18 May How Do We Teach Learners to Teach Themselves? Discussing Learning Strategies with Alastair Grant @IH Bucharest
Author: Ilinca Stroe, International House Bucharest
What’s the ultimate goal of language teaching? The standard description for C2, the highest CEFR level of linguistic competence, says it all: a learner who has reached the C2 level is an expert user of the language, having “fully operational command of it”: s/he can “understand with ease virtually everything heard or read” and s/he can “express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.” They’re basically native-level bilingual users of the language who, obviously, don’t need a teacher anymore. So effective language teaching gradually diminishes learners’ dependence on the teacher until they become completely autonomous users of the language.
The mission of a language teacher is, therefore, to gradually make him/herself uneeded, while her/his students are growing increasingly more independent. But how do we keep that end goal in mind even while we are painstakingly taking students through A1, A2, B1? How do we stick to the mission throughout the long learning journey, remembering to “let go” as students are gaining autonomy, encouraging them constantly to stand on their own two feet, reminding them that mastering a language means becoming as self-reliant as to be able to teach themselves? For that long-term course of action to be followed consistently, there are in language teaching some useful key concepts which guide us, teachers and learners, towards that much-desired “expert user” horizon at the far end of teaching and inspire us to work at all times towards reaching it.
“Enhanced consciousness of and sensitivity to the forms and functions of language” usually occurs around the B1 level of competence, and it allows learners to recognise structures and use them consciously, deliberately. Students with good language awareness are able to analyse, discuss and describe language including in grammatical terms, i.e. employing metalanguage (“noun”, “verb”, “passive voice”, etc.); they not only acquire language rules, but become competent in explaining them; they notice patterns and they identify contextual meanings; and they are able to reflect on their output and correct themselves when necessary, hence they usually attain a high degree of accuracy. Learners with good language awareness are “halfway there”. So it’s essential for teachers to ask themselves: how can I increase my students’ language awareness?
Learning becomes driven by the student when the latter takes (more) initiative in their language acquisition process: they become better able to identify their learning needs, they set their own learning goals and take responsibility for reaching them, they can even identify materials and resources they wish to exploit or study in class, they know well their own learning style and make good use of it, and they are capable of assessing their own progress. While students take more control of their learning, classes become more relevant because more student-centred, with the teacher acting as a facilitator (not owner) of knowledge, and a provider of resources which respond to the learners’ aspirations and feed into their objectives. It is, therefore, recommendable for teachers to ask themselves: how can I turn my teaching into more self-directed learning?
Autonomous learners have been at the centre of modern language education in the past few decades. Producing autonomous learners is said to be the long-term goal of any teaching project, equipping students with lifelong learning skills. An autonomous learner is able to take charge of their own learning both psychologically (as they feel confident about approaching the content of their learning), and methodologically (as they become aware of the strategies they use or could use to keep learning). If teachers want to (as they indeed should) shape their students into autonomous learners, they ought to focus on developing their students’ learning skills, on empowering them to teach themselves. How can they do that?
All of the three key concepts are conducive to one common denominator: learning strategies. In order to increase language awareness, to stimulate self-directed learning and to enhance learner autonomy, teachers should make sure they transfer learning strategies from the teaching to the learning “side” of the classroom equation. That means sharing with the students actions and behaviours that people use to learn, as well as making students aware of how suitable a particular strategy is to a specific material, task, goal, need or stage of learning. As detailed in Rebecca Oxford’s seminal work Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know (1990), there are six categories of learning strategies, ranging from metacognitive (e.g. self-monitoring) to social (e.g. asking questions).
That is the topic of Alastair Grant’s webinar run by International House Bucharest on 20 May 2020. “Learning Strategies: Encouraging Our Own Education” is part of the Coffee@IHBucharest series of workshops launched by IH Bucharest in 2019 and it draws on Oxford’s work to familiarise teachers with the learning strategies they can provide their students with. A highly experienced English teacher currently based in Argentina, the host of this webinar has worked with IH schools and universities in South America and has been a Macmillan Academic Consultant. Not to be missed. Any language teacher is welcome to attend, particularly English teachers are warmly encouraged to do so. Registrations can be made here.
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre, as well as training events online, onsite or at partner locations. To sign up for a course or event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.