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Professional Development

Originated by Birmingham MA TEFL/TESL students

April 27, 2009

Teaching English in context to promote student autonomy

LearnersVoices.MdB.jpgI have advocated over the years that teaching English using a variety of methodologies can be effective. Yet teaching a subject, using English as the medium can bring more meaning to the English and less focus on English as a subject in itself. The research I conducted for my MA looked at the interaction between students in a classroom where the focus was on doing something, rather than learning English per se. In the lessons I did leading up to this recording with the students, they learned some of the issues of global warming and the problems they will face as the next generation who will need to face this crisis head on.

I’d like to separate this approach from ‘Task Based Learning’ where the focus is still on the use of English. I think students need to be challenged so that the language they get is based on the language they need at any given moment for something meaningful. Our assumption is that we learn language to communicate, yet with Vygotsky’s approach, children attempt to communicate and in doing so, acquire language (Scovel 2001).

In my classes I have sought to promote student autonomy, getting students to learn English through English (de Boer, 2009). I have found that the English becomes more meaningful and applicable to the lesson they are doing. At the same time, they use the English right away after receiving it, either by scaffolding from another student or by asking for meanings or clarifications on what they are trying to say.

In the audio clip here, I am asking the students their thoughts on learning in this kind of classroom, and what they thought of learning a subject in English. Please have a listen and tell me what you think!

Play audio file

Is anyone out there doing the same sort of teaching? Does anyone out there want to try this kind of methodology? If you have any comments I’d love to collaborate with you.

Mark de Boer

de Boer, M. (2009). "The V-task: Building a more effective EFL classroom." In The Tohoku English Language Education Society, 29, 75-85.

Scovel, T. (2001). Learning new languages. A guide to second language acquisition. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

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Interesting to hear what you are doing with your students. An observation that is definitely not meant as criticism ... I noticed that you needed to inform your students of what you were trying to get them to say.

Now the question - was this the first time you had asked them these questions? I am curious what they would say if you asked them the same questions in a couple of weeks or months. Would there be any change in their answers? Just thinking out loud ...

Hey Colin,
Thanks for the comment. It was the first time I had asked and it would be interesting to see what they would say in a few months. I did do some prompting, this was a very informal recording done at the end of the last research lesson. I have noticed the one boy though has been very vocal in class, much more than before, and the two girls have been trying much harder as well...

Hi Mark,

I really enjoyed the article and the recording. My teaching style with this age group is quite similar in many ways. Specifically, the content of the lessons is based completely on the (perceived) interests of the students in the class, so I am always trying new, challenging materials to see what piques each student's interests.

I was especially interested to hear that you speak to your students at a very natural pace, with false starts and standard word choice (rather than simplified vocabulary) throughout your speech. These students you are working with are quite confident and keen, so they handle it with little difficulty, but I wonder whether you speak more slowly, accurately and/or with fewer 'headwords' so to speak when working with lower students?

I mention this, because I've recently noticed that I slow down and speed up throughout most of my lessons, depending on how engaged and/or challenged the students are. After 10+ years of teaching, I now unconsciously slow things down and deflect questions to bring struggling/drifting students back into the fold. I worry a bit, however, whether I give the students too much of a crutch by constantly catering to each student's level of understanding. The real world won't do that for you.

I think in my classes, the earliest level at which I employ natural speed and vocabulary is about the same level as your students in this audio clip. How about you, Mark?

Hey Steve,
Thanks for the comments. I don't think I really slow down for any of my students, but I will say that the younger the students, the simpler the lesson is, so I often teach them from the onset that listening and speaking eventually go hand in hand. If they learn to speak at a regular pace, then they learn to listen at a regular pace. One of the things I really focused on during the MA program was 'teacher talk'. I became more aware of it and eventually eliminated it all together. I do reword things now and then and I do make an attempt to make myself understood. I have a class of 4th year grade school students now who I am teaching to speak faster - in a more natural rhythm combining the clitics with the regular words. They get a bit of that in each lesson.I think I do a bit of that each lesson with everyone, it really helps. I do find myself still enunciating words that I'd like them to hear, but I try to speak as naturally as possible.
The younger classes, I speak natural speed, but the English is a lot simpler, so I often speak more softly and use the basic sentences. I don't slow down and I don't change the language. I'd be interested to hear more from you about the kinds of lessons you do! My research is on social interaction in the classroom and discourse analysis. Is there anything we can combine?

Hi Mark (and Steve),

I'm also quite interested in Teacher Talk (TT). I did a paper on the amount and quality of TT within a CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) framework and will hopefully be presenting it at JALT '09. There is a lot of research on how teachers adjust their TT (Chaudron, 1988) but I was unable to find relevant discussions on how much TT is appropriate beyond the view that the less TT the better. What are your thoughts on the right amount of TT in proportion to student speaking time (or the ratio of comprehensible input to comprehensible output)?

Hi Mark
You did a good job all my congretulations. As for l'm writing a paper on teaching reading comprehension as a foreign language and need some more ideas about it so a want you colloboration and those of anyone who might read this message.
Thank very much.

Hi Mark,
I have just read your article and I was impressed. Now I am doing PHD degree on reading strategies in English and I have a question to you.Do you teach with a specific textbook or do you choose a class material for the lesson every day?Besides you said it's good to teach a subject in English, do you mean different subject such as history, philosophy or others?

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