Monday, 6 June 2011

Provider or Manager?

This post was originally going to be about using authentic texts with Intermediate/Upper Intermediate students, but after some reflection, I'm going to extend it somewhat, although it'll still be anchored in reading skills.

I've been doing some research and refreshment over the past few weeks on reading skills, and how to make text-based lessons more interesting to our learners. A lot of students don't really enjoy doing reading in class, as they think it's something that doesn't actually teach them any English per se. In fact, I suspect quite a few teachers think the same - it's quite a tempting thought when students have their heads down in a text, reading silently (or possibly dozing and dribbling onto the page) - there doesn't appear to be anything going on, and both the instructor and learner end up having the same uneasy sensation, that possibly there should be something apparently happening. The chances are that our students don't actually do as much text-based work as they should, and this is a shame - research shows pretty conclusively that language learners who read more are better and faster at language learning.
However, this also suggests two things - first, that the students who read  more are more likely to be avid readers and, importantly, readers of a wide range of things, in their L1, and that they are motivated to do language-based activities outside the classroom. What we don't, or possibly can't, know is whether the reading drives the motivation or vice-versa, or there's some weird feedback loop thingy going on. Anyway, it seems clear that we should motivate students to practise their English outside the classroom, doesn't it? After all, if we motivate them, they will seek down each and every opportunity to use their ninja-like English skills in new and exciting ways, yes?
Or, possibly, there's something else going on, and it very much depends on the context in which we teach, and how we teach it - hence the title of this post.
I've taught in both a monolingual environment - in this case, a private language school in Turkey - and in a native English speaker context, i.e. my current job in an FE college in Deepest Berkshire. Let's imagine that we have the same student going to both places, learning broadly the same syllabus, and moderately motivated. We'll also imagine, for the sake of things, that he's had some kind of ghastly accident involving a copy of Jeremy Harmer's finest, causing him to lose his memory of his previous English learning, and he wakes up in an ESOL class in Reading at the same level he started off in in Turkey. Well, it could be worse: he could have woken up in Slough. Anyway. Our Turkish student in Turkey, if he is sincere about learning English outside the classroom, must actively seek down opportunities to speak, read, write and listen to the language. Now, of course it is relatively easy these days to do that, but our learner, being an average chap, has a thousand and one things to do outside class as well, and to be honest, English studies are really going to drop down the list unless he is a) motivated and, crucially, b) his teacher is motivated enough to be on his case, and does things such as actively suggest where to find information, things to study, where, how and when to practise etc.
Now our hapless student has his bizarre mishap with Mr Harmer, and suddenly he's in the UK, and doing the same kind of studies. And the difference? He doesn't have to actively seek English: He's totally inundated by it. I use 'inundated' correctly, I believe: it's an uncontrollable, unstoppable, tumbling, reaving, crushing, horrid tsunami of words, phrases, attitudes, assumptions of prior knowledge, in-jokes, requests, demands, persuasions, dissuasions and god knows what else. So what is the teacher's duty in all this? After all, we don't need to persuade the learner to hunt out opportunities when they are all around.
In fact, we should first consider it from the learner's point of view. It is natural, in this context, to not engage with the language: it's so overwhelming, that you just want to run away somehow - culture shock, anyone? Look at ELT practitioners the world over - how many of them form expat groups? there you go, it's the running away from the language and culture. Of course, culture shock covers more than language, but from an ELT view it's something we should be clearly aware of, even when the student has been living in the UK/USA or wherever for years and years. A lot of their language engagement may actually be embedded in avoidance strategies - and if you're an ESOL/ESL practitioner,I bet you've seen that more than once, haven't you?
The point I'm trying to make in my roundabout way is this. Depending on our teaching context, we have to deploy different language motivation strategies. If you work in a monolingual/NNES environment, you have to be a language provider - that is, you need to give the materials in class, and provide ways, methods, links, techniques through which the learner can step outside the classroom and actively use English. In a Native English speaking context, however, the teacher is not so much the provider as the manager. In other words, we need to contextualise, parse and manage the flow of information that the learner has to deal with, and render it in such a way as to make it manageable for the student, who after all has to deal with it anyway, regardless of how many lessons he or she has. Only by showing the student that the information is actually manageable can we hope to motivate them, otherwise they will reach a point where they simply switch off, and just don't want to engage with the world around them.
So, are you a provider or a manager, or both? And what do you do to motivate your learners beyond the classroom's Fourth Wall?
I'll deal with methods and practice behind this in another post, as it's getting on the late side now, and I still have to motivate myself through a torrent of student essays.

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