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Welcome to the Teaching Articles page, where you’ll find articles, essays, ideas and tips of special interest to teachers in general and teachers of English in particular.


Second Language Learning Difficulties

Second Language Learning Difficulties

Second Language learners face so many difficulties mainly because of the negative interference of the mother tongue and the cultural differences.

Language transfer

Language transfer designates the interference of the mother tongue in second language learning. Learners apply knowledge from their native language to learn a second language. While this can help in understanding and using the target language, this can also hinder the proper internalization of the L2 (target language) rules, producing errors of syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Learners are influenced by their L1 (mother tongue) in the following manners:
  • They map their L1 grammatical patterns inappropriately onto the L2 as a result of syntactic differences between L1 and L2.
  • They pronounce certain sounds incorrectly or with difficulty as a result of the difference in phonological systems.
  •  They confuse vocabulary items because they are misled by false friends (e.i. words or phrases that look or sound similar in both the mother tongue and the target language, but differ significantly in meaning.)
Linguistic interference can lead to correct language production when the mother tongue and the target language share many linguistic features. However, the transfer can result in errors when both languages differ.

Cultural differences

Learners' culture can be a barrier to second or foreign language learning. Cultural differences may cause confusion and cultural misunderstandings. Learners may have problems communicating with target native speakers because of cultural differences.Learning a second language means learning to speak and comprehend it. But learners can't reach a high level of proficiency unless they are able to use the target language appropriately in the context of the target culture. To reach a pragmatic and socio linguistic competence, learners should be able to make correct assumptions about what interlocutors are saying. When the L1 and  L2 cultures share similar features the assumptions made contribute to the learning. However, when both cultures differ in so many aspects learning is at risk.

Implications in the classroom

Teachers must take into considerations the strategies learners use to learn a second language.
  • Learners tend to use their linguistic knowledge of the mother tongue (and may be knowledge of other languages they have learned.)
  • Learners try to transfer their cultural knowledge to make assumption when communicating in the target language.
  • Teachers must spot and highlight those shared features that may contribute to the target language learning.
  • Teachers must be cautious in error correction because errors may be the result of negative language transfer or incorrect assumptions held about the target culture.

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Guessing meaning from context

Confronted with texts, language learners may be stuck by shortage of vocabulary inventory and thus be unable to understand what texts are about. The first thing that a learner does to understand a difficult word is to look it up using the nearest dictionary. There are however techniques learners may use to get the meaning of such vocabulary items. One of these techniques is guessing meaning from context.No matter what level our students are in, they will often come across difficult words in texts they are exposed to. Inferring and guessing meanings of unfamiliar words is a strategy which is worth developing.

Guessing meaning from context

Guessing from context refers to the ability to infer the meaning of an expression using contextual clues. These clues may be purely linguistic or situational:
  • Linguistic context: the linguistic environment in which a word is used within a text
  • Situational context: extra linguistic elements that contribute to the construction of meaning this may involve background knowledge of the subject.
What this amounts to is that learners should be able to infer the meaning of an unknown word using:
  1. the meaning of vocabulary items that surrounds it;
  2. the way the word is formed;
  3. background knowledge of the subject and the situation.

Techniques for guessing

Texts are often full of redundancy and consequently students can use the relation between different items within a text to get the meaning. Our prior knowledge of the world may also contribute to understand what an expression means.
  • Synonyms and definitions:
    • Kingfishers are a group of small to medium-sized brightly colored birds
    • When he made insolent remarks towards his teacher they sent him to the principal for being disrespectful
  • Antonym and contrast
    • He loved her so much for being so kind to him. By contrast, he abhorred her mother
  • Cause and effect
    • He was disrespectful towards other members. That's why he was sent off and penalized.
  • Parts of speech
    • Whether the word is a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, functioning as a subject, a predicate or a complement.
  • Examples
    • Trojan is an example of a computer virus
  • Word forms (the morphological properties of the word)
    • Getting information from affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to understand a word. Examples: dis- (meaning not), -less (meaning without)...
  • General knowledge
    • The French constitution establishes laïcité as a system of government where there is a strict separation of church and state.
These techniques help students get the meaning of words or at least narrow the possibilities. If need be using the dictionary should be the last resort to fine tune  the understanding of a vocabulary item

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Active Listening

During a conversation, it often happens that the people engaged in the conversation wait to speak rather than actually listen to the speaker. Others are not even listening, being distracted or worse oblivious that they are participants in a communicative act. In fact,  any conversation necessitates a speaker and an active listener.

Why active listening?

Conflicting interlocutors may create tactics to hinder effective listening.  Individuals may contradict each other which has the effect of denying the validity of the other person's position.
Ambushing occurs when one listens to someone else's argument for its weaknesses and ignores its strengths. The purpose is to attack the speaker’s position and support their own. This may include a distortion of the speaker’s argument to gain a competitive advantage. Either party may react defensively, and they may lash out or withdraw. On the other hand, if one finds that the other party understands, an atmosphere of cooperation can be created. This increases the possibility of collaborating and resolving the conflict.From Wikipedia
Active listening, however helps participants in a conversation communicate effectively to avoid communication breakdown and maximize understanding.Epictetus, a Greek sage and Stoic philosopher once said:
We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.

Active listening is a communication skill

The role of the listener in active listening is to give feed back to the speaker of what they hear. This is done through a number of techniques.
  • Re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words to confirm understanding. It is worthwhile noticing that active listeners paraphrasing of the speakers words doesn't necessarily mean that she or he agrees with the other party.
  • The use of body language such as facial expressions and gestures to interpret the speaker's message (check out this great post about gestures in ELT).
  • Focusing on the function of language use objectively as opposed to focusing on formal elements of language.
  • Using active verbal and non-verbal codes to respond to the other party.
  • Being objectively engaged in the process of language by being attentive to the speakers meaning.
  • Avoiding subjective use of the the other party's point  to find weaknesses and ignore strengths as an ambush strategy.

The process of active listening

Different element are noticed in active listening. First, comprehension occurs when information is shared between participants. Listeners have to identify words and sounds that are primordial in comprehending what the speaker wants t to say. Second, retention of information constitutes an essential element in active listening. We risk to lose essential information for a successful transaction if  we engage in mindless listening. That's why a mindful active listener should make an effort to listen to a speaker's message and memorize important information for successful communication. Finally, an active listener's response to the speaker is of paramount importance to keep the flow of optimal communication going. This response may be verbal or non-verbal.Finally, it is true that a communicative transaction needs two participants, namely a speaker and a listener.  But communication involves more than that. When individuals decide to communicate with people, they seek to fulfill a need such as expressing feelings. To do so, they use social codes that can be verbal or/and non-verbal. The other parties engaged in the conversation will have to decode the message to fully understand the meaning of the message. This cannot be done unless they are good active listeners.

External links:

Wikipedia: Active Listening

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Teaching large classes: problems and suggested techniques

Teachers often complain, not without reason,  about teaching large classes.  These unlucky teachers not only suffer from the pedagogical shortcomings of large classes, but also from the stress these classes produce. This post will try to answer the following questions:

  1. What are large classes?
  2. What makes large classes difficult to teach?
  3. What techniques make it possible for students to learn in these classes?

Large classes

It is difficult to set a definition of what a large class is. In  some countries, a class with 30 students is not considered at all problematic. In other countries, however, such a class would be challenging for teachers. Some teachers have to face even more than 40 (in some Moroccan schools a class may include 50 students). On the other hands, results of some researchers (see these links: Class size: What Research Says and What it Means for State Policy, How important is class size?) showed that benefits in achievement generally occur when class size is reduced to less than 20 students. Above this figure problems of acquisition and classroom management arise.

Problems with large classes

While it is hard to draw definitive conclusions about student achievement based on class size alone, since other variables such as the quality of teachers, students degree of motivation and the role of the parents may come into play, large classes yield the following difficulties:
  • One of the main difficulties that a teacher may experience while teaching a large class is the tremendous effort that she or he  will have to make. With an outnumbered class there is always something to be done.
  • With a large class, it is difficult to get a satisfactory knowledge of  student's needs. Intimacy with students and remembering names might be a problem.
  • As a consequence of the large number of students, the noise level is inevitably high which adds to the stress teachers may experience.
  • Organizing, planning  and presenting lessons, may constitute another challenge for teachers in such classes as students abilities might differ considerably.
  • There is another difficulty related to the learning process. In fact, engaging learners actively in the learning process may not be easy in a crowded class.
  • It is hard to imagine how a large class would benefit from school resources such as computers, books, references...
  • With a crowded classroom, teachers might find it difficulties to measure effectiveness.
  • A large classes gives reluctant students a place to hide.

Tips

It is undoubtedly very difficult for a teacher to deal with large classes. Anything done to remedy the problem would be fruitless unless students are really motivated to learn. Nevertheless, the following tips may be useful to alleviate the intensity of the situation.
  • First it would be  a great idea to train students to work in small groups of five to seven students. And when working in groups, it would be beneficial for students to sit around in a circle so that everyone could have  a chance to participate.
  • Groups should include fewer members to avoid any of the students coasting. It is important to find active roles for students to avoid them being lazy.
  • Pair work may be also a good alternative to practice conversations, exercises and other language activities.
  • Pairing weaker students with stronger ones might be an option unless you fear the weaker students feel intimidated.
  • Changing the classroom desk arrangement to take into consideration the large number of students is a good idea. Finding out the right arrangement is up to the teachers' creativity and classroom size. Anyway, desk placements should make cooperative work easier.
  • To optimize your work with students with learning difficulties, give them seats in front of you, closer to you so that you can spot difficulties easily while teaching.
  • To reduce stress and noise level, set simple rules for class management. 1. Establish simple rules of acceptable behavior for everybody to observe when working in groups, in pairs or individually. 2. Train your students to deal with classroom chores: a. getting into and out of the classroom at the start and end of lesson or during recess time b. handing out books, papers, and other materials; c. putting away school materials at the end of the lesson.
  • Teachers in large classes may also want to delegate some of the work to more able students. These can play the role of  teachers' assistants.
  • Another measure that might be effective for some teachers is to split the class into weak students and more able students. This would make it possible for the teacher to concentrate on the weaker students.  However, this should be done with a lot of caution so as not to affect weaker students self-esteem.
  • Why not use technology? Technology ensures that everyone has time to connect with the teacher. For instance, teachers may plan to do the following: 1. A large class will be better off with a blog or a wiki where students and the teacher could meet at home. 2. Using students emails would make it easier for teachers to connect with students off class.

It is true that teaching a large class is challenging as it is pedagogically unacceptable and psychologically irrelevant. These classes involve, most of the times, mixed abilities, language levels, motivation, needs, interests, and goals. Nevertheless, teaching and managing such classes is possible if steps such as those described above are taken.

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Affordance and Emergence in Dogme Approach

In the dogme approach new metaphors are used to describe English language learning. Two of these metaphors are called affordance and emergence.

Affordance

Traditionally  input was seen as all words, contexts, and other forms of language to which a learner is exposed. Input in this sense is said to provide a basis for acquiring proficiency in first or second languages. The problem with input in the context of language acquisition is that it should be slightly above the level of the learner. Krachen in his Input Hypothesis noticed that providing comprehensible input may boost language acquisition. The dogme approach goes further to suggest that, in addition to providing comprehensible input, learners must be exposed to real language through classroom conversations and language activities that enhance the emergence of language. Scott Thornbury contends in a post about affordance that learning opportunities offered by real talk in the real world, must surely be the best language learning method ever devised. In his book A-Z of ELT he describes affordance as:
a particular property of the environment that is potentially useful to an organism. A leaf, for example, affords food for some creatures, shade for others, or building material for still others. It’s the same leaf, but its affordances differ, depending on how it is regarded, and by whom. The term has been borrowed from ecology to describe the language learning opportunities that exist in the learner’s linguistic ‘environment’…
Is this a shift away from the concept of input?

Emergence

While language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the ability to perceive and comprehend language in order to use it for communicative purposes, dogme approach puts emphasis on the fact that language learning is a process where language emerges rather than one that is just acquired. Emergence happens when relatively simple elements combine together to form a higher-order system. This is a shift away from the traditional view of acquisition as a linear process. One of the metaphors cited by Scott Thornburry to show how we should create the opportunity for language to emerge is related to the way football emerges in the playground?
How do kids learn the rules of playing soccer? Certainly not by being lectured on them for several years. They learn by participating in certain practices. Two pivotal practices in this respect are a) playing the game; and b) participating in stories and comments about the game perhaps combined with watching games. When they start playing, children tend to run after the ball in a single swarm, kicking it around in seemingly random directions. Then at some point a ‘feel for the game’ emerges. The game reorganizes itself (not for all players at once, but for some) from ‘running after the ball where ever it rolls’ to ‘moving the ball around collaboratively in strategic ways.’ At that point the rules of the game become learnable, in an interaction between bottom-up discovery, and top-down instruction, within the social context of playing the game (Leo van Lier 2004: p.81).
How can a teacher transfer this analogy from the football playground to the context of the classroom?

References

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT: A Dictionary of Terms and Concepts Used in English Language Teaching. Oxford, UK.: Macmillan Education. Leo van Lier’s The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning (2004)

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Relevance in Dogme Approach

Learner centeredness  is a key element in Dogme approach. The learner is taken into account, freeing him from the dictatorship of the published textbooks. The focus is on conversational communication between learner and teacher and any material introduced must be relevant.The following presentation, by Nick Robinson, introduces the principles upon which Scott Thornbury builds the Dogme Approach. It also tries to answer the question of the relevance of the Web in the classroom:

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High Demand Teaching

Because teaching has become too lightweight, too frivolous and not rigorous enough, High Demand Teachers call on for a tweak in the current methods of teaching. They contend that we should ask more from our students, push them further and ask them to work harder. Demand High Teaching is just probing a bit more and exploiting opportunities for deeper learning and language acquisition. It is not a method or approach; it’s about demanding a better quality no matter what approach or method teachers choose.In the following presentation, Jim Scrivener explains the rationale behind this tweak to language methods and approaches he feels to be necessary.

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Learning to learn

What are some cultural shifts in our fast changing world that have an impact on our own teaching as educators? How can we start thinking differently about learning?

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Teaching Talk Time

Teacher Talk

One of the most important requirements for optimal language learning is to provide the appropriate environment for learners to develop language skills. Such environment must include appropriate (and necessary) language input for learners. Teacher talk in the classroom constitutes one major source of this input. There is, however, an ongoing debate on how much of this talk is necessary and on whether students be given enough room for reflection on and use of language.

The evil part of  a high TTT

Why are some teachers talking too much? Let's look at some reasons for a high Teacher Talk Time (TTT)
  1. A high TTT may be a result of lack of experience. New teachers might think that by being busy talking, their students are actually learning.
  2. Lack of confidence may be another cause. By doing most of the talking, some teachers may feel confident that they are controlling the situation.
  3. Some teachers fear silence and think that silence means that students are not learning.

Disadvantages of high TTT

Talking too much can be counter productive. The outcome of a high TTT is detrimental. It results not only in very long or complicated instructions and explanations but also in a monotonous teacher-centered class where student's autonomy is at stake. A high TTT also hinders knowledge construction due to the domineering role of the teacher. Besides, talking at the students doesn't necessarily mean talking to the students. There is more to communication than just one person speaking and another one listening. By talking all the time we deprive our students not only of their share of the talk, but also of the possibility for them to reflect on language. We forget that silence has a positive effect on learners and that its power can contribute to langauge learning. It is worthwhile noting that the Silent Way method has exploited the benefits of silence. The teacher in this method is almost always silent and this silence according to Stevick (1980: 45) provides the cognitive and affective space within which the learner takes charge of his or her learning.

Is it that bad?

Don't our English learners need some kind of input?There is evidence (Krachen 1987: 26) that learners need a  silent period before they become able to speak. This silent period helps students develop a competence in the target language and gets learners process language before they are actually able to produce it. In other words, before they can speak they need to listen. Krachen contends that the best methods are those that supply comprehensible input in low anxiety environment, containing messages that students are really interested in hearing. Teacher talk can have positive effects if handled carefully. In fact, teacher talk can provide language model especially when students don't live in an English-speaking community. Thus authentic talk where the conversation is meaningful and relevant can boost language acquisition and provide a low anxiety environment. Most of the vocabulary and structures can be acquired when real spontaneous input is provided. So instead of intending to minimize Teacher Talk Time in the classroom, it would be better to optimize this talk for the good of langauge acquisition.

Ways to optimize TTT

Teacher talk can be positive:
  • Teacher talk is necessary when it provides language model.
  • In listening activities such as story telling, a high TTT can be allowed
  • Teachers may indulge in spontaneous speech where the message is clear enough for learners to understand.
  • When talking, a teacher must respect one essential rule: being meaningful, purposeful and relevant.
  • If a task is to be carried appropriately and effectively, a teacher talking to give instruction is not that harmful.

Links

More on the benefits of silence: S for Silence by Scott Thornbury

References

Stevick, E. W. (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.Krashen, S.D.  (1987) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

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Krachen on Comprehensible Input (video)

Comprehensible input

Suppose you are an EFL learner, would you learn anything with a teacher who uses a language you don't understand at all?The answer is straight forward learning takes place when we have enough clues about the message being intended by the speaker! It would be a waste of time or worse a demotivating factor if a teacher is reluctant to help learners by providing a language slightly above his level, a language that  is comprehensible but at the same time provides new learning possibilities.This is a video in which Stephen Krashen talks about comprehensible input and how it takes to the understanding by students in an FL class, he uses German to explain the topic in a ingenious way.

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