How does a teacher identify the different types of learners in a language classroom and how best plan for this afterwards?
‘…plan, teach / act, observe and reflect…’
(Sue Davidoff and Owen van den Berg, 1990)
My observation was undertaken at the British Council in Kuwait/Gulf Region[ej1]. The observation class was of mixed nationality Arabic Language speakers at Intermediate level. There were twenty students in total, 80% males to 20% females. The class comprises of 30% students, 60% working or professional people & 10% homemakers & others. The age range is between 20 to 55 years. The class is halfway through a 6 months language course. I observed and was involved in a 90 minute lesson focusing on vocabulary, reading and speaking. At the end the teacher answered my prepared questionnaire (see Appendix)[ej2].
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The following essay consists of a brief theoretical, analytical and practical examination of learning styles and typologies in a language classroom and how best to plan for them. It includes an analysis of specific elements from the observed lesson (see Appendix for a transcript[ej3]) put in the context of theory and intended future practise.
To support the lesson, the teacher used the white board, an overhead projector with one transparency and three handouts. Whole class work focused on provision of vocabulary and contextualisation of the material. The material was real and relevant to contemporary interests and cultures. The teacher used discussion starters to motivate and encourage student interest and involvement (as Allwright and Bailey advise, 1991) Responses were elicited from the class and supported through teacher modelling of pronunciation and writing on the white board. Individual work was limited. The teacher had established small groups (three to four students) aimed at balancing ethnic background and gender.
Research shows the importance of understanding and catering for different learning styles and cognitive strategies. When a learning style is not catered for, the student can easily become ‘bored and inattentive, do poorly on tests, get discouraged about the course, and may conclude that they are not good at the subjects’ (Zhenhui, 2001). Various parameters have been constructed for defining student’s preferred way of learning, such as Knowles (1982) concrete, analytical, communicative and authority-orientated learning styles (cited in Richards, 1994). Another defines the groups as auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning styles (Krause et al, 2003, pp154-155) whilst figure 1 gives a representation of student and teacher inter-reactions dependent on learning styles. Some researchers such as Richards (1994, pp.59-77) consider an individuals culture as vital to understanding learning styles. Ladson-Billings (1995) advocates a method of Culturally Responsive Teaching which integrates cultural points of reference through out the learning process. Others disagree (Kubes, 1998, cited in Krause) and cite more universal forms of learning.
This class was both interested and engaged in its learning. However, during the interview, the teacher expressed a wish that there was more time for individual tailoring. The teacher acknowledged that this would better cater for the range of learning styles. More concrete resources (actual materials eg fruit, etc) and increased use of visual aids (magazines, more transparencies, laminated pictures) may also help to convey understanding and increase retention.
Two ‘tests’ were used during the class – one was a linking exercise and one a reading exercise. The teacher finished the lesson with each student expressing an opinion on an article using the lessons language. Whilst these were not formal tests, they involved assessment strategies. As Nunan points out (1990, p62) assessment contributes part of the information for student evaluation. As this infers, the tools for student assessment, be they observational, formative or summative, need to balance with an understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. For example, the goal may be to allow students to understand, practise and develop their own language and learning strategies (see Hismanoglu’s exploration of Language Learning Strategies, 2000) – be they direct or indirect strategies (Oxford, 1990, p9). Most students require clear and precise scaffolding (Vygotsky, in Krause, 2003, pp60-65) to develop their metacognitive practises for making meaning. Assessment can act as a benchmark to the success of the learning process and show the teacher areas that need to be covered again or in a different way.
There is no space here to do full justice to the impact of the learning environment upon students yet it needs inclusion for a balanced understanding of students learning styles. Suffice it to say that, as Nunan and Lamb say (1996), the teacher needs to aim for a safe, positive and progressive environment that encourages student participation, thinking and risk-taking. Much as assessment is an end result of reflection upon what one wants to define, the learning environment should be based upon a thorough understanding of theoretical aspects. For example, traditional teaching methods tended towards a unitary approach to intelligence. Contemporary theories, such as Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences (cited in Krause et al, 2003) allow for the inclusion of variable factors that define a student’s strengths and weaknesses. Many agree with Wilson’s (1998) assertion that Gardner’s MI theory helps teachers create“…more personalized and diversified instructional experiences” and develops “empowered learners” (Wilson, 1998).
Figure 2. Adapted from Huitt, 2004, http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html
This holistic approach agrees with an understanding of other influences upon learning, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for example (see Figure 2), or Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory. These ‘ecological’ factors encourage more integrated forms of assessment and are particularly useful in understanding various forms of ‘washback’ (see Cushing Weigle, 2002) that may result. Other more structured tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indications Survey, (Myers & McCaulley, 1985) may also have their place.
The teacher used gender and ethnic background to balance the groups. The groups worked well together in a pro-social manner. However, Woods encourages conscious examination of an educators own attitudes, especially when the may cause subconscious actions and opinions to form (Woods, 1996). Should the two parameters of gender and ethnicity become constraints, then they are not valid means of group construction. Sometimes is appeared that not all group members contribute in their cooperative learning. However, research has shown that even those who do not appear to be so communicative do benefit to a degree from the listening and processing that this format provides. It may be that they are better at working individually and as such should have the opportunity to do so.
The teacher used elements of the 3 P’s approach – presentation, practise, production. However, as the lesson transcript shows, the language was expanded in what became more of a Harmer-style engage – study – activate method.
I would like to list the implications for my own teaching under the following points:
- Use a wide range of teaching strategies and styles to ensure comprehension eg support spoken material with writing on the white board, leave the transparency up on the overhead projector, bring in concrete materials, provide visual clues, model your required responses, “set short, realistic goals and review and recycle often.” (Antonaros, 2005 ), role play, use song.
- Use methods according to the area you wish to cover, the materials you have prepared and present concisely and precisely. If the area is suited best to direct instruction then use it, if student-centred instruction or co-operative groups then vary accordingly. Motivation and interest are paramount, but sound understanding is the goal.
- Prepare your materials so that they are interesting, real, relevant, encourage thinking whilst supporting language development.
- Take an action research approach to (for example Wright’s, 1987, 2005) to develop a thorough understanding of my students learning and cognitive styles and my own attitudes.
- Use active listening to understand, modelling to improve and discussion to encourage communication
- Use teacher modelling strategies to develop the student’s autonomous language learning skills as exemplified by Lowes and Target (1998) in Helping Students to Learn.
- Providing a positive learning environment where mistakes are not derided
- Assign homework that re-caps and therefore re-enforces the issues covered in the lesson.
- Ensure equity in communication – make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
“Every teacher who has taught a group of grown-ups knows that some individuals may be reluctant to speak, especially when they realize or assume that other students are more fluent.”
Allwright, D. & Bailey, K. (1991). Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Antonaros, S. (no date) Looking Inside and Out for the Answer to Motivating Our Learners http://www.tesolgreece.com/nl/75/7505.html) Accessed 7th February 2006
Davidoff, S., & Van Den Berg, O. (1990) Changing Your Teaching. The challenge of the classroom. Pietermaritzburg: Centaur Publications
Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books,
Harmer, J (1998) How to Teach English. Harlow, UK: Longman
Hismanoglu, M. (2000) ‘Language Learning Strategies in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching’, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 8, August 2000
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Krause, K., Bochner, S., & Duchesne, S. (2003) Educational Psychology for learning and teaching. Southbank, Victoria: Thomson.
Kubes, M (1998) Adaptors and innovators in Slovakia: Cognitive style and social culture. European Journal of Personality, 12(3), pp.187-198
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.
Lowes, R. & Target, F. (1998). Helping Students to Learn. London: Richmond.
Malamah-Thomas, A. (987). Classroom Interaction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Nunan, D., & Lamb, C. (1996). The Self-Directed Teacher. Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press.
Oxford, R. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. New York, USA: Newbury House Publishers.
Richards, J.C., & Lockhart, C.L. (1994). Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J.C. & Nunan, D. (eds.). Second Language Teacher Education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Turula, A (2002) Language Anxiety and Classroom Dynamics: A Study of Adult Learners. Forum English Teaching Online, US Dept of State, Vol. 40 (2). http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol40/no2/p28.htm#top
Wilson, L (1998). What’s the big attraction? Why teachers are drawn to using Multiple Intelligence Theory in their classrooms? Accessed 7 February 2006
Woods, D. (1996) Teacher Cognition in Language Education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Wright, T. (1987). Classroom Management in Language Education. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan
Wright, T. (1987). Roles of Teachers and Learners. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Zhenhui, R. (2001) ‘Matching Teaching Styles with Learning Styles in East Asian Contexts’, The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VII, No. 7, July 2001
Matching teaching styles: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Zhenhui-TeachingStyles.html accessed 3 February 2006.
Language Learning Strategies: http://iteslj.org/Articles/Hismanoglu-Strategies.html accessed 3 February 2006
Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, Huitt, 2004, http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html. Accessed 7 February 2006
Language Teaching http://www.ittmfl.org.uk/modules/effective/6a/paper6a4.pdf accessed 5 February 2006
[ej1]Where exactly, or does this remain hypothetical?
[ej2]Need to verify and add number
[ej3]Need to verify and add number