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Designing an Oral English Teaching Course

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018

Introduction: Context

Defining context is necessary for developing any course plan because the students, stakeholders and setting of the course have a large impact on all that is taught and learned. The very concepts of teaching and learning are culturally dependent and therefore care must be taken to match student and stakeholder expectations. Or in some cases it may appropriate to gently push the boundaries of what is acceptable and in so doing reveal a new way of learning and thinking. A cursory knowledge of the context is often not enough to push such boundaries. “The more information you have about the context the more able you will be to make decisions and to plan an effective course” (Graves 2000, p 18).

This oral English course will take place at Leshan Teachers College in the mid-sized city of Leshan, in Sichuan province, China. This institution could be considered a 3rd tier college which grants bachelor’s and associate’s degrees to students headed for careers as secondary and elementary teachers. A minority of these English majors will go on to careers in translation, business or tour guiding. A minority will also go on for further study in various graduate fields. The institution offers no guidelines for the course except that the textbook titled Challenge to Speak by Wilson, Olson, Li, Chen and Yao (2005) be used as a text. The teacher is required to develop their own test for use in the course.

The 1st year students enrolled in this course come directly from high school and the majority of them are from rural areas of Sichuan province. Many of their families work in agriculture or serve as migrant workers in factories or on construction projects in the eastern provinces. Students are often disappointed at being assigned to study at Leshan Teachers College. Many had hoped to attend somewhere with more prestige, but in spite of some initial disappointment, most are willing to study hard to improve their English.

Previous to having this class, many of the students have not had a foreign teacher. Though they have studied English for at least 6 years in elementary and high school, they generally don’t see English as a way to build relationships. Most of their focus in their English studies had been on reading and writing with the goal of doing well on the college entrance exams. Most of them lack the oral ability or confidence to consider beginning a conversation with the foreigners that they may occasionally see in their daily life.

Though educational philosophies are gradually changing throughout China, the college entrance exam still dictates that much rote learning take place. In foreign language teaching, theories of grammar-translation and audio-lingualism predominate. Generally, students are not taught to question their textbooks, their teachers or their learning methods. Students typically follow their teachers’ recommendations and assignments very closely and rarely initiate studies on their own. That being said, their powers of memorization and grammar knowledge are usually quite good in comparison to their ability to speak extemporaneously in conversation.

The course meets one time per week for two 45 minute periods. Due to a late arrival on campus and a week of military training, the 1st year students’ semester lasts only 12 weeks. With the distractions that come with adapting to life in new surroundings, the 1st semester of the 1st year typically features a lighter academic load. Many of these students have not been away from their parents before and this obviously affects students in different ways; some embrace their new-found independence while some long for home.

I. Teacher Beliefs

Though a course or a language program is set in a specific locale, and may try to incorporate the desires and needs of many students and stakeholders, ultimately the composition of the course or program flows from one source: the beliefs and identity of the teacher. Successful teaching requires knowledge beyond just the subject being taught; only through self-knowledge can a teacher fully inhabit the combined public and private persona that a teacher must assume (Palmer, 1998). The beliefs of a teacher regarding the subject being taught and nature of teaching and learning will have significant implications in the design of a course; however, a teacher’s worldview may impact his or her teaching approach in ways that are just as significant, but perhaps less apparent.

Since language teaching often involves cultural differences between teachers and students, teachers may need to adjust some of their beliefs when or if they significantly violate the cultural norms of students (Graves, 2000; Lingenfelter & Lingenfelter, 2003). While Johnson (1998, as cited in Graves, 2000) points out that many of a teacher’s beliefs can be difficult to articulate or can hide under the surface of his or her teaching, my experiences with the cross-cultural frictions found in language classrooms have often raised to my consciousness beliefs and values that would have remained hidden in monocultural classrooms. As teachers engage with different student populations, study language acquisition theory or perform action research, they may alter some aspects of their beliefs. This is only natural. The possibility of change ought to propel a teacher toward constant reevaluation of their beliefs because only an intimate acquaintance with one’s beliefs allows a teacher to articulate why a particular lesson was effective or ineffective (Graves, 2000).

Nature of Language

Just as language is constantly evolving and adding new words from a multiplicity of sources, so my beliefs about the nature of language continue to evolve. Originally, I had viewed language as primarily driven by the lexicon. Through performing action research on form-focused approaches, I have come to realize that grammar plays a role that is nearly as important as vocabulary (Eberly, 2008).

But, language goes beyond mundane concerns such as conditional forms or definitions extracted from dictionaries; when forms and words are artfully rendered into literature, the result is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Language is capable of exquisite beauty, but it is not only in its ability to represent the physical world where this beauty is apparent. Its ability to capture the minute inner-workings of the self is peerless among the fine arts, at least in my view. As a literature major in my undergraduate years, I may be biased, yet I’ve found the habit of reading literature and writing a journal to be the best means of understanding myself.

Language is not only something one engages in alone, it is also a means to develop relationships. Though meanings occasionally get obscured in our speech with others, language is what separates us from animals and allows us to work together as villages, countries and with people from around the world to achieve mutually beneficial objectives. Love, as a supreme human experience, would be incomplete or impossible without language as a means of expressing that love.

Language Learning

My beliefs on language learning grow out of my view of language and out of my awareness of myself as a learner. The relational nature of languages and my level of connection to native speakers have played a large role in my success in learning Chinese and Korean, and my comparative failure in learning Spanish in high school and as an undergraduate. Coming from a largely monocultural area of Ohio limited my exposure to native Spanish speakers. So, during my high school and undergraduate days, I saw Spanish as book-bound and irrelevant to daily life – perhaps akin to how some of my students feel toward English today.

Yet living in Korea and China while I have studied those respective languages has allowed me to know the people that are connected with the languages. It has been my relationships to those native-speaking people – friends, colleagues, students and above all teachers – that have energized my studies and made me successful. This is very much in line with Vygotsky (1978) who first noted the crucial role that sympathetic interlocutors play in forming L1 competence in children (as cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006). Brown (2001) carried this into the L2 arena with his interactive approach which in essence declared that it is through meaningful interaction that learning occurs most effectively. Curran also recycles some of these relational ideas in his Community Language Learning approach (Brown, 2001).

World View

Not only do my beliefs on this issue arise out of my experiences as a language learner, they are also rooted in my spiritual understanding of my relationship to God. The Bible is a record of mankind’s relationship with God and according to the Bible, humans were created for the express purpose of being in relationship with God. The arrival of Jesus on earth heralded the willingness of God to send and sacrifice his only Son so that believers might relate to more than just a book or a set of laws; through Jesus, an intimacy with God is possible. My life has been a gradual discovering of just how fulfilling this relationship can be. But though Jesus calls everyone into relationship with Him, He does not force anyone into a relationship they may not desire. This freedom of choice is an important element in any relationship and endues the weaker party with an agency, or freedom of choice, which is a necessary element in establishing an inquiry-based educational environment (Freire, 1996).

Language Teaching

This type of mutually respectful relationship causes not only an increase in knowledge about the other with whom one is in relationship, it also forces a reevaluation of the self as the two mutually define and refine each other. Language teaching approaches that do not in some way promote learner introspection run the risk of creating automaton learners, who, when left to their own devices, lack the ability to carry on with their learning. Undoubtedly, some implicit learner reflection on teaching and learning philosophies is inevitable when the teacher is from another culture. Yet, deliberate activities and assignments which nudge students toward greater reflection of their learning processes and preferences have been shown to lead to greater student proficiency over the long term (Snow, 1996; Brown, 2001). A host of surveys and inventories like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learners (SILL) have frequently been incorporated into lessons as a way to make learners more self-aware (Brown, 2001).

However, the simple insertion of these surveys into a lesson does not a reflective learner make, as I have found in the past. The teaching approach itself must be designed to give students some experiential knowledge of whatever declarative knowledge such surveys may inculcate. By introducing learner-reflective strands into an approach, a teacher can foster one of the paradoxes which Palmer claims must be present in a successful classroom; the space of the classroom “should honor the ‘little’ stories of the student and the ‘big’ stories of the disciplines and tradition” (Palmer, 1998, p. 74).

II. Needs Assessment

Feeling that I know myself well after articulating my beliefs, there is a temptation for me to take some aspects of needs assessment for granted, especially since I have taught at the Leshan Teachers College (LSTC) for nearly 3 years. This is my 2nd year teaching freshman oral English and though I didn’t do extensive formal needs assessment last year, I feel very cued-in to student needs in terms of affect, pragmatics and pronunciation. Also, part of my action research (Eberly, 2008) involved significant assessments of the grammaticality of my students’ speech, so I feel especially familiar with struggles the students may face in this area. Through classroom activities and conversations outside of class, I have learned much about the future plans, hopes and dreams of many of my students. Yet, student populations are not monolithic and even though the collectivist nature of Chinese culture makes it tempting to paint different groups of students with the same pedagogical brush, there will undoubtedly be subtle and not-so-subtle differences from year to year or group to group.

The foregoing introduction has largely ignored what is potentially the biggest advantage, for experienced teachers in familiar environments, in incorporating well-planned needs assessment into their course: the effect on the learner. In addition to providing the teacher with information about how to structure the course initially or alter it as it progresses, needs assessment helps the learners to reflect on their learning, to identify their needs, and to gain a sense of ownership and control of their learning. It establishes learning as a dialogue between the teacher and the learners and among the learners. (Graves, 2008, p. 98)

The dialogic nature of assessing needs is one way in which students can be “heard to speech,” a process which Palmer (1998) describes as necessary not only for the development of interpretive and analytic skills, but also as an affirmation of the humanity of the student. My hunch is that needs assessment rarely takes on a dialogic quality in traditional Chinese classrooms, which tend to be teacher-fronted or hierarchical (Hu, 2002; Pratt, 2007). Yet the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks that may stem from students’ initial confusion or discomfort when facing the task of assessing their own needs.

Pre-course Needs Assessment

Dialogue often is thought to occur between two parties, yet there are other interlocutors who contribute to the process of analyzing needs. Though they may not participate directly in the classroom, they nevertheless have important contributions to make to the direction of the course. The overarching goal of oral English classes in the view of the administration of the LSTC is to prepare students for the TEM4 oral English exam during their sophomore year. For this reason, the foreign teachers at LSTC rarely teach courses to students beyond their sophomore year. For teachers who are unfamiliar with their setting, a discussion or interview with the dean or other departmental leader would be necessary as an initial needs assessment to help establish the criteria for the course.

Though I have not spoken to many parents of my students during my time here, my hunch is that they would see test preparation as the main objective of any oral English course, or any other course for that matter. A secondary concern for administrators and parents alike is the oral English requirements for any post-graduation job that the student may deign to pursue. As future elementary and secondary teachers, the students will likely need good facility with pronunciation, but fluency will not be as important. This is slowly changing though, and more and more top secondary schools are demanding teachers who can teach in English. For students who opt for other careers involving English, including business, tour guiding and interpretation, all facets of their oral English will need to be well-developed.

I see the value of washback from the TEM4, which is scored on the basis of student competence in pronunciation, grammatical accuracy and fluency through the modalities of an impromptu speech, dialogue and story retelling (Wen, Zhao & Wang, 2001). Yet I would seek to augment the criteria of the TEM4 with several of my own. As a firm believer in the value of relationships, I would argue that pragmatic, cultural and confidence-building activities are necessary to promote relationships between the students and foreigners. Though students and other stakeholders may not see much need for these skills, the day of China’s full integration into the international community is fast dawning. I’ve seen almost exponential growth since my arrival here in opportunities for students and recent graduates to go abroad. Also, as China’s economic growth rate continues to outpace much of the rest of the world, foreigners flock here in increasing numbers to work, study and tour. Beyond these potential encounters with speakers of English, the students will have 3 or 4 other foreign teachers during their 4 years of study at LSTC and the ability to form relationships with these native speakers of English will to some degree determine a student’s success in those courses.

The following table consists of stakeholder data collection procedures and descriptions. The procedures contained therein do more than just provide the teacher with a means to assess the needs of students, they also seek to enable students to self-assess. Though student self-assessment is not a significant facet in Chinese pedagogy, I feel these assignments will benefit them in their future language studies and in their life in general.

Table 1: Stakeholder Data Collection Procedures

When?

What data?

How?

By whom?

From whom?

Why?

Initial

1. Guidelines from department

Interview dean or other leader

Teacher

Dean or other leader

-Learn how course is situated in curriculum

Pre-field

1. Initial needs analysis survey (appendix A)

2.  Recording and transcription of student speech sample

Assign as homework on day one

Students bring MP3’s to class

Teacher

Students, Teacher

Students

Students

-Learn of students’ competencies and hopes

-Ss attempt to articulate their own short-comings, T examines weak areas in pronunciation, grammar

Field

1. On-going needs analysis survey

2. In-class audio recording

3.  Interviews

Distribute and collect in weeks 4, 7, and 10

Record during weeks 4, 7, 10

Interview during weeks 4, 7, 10

Teacher

Teacher

Teacher

All students

Students from one section

3 students

-Gather a wide range of Ss’ opinions

-Gain objective pronunciation data, observe small-group dynamics

-Gain in-depth information on student opinions

Post-field

1.  Recording and transcription of student speech sample

2.  Post-course anonymous survey (see appendix C)

Students bring MP3’s to class

Students complete in class in final period

Students, Teacher

Students, teacher

Students

Students

-Ss attempt to articulate their own short-comings, T examines weak areas in pronunciation, grammar and notes Ss improvement in self-awareness

-Ss reflect on what they have learned and what they still need to work on, T gathers data on successful and unsuccessful course elements

Pre-field needs assessment

Since my course is a mere 14 hours of total class time not counting the test, incorporating student input into my needs assessment will have to be done as efficiently as possible.  As a way to collect basic initial information, a survey questionnaire will be distributed on the first day of class and assigned for completion as homework. (see appendix A)  Assigning the survey as homework will allow students to use their dictionaries and work at their own pace.  The questionnaire has 2 main foci in addition to basic information needed for classroom administrative purposes.  One focus is students’ self-perceived weaknesses and strengths in relating to native English speakers.  Another focus is pronunciation; in what ways have students learned pronunciation, successfully or unsuccessfully, in the past?

Because the Challenge to Speak 1 textbook by Wilson E., C. Olson, H-Y. Li, X-N. Chen & B-H. Yao (2005) will be used in the course, the initial survey includes a list of the language functions included in this text and students are asked to rank their top three preferences in terms of functions to study during the semester as well as designate any of the functions they already feel comfortable performing.  In addition, a significant portion of the initial pronunciation needs assessment will occur in the second week with a recording and transcription project that will test students’ self-awareness of their pronunciation and spoken grammar.

Field needs assessment

In conjunction with an action research project on pronunciation, much of the on-going needs assessment will be performed concurrently with end-of-cycle data collection.  These attempts to gauge students’ feelings on both pronunciation and wider classroom issues will have to be done delicately to avoid overwhelming students who may have difficulty seeing the purpose behind providing the teacher so much subjective feedback.  Each of these short end-of-cycle questionnaires will feature 2 questions requiring written answers and 5 Likert survey items as well as opportunities for students to write further questions or comments about the course.  The initial 2 questions about pronunciation are likely to change from cycle to cycle; however, the Likert statements will remain the same.  Interviews with 3 students will be performed at the conclusion of each cycle, with the intention of gaining deeper insights into some of the issues raised in the surveys.

Objective feedback will be obtained through the use of in-class recordings.  Though checking pronunciation will be the overarching goal of this technique, secondary information will be gleaned about the students’ ability to stay on task, interest in the activity, comprehension of directions, etc… Recordings will be made in both small-group and whole-class settings.

Post-field needs assessment

My hope is that a large portion of the assessment and analysis at the conclusion of the course can be accomplished through a repeat of the initial recording and transcription project assigned during the second week of class.  By having students record and transcribe a passage which incorporates the gamut of English phonology as well as respond to several prompted questions, I hope to gauge their pronunciation and awareness of themselves as speakers.  If they produce fewer errors overall and are better able to articulate their pronunciation and grammar errors the second time through, I will consider them successful learners who have completed a successful course.

III. Developing Learning Outcomes

The challenge in developing learning outcomes is to balance the learning space between an authoritarian approach in which the teacher is constantly forcing their goals upon the students and an anarchist approach in which each student pursues their own agenda.  Undoubtedly needs assessment plays a role in giving the students a voice in planning the outcomes of a course.  Yet I have found in my particular locale in China that students accustomed to a teacher-centered approach may have difficulty in articulating what they hope to learn in a course.  Thus in attempting to maintain a space that is both “bounded and open,” in the words of Palmer, (1998, p. 74) I have often erred in the bounded direction.  I hope in this course, through dialogic needs analysis and attempting to articulate that which my students may find difficult, to be “open to the many paths down which discovery may take us, to the surprises that always come with real learning” (Palmer, 1998, p. 75).

Of course this is not to say that the teacher should approach every course with a blank mindset and allow the students to do all the leading.  Taking into account the context of the course and the beliefs of the teacher will start a teacher down the road of formulating goals for a course.  But it is important to follow up on this start and define the course goals as precisely as possible.  A course “will be effective to the extent that its goals are sound and clearly stated” (Richards, 2001, p. 112).  The better able the teacher is to articulate the goals, the more succinctly they will be able to inform their students of the direction of the course – an important consideration for a course with less than 14 hours of class time.

While there are a plethora of philosophies and frameworks to draw on when establishing goals,  I find myself most adherent to theories of cultural pluralism as defined by Richards (2001) and the framework of ATASK formulated by David Thomson (as cited in Graves, 2000).  Obviously, there are pieces from each of the 5 philosophies described by Richards that I find attractive, yet my setting and beliefs make cultural pluralism the most relevant and accessible to me and my students.  I think the inclusion of a teacher parameter in the ATASK (Awareness, Teacher, Attitude, Skills, Knowledge) acronym allows me to articulate learning goals that I may have for a particular course.  Though social reconstructivists or critical pedagogues may wish to explode the teacher/student dichotomy, I don’t think we can throw all power structure out the window.  The ATASK framework allows me to view myself as a learner and my students as teachers, which is something likely to be beneficial to both of us.

The following table briefly outlines my goals and objectives according the to ATASK framework.  The pre-course portion of my needs assessment informs some of these goals and objectives.  Table 2:

Awareness

Goal:  Students will recognize specific phonemes or intonation patterns that may cause communication breakdowns with native-speaking interlocutors and self-correct these elements if they lead to breakdowns.

Objective: swbat divide sentences into intonation segments

Objective: swbat apply sentence prominence to the appropriate word

Objective: swbat correctly pronounce the /l/ and /n/ phonemes

Objective: swbat correctly pronounce the /δ/, /θ/ and the /s/ and /z/

Goal:  Students will notice differences in proximics, occulesics, kinesics or pragmatics between themselves and foreign speakers of English.

Objective: Ss will have a short conversation with a foreign English speaker other than the teacher

Objective:  swbat recite examples of openings, closings, ways of stating opinions, discussing the future and encouraging

Objective: swbat define Chinese tendencies in areas of proximics, occulesics, kinesics and pragmatics

Teacher

Goal:  The teacher will discover which methods of teaching pronunciation and intonation are effective.

Objective: the teacher will record and analyze portions of student talk in the classroom

Objective:  the teacher will obtain subjective feedback on pronunciation through surveys

Objective: the teacher will obtain objective and subjective feedback from student interviews

Objective:  the teacher will write up a 10 page summary of the results of this action research

Goal: The teacher will spend at least 10 hours beyond class time with students each week.

Objective: the teacher will eat with each student at least once during the semester

Objective: the teacher will maintain at least 4 hours of office time each week

Objective: The teacher will spend at least 2 hours at English corner each Thursday evening

Attitude

Goal:  Students will increase interest in and confidence toward meeting foreign speakers of English.

Objective: Ss will meet and converse with at least one foreigner other than the teacher

Objective: Ss will view speaking mistakes as a chance to learn something, rather than an embarrassment

Objective: swbat list at least 3 topics that interest foreigners and could be used to initiate conversations

Goal:  Students will feel comfortable speaking in class.

Objective: at least 30% of each class period will be spent in small groups so students may practice with the pressure of the whole class listening

Objective: the teacher will use a rotating name list when calling on students so that each student has equal opportunity

Skills

Goal: The student will be able to maintain a short conversation with a foreigner who is accustomed to speaking with non-native speakers on simple topics related to travel, food, hobbies and/or studies.

Objective: swbat repair conversational breakdowns

Objective: swbat define basic vocabulary in each of the above categories

Objective: swbat initiate a conversation using contextual information

Objective: swbat recognize signs of disinterest or interest in a foreign interlocutor

Objective: swbat recognize and define common reductions or blends in the speech of native speakers

Goal:  The student will be able to note major pronunciation inadequacies in their own recorded speech or the speech of their classmates.

Objective:  Ss will record and transcribe a 3 minute portion of their own speech twice during the course

Objective: swbat distinguish flat sentences vs. one with proper prominence, as well as phonemes /n/, /l/, /θ/, /z/, /δ/ and /s/

Knowledge

Goal: Students will be able to describe 3 fundamental ways in which western culture differs from Chinese culture.

Objective: Ss will be exposed to illustrations from and explicit definitions of cultural parameters developed by Hofstede (1980, as cited in Davis, 1999)

Objective: Ss will read and analyze various critical incidents in inter-cultural communication as found in Davis (1999) and Snow (2004)

Goal: Students will be able to list internet sites where they can work on pronunciation or meet foreign speakers of English.

Objective: Ss will spend at least 1 hour perusing at least 4 websites that focus on English pronunciation

Objective: Ss will complete sign-up procedures for at least one language exchange web site

Though it is te


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