of their comfort zone without pushing them so hard they become inhibited or frustrated. By identifying the zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the zone between what the student can do on their own and what they cannot do on their own – I create a framework where they can continually develop their language with my guidance and support. In pedagogy, we refer to this as scaffolding – the support we offer students as we guide them through new areas of the language, and subsequently withdraw as it becomes internalised and they can stand on their own two feet. Identifying the ZPD is possible through a constant process of analysis and evaluation during classes.
Well-thought out and thorough activities are key to the success of a class, however this resource becomes inconsequential where proper planning is lacking. The activity should be adaptable to the student’s needs – the best activities are those that give the teacher sufficient resources to stimulate their creativity and adapt each activity to suit the age of the student, the number of students in a class, and the infinite combinations of learning styles that the students embody. An activity that is too rigid in its form, that relies too heavily on one type of teaching technique, will stunt the creativity of the teacher. Thus, it is the responsibility of the teacher to adapt the activities accordingly, and through proper planning, so that when the student comes to class they have the best opportunity to succeed. Does my activity invite the use of visuals, movement, listening, speaking, writing, reading, individual and group work, student input etc.? How I adapt the activities to suit my students needs so that they can best achieve their goals? These are the questions that as teachers we should be asking.