Teaching, learning and living can be fun!
When I first enrolled in the TEFL course I thought teaching a second language was something quite easy, something anyone with a good level of the target language can do if helped by a book. It may sound a bit naïve but, it had never crossed my mind the thought of people theorizing about such a subject; even less of people writing specialized books and analyzing the effectiveness of different teaching methodologies. I have always been taught foreign languages through the Grammar-Translation Method (GTM) and even though I was completely aware of its communicative deficiencies, I believed this was The Method (I didn't know of any other). I used to solve the aspects of communication outside the classes and on my own, an usual mean was to work in different countries so I would face the real need to communicate and feel compelled to speak the language no matter how shy I felt or how many mistakes I was making. This immersion method has been quite useful for me for the last ten years, but it's certainly a method not suitable to most people's lifestyle and character. Nevertheless now I realize that many other methodologies less demanding, more efficient and enjoyable exist, which are applicable in a classroom and have been proved to achieve the main goal when learning a language: the ability to communicate in such language. This essay aims to analyze some of these methods and put forward my own perspective on how to approach the teaching process. However, before doing so I should consider some other basic and determinant issues which will be very helpful for the understanding of the subsequent reasonings.
Many theories have arisen in the last forty years regarding the learning process of a second language (L2). In our days one of the most popular theories is language acquisition that is related to the natural process children use in acquiring first and second languages. According to Krashen adults have two ways of developing competence in the second language: acquisition (subconscious learning) and learning (conscious learning). Children when acquiring a language aren't affected by interlanguage factors while adults usually are, and this is where the need for conscious learning originates.
Notwithstanding the age factor should be never observed as a barrier, but more of a challenge a teacher should deal with. Affective factors should be also taken in consideration when teaching since they can play even more of an important role than the age factor. The learner's attitude towards the second language, their personality, their needs and the role they play in a group can be crucial in the process of acquisition. And here is where a teacher should question his/her own performance in a class and examine the cultural and social context of his/her students. In most countries the institutionalized educational system was based on a hierarchy structure where teachers were depicted as 'superior beings' and students needed to achieve the teacher's goals instead of their own goals. Students' backgrounds, interests, aptitudes and needs were hardly ever taken into account.
Learners' past experiences and even genetic memory about this sort of educational system still affects the order of things in our times, so I believe that one of the main functions of a teacher in our days is to change students' vision towards learning. In order to carry out this function it's important to spend part of our energy in creating a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere in our classes, working on the rapport with our students, provide them with the feeling of freedom for talking and asking, strengthen their critical thinking, enhance group dynamics and demolishing historical preconceptions such as the elevated position of a teacher or the previous aptitudes a student might or not have for learning a language.
Another important point to bear in mind while teaching is to convey the idea of amusement; learning can be a game in which everyone wins. In my opinion, a teacher's role can't be really labelled; it's more of an ability for directing a play in which its actors will improvise with concrete contents given by the director, with their own knowledge and with their means for communication. The director will be in charge to organize, coordinate, assess, guide, coach, motivate, bring inputs and comfort the actors in scene. But the final result will be brought into being by the performance (the language production) of its actors. How to reinforce their performance so a brilliant piece is created, should be again the director's concern. This last issue though, shouldn't become a major worry since researchers from all around the globe have studied it thoroughly and have developed many different methods and approaches to choose from.
There's no agreement on what's the best method to teach a second language, apparently every way has its own advantages and imperfections. Nevertheless at present many teachers and language schools are appealed by the Communicative Approach which bases its goal on the development of the communicative competence. The communicative approach could be said to be a 70s product of educators and linguists who had grown dissatisfied with the audio-lingual and grammar-translation methods of foreign language instruction.
This approach emphasizes on the integration and development of four skills: speaking and writing (productive skills), listening and understanding (receptive skills). The way to accomplish it is to make use of real-life situations that necessitate communication. The teacher sets up a situation that students are likely to encounter in real life. Unlike the audio-lingual method of language teaching, which relies on repetition and drills, the communicative approach can leave students in suspense as the result of a class exercise will vary according to their reactions and responses. The main features of this approach are the following ones:
Authentic language: language is introduced as it is used in a real context.
Target language: becomes a mean of communication instead of a content to remember.
Games: are a recurring tool for teaching due to its similarities with real life situations.
Errors: are tolerated since they're seen as an outcome of the learning process.
Grammar and vocabulary: are taught inductively through communicative activities.
Authentic materials: use of magazines, newspapers, visual aids, graphics, radio conversations as input.
Overall as a teacher I widely agree with this approach: I stand for the establishment of function-based syllabus' instead of grammar based ones, I consider extremely important to focus on students' development of communicative skills and to encourage them to produce meaningful language, I recognize the enormous value of suggesting activities offering a real life like situations for students to communicate coherently, as well as of providing current and authentic materials to improve the students' understanding of the culture and context where the target language is used and I completely advocate for learning through games.
But still I believe that combining features from other approaches could enrich the communicative approach and produce a much more complete program. As for instance, this approach is well designed for one-to-one classes or small groups of students, but it might be the case that we find ourselves confronted to a large group of students, then other considerations should be also borne in mind. A very interesting approach deals with this subject going hand in hand with the communicative approach: the Cooperative Learning Approach. Cooperative learning focuses its attention not only on how teachers interact with their students and how they interact with the provided materials, but also on how students interact between each other. So a new role is added to the teacher: he/she should structure various student-student interaction patterns -goal structure- in order to attain a better learning environment (more self-esteem, implication and better relationships). This strategy aims to promote students' cooperative, competitive and individualistic efforts all at a time. However the most important goal structure and the one that is used the majority of the time in this sort of learning situations, is cooperation. Let's see now what are the main attributes of this approach when applied in a class so it can be better understood:
Goals: All students share the same goal.
Groups: students are distributed in small changing groups or teams assigned by the teacher at every lesson.
Assessments: Students assessments are interdependent.
Tasks: Require the contributions of every each and single student, they can't be solved if one of the team's members does not participate.
Resources: Are distributed within the teams.
Roles: Are continuously changing and different for each member of the group.
Lately lots of attention have been drawn towards the way a class should be arranged in order to enhance students' communicative competences and their rapport with the teacher. But little have been thought of how relational dynamics can influence the course of a class, specially in advanced levels. Big groups of L3, L4 and L5 students able to speak quite fluently could be largely benefited if we, as teachers, implement this approach in the class.
Other features extracted from methods such as Suggestopedia can be of great help when trying to create a relaxed and cheerful environment in our classes. The use of indirect positive suggestions to
enhance students' self-confidence and to convince them that success is obtainable can be a great manner to cope with their psychological barriers to learning. The random and consistent use of visual or audio aid materials related to fine arts can also be an interesting way to induce a relaxing atmosphere in our classrooms.
The Total Physical Response method offers us a good system to deal with kids or adult S1 students. The TPR can be a brilliant way of teaching kids since they feel less anxious than adults to learn, aren't so prone to have interlanguage interferences and aren't so much aware of embarrassment feelings, all these factors enable them to easily follow a learning pattern based on imitation (the teacher is responsible for modeling spoken instructions and students are responsible for demonstrating the actions and repeating the aural structures). Adult S1 students will be also benefited by this method since it does not use native language translations and their first approach to the second language will feel as natural as language acquisition is for children. Nevertheless repetition and imitation can be boring and tiring for advanced level adults, so I would prefer to use my own “combined communicative approach” to teach them.
And last but not least, as a teacher I think is very important to take into account within the general frame of education, one of the main values of the TPR approach: learning effectiveness is improved when it is fun! Acting games, creative activities, board games, controversial conversations, riddles, etc. should be taken seriously as they can open all the doors for students to be motivated and learn effortlessly, and for us teachers to feel excited towards every new class we are going to teach in. Teaching, learning and living can be fun! We should only choose for the right approach!