Monday, 15 June 2009

Activating heterogeneous groups

Do other teachers of English face the problem of young students believing that they already know English so well that there is absolutely no need to make any further effort to learn more? In the last few years, the number of such students entering senior high school (secondary school) in Finland has steadily increased. They have acquired a fairly good passive knowledge of the language and a reasonable colloquial spoken skill at school, but also increasingly through watching TV, listening to pop music and engaging in various online activities. All well and good, plus their attitude towards English is overwhelmingly positive. However, the next threshold of learning more formal expression appears to be too high for most of them. After effortlessly going through 7 years of English lessons with good grades, basically playing it by ear, they have no concept of how to develop their language skills further - nor do they see any point in it. "I know English perfectly, English is easy!" Consequently, they do nothing in the lessons, nor any homework, and sadly, end up underachieving and not realising their full potential.

To a certain extent, I do understand their viewpoint. Why should a teenager be able to write intelligently about global warming or nuclear power in a foreign language? After all, many of them would struggle with those topics even in their mother tongue! Yet, quite a few of these students are planning to continue into universities, and many for international exchanges during their university years. I certainly would like to help them become aware that the type of everyday chatty language they consider quite sufficient is not going to take them far in academia. How to convince these know-it-all teenagers that, for example 'ain't', 'gonna' or 'stuff like that' are not expressions to use in more formal contexts, let alone smileys or SMS abbreviations?

Many of them insist that we teachers are simply old-fashioned and have no idea of how the language is used today. Yet, they don't recognize the undeniable fact that their active vocabulary is often deplorably limited. They are deluding themselves with their wide passive understanding of English, while the more colourful nuances of the English vocabulary never enter their own English use, despite the text book authors' and us teachers' good intentions of introducing and teaching them. No matter how hard I try, most of them simply refuse to see me as a useful guide, but write my advice off as hopelessly last-century out-of-date drivel.

I am now beginning to ask myself how to efficiently guide students about different registers and persuade them that it will be worth their while later on in life to be able to give a civilised impression in a foreign language. I am toying with ideas of introducing new projects, in which students should really challenge themselves, each starting from their own level, to demonstrate something new they have learned and how their language skills have developed. I despair when I see bright young minds lazing around in class, bored with the textbooks. I want to activate everybody in the group, motivate them to keep learning, help them to make the most of their time. The problem with big heterogeneous groups is that there are those who haven't even managed to grasp any of the basics of the language, and consequently are constantly mostly out of it. Then there are the above mentioned slackers who don't realise that, with English, it's a lifelong endeavour to master even a fraction of its incredibly rich vocabulary, and that there is something for everybody to learn all the time. Finally, in between is the biggest group, the average students, who probably benefit most from traditional school language classes.

What I would like to see happen is for each student to make the foreign language their own. Instead of aiming at mastering the contents in the textbook, ie. everybody learning exactly the same vocabulary, they should each set their own goals by choosing the new words to learn that they find useful in their circumstances and at their level of learning. I believe they could achieve this by being given more open and authentic language use opportunities than the closed and routine-bound gap fills, for example. Also, they should have the chance to do these new tasks in class with the help and guidance of their peers and the teacher as a facilitator, and not as extra homework on top of all the material to be covered in the text book as well. Some units in the textbook will have to be left out or dealt with differently to give space for these new tasks.

This summer holiday I will start to design one such project unit for each course I will teach next year. I will try to be creative and use many different types of tasks (spoken, written, collaboration, cultural, interactive) and embed technology wherever it is possible (restricted access to computer classes, for example) and serves a purpose for learning.

Photo: English learning magazine in Germany by Soctech on Flickr

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