Good content teaching is not necessarily good language


Gibbons (2002:120) states: 'good content teaching is not necessarily good language teaching'. Teaching pupils who are learning English as a Second Language (ESL), therefore, raises particular issues that may not be present in a monolingual classroom.

This essay will examine the ways in which this lesson plan addresses some of these issues and will seek to justify the approach taken. Five main themes will be explored: the language learning aims; the general approach and methodology adopted; specific language issues that arise; teacher's response to errors; and assessment.

In recognition of the fact that different learners and different contexts give rise to different opportunities and needs (Harmer 2007), the lesson plan contains a profile of the two pupils. Further, the context in which the lesson is taking place will be explored prior to focussing on the lesson itself.

Learning Context

Both pupils are members of a primary four class in a Scottish primary school. This particular context, as opposed to an 'English as a Foreign Language' setting- in which English is being learnt in a country in which it is not the majority language (Carter & Nunan 2001:2) - creates both opportunities and challenges.

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One of the major advantages is that the desire to integrate and communicate with their peers is likely to act as a strong motivation to learn English (Hedge 2000:23). Further, the pupils are exposed to English in many forms outside the classroom, providing a wide range of natural experiences in which they can practise and develop their English. On the other hand, it is possible that in focussing upon English, the pupils' home language (L1) will become neglected. There is evidence that bilingualism can be beneficial to children's learning, including in areas outside language (Baker 2006), and therefore it would seem valuable to ensure the L1 is also maintained (Pinter 2006). For this reason efforts were made to recognise the home language and culture by encouraging pupils to bring in fairy tales from home.

Additionally, the pupils are expected not only to learn English but also to 'learn in it as well' (Gibbons 2002:5). This is significant as the language required for schooling is different to, and takes longer to develop than, the language required for everyday conversation (Pinter 2006). These issues impact upon the aims for the pupils' language development

Language Learning Aims

In order to justify the approach taken in this lesson it is necessary to consider both the long and short term goals for these pupils' language development. The overarching aim is for these pupils to be able to communicate with their peers and the wider community and to be able to engage in wider learning in all school subjects. In essence, the aim is to develop 'communicative language ability' (Hedge 2000:44). Viewed in this way, language proficiency involves more than knowledge of the formal systems of language such as grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

From a 'communicative' standpoint these formal features represent one area of competence ('linguistic'), but it is suggested that learners also need to be able to (drawing on Hedge 2000 & Council of Europe 2001): use language to convey meaning effectively, being aware of the connotative meanings as well as explicit meanings of words and phrases ('pragmatic competence'); be able to use the correct register in different situations - in essence, knowing what level of formality is appropriate in different situations and with different people ('sociolinguistic competence'); be able to use language in extended interactions and texts ('discourse competence'); and be able to draw on strategies to maintain an interaction even when, for example, they do not have all the vocabulary they require to convey their meaning ('strategic competence'). These competences need to be developed in the four language skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening (Hedge 2000:45).

Clearly one lesson will not address all these areas at once. This particular lesson is focussed upon speaking. For Cerek, who appears to be shy and to dislike talking in big groups, the focus is on developing his confidence and skills in maintaining an extended interaction (discourse competence). Milly, on the other hand, is more confident, and the focus in this lesson is on making use of strategies to extend her vocabulary without relying on the teacher. These goals inform the methodology adopted in this lesson.

Approach and Methodology

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The approach adopted reflects not only the goals of the lesson but also theories as to the nature of language acquisition. There are a number of theories as to how a second language is acquired, some emphasising the role of cognitive processing ('psycholinguistics'), and others the role of social interaction ('sociolinguistics') (Mitchell & Myres 2004). However, aside from a behaviourist perspective, which regards language learning as a process of habit formation requiring 'repetition and imitation' (Lee 2000:1), most theories emphasise the importance of interaction as a crucial means of developing language competence (Mitchell & Myres 2004).

Krashen, who developed 5 language learning hypotheses, maintained that only language that was 'acquired' through interaction would be produced by the learner (Mitchell & Myles 2004:45) Any formal language learning was seen to act as a 'monitor', regulating the learners' output of their acquired language (Krashen 1989:8). These two hypotheses have been critiqued on the basis that they cannot be proven and create a distinction between acquired and learned language that cannot be tested (Mitchell & Myles 2004). Generally there is a consensus that there is a place for both acquiring language incidentally through interaction and through an explicit focus on the formal language systems (North 2008:56).

There are various methods which aim to achieve a balance between acquisition and learning, such as 'Presentation, Practice, Production' (PPP) (Harmer 2007). PPP involves the teacher presenting the language form to be learnt, pupils practicing this language and then having an opportunity to produce it themselves. Hedge (2000:61) critiques the PPP method on the basis that attempting to promote fluency whilst also focussing on accuracy is counterproductive. Notwithstanding the various criticisms faced by these methods, Harmer (2007) suggests that they all have useful elements that can be adopted in the classroom.

Therefore, whilst this particular lesson doesn't have an explicit focus on grammar or pronunciation, it is recognised that these will need to be addressed in other lessons, possibly using different methods. For example, the fairy tale context will require learners to be able to use the past perfect tense, which could be developed using a form of PPP. Total Physical Response (TPR), involves learners responding physically to teacher instructions, is also a popular method (Harmer 2007:68). However TPR would not seem to the development of extended interaction that is the language aim for this lesson. Arguably the method best suited to this aim is task based learning (TBL). The TBL method is related to a Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach, which emphasises the meaningful use of language as a means of developing language competence (Willis & Willis 2001).

In a TBL lesson, the language children use in completing a task(in this case, creating a fairy tale character) is not controlled, which is argued to encourage language production as learners strive to share their ideas (Willis & Willis 2001). Through creating an 'opinion gap' (Hedge 2000:59), - in other words a situation in which pupils need to speak to share their opinions - this activity aims to create a situation in which Cerek will naturally produce spoken output and engage in an extended interaction with his peers. For Milly the requirement to use a range of interesting vocabulary also sets up a meaningful situation for Milly to utilise strategies in order to discover new words and their meanings. The use of a meaningful experience leading to an outcome, in this case the creation of a character in the short term, and creating a story to share with others in the long term, is a central feature of TBL (Willis & Willis 2001). These outcomes act as a motivation to engage in learning.

Particular Language Issues

Motivation is argued to be 'crucial' to pupil success (Hedge 2000:23). Whilst the pupils may have a high motivation to learn driven by a desire to integrate with their peers, Hedge (2000) suggests that motivation changes from moment to moment and can be affected by the class activities. Therefore, the motivation created by the task, and through the use of the cliff hanger in the story opening (Appendix 1), are significant features of this lesson plan.

Associated with motivation is anxiety. Krashen's (1989:10) 'affective filter' hypothesis posits that when learners are anxious they struggle to acquire and produce language. Whilst Horowitz (2010) cites arguments that suggest anxiety may be an effect rather than a cause of difficulty, there seems to be a general consensus that anxiety can impede learning. This explains two choices in my lesson plan. The first is to place the children in small friendship groups for the task. This aims to reduce anxiety Cerek seems to experience when speaking in whole class situations. The second is the use of silent time in the initial activity, allowing the ESL pupils to formulate their answers before being asked to contribute in front of the whole class. This is also in recognition of the fact that for language learners, 'assembling an utterance requires considerably greater resources of attention' (Field 2008:368).

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Another significant choice in the lesson plan was to use 'scaffolding' techniques such as the vocabulary cards and scripted instructions for the class. Scaffolding refers to temporary assistance which aims to bridge the gap between what a learner can achieve alone and what they can achieve with assistance, this gap is referred to as the 'Zone of Proximal Development' (Gibbons 2002:8).

It is not anticipated that all of the vocabulary on the cards would be retained; rather they seek to enable Cerek to focus on talking rather than concentrating on finding the appropriate vocabulary.

The scripted instructions aim to scaffold the learners' language use by using language that can be understood by the learners, but is at a level of sophistication above what they themselves usually produce. Krashen refers to this as 'comprehensible input' (Rost 2001), and regards it as the key means by which language is developed. I chose to script the language as I identified this as an area in which I lack experience and as such is a focus for my professional development.

Whilst Cerek's cards contain pictures, Milly's do not. This is to encourage her to utilise strategies to discover the meanings of these words. The idea of teaching strategies arises from research into 'good language learners' suggesting they employ certain techniques (Hedge 2000). Whilst there is an argument as to whether strategies can actually be taught (Hedge 2000), research does suggest that encouraging learners to be more autonomous in their learning can raise their self-esteem and increase their motivation to learn (Johnstone 2010:436). Therefore, the aim is for Milly to use her friends to discover the meanings to new words and to use her thesaurus to extend her vocabulary. The vocabulary cards themselves aim to develop vocabulary by connecting physical features with adjectives commonly used to describe them. Words that commonly occur together are known as 'collocations' (Harmer 2007:35), and learning words through their associations is suggested to aid retention (Hedge 2000:127). For this same reason, Milly is encouraged to use her thesaurus to find synonyms and antonyms for the adjectives suggested, again the aim is to aid retention and develop understanding of meaning. Again it should be noted that it would not be expected that Milly would lean all of the words on the cards, rather the aim is for her to focus on the vocabulary that she herself wishes to learn.

As a matter of personal professional development I would be interested in researching further the use of strategies in language teaching, in order to understand which strategies are most beneficial to learners and how (or if) they can best be taught.

As has been demonstrated, specific choices have been made in this lesson reflecting the learners' current language learning goals. These goals must also be considered when deciding how to respond to errors.

Response to errors

In this lesson, as the focus is on developing Cerek's fluency in discourse and Milly's use of strategies, it is suggested that there will not be a great focus on the accuracy of language produced. It is suggested that a focus on accuracy can hinder fluency and prevent the risk taking that Milly will need as she attempts to autonomously extend her vocabulary (Bygate 2001).

Such a decision, to overlook some errors of accuracy, reflects the belief from a communicative approach that errors are in fact an 'inevitable and positive' part of language learning. (Hedge 2000:15). It also draws on the idea that the majority of language errors made by learners are not random, but rather reflect their current, imprecise, understanding of the rules of the language (Mitchell & Myres 2004:15). This systematic, yet not fully formed, language is referred to as 'interlanguage' (Hedge 2000:11). As such, it is suggested that there is little point in addressing some errors as they are a reflection of the learners current interlanguage and will only change as the learner develops a more refined systematic understanding (Mitchell & Myres 2004). There is a slight tension here, as it is suggested that if some errors are not picked up upon they can become 'fossilized' - so entrenched in the learners' language that they prove very difficult to change (Mitchell & Myres 2004:18). For this reason, whilst many errors may not be picked up on directly in this lesson, the teacher will make note of them so that she can address difficulties in subsequent lessons.


Considering a learner's errors and their current 'interlanguage' is relevant to considering how to assess the pupils' language development. Assessment is crucial in the learning process to identify pupils' current level of attainment and to ascertain the next stages for learning (Cheng et al 2004). However, McKay (2000) argues that it is important that assessment reflects the nature of language acquisition and does not assess ESL learners in the same way as first language speakers. He suggests that to test ESL learners by the same standards leads to the view that ESL learners are 'deficient' rather than recognising that they are 'progressing successfully according to expected ESL pathways' (McKay 2000:189).

For this reason, and in an effort to give Milly and Cerek's some autonomy in their learning, this lesson makes use of self-assessment. For this lesson assessment would not focus on all the skills they are developing, but rather on specific goals (as detailed in the lesson plan). Research suggests that self-assessment can help learners identify for themselves where they need to develop, and that this can be done accurately (Little 2005). However, there are a number of difficulties associated with self-assessment. The first is the suggestion that often the content of self-assessment does not correspond to what is assessed by the teacher or in formal assessment, which can leave pupils feeling disempowered (Little 2005). It is for this reason that all goal setting, as well as teacher and pupil assessment, draws on the CEFR descriptors as a common frame of reference (drawing on Little 2005).

Another difficulty of self-assessment is that it requires training on the part of the pupil if it is to be accurate (Brindley 2001). Further Brindley (2001:141) suggests that for some pupils self-assessment can be 'unfamiliar and threatening' as it may clash with their previous schooling experiences where the teacher is regarded as the only one who should administer assessment and feedback. This highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity, and being aware that expectations as to what makes a good and successful learner can vary between cultures (Hedge 2000).

It is for this reason that the self assessment carried out by the pupils only requires a fairly simple indication of their feelings as to their success. This lays the foundations for future development in this area.

This essay has sought to identify and highlight key issues in teaching ESL. Decisions made in this lesson point to the importance of having clear goals for language development and adopting approaches that not only meet these goals, but reflect an understanding of theories of second language acquisition. In developing the lesson I have become aware of a particular personal professional development need - to consider my use of language in delivering instructions, and have become interested in researching further the role of learner strategies in language learning.