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December 18, 2012

LEARNERS AND LEARNING (I-CELT ESOL)


MODULE 3 – TASK 4

by Harits Masduqi


Introduction
Students learning English as a foreign language are often confronted with the challenge of learning and using English effectively. Some fortunate students seem to cope with the difficulties of language learning with great success and little effort, while for others the task is neither an enjoyable nor a successful one. What is it that makes learning a new language so easy for some and so difficult for others? One reason is that each student has his/her own preferred way of learning that is determined by his/her cultural and educational background and personality (Shoebottom, 2007).

In this assignment I would like to describe and evaluate differences in learners’ responses and consider ways in which the quality of their learning can be improved. The learners described are pre-intermediate students who volunteered to join English lessons at IALF Bali. Their ages varied from 30’s to 50’s. The lesson described is aimed to help the students understand and use the 2nd Conditional in the context of life survival.

Differences in Learners’ Responses and Achievements

Having observed and taught the class, I can figure out that each student has his/her own way of following my teaching stages and activities during the lesson. These different ways seemed to influence how they responded to different teaching methods I applied in each activity and, in turn, affected how successful they were in understanding and using the language focus. According to Spratt, et al (2005, p.52), this is called 'learner characteristics', i.e., differences between learners which influence their attitude to learning a language and how they learn it'. The differences discussed later include the learners' age, motivation, personality, and learning styles. The students described are Kusuma, Dayu, Kamayana, and Suica.

Age

Compared to motivation, personality, and learning styles, age seems to be easier to define and measure. Nevertheless, the relationship between learners' age and his/her potential success in foreign or second language acquisition is still the subject of debate. Linguists argue that many adult learners are capable of communicating successfully in a foreign language, but in terms of accent, word choice, or grammatical features they are distinguished from learners who begin learning a language when they are young (Lightbown & Spada, 2003).

Based on informal conversations outside the class, I know that Kusuma, 55 years old, is the oldest of them all. The youngest student is Dayu, who is in her late 20's. Suica is in the early 30's, whereas Kamayana is around 40. Considering their mature age, I realise that they are 'able to control and plan their own behaviour, can concentrate for longer periods, and are aware of themselves and/or actions' (Spratt, et al, 2005, p.53). I, therefore, planned and set up activities that help them understand, practice, and produce the language form gradually in a relaxed atmosphere and a non-threatening way.

When I set up preliminary activities, such as guessing pictures and matching activity, preceding the listening task, I noticed that Dayu was more energetic and risk taking in the activities than Kamayana and Suica. Although Kusuma was enthusiastic, he was occasionally a bit lost during these activities. Perhaps due to his age, he seemed to have problems with his hearing when all of the learners spoke aloud together in the competitive activities. This is a crucial problem that I should have anticipated in my lesson plan.   

Motivation

Motivation is an interesting element in language learning. Some researchers believe that it may determine the success of learning a language, while others assert it is successful learning that enhances motivation (Lightbown & Spada, 2003). Gardner and Lambert (1972) coined the terms integrative motivation to refer to language learning for personal growth and cultural enrichment, and instrumental motivation for language learning for more immediate or practical goals.

The four students are highly motivated to learn English. They do not mind following my instructions and are willing to do any activities set up in each teaching practice. In relation to integrative motivation, they really want to improve their English since they want to be teachers who can explain their subjects in English. Regarding their instrumental motivation, by joining the course voluntarily, they expect to gain an official certificate that is beneficial as a credit point for their career development. Thus, they have high motivation that needs to be maintained. In this case, I agree with Harmer's argument (1999) that teachers should not complain about unmotivated students, but concern more on how to sustain the learners’ motivation.

In order to sustain the pupils' motivation, I set up a variety of activities, i.e., guessing pictures, animal quiz, listening task, highlighting form and pronunciation, mingling speaking activity, and writing sentences. By doing these various activities, I could 'avoid boredom and increase their interest levels' during the one hour lesson (Lightbown & Spada, 2003).     

Personality

A number of personality characteristics have been proposed as likely to affect    language learning. Some studies have found that success in language learning is correlated with learners' scores on personality characteristics often associated with being extrovert, others have found that many successful language learners have nothing to do with being extrovert (Lightbown & Spada, 2003).

I believe the four students have different personalities. Kusuma and Dayu are talkative, humorous, and seem to be extrovert. They responded to group discussions and speaking activities quite well. When I conducted the mingling speaking activity, both of them were eager to speak out communicatively. They seem to be risk takers and are not afraid of making mistakes.

Kamayana and Suica, on the other hand, are silent, serious and tend to be passive during spoken communicative tasks. In the mingling speaking activity, they were likely to think longer before they said something. They seemed to be afraid of making mistakes and to try to find appropriate lexical items and structures before they spoke out. As a result, they did not speak as much as Kusuma and Dayu did, although they were actually willing to do the oral activity.

Learning Styles

Learning styles are 'the ways in which a learner naturally prefers to take in, process and remember information and skills. Our learning style influences how we like to learn and how we learn best’ (Spratt, et al, 2005, p.52). Some learning styles are 'visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic. Others are field-independent, field-dependent, reflective, and impulsive' (Shoebottom, 2007).

Like Indonesians in general, the four students are typically visual learners. When I set up 'guessing pictures task', they responded enthusiastically and were able to guess the expected words correctly. They also enjoyed the anagram and reading activity in the animal quiz.

Apart from the above similarity, they seemed to have different learning styles in other activities. I found that Dayu is a kinaesthetic learner. She liked movement and learnt best when she was involved actively in moving activities, such as group discussions and the mingling speaking activity. Kusuma, on the other hand, seemed to be less kinaesthetic, perhaps, since he is old. Nevertheless, both Kusuma and Dayu seemed to be impulsive learners. They often took risks with the language in communicative tasks. They liked to express their ideas orally without being afraid of making mistakes. They are 'more concerned with speaking fluently than speaking accurately, and so make more mistakes' (Shoebottom, 2007).

The other two students, Suica and Kamayana, seemed to be reflective students. They tended ‘not to make so many mistakes because they took time in formulating what they wanted to say’ (Shoebottom, 2007). They were passive in speaking activities, but indeed were active in highlighting form and pronunciation. They showed their best understanding when they produced the language form in the final writing stage. They were able to make sentences using the expected form accurately. Kamayana, even, volunteered to write his correct sentence on the white board willingly.     

Improving the Quality of Learning for the Learners

Having described the different learners above, I am determined to improve their learning quality through some teaching strategies I elaborate in the following paragraphs. The strategies will be in accordance with their age, motivation, personality, and learning styles.

First, to cater for Dayu, I will provide other kinaesthetic activities, such as a running dictation, whilst for Kusuma, who sometimes loses his hearing in a dynamic competitive task, I will set up quieter competitive games, such as a whispering game. Both running dictation and whispering game will not only be useful to cater for their different ways of learning, but also can be used to introduce language forms to them indirectly. These alternatives of ‘inductive learning’ are more interesting, natural and ‘pays dividends in terms of the long-term memory of these rules’ (Thornbury, 2006, p.102).

In addition to the two activities, I will also conduct oral productive stages to cater for both of the impulsive learners. I will involve them together in pair or group work so that they can be motivated to express their ideas to each other maximally and in turn improve their communicative competence (Willis & Willis, 2007). Later, I will also monitor them and give feedback on their erroneous expressions so they will find the communicative activity more meaningful and almost at the same time they will pay more attention to form in a more interesting way.

Next, to cater for Kamayana and Suica, I will maintain highlighting form and pronunciation since they like to pay attention to details of language, especially grammar rules. I will set up a gap-filling exercise related to language form so that they can be more motivated to show their grammar competence. I will also set up a writing activity in which they can make sentences or retell their life experiences using the expected form. Afterwards, I will ask them to practice the form in a guided speaking activity so that they will be more ready to enter a freer speaking activity. This freer oral practice will indirectly support the previous guided-speaking task. This is in line with Lightbown and Spada’s ideas (2003) that the more the students are provided with extra oral practice of a language form, the more they will be able to produce the form communicatively.

In relation to the students' motivation, besides setting up activities that suit their learning characteristics, I will also keep setting up various activities ranging from initial to main activities and from receptive skill to productive skill stages. By doing a variety of activities, I can avoid teaching patterns that potentially create boredom and gradually demotivate their learning spirit. Instead, I will conduct different activities in each stage that can optimally increase their motivation during my future lesson (Lightbown & Spada, 2003).

Evidence for Learning Improvement and Assessment

Evidence whether or not improvements in their learning have taken place can be seen from each activity that has been set up to cater for the different characteristics of the learners. For example, if Kusuma and Dayu can produce the language form accurately and communicatively through the speaking activities set up for them, their improvement can be claimed to have occurred. The same consideration is also applied to Suica and Kamayana. If both of them can produce the language form accurately in the written activities and can produce it communicatively in the later speaking activities, their improvement can also be claimed to have taken place.

To know the students’ improvements, I will employ both ‘informal and formal assessments’ (Spratt, et al, 2005, p.71). I will conduct informal assessments by monitoring the students to observe how well they are doing their tasks as well as to give them necessary feedback.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Conclusion

Having stated the learners and learning issues above, I think I should be more aware of differences amongst my students. I agree with Verster’s ideas (2007) that English teachers should be able to cater to their learners’ various learning styles. By varying the classroom activities, teachers are sure to cater for learners with different learning styles at least some of the time.

This assignment is also insightful for my teaching experiences. In the future I hope I can be more attentive to treat learners who are visual and kinaesthetic. On some occasions, I will also set up activities in favour of reflective and impulsive students. I believe this task contributes a great deal towards my teaching skills and in turn potentially develop my understanding towards my students’ learning styles, responses, and achievements.

Word Count: 1571 words

References

Gardner, S. & Lambert, J. 1972. Motivation in Language Learning. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Harmer, J. 1998. How to Teach English. England: Addison Wesley Longman Limited

Lightbown, P.M. & Spada, N. 2003. How Languages Are Learned. UK: Oxford University Press

Spratt, M., et al., 2005. Teaching Knowledge Test. UK: Cambridge University Press.
  
Shoebatom, P. 2007. Language learning styles. Retrieved on November 23, 2007 from http://esl.fis.edu/parents/advice/styles.htm
Thornbury, S. 2006. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Verster, C. 2007. Learning Styles and Teaching. Retrieved on November 23, 2007 from  http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/methodology/learning_style.shtml

Willis, D. & Willis, J. 2007. Doing Task based Teaching. UK: Oxford University Press.




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