The English language classroom. The five senses
Source: The Five Senses. The Dr. Binocs Show. Educational videos for kids.
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In most of the cases, the majority of opportunities to learn a FL take place within the school setting. This “artificial environment” should serve as a springboard for our learners to solve daily situations through the use of the FL, according to the methodological guidelines for the teaching of FLs, concerning general aspects of the foreign language area).
As we know, in the communicative FL classroom we apply some theoretical principles:
• The main goal is to favour the individual´s development of communicative competence.
• Regarding methodological assumptions, the learner must be given opportunities to practise; thus classroom interaction is at the heart of the FL teaching process.
• In relation to the language, the learner is encouraged to prioritise meaning over grammatical form and accuracy.
• The roles of both teachers and learners vary according to the task to be carried out.
• Error is seen as a natural part of the FL learning process and as a proof of evolution towards certain degree of communicative competence.
• The four macroskills must be covered through activities which provide students with situations where social interaction (pair and group work) is presented.
Notwithstanding, this communicative view of FL teaching cannot be attempted unless FL teachers create a positive classroom atmosphere, so that students do not feel daunted towards taking the risk to use English to get their meanings across. Seen in this light, Newton and Nation (2009) consider the “MINUS” framework as an acronym aimed at creating the optimal conditions for learning the FL; which can be resumed as follows:
• Meaning: language that learners can use for their purposes, such as classroom management.
• Interest: Considering the age of the learners in Primary Education and their limited attention span, activities should be short and varied.
• New language: An overload in the presentation of new language and functions.
• Understanding: provide students with plenty of comprehensible input through activities that require showing understanding; using non-verbal language and visual supports.
• Stress-free: creating a safe and friendly cooperative classroom atmosphere.
However, before getting theory into practice and start dealing with classroom variables, it is essential for the teacher to know the particular group of students in the classroom, since knowing the individual differences in learners will maximize the organizational measures. In this sense, Rod Ellis (1997) focuses his attention in three main dimensions: language aptitude, motivation and learning strategies:
a. Language aptitude. The natural ability to learn a foreign language is known as language aptitude and is believed to be a part of general intelligence. However, intelligence refers to how well we master a series of abilities (linguistic and non-linguistic); whilst aptitude has to do with a special ability applied to language learning.
b. Motivation plays a crucial role in FLL, since motivated students can achieve a working knowledge of FLL regardless of their aptitude and cognitive characteristics. In this light, Dörnyei (2001) identifies three indispensable motivational conditions: appropriate teacher behaviours and a good relationship with the students; a pleasant and supportive classroom atmosphere; and a cohesive learner group with appropriate group norms.
c. Learning strategies. They are the particular approaches or techniques used by students in the FLL process, usually problem-solving oriented.
Accordingly, Oxford, R (1990) notes that learning strategies are specific actions taken by the learner to make learning easier, faster, more enjoyable, more self-directed, more effective, and more transferable to new situations”. In other words, learning strategies are steps taken by the students to enhance their own learning.
In this line, Selinker (1992) makes reference to strategies as the different mechanisms used either consciously or not in order to get, store, retrieve and use information.
Some other learners´ differences to be considered are:
d. Age. A common-sense view of this variable suggests that adults and children do not learn in the same way. On the one hand, adults may easily rely on formal features of the language (grammatical structures or functions); whilst children seem to be more successful than adults when it comes to the phonological system (the sounds of a language), even being able to reproduce native-like accents.
e. Learning styles. This variable is related to Gardner´s theory of the multiple intelligences. The cognitive style of each student refers to the way in which they perceive, conceptualize, organize and recall information. This mental functioning is different in each student (i.e. some people learn better through visual aids, others through hearing, manipulating, etc). In short, Gardner describes eight types of intelligences (visual/spatial, logical/mathematical, musical, bodily/kinaesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, intrapersonal and verbal/linguistic), stating that we can be intelligent in different ways and that intelligence can be improved and developed. The consequence for FL learning seems clear; catering for different learning styles will provide the students with more chances to succeed.
f. Personality. Extroverted learners learn more rapidly and are more successful than introverted students.
Once analyzed the main factors to be considered within a communicative view of FL teaching, we shall now deal with some of the most outstanding variables in the organization of the FL class: the roles of both students and teachers.
VARIABLES: ROLE OF THE STUDENT, ROLE OF THE TEACHER
THE ROLE OF THE STUDENT
The development of learner-centred approaches stem from the implementation of communicative language teaching (CLT). According to Nunan (1991), a learner centred approach is based on the idea that learners will bring to the learning situation different beliefs and attitudes about the nature of language and language learning and that these aspects need to be taken into consideration in the selection of content and learning experiences.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
Due to the relevance of the learner-centred approach, learners´ needs and experiences become central to the educational process. In this context, the students´ experiences and not the performance of the teacher are at the heart of the FL classroom. Therefore, the teacher is not seen as the controller and transmitter of knowledge; but rather as a facilitator of learning who creates the necessary conditions for communication in the FL to take place. However, the role of facilitator is a broad term that can be specified into more precise terms or secondary roles:
• Organiser. This is one of the most important roles performed by teachers, and consists on organising students to carry out various activities, giving them the necessary information to succeed and grouping them according to the needs of the task. Before getting students to face an activity, we must ensure that they understand what they are asked to do, and also that they are motivated and engaged.
• Assessor. Performing as an assessor implies offering feedback and correction and grading the level of difficulty within a task. As we know, students expect from teachers clear indications of their degree of success and whether they are doing things right or not.
• Prompter. When our students are immersed in a communicative activity and they need help to avoid a breakdown in communication, we may suggest and exemplify instead of giving them the answer and taking the initiative.
• Group process manager and classroom manager, which involves grouping students according to levels (homogeneous or heterogeneous groups) and participating actively in the activity as a co-communicator, so that we can stimulate learners, present new language and give clarifying examples without taking the initiative.
• Observer. Observing students´ performances is essential to measure the extent to which they have understood the activity and the level of development of the objectives involved, particularly in communicative activities.
• Language instructor. In many occasions, we may have to perform the familiar role of language instructor, presenting new language or exercising direct control over the learners´ performance, evaluating, and the like.
As we can see, the teacher is the traditional dominator of classroom interaction in only one of these roles. This fact is significant not only for methodological reasons, but also, for its effect on human relationships within the classroom and also on the view students have of the English lessons, which they regard not as a place for listening to the teacher but rather as a place for interaction and fun.
Needless to say that CLT has dramatically changed the role of the teacher and students, which many times are complementary. According to Breen and Candlin (1980) the role of the teacher can be divided into three main categories: facilitator of the communicative process, participant and observer and learner. Regarding students, by definition, CLT puts the focus on the learner. In this sense, taking into account the students’ communicative needs and getting them to develop awareness of their own learning are central in this process.
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