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Misconceptions regarding learning/teaching

 

Students come to classrooms with all sorts of misconceptions regarding learning. Some of them are:

(1) learning a language can happen a lot faster than it does

When I ask my teenage (intermediate level) students who are fluent in English to explain to other students how they study the language, they usually say that they have never studied English. This could sound strange, but it is true. They’ve been immersed into the English language and culture for years watching Cartoon network when they were very young, and later on watching films on some other popular English/American channels (films were not dubbed into Serbian!), playing games and chatting with their foreign friends, reading e-books, listening to music on the Net… They’ve picked up the language as they have been exposed to many Englishes (varieties/ dialects/accents) on a daily basis since a very early age.

It is really amazing teaching English to a new generation of students who acquire the language without learning its grammar rules first. Mastering English in reverse order – by starting with learning grammar rules first and practising language by using coursebooks/ workbooks – is more difficult, but still a common way of learning/ teaching a foreign language in many schools all over the world even today.

Moving beyond the intermediate learning plateau to more advanced levels of language proficiency requires much more work and effort.

“Attaining this goal requires providing learners with a rich source of language learning experiences that allow for the gradual development of language skills across the different modalities of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. These experiences should allow learners to become successful monitors and managers of their own learning, aware of the limitations of their current level of language ability, but also aware of the means by which they can move beyond the intermediate learning plateau to more advanced levels of language use.”   [Richards-Beyond-Plateau]

 

 (2) Teachers are responsible for students’ motivation and learning

Motivation is one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second/foreign language (L2) learning. I strongly feel that a class of highly motivated students who are taught by not so good or experienced English language teacher will be more successful than a class of unmotivated students with a very good teacher.

“Motivation has been widely accepted by both teachers and researchers as one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second/foreign language (L2) learning. Motivation provides the primary impetus to initiate learning the L2 and later the driving force to sustain the long and often tedious learning process; indeed, all the other factors involved in L2 acquisition presuppose motivation to some extent. Without sufficient motivation, even individuals with the most remarkable abilities cannot accomplish long-term goals, and neither are appropriate curricula and good teaching enough on their own to ensure student achievement. On the other hand, high motivation can make up for considerable deficiencies both in one’s language aptitude and learning conditions.” [http://www.zoltandornyei.co.uk/uploads/1998-dornyei-lt.pdf]

I would like to point out that it is very important to provide our students with the skills required to learn more independently and take responsibility for their own learning. They should try to complete more tasks on their own and to manage their time and approaches with less support. This kind of work demands that students recognize what they already know that is relevant, identify what they still need to learn, plan an approach to learn that material independently, and monitor and adjust their approach along the way.

(You can read more about learning and metacognition – the set of processes involved in monitoring and directing one’s own thinking and learning in the book which is being made available by the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Teaching of Psychology[http://teachpsych.org/Resources/Documents/ebooks/asle2014.pdf]

 

 (3) Coursebooks are useful for students because they provide them with controlled practice and give them a sense of improvement.

Course books based on grammar syllabus become little more than grammar courses. Where grammar is given too much priority the result is predictable and well known. Learning grammar is a lot simpler than learning a language. Course books give students the feeling that they can control what is going on, they know the main grammar rules, they can pass tests, and may have the illusion that they know the language well. They can recite grammar rules, but cannot sustain a conversation as they lack vocabulary and fluency. [http://www.mikeswan.co.uk/elt-applied-linguistics/seven-bad-reasons.htm]

In my view course books are useful for students only if you use them in a way not intended by their authors. If you’re an imaginative teacher who enjoys experimenting (and of course if you are lucky to work in a school with intelligent/ innovative management) don’t stick to your teacher’s book, try to make your lessons more creative, for example:

  1. make a selection of grammar/vocabulary exercises, and focus only on those that can really improve students language skills (plan very thoroughly which questions to ask in order to get the maximum out of a very little material)
  2. ask your students to choose a topic/text/recording that is interesting to them and can provoke an interesting discussion
  3. get an idea/material from the course book to:
  • design a project work, a role play, etc.
  • ask them to create a poem/story from the unit titles
  • get your students to change the text into a poem or a poem into a prose text etc.
  • get them to make a test/quiz in order to practise grammar/vocabulary on their own at home
  • give your students a text and ask them to change it in the way they like
  • give your students a short paragraph from a course book and ask them to finish the story (then they discuss which story is the most interesting/gripping/imaginative)

4.  If you have to use a course book, anyway, try to supplement it with some interesting and useful activities created by teachers online, like: FlashmobELT (a wonderful teaching resources bank).

 

(4) It is very important to write formal detailed lesson plans 

Planning lessons is a very important part of teaching, and it does not mean writing formal detailed Lesson plans. The importance of writing formal lesson plans is based on the misconception that teachers can control what students learn. With lesson plans we can control what we teach, and how we teach it, but we can’t control what is learnt.

The most productive lesson planning happens after the lesson while reflecting on what happened in the classroom. My most successful lessons were those when I didn’t stick to the plan because my students’ stories or ideas were more interesting and made me divert from my lesson plan. Spontaneity is the most desirable quality of a lesson; and it means that you are focused on your students, their interests and their stories (e.g. my student’s story of his training martial arts, and the discussion that followed, was much more interesting than the recording I had planned to play that class; or,  writing flash fiction was much more exciting than some boring writing practice in the course book).

The thing is that each class is different, students have different interests and goals, they are at different stages in learning, etc. You should only start the lesson with an interesting task, then help your students decide what they will be doing next and let them practise the language.

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Writing lesson plans is ” completely unimportant if, having developed a set of effective management skills and teaching routines, having experienced what it’s like to think on your feet, having learned how to be resourceful with very little, and above all, having learned to trust your learners, you are ready to fly on your own – and without a detailed flight plan. It’s then that you’ll experience the (almost) unbearable lightness of teaching.” (Scott Thornbury)

 

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About ljiljana havran

English language teacher (General & Aviation English), passionate about learning and teaching. Curious, adventurous, a lifelong learner. Love: good books, music, lots of dance.

9 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal and commented:
    Thank you @LjiljanaHavran for writing this post. Why don’t we start advocating for PD where teachers can really develop the skills and knowledge needed to support learners in their learning journey?

    Paul Nation in Learning Vocabulary in Another Language (p.573) affirms that some teachers and course designers follow principles that go against research findings when comes to vocabulary learning for instance. I’m sure we can relate to/find all or some, either in our own practice and/or coursebooks:
    “All vocabulary learning should occur in context.”
    “The first language should not be used as a means of presenting the meaning of a word.”
    “Vocabulary should be presented in Lexical sets.”
    “Monolingual dictionaries are preferable to bilingual dictionaries.”
    “Most attention should be paid to the first presentation of a word.”
    “Vocabulary learning does not benefit from being planned, but can be determined by the occurence of words in texts, tasks and themes.”

    Since I started reading research and reflecting on the past and present, I’ve realized that a lot of what we do, we do because we’ve always been done that way.

    So, I agree with Nation when he says that course designers who follow these principles should read the relevant research and reconsider their position. I don’t believe that the unit of progression should be vocabulary only and neither it should be grammar like most coursebooks bring.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Thanks dear for such a thoughtful post. I had to reblog it, so I wouldn’t lose track of it. 🙂

    Like

    Reply
    • ljiljana havran

      Thanks so much Rose for reblogging my post and for your great comments 🙂

      I fully agree with you that we should advocate PD “where teachers can really develop the skills and knowledge needed to support learners in their learning journey”. Teachers need training on reflection and observation / how to help students reflect on learning the language / how to help them be independent learners and critical thinkers…

      Many teachers are very slow to transform the ways they teach. It is true that a particular method, or a coursebook can be imposed on EFL teachers by others (school management/parents), but teachers are informed by their own experience, the findings from research, and the wisdom of practice accumulated by the profession.
      We are professionals who can make our own decisions.

      Thank you for being unafraid to question the status quo in ELT and for your enthusiasm to push the things forward!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. Love this post!

    There does need to be more learner autonomy and learners also need to know what works for them. I think this could be less learning style than learning lifestyle.

    Like

    Reply
    • ljiljana havran

      Thanks for reading the post and for your lovely comment, Marc.

      I loved your idea about group poster presentations:
      “One thing I did with my intermediate university students was to have them give group poster presentations about how to study English. It gave them a chance to talk about what has worked for them and gave me a chance to learn about their learning preferences.”

      Like

      Reply
  4. Joanna Malefaki

    Great post Ljiljana!! It’s going in my #monthlyfavorites June 😀
    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Misconceptions about Learning & Teaching - DreamreaderDreamreader

  6. Pingback: #MonthlyFavourites June 2015 | My Elt Rambles

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