The following report is a classroom observation of an English language-training lesson for international students in session at the Centre for English Language Training.
About the learning setting
The Centre for English Language Training is a language-training establishment dedicated to preparing international students in Australia for further undergraduate and postgraduate studies, and other temporary residents for possible future immigration. The main focus of the language-training centre is to not only help the students improve academic English so that that may be able to reach a level of proficiency required for tertiary and VET education in Australia, but also to help them understand Australian culture relevant for communication in English during their stay in Australia and possible assimilation into the Australian culture as a result of their gaining permanent residence in the future.
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The particular lesson that I was given permission to attend at the Centre for English Language Training was taught by Professor MD who has a Masters Degree in Linguistics from a reputed university in UK, in addition to several years of teaching experience at the undergraduate and post graduate level in subjects such as applied linguistics and teaching English as a foreign language at various universities in UK and Australia. This particular course was for ten weeks with four lessons every week with each lasting for fifty minutes. There were twelve students attending the class and were in the age group of seventeen to twenty eight. Furthermore, the students were mainly from countries like South Korea, China, Indonesia, and Thailand with previous knowledge of English as a second language gained as a result of their secondary school education program that ranged from six to eight years of English education. While some students were required to attend the program as a prerequisite to their university studies, the others were attending the program with an intention to apply for immigration. Based on my interaction with some of the students I also learnt that they were primarily exposed to rote learning methods in their previous studies and though they did have prior knowledge of the English language, they were unable to express themselves freely as a result of sparse usage in their daily lives.
When the class started the Professor MD greeted the students and asked them a few questions about the homework for the class. He also gave an overview of the lesson explaining the objectives of the lesson, a brief description of the activities aimed at achieving the objectives that the students may be involved in. Based on what I had observed it was clear that the lesson was about “eco-homes” as a cultural topic, was divided into four modules, one each for reading, listening, speaking and prewriting, and was designed to move from a stage of accuracy to a stage of fluency within each module and from a stage of reception to a stage of production both within the module and as the students moved from the first module to the last module. I also observed that the modules were preceded by a preparation assignment (task) that was provided in their previous class and were followed by another writing assignment in preparation for the next lesson. Additionally I had observed that there was much emphasis on learning brought about by peer-to-peer interactions facilitated by the teacher from task to task rather than teacher driven repetition oriented learning controlled by the teacher (Lesson plan provided in the Appendix).
Based on my observation it was clear that the teaching method adopted by Professor MD was the “Communicative Language Teaching method.” The communicative language theory is a learner-centered theory that focuses on teaching language applicable in real life situations, where the teacher is more of a facilitator than a teacher. It is different from the traditional grammar translation methods and audio-lingual methods where the teacher is in control of the teaching situation completely and the students play a more passive role. The communicative language teaching methods in the context of foreign language learning gained importance in the nineteenth century as a consequence of landmark studies by Carroll (1967) which revealed that American college students who gained foreign language education based on grammar translation and audio-lingual methods demonstrated poor foreign language competencies in authentic real life situations. As a consequence of these observations, the “the ability to perceive and operate within real world situations” became central to second language teaching methodologies Swaffar, 1989, p 55). Therefore based on the goals of the teaching program and of the students it appears that the teaching method is in line with the learning requirements of the students.
Teaching strategies & theoretical foundation
In the first two modules (reading and listening) for instance, the students are given an opportunity to read and listen about “homes” and their “designs” and featuring vocabulary that is mostly familiar to them, but with a few words and constructions that are unfamiliar to them that are representative of contemporary Australian life. I observed that professor MD helps clarify some of the words and constructions by allowing the students to decode new words and answering some specific questions related to the new words. For example, in the reading module about “rain-water harvesting tanks” or “induction cook tops” in homes, the students were given opportunities to answer some basic questions about what they might be within the context of the home and why they might be needed. At the same time the Professor helps the students with the pronunciation of the words like “harvesting” and “induction” using phonetics and also explains the context within which eco homes are built in Australia. Similarly in the listening activity about an Australian actor talking about his new “eco home” on a television program, the professors asks the students what the listening passage is about before asking any passage specific questions. I observed that while many students could not answer, one student from Korea answered that in her country the Government had initiated the eco home policy in 2009 and that she was vaguely familiar with some of the words used in the audio clip about eco friendly constructions.
It is clear from the observation that the focus of instruction in communicative language teaching methods is to develop communication skills through techniques and strategies that improve “productive, receptive and interactive skills” that are deemed necessary for effective real life communication. Communicative strategies are informed by important twentieth century discoveries about learning that include the concepts of “meaningful learning tasks” and “extended, authentic, comprehensible input” (Asubel, 1968; Krashen 1982 & McLaughlin, 1987). The idea behind these concepts is that not all students learn the same way and while some students learn intuitively and know how to organize the language, the others do not know how to organize what they have learned within their memory in order to be able to use it later in real life. For this purpose theorists have recommended that the instruction in the classroom should be “meaningful” to the extent that the students are given an opportunity to apply their mind and also “comprehensible” where the instruction is easy enough that the students can understand it with some help from the teacher and difficult enough that it provides a sense of challenge. Furthermore, the lesson structure follows the “Information Processing Theory” forwarded by theorists such as McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod (1983) that emphasizes the importance of helping students structure their learning experience so that they are able to organize information in the brains and relate it to relevant real life concepts so that they may be able to trigger responses in authentic situations. Furthermore the teaching strategies involved in the reception modules (reading and listening) used both “top down” and “bottom up” strategies where the idea of eliciting responses on the eco homes can be described as “top down” or “context driven” based on the learners prior knowledge; and the strategy of asking about individual aspects of the passage, helping them with pronunciations (induction/harvesting) etc can be described as “bottom up” or “data driven” approaches (Treiman as cited in Arnoff & Miller. 2001; Carrell, P & Eiserhold, 1983) .
I observed that towards the end of the reading and listening activities, the students were given the opportunity to discuss and compare homes in their own countries with those in Australia (reading activity) and whether the home described by the actor confirms the description of the homes in the reading passage (listening production activity). This clearly follows from the “Discourse theory” and the “acculturisation theory” that postulate that students learning a foreign language are successful only when they “are given an opportunity to freely engage in actual foreign language discourse” and “must also associate themselves with the target culture by an understanding of the behavioral and sociolinguistic norms and a comparison with the base culture (Wagner-Gough & Hatch, 1975; Byrnes, 1991, p 208).
In the production modules, Professor MD progressively reduces his interaction with students and allows them to participate in “pair” tasks with a focus on practicing vocabulary and lexical constructions learned in the reception phase. For instance in the speaking module the students are first reminded of the words and constructions like “the eco kitchen has an induction cooking system” etc and then asked to work in pairs where one describes an printed plan (unseen from the other partner) of an eco friendly home and the other tries to draw the home using the audio cues from the partner. For instance one of the students says, “Drive way should not obstruct the bicycle path.” I also observed that Professor MD provided a lot of oral encouragement and praise upon correct usage of the words and the reflection of their understanding in the drawings. The teaching strategy surrounding the pair work appears to be taken from the concept of “drill activities” within the CLT framework, which Knop (1982) describes as activities that focus on “student to student interactions” and “opportunities for trying out new lexical and syntactical constructions” (p 92). These are different from the drill activities in the Audio-lingual methods that are teacher driven.
The classroom lesson that I had the opportunity to observe was in line with the aims and objectives of the language centre and the learning goals of the students. It was clear that the lesson provided opportunities for the students to be able to communicate with other native speakers in Australia within the cultural context and understand aspects of Australian life relevant to possible future assimilation into the Australian society. It was clear that modular nature of the lesson with a progression from reception to production both within each module and across the modules was designed keeping in mind the needs of students with varied language comprehension skills using theoretical concepts of meaningful learning and comprehensible input. Furthermore, it appears that the communicative language method is effective in teaching Asian students who may have primarily been exposed to rote learning methods in their home countries especially in the context of English Language Education.
Arnoff, M & Miller, R, 2001. Reading – Blackwell Handbook of Linguistics. Oxford, England p 664-672
Ausubel, D, (1968). Education psychology: A cognitive view. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
Byrnes, H, (1991). Reflections on the development of cross-communicative competence in the foreign language classroom in B. Freed (Ed), Foreign Language acquisition research and the classroom (p 205-218). Lexington, MA: DC Heath.
Carrell, P & Eisterhold, J, (1983). Schema Theory and ESL reading pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, Vol 23. No 4 647-678
Carroll, (1967). Foreign language proficiency levels attained by language majors near graduation from college, Foreign Language Annals
Knop, C, (1982). Overview, prime, drills, check: an approach to guiding students’ teachers in lesson planning. Foreign Language Annals. Vol 15, p 91-94
Krashen, S, (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon
McLaughlin, B, Rossman, T, & McLeod, B, (1983). Second Language learning: an information processing perspective. Language learning. No 33. P 135-58
Swaffar, J, (1989) Curricular issues and language research: The shifting interaction, ADFL Bulletin. Vol 20. No 3 p 54-60
Wagner-Gough, J & Hatch, E, (1975). The importance of input data in second language acquisition studies. Language learning. Vol 25. P 297-307
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