When considering methods of teaching English as a foreign language, there is vast array of options to examine. Many are trenched in rote repetition and memorization; others may be purely conversational. And a million and one options exist in between. My approach to teaching English is a unique combination of various methods, put together on purpose in order to create an environment in which students are entertained, engaged, and most importantly, educated. I would like to share some of the most important aspects of my own design, which, as education goes, will always be evolving to meet the demands of cultural changes, technological advances, and continuous research.
To begin, it is important to consider the relationship between cognitive development and learning, especially language learning. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized that social interactions play a fundamental role in cognitive development. Additionally, he proposed that cognitive development did not precede learning, rather was facilitated by it. According to his Social Development (or Sociocultural) Theory, while a child grows from infancy into childhood, constant exposure to what he calls “More Knowledgeable Others” (MKOs) enables the child to develop mentally, and at the same time, language is internalized and becomes the vehicle for thought.
The relationship between a person’s mother tongue and their cognitive development thus cannot be equated to a secondary language. However, the process of language learning, produced by millions of years of evolution, differs little between primary and secondary languages. By drawing a parallel between the learning process of acquiring the first language, and the way meaning is internalized through language, a pathway to second language learning can be established.
So, how can one duplicate the process of first-language acquisition when teaching someone a second language? It’s not such a simple answer. Even beyond learning to listen and speak as a toddler, there come the skills of reading, writing, spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. In my own teaching, I will capitalize on those skills that are learned simultaneously, and scaffold the skills that naturally build upon one another, using a child’s own first language development as a model.
Thus the first skills to be developed must be listening comprehension and speaking, along with a limited but functional vocabulary. For the purpose of reference, let’s call this Phase 1. A child learning to speak quickly learns to ask “what is this?” Through conversation with adults, or MKOs, the child attaches words to meanings. At first the child attaches that word to the specific object or action identified, but as the child hears the word in more contexts, he or she is able to generalize the meaning of the word and acquire its many applications. Similarly, when teaching a language, a teacher can begin by identifying objects and actions, and supplying the words that belong to them. This is how a functional vocabulary, listening comprehension, and speech begin to develop.
Of course, while speech is developed, pronunciation naturally accompanies it. For me, it is important not to introduce reading at this point. Using written texts allows students to apply their own phonetic rules to the written text of another language, especially if they use a similar writing system. It is also important to demonstrate to students that just because a sound is similar to a sound in the student’s first language, the sounds cannot be equated. Learning to speak by imitating a native speaker will allow the student to have a clear accent, with little affectation from the mother tongue.
Once a student has words with meanings attached to them, the student begins to form connections between these words. At this point, grammar is introduced implicitly, simply by copying structures used by the teacher. When the teacher draws relationships between words by using phrases, the student is exposed to that phrasing and begins to apply it. It is important that the teacher use the simplest structures at first, so the student is not overwhelmed with the endless nuances of the English language. A beginner does not need to know one hundred ways to express the same idea; just one will do, at first. Various topic, structure, and vocabulary activities will guide this stage of learning.
When the student has a large enough vocabulary, with a decent enough knowledge of structure to be able to communicate basic ideas, the teacher can move on to the next logical set of skills, or Phase 2: spelling, writing, and reading. (While recent educational practices might not reflect this idea, the relationships are logical and readily scaffolded for rapid learning.) It may seem illogical to teach spelling before a student is even able to read in a language, but consider this: if you teach a student to read, will that student be able to spell intuitively? Now the inverse: if you teach a student to spell, will that student readily be able to read? The connection should be obvious; by teaching the one skill of spelling, a student will grasp the concepts needed for reading and writing right away.
So, the method I will use to teach spelling (and writing, and reading) begins with the learning of phonograms (similar to the Spalding Method). This method is multi-sensory, engaging students’ sight, hearing, speaking, and touch. It is also explicit, ensuring proper understanding and acquisition of skills. It is readily adaptable to different ages and skill levels, and can be applied in any context, in order to maintain appropriate intellectual levels and thereby engagement.
By learning phonograms (single- or multi-letter) and the rules that apply to them (ex. The five purposes of a silent final E), a student practices pronunciation, and begins to grasp the phonetic system of the English language. Then, by grouping these phonograms to make words the student learns to spell, applying the rules, so that appropriate generalization by means of patterns can occur. All the while, the student is learning essential reading and writing skills. This can additionally be used to expand the students’ vocabulary, especially within advanced specialized courses, which we will discuss further on. This phase can be applied to beginners who have barely attained a level of English appropriate to start working on these skills, or it can be adapted to aid and reinforce those who already have some knowledge of the language.
Finally, once all these skills have good foundations laid, the teaching can transition back into a more informal, conversational class. We’ll refer to this as Phase 3. Of course, the methods used to teach these skills will be referenced whenever necessary. Throughout this phase, more complex structures will be demonstrated, implicitly, through exposure to them and their various functions. More topic activities will emerge again, and students will simply practice these skills in order to internalize the language. It is important to remember that no matter the level or the activity, the teacher’s language should be graded to be slightly above the learner’s level. Just as Vygotsky taught, development occurs through exposure to social interaction with MKOs, so by speaking to students at a level they understand but still challenging them, they will constantly be in a state of learning.
A course design will conform to the progression of the method detailed above. For beginners, a conversational class focusing on the implicit teaching of target language and structures will be maintained until an appropriate level is reached to begin the second phase of teaching. This applies both to child beginners as well as adults. With children, the class will lean toward formality, to help learners to focus and to avoid distractions. With adult learners, the atmosphere will be more informal and relaxed.
Of course, English will be the language used in the classroom to maximize exposure and limit confusion. There is no doubt that students may have discussions between themselves in their first language, and interlanguage is bound to occur, but it is up to the teacher’s discretion how much of this will be tolerated before it becomes detrimental to learning. For me, I believe it is a necessary part of second language learning, to occasionally recognize a parallel between meaning and application of words in both languages, but this should not happen all of the time. It is vital for the languages to be separated, compartmentalized, so that the learner is not dependent on translation for understanding.
Activities in the classroom may utilize any number of different types of materials. In Phase 1, this may be simple objects, frequent drawings and demonstrations, especially for verbs, and videos that appropriately represent the lessons. In Phase 2, there are specific materials used for teaching phonograms and spelling rules, consisting of a deck of cue cards and rule sheets. The students will also have their own handouts for at-home practice, and they will also use a mobile application developed by Spalding Education. In Phase 3, more materials will be necessary to facilitate discussion about topics appropriate to the course, whether that be newspapers, videos, movies, music, or any other type of media that can be discussed for the purpose of learning.
In the classroom, the teachers and students have specific roles. In my teaching, I would hope to speak at most, 20% of the time in an advanced class. This will increase as levels decrease, and of course, with explicit teaching during the second phase, teacher talking time will increase, but it is still of utmost importance to have students talking in the classroom. This ensures that they are engaged, that they are practicing, and that the teacher can be assessing their skills and needs. In upper levels especially, it will be the teacher’s role to facilitate, or even provoke, conversation. The teacher is a resource for the students, ready to answer questions and provide guidance. And the teacher is a model of English pronunciation and grammar.
The students’ roles include purposeful engagement in classroom activities. Students should be speaking at least 80% of the time in conversational classes. They are active participants, and collaborators with the teacher during activities. They should practice target language and structures in the classroom as they are introduced, and they should ask questions whenever necessary. The students will be expected to review target assigned target language before a class begins, in order to recognize it when it is presented. And during Phase 2 especially, students will practice phonograms and rules inside and outside the classroom.
For those students that begin with a pre-existing knowledge of English, they will be assessed and placed in a class that is most appropriate for there level. If they are sufficiently prepared, Phase 2 would be the most appropriate placement for the majority of students. Only those with advanced skills in reading and writing would bypass Phase 2, as it is integral to the entire program. These students would be placed in classes that are specially suited to their needs, whether they intend to develop a proficiency in Legal, Business, Medical, General, or any other kind of English.
There should be distinctions between children, teens, and adults at all levels, and activities should be appropriate in order to challenge the students while keeping them engaged and even entertained. Games can be used for children, or even adapted for adults. Role-playing can be especially useful for practicing target language at all ages. I must stress that if a student is not engaged in social interaction, it is unlikely that the student will learn a great deal.
Additional distinctions and adaptations are necessary to address specific student needs, motivations, and affective factors. Assessing how a student learns, what the student’s struggles are, and what motivates the student allows the teacher to modify teaching in a way that suits the student best. Of course, a teacher will need to use an eclectic method in the classroom to suit all students, ensuring to leave none behind at any point.
Finally, to speak specifically of assessment, a student’s skills and needs will be constantly assessed by the teacher. A student should be given a placement assessment in the beginning to determine where to begin and what are the student’s interests (at upper levels), but beyond this, formal assessment will give way to assessment by means of observation. By creating an environment in which the students speak most of the time, the teacher is able to observe the students, offer encouragement and support, compliment the students’ good work, provide corrections when necessary, and tailor the teaching to meet the students’ ever-evolving needs.
To conclude, I believe that teaching English as a foreign language ought to mimic the natural, evolutionarily developed mechanisms for first language acquisition. By beginning with listening and speaking, then progressing to the upper level skills of reading and writing, teaching micro-skills as they coincide with macro-skills, students can develop a useful knowledge of English that will help them reach their goals and fulfil their dreams. While the methods for accomplishing this may not be easy, they should be enjoyable, engaging, and effective.
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