Anna Boyden – 17/7/17
Essay assessment – Design a teaching approach
The über-realia approach
The task of teaching English can be confronted from countless angles, and there are endless theories that describe the most effective way to learn a second language. My personal view about language teaching is that the most significant improvement comes from a necessity to learn the language. Many theories do not include this view at all, claiming that learning comes from repetition, state of mind, or conditioning. When exploring how best to transform my view into a method, I tended to imagine lesson plans, all of which had a high focus on realia. Hence, I decided to develop my approach with realia as the key element, around which the other components are based. I have named this the ‘über-realia’ approach. It relies heavily on the notion that students are most likely to learn when there is a need. However, as a need does not always exist, the immediate application is encouraged by relating the lessons personally to the student using realia.
Many different theories exist on the topic of how learners process information and how languages are acquired. Different approaches to teaching a second language have been developed based on these theories, and can be almost opposing in their techniques. For example, behaviourists agreed that learning takes place through conditioning, and a language could be learnt by rewarding correct usage and punishing incorrect usage. Contrarily, the Suggestopedia method is based on the theory that learning takes place when the student is relaxed and feels no pressure, and hence the focus is constructing a calming learning environment. There is no right or wrong way to teach a second language, but in my opinion, a broader approach is more effective. My approach is inspired by one of the aspects of first language acquisition, where vocabulary is learnt based on the environment, i.e. the fact that infants only acquire language that is relevant to them. Hence, the theory behind my approach is that students are more effective and motivated learners when the language they encounter is relevant to them, and that there is a need to use it. The primary goal of the über-realia approach is for the students to express themselves. In order to achieve this goal, my approach develops speaking and listening skills, combined with inductive grammar learning, all whilst choosing topics and activities that are of personal interest and relevance to the learner. The language areas I give most importance are vocabulary and grammar, and no native language is permitted in the classes. I want my students to learn to feel confident in their skills, thus enabling them to easily pick up new words and structures when and where they become relevant.
‘But how would you apply these approaches, and form a methodology, procedure and techniques?’ – I hear you ask. The types of activities in my method are very student-based. All material is either directly relevant to the learner or is chosen by the learner. By directly relevant, it is meant that the vocabulary refers to objects and structures relating to the environment around them. For example, for the topic ‘ordering food at a restaurant’, the lesson could be conducted in a cafe, transforming the standard vocabulary into realia. Additionally, material would be chosen by the learner. For example, they may want to understand song lyrics in English, or translate a scene from their favourite movie. By doing this, they would encounter genuine vocabulary and structures that are used naturally by English speakers. It has been shown that when the student has a strong motivation to learn a language, they are more likely to actually do so. The aim of using student-chosen realia in the lessons is to heighten this motivation. This type of activity could be adjusted to different levels. For example, for an Oxbridge P2 level, working on the piece of realia chosen by the student could be an ongoing project, where structures are learnt and practised as they are encountered in the text. However, text realia could be used more frequently for a higher level student such as P4 or P5, with the student bringing pieces as often as they feel comfortable. As rules and slang are encountered, they would be explained and practised using conversation and examples. All activities would encourage speaking to be used as often as possible. Hence, there would not be any workbooks or writing activities, but words may be spelled out on a white board to show differences in spelling in English. The reason for this decision is to enhance the student’s confidence in expressing themselves.
For the über-realia method, the base procedure is inspired by the engage, study, activate (ESA) procedure, developed by Jeremy Harmer. However, two further stages have been added: review and accumulate. Initially, the teacher will get to know the students, explain to them their role of providing material, and start collecting the realia. For example, the teacher may have a level P3 class of three students, one of whose interests is environmental protection. A lesson could be held on the beach! This would fulfil the ‘engage’ stage of the procedure and could be accompanied by a short introduction activity such as quick questions. Target vocabulary for the lesson could include: build a sandcastle, sunbathing, coral reef, as well as more specific topics like: whaling, pollution, oil spill, wildlife etc., and these would be introduced at the next stage (study), along with a corresponding structure. In this example, a suitable structure might be learning should/shouldn’t in order to express opinions. For example, ‘I don’t think the government should allow whaling’. The ‘activation’ would then occur through a topic activity, where the students can practise fluency, introducing their new vocabulary and structure, and producing their own sentences. The ‘review’ stage would then include some rapid drilling where the aim is to trick the students into using incorrect structures or vocabulary. The final stage is ‘accumulate’, which is where the newly-learned skills would be integrated with content from previous lessons. Say the previous lesson had been about ordering food, the teacher could ask questions related how our food packaging waste affects marine life. This idea of a cumulative technique is based on the theory that repetition before the time of forgetting is the most effective way to cement knowledge. For example, an activity for children could be to write a story over the course of several lessons. At the end of the each class, the students work together to add to the story using what they have learnt. That way, they are being reminded of their existing knowledge, and are also being shown their improvement.
The über-realia approach lends itself naturally to being adjusted for different levels, age groups, personalities, and reasons for studying English. However, for complete beginners, more conventional lessons may be required until the student has grasped some of the basics. It is essential that the teacher be responsive to the individual students and can create an environment where they feel comfortable to speak and to express their opinions. The teacher should be very positive and encouraging, and provide praise when a skill is mastered. All errors should be corrected when the errors are related to the activity, but should be tolerated in a fluency activity. In this case, the errors can be recorded and discussed after the student has finished speaking. Ultimately, both the teacher and the student should be communicators, with the aim to mimic the actual use of the language, i.e. conversation. If the teacher is well-prepared, knows their students well, and selects interesting activities relating to the realia for each lesson, they will be able to make the students feel comfortable; in turn, the students will respond positively to the teacher’s encouragement. The teacher should also be aware of the students’ progress, and note if there are any aspects the students are struggling with. This could be achieved through continuous evaluation of the student’s progress. There would be no formal assessment, just formative assessment consisting of the observation of the class, and discussion with the students after classes to hear their opinions on what they think works, and what they are having difficulties with.
I believe that this student-centred approach to teaching is in line with how language teaching is currently evolving. Outside of school systems, the importance of a small student-to-teacher ratio is being recognised and implemented, and lessons are becoming more focused on conversation skills rather than memorising grammar rules. However, this kind of teaching is difficult to apply to schools, where there may not be enough teachers to support small class sizes and to cater to a variety of levels. Ultimately, the future of language teaching within schools is a political issue. With more resources, language teaching could be improved to focus on the communicative aspects of the language. I envision the future of English teaching to evolve more drastically outside of the school system. Although the concept of language exchange already exists, thanks to technology there is more scope for its expansion. I believe that eventually, online language exchange will be more common as a tool to help people practise their language skills. Additionally, many people are realising that although they studied English at school for up to ten years, they are still not able to speak well. They are seeking alternative approaches and are embracing smaller classes with more focus on communication. One teacher working alone must spend lots of time preparing and catering activities to students. This is the benefit of teachers working together to develop lesson plans and share ideas and experiences. By building a database of activities, and constantly assessing and revising these activities, more time can be spent focusing on the student and ensuring they are getting the most out of their lessons.
In conclusion, the über-realia approach aims to replicate the necessity to learn a language and heighten the motivation of the student. This is done through constant involvement of realia, primarily through the setting of the class and the materials provided by students. This focus on realia works in a positive way when considering the affective factors of opportunity, motivation, personality and environment. The procedure of the approach builds on the ESA framework, by including stages devoted to review and accumulation. Planning lessons is of particular importance for this approach, due to its student centred methodology, as the topics may be varied and unconventional. However, the situation-based syllabus relying on realia ensures that the students get the most realistic form of practising English for everyday life. All of these aspects combine to form a new approach to teaching English that recognises the importance of real-world application, and ensures the lessons are beneficial to the student.