My oral communication class has seven high-level English learners who are very smart, very fluent, and--for the most part--very accurate. The problem with teaching students with a high level of proficiency for me became, what do I teach? So I searched around in the Principles and Practices textbooks for clues and re-read my initial position statement for this class. The following is some of the guiding ideas that I collected for instructing high-level students.
Brown (2007) states that teaching such high level learners can be very difficult, especially given the temptation to just hand over a topic and letting the students speak without purpose or goal. At this level students need targeted goals in order to overcome the hurdles that prevent them from improving their accuracy and to find some kind of progress. For many students at such a high level, “plateauing” becomes a problem in which students struggle to make progress in improving for long stretches of time.
Consider the following quote from Brown on strategic learning:
"All too often, language teachers are so consumed with the 'delivery' of language to their students that they neglect to spend some effort preparing learners to 'receive' the language. And students, mostly unaware of the tricks of successful language, simply do whatever the teacher tells them to do, having no means to question the wisdom thereof. In an effort to fill class hours with fascinating material, teachers might overlook their mission of enabling learners to eventually become independent of classrooms--that is, to become autonomous learners" (p. 258-259).
Brown also states in teaching advanced level students:
"Some aspects of language, of course, need focal attention for minor corrections, refinement, and other 'tinkering'; otherwise, teachers would almost be unnecessary. So your task at this level is to assist in the ongoing attempt to automatize language and in the delicate interplay between focal and peripheral attention to selected aspects of language" (p. 127-128).
Kumaravadivelu (2003) relates that self-directed or self-access learning contains a narrow view, a view that focuses on how learners can become self-learners through critical thinking, decision making, independent action, gathering knowledge, taking responsibility or initiative, confront weaknesses or failures, develop self-control or self-discipline, stop relying on instruction for learning, and realize that autonomy relates to interacting between the learner, the teacher, and the educational environment.
By combining psychological/cognitive strategies with learning strategies students can become more autonomous and productive learners. This includes using a wide variety of learning strategies, choosing the best strategy for the task, and how to monitor their performance, and how to access the outcome (Kumaravadivelu, 2003).
Taking these ideas together, we can see that despite creating a rich, well directed, and assessable lesson plan, students must be prepared to receive the information from the lesson and utilize the information in producing language and learning to stretch their language learning development. By having students take steps to identify their language learning goals and to self-correct them through classroom or non-classroom learning, we are maximizing the potential for each student to become self-directed and motivated learners. Students who are prepared with the proper and wide ranging learning strategies and are capable of critically thinking, noticing, internalizing, and producing language in their L2 without direct instruction or hand holding.
Moreover, students who have identified the grammatical, social, or cognitive hurdles that prevent them from learning a second language will be much more capable of overcoming these obstacles and adapt their learning from their experiences and capable of measuring their own progress.
Therefore, knowing what our language learning goals and the strategies to overcome them are critical for our students.
In the previous lesson we began to cover the topic of the global economy as stimulus material for students' timed conversations. I also asked student to write three learning goals in their blogs that were 1) explicitly stated, 2) achievable, and 3) tractable or assessable. In today's lesson, we will review the goals from their blogs and use a worksheet to narrow details about what they would like to learn.
We began class by reviewing several example sentences from the students' blogs that from the a previous assignment to identify basic grammatical problems. The problems included tense agreement, modifying compound nouns, relative clauses, and use of quantifiers such as "a lot." When asked, students were able to correct most of the errors but they did not understand why. In some cases, I was unable to provide an explanation for an error and its correction.
Next, we reviewed a students' blogs and examples of the goals written in the blog:
I also decided to show some examples of broad, incomplete, or non-assessable goals so students and then model a learning goal that I created for my Japanese studies. I copied these goals and produced them on a "typewith.me.com" page.
After reviewing the student goals and the model goals, the students were given a handout in order to revise their goals. The remaining time of the period was used to complete the goal sheet although few students could revise more than one goal. Some students also said that they did not feel that setting goals was useful for their learning style or had experience in setting goals before.
Finally, toward the end of the class, I directed student to discuss with a partner their language learning history through a timed conversation. Students asked their partner how they learned English, if they thought it was effective, and what comments they received on their initial goal. Each person then reported how their language partner learned English and their opinions on effective ways to learn languages. By the time this conversation was complete, we had run out of time and only half of the lesson plan was completed.
This was a discouraging lesson as a teacher because not only did the students not understand the purpose of writing goals but they also didn’t see the usefulness in doing so. After the final timed conversation, several students related that they didn’t understand why they were being asked to set goals and also stated that they felt goal setting didn’t fit into their learning style. At this point, I had to explain some of my rationale for the class set up, and I think having to explain the rationale dissuaded students from the usefulness of the class.
I have to ask myself, should I have been more discrete in what I was trying to ask my students to accomplish? Should I have asked my students first whether they thought setting goals was useful, or was I correct in pushing for this element of the class curriculum? In retrospect, I can see now that the students were unable to relate the goals they set to their real-world and their learning practices and that they were also unable to maintain or track their progress. However, I still believe that goal setting is a vital key for a class with highly proficient language learners who are struggling to refine their accuracy, and I hope to improve this aspect of the class so students can learn to set and track their own goals in the future.