My Teaching Approach
There’s not enough said about second language learning. As a native Spanish speaker, I’ve been an English student my whole life and I can guarantee that there’s not such a thing as THE perfect teaching method. Many things influence each learning process; through my experience as a student -and years later a teacher- I realised that none of them are as important as affective factors. This knowledge helped me develop my own teaching approach, focused mainly on meaningful communication.
The objective of learning a new language is being able to understand and produce thoughts using it, becoming fluent first and accurate later. How can a teacher help students go through those steps? What usually works is arousing students’ curiosity through the use of interest prompting material. In other words, the use of material that is challenging enough to make them want to make an effort to understand. Project Based Learning is an excellent starting point for every course planning. Through this method, it’s students who choose what they want to work on and it’s the teacher’s sagacity that’ll allow them to develop their skills. Starting from a place where they feel confident, our role as teachers is to encourage them to test new territory as organically as possible. This means, for example, that students shouldn’t be expected to write until they are good at reading, and they shouldn’t be expected to read properly if they are not fluent speakers & comprehensive listeners. By choosing their own paths, students are put in a position where they are responsible for their own learning process , the success of which will only affect themselves. They are encouraged to make hypothesis, plan their steps, make mistakes, change their plans and try new ways.
This method not only helps students’ language learning process (which imitates the way we learn our native language: confronting the need to communicate), but also fosters the development of much more valuable skills such as critical thinking, decision making and initiative taking. Trusting their ability to learn at their own pace through topics of their own interest, we are giving students the strength and patience they need to respect their own processes. Once they are confident with their abilities, that feeling will translate into other aspects of their personal lives, enhancing their prospects of having a fulfilling job, hobby, family life.
As teachers, our role is to guide these personal processes. It’s challenging, that’s a fact. A much more comfortable role would be delivering ‘knowledge’ and testing how much they can remember about it. However, that method is old fashioned not only because it’s boring, but because it’s dangerous. Making students depend on another person to give them the information they need to know is promoting general ignorance. That’s how we get people used to working jobs they don’t really care about, obeying abusive bosses and companies. This is why the teacher’s role is so important: we are the ones supposed to give people the tools they need to educate themselves. What I mean by this is that, instead of using a textbook, students should be taught how to search the internet; instead of being the ones in charge of filling their heads with information that we are not even sure they need (grammatical rules, for example, which are understood in the native tongue even before we start our formal education), we should be attentive to what THEY want to know and helping them find their own answers.
Project Based Learning, as I stated before, is a very good starting point for the planning of a course. Not only because it means that students will be excited about the topic they’ll be working on, but because the whole process ends with a real production. Whether it involves more practice at writing or reading, more new vocabulary or complex grammar structures, the student gets to take home the result of his or her work. A tangible proof of the process they’ve worked on and the certainty that their communicative skills have improved, at least through the exposure to the new vocabulary their projects demanded. However, as good as this method is for the mentioned aspects, it still fails to make a completely organic approach to the learning of a second language. The use of a syllabus is one of the pillars they build their theories on and, although it should not be completely disregarded, it’s not what a course should be planned around. Having individual projects to work on means that the plan for every course is completely new and bound to change as it evolves, so having a syllabus planned beforehand would not only be digressive for the project’s evolution, but would also mean the teacher’s attention is more focused on delivering certain information rather than helping students achieve their own goals.
Of course, the objective of every language teaching school is for the students to improve their communicative skills, so we,the teachers should be constantly assessing student’s abilities in the different areas and guiding them towards developing the ones that they have more trouble with. This assessment can be achieved by keeping an eye on the student’s work. Just by keeping a close watch on their activities, an x-ray on their learning process can be taken. But here a new problem rises: subjectivity. As the bond with the student develops, analyzing their processes gets harder and harder. In this cases, a third perspective would be helpful. Joining forces with other colleagues who approach them through their own areas of expertise, a more objective panorama can be elucidated. Teachers should meet regularly to discuss each student’s situation, brainstorming on ways to let them get more practice in the areas that it’s needed.
After collecting this information, the tricky part starts: how to help them improve the skills they are less confident with? Let’s illustrate this common situation with an example of how this situation would be handled:
-Student is interested in music, his/her ability with rhythm is undeniable but he/she shows no interesting in working on his/her reading skills.
- Learning how to compose in a new genre is their project of choice. Working as a team, teacher-student settle upon a plan which first step concerns getting inspired.
- To help them get better at reading, all they need is some interesting material to be seduced into the activity. After some research, books, magazines, websites and e-mail addresses are provided to the student accompanied with the question ‘how do people get inspired?’
- Student now has to investigate on his own, according to the questions that come up through the process.
Of course reading is not the only way of investigating that topic, but in that specific case, given the student’s need to practice reading, it’s much more profitable for his/her process than showing filmed interviews of big musicians. That kind of investigation would be suggested for somebody who has to develop his/her listening skills.
By following this kind of approach, macro and micro skills will develop at a constant pace guided by the student’s need to communicate. The chance of learning a language we are constantly exposed to is of a hundred percent; the only variation is the pace at which that happens. Let’s take babies for example. All of them end up understanding their mother tongue, it just varies in different degrees of speed/accuracy. Does a baby who says mama at seven months hold a higher chance of becoming president than one who says it at eleven months?
Then why hurry? Just making sure they are exposed as much as they can to the target language and are prompted to express their own ideas using it, fluency will come naturally, followed closely by accuracy. In this aspect, cognitivism offers a great vision of our learning process. This school suggests that we learn by watching experts while participating in peripheral activities. We know how volatile beginners can be, how their levels of frustration tend to get really high really quickly because they are expected to know a certain amount of things, by a certain amount of time.
Our job as teachers it to provide them the calm, patient atmosphere they need for language acquisition to take place. Choosing a project to work on usually helps them relax because it takes the pressure off the new language itself, but this doesn’t mean that all of them will be ready to tolerate all the mistakes that being a beginner entails. That’s why tests and grades are dangerous, not to mention virtually useless. Not only they provide none of the objective value they are supposed to, but they work with the idea of a whole educative process that can be quantified through a certain activity at a certain time, which only helps categorizing and ranking people’s abilities without considering personal growth and abilities.
To sum up, the main point of my teaching approach is always keeping in mind that it’s human beings we are working with. Unfortunately, the position they have been taught to take as learners is a vulnerable, passive one, which expects everybody to go through the same steps and to accomplish the same results. This is why it’s our job to work towards breaking down those walls and empowering students to be the protagonists of their own learning processes.