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Editorial NRInglês

★ Teaching secondary students: ways to make learning more effective

The Challenge

Most teachers think that teaching secondary students is a real challenge. Primary students are more respectful of teachers and enthusiastic about school; high school students, with university entrance around the corner, are usually more focused. But secondary students are in a kind of limbo confronting a number of changes both physical and psychological and questioning any kind of authority with teachers near the top of the list!

The challenge for teachers with secondary students is to cope with these factors and try to make conditions for learning function. This starts with the most basic elements. Many secondary students don’t see the relevance of learning English or they have so little time for learning the language that they give up. You can’t blame them if they only have 3 hours of English a week as anyone would struggle to learn a language with so little exposure. It’s worth spending some time on the importance of English as a global language. Not just because it is so omnipresent in communication – the Internet, movies, music, business etc. – but because with English you can study more effectively at higher levels, find work more easily and earn more money when you get a job. Chances are that students at some stage in the future will need to talk to someone who is probably not a native English speaker in English. The other issue is to increase contact with the language outside class by encouraging reading or using technology to give students access to language via platforms or apps many of which are fun and free.

Key elements of learning another language

What are the key elements for learning another language that teachers need to be aware of when they are in class?
There are four elements to consider:

  1. Motivation for learning the language
  2. Exposure to the target language
  3. Opportunities to use the language
  4. Effective instruction

It is quite possible to ‘learn’ another language only with the first three elements present. Just think of immigrants who have to work and survive in a country with a different language to their own. However, for teachers it should make perfect sense if you are teaching students in a non-English speaking environment to maximize exposure to the target language and also maximise opportunities to use the target language. The first is a lot more easily achieved than the second especially if your secondary students have access to technology and Internet outside school and if English is in some ways present in your culture through popular music, movies or slogans in advertising. The big challenges are providing opportunities to use the target language and making sure your instruction is effective. The two of these are of course closely connected.

Making the most of time in class

One big issue for teachers, especially when you have secondary students, is to try to ensure you make the most of the time you have them in class. In some classes, the problem is that students are active but not learning anything. It’s easy to confuse involvement with learning. It’s a good idea for the teacher to ask the question ‘ What did my students learn in today’s lesson?’ By learning I mean that they left the class with something they didn’t know when they came in. It doesn’t have to be a new structure or vocabulary set but there should be something that makes their brains do a bit of work: some new vocabulary; a structure reviewed and extended; a useful phrasal verb; a reading or listening technique; a false cognate analyzed. A lot of this comes down to lesson planning and knowing your students in terms of their strengths and weaknesses and interests. Secondary students need to keep active and move from one activity to another to keep them focused. Even with your lesson plan set out, always be aware of what’s happening with your students. If you notice they are not on-task for whatever reason, it’s worth changing the activity or in some cases giving them a break. The break can be getting up and stretching, some breathing exercises to refocus (7 breaths in, 11 out with their eyes closed trying to focus on the present moment) or catching and passing a ball or toy.

Let’s focus on the last two elements in the list above.

Opportunities to use the target language.

The biggest enemy to using the language is when the teacher directs the class and students become passive only responding when they need to. How can we provide more opportunities for students to use the language? Here are some ideas:

  1. The ‘flipped’ classroom. This simply means that the focus of the class shifts from the teacher to the students. Students take on the role of presenting language or using content presented through audio or video on class. The teacher doesn’t disappear but assumes the role of facilitator, organizer, supervisor and coach.
  2. Giving priority to communication not accuracy. At some stage students need to move from controlled to freer practice. This means they are given the chance to use the language in a free extended form without being interrupted when they make mistakes. In other words, they try to communicate even while making mistakes and the teacher observes, helps where necessary and gives feedback on major errors once the activity is over.
  3. Getting students to ask questions. One of the paradigms teachers need to break is that teachers ask questions and students answer questions. If students cannot form questions, they are at a big disadvantage with the language they are learning. It is not that hard to get students to ask questions in group or pair work. All you have to do is tell them to find out about things in an information gap activity or carry out an interview where they need to get some information. Another great question-forming activity is writing questions for answers where you reverse the normal activity.

E.g.
Answer: Since she was 14. Question: How long has she been at this school? / been learning English? / lived in that house?

Ah I hear you say, but what about my beginner or elementary students? Good question! I remember when I first started teaching, we used a drill to elicit questions from basic level students. It goes like this:

Teacher (pointing to photo):
Question ……. Doing …….. What ……..
Student: OK. What they doing?
Teacher: What …….. they doing?
Student 1 Hmm.
Teacher: Can someone help him?
Student 2: What are they doing?
Teacher: Good. Answer?
Student 3: They’re watching TV.

Effective instruction

Sometimes teachers can be more effective and bolster the possibilities of learning by making some changes in the way they teach. Some of the ideas I am going to talk about come from a very interesting book: Doug Lemov: Teach like a Champion, Jossey-Bass Teacher. Interestingly, he puts the teacher right at the centre of the learning process: ‘Evidence shows that of all the variables in teaching: class size, programmes, methodology only one variable countswhat teachers do, know and care about. A child at a bad school taught by a good teacher is better off than one with a bad teacher at a good school.’ The book is actually written with general teaching in schools in mind but many of the techniques are very relevant for English Language Teaching:

  • Ensure ‘wait time’ after a question and repeat the question. By waiting after you – or a student – asks a question, you give students more time to think about the answer and by waiting a few seconds you are ensuring more people are involved in trying to answer the question.
  • Stand still if you want to give directions. If you are moving when you give instructions, this can be distracting. Sometimes get students to paraphrase
    instructions or have them written on the board.
  • Use ‘cold calling’ to involve more students. Rather than choose the students with their hands up, sometimes choose a student who has not raised their hands. That way no one can opt out.
  • Students with a ‘fixed mindset’ rather than a ‘growth mindset’ lack confidence and may struggle more learning English. Praising their efforts and giving one-to-one feedback on areas of opportunity can raise motivation.
  • Take advantage of ‘magic moments’ in class. Sometimes in class something will happen which isn’t in your lesson plan but is worth seizing upon. Once I was watching a primary class where the teacher was doing a lesson about Christmas celebrations. It was a perfectly good class but in one moment a little girl raised her hand and said ‘In my family, we celebrate Hanukkah!’ A magic moment had arrived!! The teacher said ‘Oh that’s nice’ and went on with the lesson. She could have used that moment to get the children to ask the girl questions about Hanukkah and look at a Jewish celebration which would widen their culture. Alas the magic moment was lost.
The author
Simon Brewster studied history at the University of Cambridge. He has the RSA Diploma in Teaching English as
a Foreign Language and a Masters in Business Administration from Henley Management College. He has worked
in the UK, Italy and Mexico teaching English and history and training teachers. He has written 6 textbooks for
teaching English to adults and students in secondary and high school. He recently co-authored Stopwatch a book for
secondary students which is published by Richmond. At present, he is Deputy Director General of the Anglo Mexican
Foundation.

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