How Students Learn
How did you feel when your teacher called on you during the first week of beginning Spanish and waited expectantly for you to answer her question?
Something about being in a foreign language classroom can make even the most confident person want to fade into the background.
It is important for your students to feel comfortable in your classroom. When people are under stress or feel anxious they get a mental block, which is known in the ESL field as an affective filter. It prevents language from entering and being assimilated into your students’ minds. The more your students are able to relax in your class, the easier it will be for them to understand what you are saying and thus begin the process of acquiring English. Aim for your students to be in a state of alert relaxation.
If you notice that your students are beginning to feel anxious, it is a signal for you to change the pace of your class in some way: have your students get out of their seats and do an activity that requires them to mill around the room; play some music and change the focus of your lesson; or tell a joke to help your students lighten up.
Take note – we explain more about teaching ESL in a different section of JobMonkey.
Children begin learning language by listening to people tell them about things in their immediate environment. When you talk to a child you talk to him about objects or events that he can see, hear, or touch. You use easier vocabulary, more exaggerated inflection, and more animated expressions than you would if you were communicating with another adult. You speak clearly and purposefully. You don’t talk about yesterday or tomorrow; rather you talk about the here-and-now: your clothes, a glass of water, the light switch. You don’t expect a toddler to talk back to you at length about the light switch just after you told him all about it; neither should you expect this from your students.
Key concepts from the field of first-language acquisition transfer easily to the field of second-language acquisition. Listening skills develop first in children, and they develop first in people learning a new language. Likewise, when you teach English to beginning students you talk about here-and-now events and objects. You are more animated (or expressive) than usual. You speak clearly and with purpose.
Your aim when talking to your students is for them to understand what you are trying to communicate. You do this not only with words but also with objects, pictures, ges-tures, and drama. Talk with students at a level that is just above their current ability. Language at this “just-above” level is called comprehensible input. Comprehensible input facilitates language development whether for first or second language learners.
When you think about it, doesn’t it seem that toddlers understand a lot more than they are able to say? And you wouldn’t feel anxious if a toddler couldn’t speak in complete sentences, right? Likewise, it is crucial that you do not expect your students to produce language immediately upon entering your classroom. Expect a silent period. People need to train for a good amount of time before running a marathon; so, too, do your students need time to build language in their minds, along with self-confidence. Provide your students with the opportunity to absorb language with minimal expectations from you. Allow students to have this silent period until they begin to feel comfortable using the language little by little on their own.
There seems to be a natural order to acquiring mathematical ability. We start with recognizing numbers, counting, and adding, and move on to subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers. Most of us end somewhere between adding fractions or figuring out percentages and doing advanced calculus. No one would consider teaching a preschooler how to figure out the sale price of a sweater marked 40 percent off. That kind of mathematical calculation doesn’t come naturally to young children.
People acquire language structures in a fairly set order, too. People learning English acquire the ‘s’ plural as in “I have five sisters” and the ‘-ing’ ending for verbs in the beginning stage of language study. For reasons not clearly understood, these grammatical points stick with new learners of English. Conversely, the ‘s’ possessive, as in “John’s sisters are pretty,” and the third-person-singular ‘s,’ as in “John enjoys going to new places,” tend to be acquired much later on. No one knows for sure the exact order of acquisition for every grammatical structure. The order of acquisition theory states, however, that students will acquire language in a somewhat predictable sequence; therefore it will be useless to try to get your beginning students to learn complex grammar.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to grammar is to target those structures that the students are attempting to use to communicate now, or those your students need for basic communication, such as the tenses.
Acquiring language is a process of one step forward and two steps back. On Monday your student may use the third person singular ‘s’ correctly. On Wednesday he may not. Give your students plenty of language input with a modicum of correction, and trust their individual learning processes. If you would like more information on the natural order of acquisition, consult a book on second-language acquisition.
If you ask a pianist how she is able to play the piano so beautifully she may well respond, “I don’t know. I just do it.” She has acquired the ability to play the piano after having had hour upon hour of musical input and practice. Highly skilled musicians listen to great music often; listening to music shapes them into great musicians. When a new musician practices she produces a lot of off-key plunks and clangs. She may hear how badly she sounds, but she doesn’t give up. She has in her mind a melody she aspires to replicate, and she is confident that eventually she will be able to play it well. If she does get frustrated and gives up, she will never become the pianist that she wants to be.
It is important that your students do not become self-conscious when they are speaking English. What would happen if you stopped yourself in the middle of typing and started to think about every letter as you typed? Naturally you would slow down and your typing would become choppy rather than fluent. Likewise, the more your students have to stop and think about the language they are using, the more choppy and stammering they will become. You can have your students shut their eyes and imagine themselves speaking English fluently and with ease. This exercise is useful when your students are thinking about their language too much.
You will find that some of the English your students produce is fluent and they are relaxed and confident as they use it. They have acquired that language; they don’t have to mentally translate as they speak. Other times, your students will speak slowly and carefully and will be thinking about what they are saying. This is language that they are learning, but have not yet acquired. When students think about what they are saying and the grammatical forms they are using, they are monitoring their language.
Monitoring takes time. When you are in a conversation, you don’t have time to think of grammar rules or to plan out what you want to say. When it’s your turn to talk, you talk, or else you rapidly lose track of the conversation.
Most language learners do monitor themselves from time to time. It is appropriate to do so during grammar time in class. It is inappropriate to monitor language when participating in authentic communication. An over-reliance on monitoring will prevent learners from becoming fluent in the language. At some point all language learners must take the proverbial plunge and trust that they are going to swim.
How can you help a group of students from over-monitoring their language? Provide them with a lot of comprehensible input, so that they feel confident in understanding the language. Keep the language-learning environment relaxed yet engaging by providing plenty of authentic language-learning tasks, such as interviewing one another in class in order to make a bulletin board display, playing cards together, or teaching each other a new recipe. These activities require that students concentrate on meaning rather than form.