Components of effective and efficient language learning programme

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Language learning is a complex phenomenon and not an isolated process. It is a combination of the language programme itself, together with various other features which form part of the production of the actual programme and ultimately determine its success and efficacy. This includes elements such as: the resources made available to the learners; the educator (level of education and experience, native vs. non-native); the classroom environment and the ways in which students are encouraged to interrelate with the resources, and build up their own language learning patterns and overall competence. Ultimately, levels of motivation are essentially responsible for the overall success of any language learning programme and many of the above mentioned factors need to ensure all learners are suitably motivated during the learning programme to ensure its success and effectiveness.

Discussing all the possible key components of an effective and efficient language learning programme could be a mini dissertation in its own right, hence the reason I have narrowed down my discussion to one aspect of an effective and efficient language learning programme. How did I come to this decision: I have seen many great teachers teaching, great resources being developed and used and excellent strategies adopted within the language classroom, yet learning still did not take place? Upon 'after-class' reflections, it was noted that the actual learning environment itself was not conducive to learning. Coming from a third-world/developing country, the learning environment plays an even bigger role in deciding the success of a language learning programme.

Effective Learning Environments

The educational paradigm upon which education had its principles has shifted from creating skills for an 'assembly line' based economy (the creation of a labour force, hence Bantu Education in South Africa), to a system which positions the learner at the forefront of the learning process. In other words, the learner is now in control of their own learning process. This has resulted in a shift from a 'passive' learning environment to a more 'active' learning environment. Consequently, a major shift in pedagogic approaches used within the classroom has necessitated a review of how best to create an optimal learning environment to maximise learners' success rates. According to Judith Boettcher (2007), creating this learning environment can be summarised into ten crucial points (due to time constraints, these will be summarised very briefly) (I found this article really enlightening hence the use of it as the basis for my discussion)

Learning environments have four elements but the learner takes centre-stage: The student is at the centre of the learning process, being scaffold by the task design (activities in the lesson) which was created by the educator while simultaneously using all available resources to acquire the knowledge/skills.

All learning encounters include the environment in which students work together: This may be a simple learning environment with one student using one type of resource to the more complex situations with multiple learners using multiple resources. In either of these, the educator's involvement will vary. Therefore, an effective language learning environment is created when the educator successfully considers the 'where, with whom, with what resource' and 'what outcome'. The educator needs to be able to find the best combination of the above for the learner (differentiated learning strategies). An effective language programme cleverly balances student -student interaction with student-teacher interaction while also managing to find a balance between individual, small and large group work activities. This enables the learning programme to cater for a wider range of learning activities which then caters for multiple learning styles (group work allows certain learners the right to be silent while processing input).

We shape our tools and our tools shape us: Learning only transpires within a context. This involves communication with the student in a particular learning environment and is supported by Vygotsky and Dewey's theories of language learning as a social process. In today's advanced technological state, effective and efficient language learning programmes can make full use of technology (if it is available) to aid interaction and enhance communicative processes. This could be in the form of both input or output.

Learners may be at the centre-stage; however, teachers are still the directors of the learning experience: Even though greater emphasis on the learning process is being transferred to the students, the teacher is still directly responsible for the design and structure of the language course or programme. An effective and efficient programme recognises the fact that the teacher is neither the 'sage on the stage', nor 'the guide on the side', but rather the director of the programme. With this role, comes the responsibility of the teacher to motivate learners, provide direct and indirect support and mentoring (and expertise in the target language - a massive problem for South Africa).

Learners bring their own personalized knowledge, skills, attitudes and learning experiences to class: Learners are seen as individuals who need to acquire or demonstrate their ability to meet an already determined set of concepts and knowledge states. However, an effective and efficient language learning programme allows students to integrate new core concepts into an already existing schema. As a designer of a learning programme, one needs to anticipate these existing knowledge bases of each learner and allow them to build on what they already know. Teachers can use base-line testing before a lesson or set online quizzes to get an understanding of what students come to the classroom with. This can then form the basis for classroom learning and interaction.

Every learner has a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) that defines the space that a learner is ready to develop into useful knowledge: Educators need to be able to identify each learner's own set of knowledge structures to be able to effectively identify their ZPD. By understanding each learner's ZPD, the teacher is able to obtain a better understanding of what knowledge and concepts each learner is ready to acquire. This could also greatly enhance the effectiveness of differentiated learning within a classroom. However, base-line testing is crucial to better inform the teacher of each learner's current knowledge state. When students express the feeling of being lost or confused, teachers need to understand that the language concepts currently being taught may be out of the learner's ZPD. The class environment then needs to help the student by allowing the teacher time to back-track and find alternative ways of making the link between the student's current schemata and the new concepts. Highly qualified teachers in their subject area should not find this difficult at all. Constant feedback in the class is imperative.

Language concepts are not just words but rather organized, intricate knowledge clusters: Understanding language requires a sequence of processes - attention; abstracting; synthesizing and symbolizing. For example, learning vocabulary should not be done in isolation to the actual meaning of the word. Therefore, teachers need to help learners move from concept awareness to concept acquisition. This may sound commonsensical but the teaching of lexical items in order to enhance learners' verbal repertoire for essay writing is common practice in my country with no focus of semantics. The link between individual words and their meaning is even more crucial for learners who are learning in an additional language and may not have had the chance to build mental representations of words in their own language. Once again, comprehensible input is vital. An effective and efficient learning environment, helping students move towards a more abstract grasp of the target language, may include tasks situated in the higher order of Blooms taxonomy - activities which require talking, writing, explaining, analyzing, judging, reporting, evaluating, synthesizing and so forth)

All learners do not need to learn all the course content- All learners do need to learn the core concepts: All language learning content is not equal (think about literary studies!). Only a small portion of any course should be core concept knowledge (how to critique and analyse the set English course book and NOT what the teacher thinks the interpretations should be). The remaining knowledge should be shaped by individualized domains of application, procedures and skill attainment. The core concepts taught should be seen as the 'tools' which allow learners to customize/ modify learning according to their needs. This would ensure learners remain motivated as the purpose of learning is closely aligned with their goals, interests and skills. This would require the teacher to provide a variety of resources and data bases to allow learners to gravitate to learning that best suits their needs.

Different instruction is required for different learning outcomes: All teaching is not equal and different types of teaching strategies are required for different types of outcomes. What the teacher does in the language classroom makes a huge difference to the individual learners. Teachers need to be able to identify the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values sets (SKAVS) that they want to develop within their learners and then design their teaching accordingly. For this reason, backward design is essential in the planning of a language learning programme.

More time on task equals more learning: The more time students spend on practicing the skills they are trying to achieve, the more capable, accomplished and confident they will become in reproducing the skills at a later stage (once again, one may see this as commonsense yet a large majority of learners in South Africa come into the tertiary environment never having written a piece of writing longer than one paragraph). This does mean that teachers will need to find a wider variety of resources that will enable learners to practice the concepts and skills being taught in the language programme and allow them to become automatized. Teachers will also need to ensure they chunk the information and allow sufficient time for practice.