“Teacher, are you going to teach me good English?”
“Teacher, are you going to teach me good English?”
by Kata Ujvarosi
Who designs teaching programmes? Are the teachers right when they assign students to specific programmes? Where does learning take place, and who is responsible for the outcome?
Our learners arrive with big, bright goals. Some come to us with oversized, life-changing dreams and equally massive worries, blaming themselves and their previous programmes for the fact that they still lack the fluency and proficiency they desire or that is required of them. With furrowed brows, they mumble about weaknesses yet sport uncompromising dedication regarding their ambitions.
The picture soon becomes clearer. We discuss the remedy with our students, a timetable of activities that links the present to the desired destination, describing the route in carefully considered steps; so the goals will be realised. But then… reality intrudes, and the student becomes like one who has embarked upon a too-stringent diet. The devotion they showed begins to weaken, and they ask for fewer or shorter lessons and less homework; they don’t want to work so hard because they’ve had such a tiring week, and so one lesson becomes a ‘cheat meal’ blurring the focus from the sight and the ‘cheats’ sadly settle a new norm…
Interestingly, learning English is a process that shares much in common with going to the gym or dieting. Similarly to how a trainer acts as a guide to working in the gym and a nutritionist to eat healthily, the English teacher is also a guide to attaining fluency and proficiency. But just as the outcomes of gym-going and dieting depend enormously on the active participation of the person seeking to change their body, so do lesson outcomes depend to a great extent on what the student is willing to do.
In short, the trainer cannot lift the weights, the nutritionist cannot eat the broccoli, and the teacher cannot learn the language on behalf of the student.
This article serves two purposes. First, it seeks to reassure the teacher that they cannot do everything for their students. Yet, it also offers practical ideas for them to encourage students to become more autonomous. Secondly, it suggests some reflective tasks for students to help them maximise their learning and have realistic expectations.
For learners: Try answering the following 7 questions
Question One: What is your learner identity? Think about your learning experiences and the approaches that have worked best for you so far. Have a vision. Who do you want to be when you use your target language? Here are four quick steps to create your ideal second language-self with your teacher’s help:
- Create a vision, and make it as realistic and tangible as you can.
- Work on the vision - strengthen it; see yourself as you want to be, just like when you buy the outfit you dearly wish for without yet having achieved the body that fits it.
- Keep the vision alive and check what obstacles may show up. There must be battles to fight!
- Have an action plan and add tools you will need on your way - apart from setting a goal, you will need constant motivation, a study plan, and time to invest, just to mention a few things as Dörnyei (2013) suggests. Your teacher can adjust the teaching programme based on your involvement; the more, the better! When facing limitations - take a detour, adapt, go on and embrace the journey. Don’t forget if you can dream it, you can do it. Make your own poster that calls you out when you feel it is too hard; like this You may not be there yet, but you are closer than you were yesterday.
Question Two: What is your story? If this is not your first English lesson, why are you here now, and what led you here? Share your story with your teacher so that they can build an idea in their mind of you as a learner. What has your language-learning journey been like so far?
Question Three: What did you like and dislike in your previous classes? Did you enjoy talking to your partner and sharing your life experiences with a stranger, or did you prefer written interaction? Have you tried different classes and various platforms - such as online and real-world face-to-face lessons? Which coursebooks have you used, and how do you feel about them? Which activities did you find challenging enough to help you learn which ones clicked straight away or were too dull?
Question Four: What will you do to make these lessons yours? Passive students learn the least, so be active - bring language with you to the classroom, be it something you heard, read, or saw. For example, have you recently listened to a song with lyrics you couldn’t understand? Did a colleague email you with a demand you couldn’t process? Bring it to your class and make it the subject of your next lesson.
Question Five: Have you ever reflected on your language-learning experiences? Think after each lesson about what was too difficult or too easy and what went well. Here is a little chart you can use as a journal. I added an example too.
My Reflection Chart
|Name of the activity||What I did/what I practised||What I learned||What is still tricky||My feelings about the activity|
|small talk at a party, conversation||safe topics for
|what/how to ask||word order in questions||
It was great to chat with my classmates. It felt like a real party
Adapted from Edmunson and Fitzpatrick (2000).
Making notes like this after each lesson can help you to keep on track. Eventually this will be like your gym log that you are happy to share! Could you go further with your English next time? Could you take more risks and experiment with the new language, like someone at the gym gradually trying to lift more weight? Share your reflections with your teacher to help them create the right challenge for you!
Question Six: Are you working outside of the classroom? If you want to change how you look, going to the gym twice a week will help, but what you do in the kitchen is even more vital. The same goes for learning English. Your lessons give your learning structure, but you will learn more if you spend time with the language outside the classroom. Do the homework, go through the workbook and other materials that come with the coursebook, and make sure you take every opportunity to maximise your learning experience. Walk the extra mile!
Question Seven: Are you the best learner you can be? Be active, ask questions, and attempt tasks - use all the opportunities available to develop. The treadmill at the gym won’t make you fitter if you only look at them. The same is true in the classroom. Are you speaking often enough? Are you raising your hand when the teacher asks a question? Are you willing to make mistakes so that you can push your language further forward? Are you ready to try again when you fail, to think once more about what you want to say and how to say it, so that when you leave the classroom, you feel as tired - and sure of growth - as you do after a good workout at the gym?
Set B - for teachers and course designers:
Link the classroom activities
During the transition from one task to the other, share the rationale and goal with your learners, so they will know which muscle you are working on - or, in our case, what skills and competences are addressed. Links are sometimes loose, or the pre-planned order must change or even be reversed. Providing a rationale for a step will prove that it is logical and choices have been made, meaning that more is being done than just working through a series of tasks. By doing so, learners will see the magician behind the scenes and occasionally raise their hats - or eyebrows - which, either way, creates bonds.
Promote learner research
Encourage curiosity and questions, and help learners go on quests. For example, mini-research tasks mean looking up words in a dictionary, researching online, or conducting a survey. Doing this will help them become more autonomous when they learn and use supplementary materials more effectively and allow experiments with a foreign language, doing activities they may not have felt ready for yet.
Add learner training
Embedded learner training pursues learning opportunities and helps learners become autonomous. Autonomous learners can take the initiative and are responsible for studying. Its form can vary from giving the learners tips on learning or unlearning language to coping strategies when facing accents or rapid speech. It serves the same as a trainer’s careful instructions in the gym when explaining why and how we should or shouldn’t work on specific muscles. It might trigger a complete behavioural change! A suitably well-prepared learner can try push-ups and sit-ups safely at home, so to speak; longer runs are thus like longer fluent stretches.
Follow up progress
Assessment can be carried out in a non-threatening way, using tools other than summative assessment.
Be sure to provide means for reflection (journals, easy-to-fill-in tables etc.) and self-evaluation so that learners can recognise their progress in the mirror. See the Reflection Chart above. Reflection could be an organic part of the course, in the form of some planned quiet moments in or after classes that help the teacher gain an insight into what goes on in the classroom and inside the learner's mind. Appreciate silence, too, not just the busy classroom - quiet moments often indicate cognitive processing!
Apart from feedback and reflection, quiz-like tasks and exit tickets can be just as valuable as unit progress tests. The latter can be set up as big race days first, clarifying the purpose that tests serve and providing information on the efficiency of teaching and learning in a manner of shared responsibility. The aim is to beat our previous selves, not ideal learners, and get to the next step, not the final goal yet.
Let learners see the gap
There is a gap between the desired outcome (that we can understand from a needs analysis questionnaire at the beginning of the course) and where learners stand now, which can be revealed by imitating the tasks learners need to be able to perform by the end of the course. Facing the tangible and measurable model will create the need for more practice and the motivation to strive. Working towards the desired outcome will make classroom activities more meaningful and learners more dedicated. If the void is daunting, reflect on the accomplishments and celebrate small successes. Notes of praise and reminders of success (what the learners did particularly well) can create memorable moments and link present progress and the past. Why do we need to have a desired outcome? Without a vision, where shall we go? We need models, big posters on the wall, and a craving for success! Clear goal setting and a vision of the outcome will help when learners would call it a day or start negotiating to get less work done.
Interestingly, teachers may have a different vision of their learners’ progress and needs from what the learners actually desire for themselves. Like in the gym, some trainers wisely promote another move or another sport instead of the one we are trying to succeed in, but that is wearing us out. The teacher’s advice will serve as a good protein shake at the end of the workout. Teachers can help develop and strengthen the vision while considering constraints as well.
Be ready to take detours
When unexpected content arises, let mistakes inform the program and sample them to create new materials. Errors are windows into the learner's progress and mistakes can be carefully monitored and anonymously sampled or even partly altered for further exploitation - this will provide unique and personal content compared to texts designed for learners whose identity is defined only by their CEFR level. Use published materials as a guide but adapt or replace them in a way appropriate to your context.
For example, swap and skip tasks or rewrite a conversation using the learners' context; your learners will appreciate the effort and have a chance to access emerging content on demand.
Shared responsibility in learning makes learners self-efficacious and helps teachers design and deliver teaching more effectively. Mutual investment in the programme (time, money, preparation, self-study, dedication, willingness etc.) will help to realise the desired goal. Teachers must remember that teaching and learning go hand in hand; however, one does not arise directly from the other. Therefore learners, too, must recognise their responsibilities, be ready to reflect on their progress and revise their investment. Learning is an act of collaboration where the two sides fit together in mutual understanding and work on realistic learning goals - the initial consciously-set objectives are powerful, they enthuse both sides, but they don’t always align well with long-term practice that requires continuous effort and reflections on the learner’s part as well.
Dörnyei, Z. In Arnold, J. and Murphey, T. (2013) Self issues and motivated behaviour in language learning, Meaningful Action, CUP
Edmundson, E. & Fitzpatrick, S. (2000) Negotiating the syllabus: learning needs analysis through pictures. In Breen, M. & Little John, A. (eds.) Classroom Decision-Making. CUP
Kata Ujvarosi is a freelance EFL teacher and course designer, running F2F and online classes at English Monopoli and collaborating with schools in Italy and Hungary, including International House Budapest. She holds the Cambridge DELTA, BA in Education, IH CAM and CELTA qualifications and is keen on professional development to challenge her views, keep up with the ELT world and better respond to her learners' needs. She is particularly interested in Task-based learning and fostering positive self-efficacy to facilitate learning and make teaching programmes more learning- and learner-centred.