Approach to L2 Language Acquisition
The Constructivist Learning Theory
based on the
The Communicative Approach
Separated by oceans, continents and thousands of miles and with vast cultural and religious differences, the natives of Egypt, Thailand and Spain share one main commonality; the desire to be taught and effectively communicate in English. When learning languages, a distinction is usually made between the mother tongue, second and foreign language acquisition. A mother tongue is the first language one acquires, as a child. However, if an immigrant were to move to a new country and learn the language of that country, they will be learning a second language (L2). But, a student in England learning Spanish in high school, will be considered as learning a foreign language.
Numerous theories about language acquisition have been developed through the influence and application of the fields of linguistic and psychology but determining the appropriate theory, approach and methodology requires careful consideration and understanding of the needs of the language learner. This paper will address language acquisition for the L2 learner.
Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to be immersed into a number of unique and distinct cultures and although each country I visited exhibited a raw representation of their beliefs and traditions, modern technology remained at the forefront. Viewed as a favorable vehicle for growth and opportunity by both developed and under developed nations and their citizens, advances in modern technology have not only changed the way we communicate and learn but also the way we teach. Whether motivated by career advancement, travel or simply to interact with friends through the various social media channels, my experiences have led me to believe that L2 learners no matter their age, race or culture are desirous of achieving the same outcome. The desire is to learn English to communicate and with this in mind, careful consideration must be taken when designing the correct approach as there are a plethora of learning theories, approaches and language teaching methodologies that have gained considerable notoriety over the years through the influence of psychology and the field of linguistics.
Through the incorporation of my personal experiences and the theoretical applications learned throughout the TEFL course, my personal teaching philosophy will represent the Constructivist Learning Theory ("CLT") to L2 language acquisition. The CLT is based on the idea that students construct their own meaning by building on their previous knowledge and experiences. Meaning is made by the student making a connection to the new learning and the information already stored. This new learning must be reflected upon and connected with their old experiences. The goal in CLT learning is to promote knowledge acquisition through inquiry, research and investigation rather than simple memorization and regurgitation and due to the nature of the CLT learning environment and the style of teaching required to produce the desired objectives and learning outcomes, the teacher is no longer in charge. The focus is now on language skills such as speaking, listening and writing and language areas such as vocabulary each of these is a crucial and necessary ingredient in establishing communicative competence. This theory represents a shift from the ´traditional, memory orientated transmission models to a more student-centered approach.
The following are characteristics of the CLT theory:
- Learners are actively involved, responsible and autonomous
- The environment is democratic
- The activities are interactive and student centered
CLT and Classroom Interaction
At the heart of Constructivism is the idea that learning is neither passive nor a copying process. It is a process of active participation. (Schifter & Simon, 1990). Getting students to actively participate in class is dependent upon a number of factors such as motivation and affective factors. In addition, research has shown that the lack of involvement to learning is typically due to a learner´s negative experiences and perceptions in relation to learning, their teachers, the content and teaching materials. (Li, 2003). Therefore, it is important to understand the roles both the teacher and the student plays in relation to CLT language learning.
The role of the teacher is to prompt and facilitate discussions. My main focus will be on guiding students by asking questions that will lead them to develop their own conclusions.
Creating an active and interactive teaching environment will require motivated learners. However, what may motivate one person to learn a foreign language and become proficient in that language may differ from individual to individual. The CLT theory sees motivation as a key component of learning and not only helps learning but is essential for learning and creating communicative competence - the degree to which a communicator´s goals are achieved through effective and appropriate interaction. Classroom goals are focused on all of the components of communicative competence and are not restricted to grammatical or linguistic competence. In my classroom, I will use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation methods to motivate. A few examples of each are as follows: Engage student interaction, show enthusiasm when teaching, give positive feedback, for younger students, reward charts and certificates and give recognition.
CLT Teaching Practices
As a constructivist teacher, I will encourage and accept student initiatives. Students are responsible for their own learning and I will use every possible opportunity to guide the students as they ask questions. I will also use primary sources, data and manipulatives to help students better comprehend abstract concepts. It will also be important to encourage a higher level of thinking that will benefit the students as well as remaining cognizant through the use of various discussions and activities to discover their prior knowledge. I will elicit responses by asking open ended questions and getting the students to ask questions to each other. In addition, and at all times, I will remember the importance of providing the student with "wait time" while they respond to questions or are formulating their opinions and ideas. This will allow them to self correct their errors or give better more well presented explanations.
CLT and Classroom Activities
When devising and creating activities, I will use active techniques to learning such as real world problem solving, experiments, reflection and discussion. Students will be encouraged to evaluate their learning and reflect on their learning process. The methods and activities chosen will be hands on.
A good example of a CLT activity will be the "jigsaw" activity. In this activity, the class will be divided into several groups with each group having a different piece of information needed to complete an activity. To fit the pieces together will require the student to use their language resources and communicative strategies to communicate with each other in order to get more information.
The target language should be used not only during communicative activities but when instructing students on assignments, activities or homework, as it is during these times that learning is also taking place. This will also help the students realize that the target language is a vehicle for communication not just an object to be studied. However, should the student make errors during CLT teaching, they will be tolerated as making errors in the course of L2 acquisition under the constructivist view is a natural outcome of the development of ones communication skills. Further, developing communicative competence includes learners also developing interlanguage in their own understanding of how the language works, which is often flawed until the learner develops a higher proficiency level.
During the activities and assignments, the use and choice of materials plays a very important role as they provide the basis for communication amongst the learners. There are three basic material types for CLT learning: 1) Text based - offering the learners many kinds of prompts on which they can build conversations. i.e. visual cues, pictures etc. 2) Task based - consisting of exercise handbooks, cue cards etc. and 3) Realia - authentic material which can be touched and held such as, newspaper articles, photos, maps etc.
The chosen syllabus for CLT learning will need to be notional/functional based. This is one in which the language is arranged according to the meanings a learner needs to express through language and the functions the learner will use the language for. Serving a dual purpose, this type of syllabus contains a) the meanings and concepts the learner needs in order to communicate and b) the language needed to express them.
The organized syllabus will depend upon the age of the student as the functional requirements will differ. With that said, the Council of Europe expanded and developed the notional syllabus to include objectives for adult learners taking into account their foreign language communication requirements when travelling, on business, personal identification requirements etc. The CLT theory views children as well as adults as active participants in their own language. Young children will interact with their environment and build language by communicating with other speakers. The CLT approach will differ in instruction only by way of the communicative needs of the learner whether young or old. The student-centered classroom approach, will remain the same. However, the need for graded language will be considered and applied in direct relation to the age and level of the learner.
In the CLT classroom, assessments should not be used as an accountability tool that serve to stress or demoralise students, but instead should be used as a tool to enhance both the students learning and the teachers understanding of the students progress.
When assessing the students, I will assess through case studies, group based projects, presentations, role playing and debates.
CLT is best considered as an approach to language acquisition rather than a method and appeals to those who seek a more humanistic approach to teaching, one in which the interactive process of communication receives priority.
Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I will remember
Involve me and I will understand