CELTA gave me tools, techniques and approaches but GMILE gave me something that is, if not more, equally important.
In this post, I reflect on the recently completed course with iTDi.pro: ‘Great Minds in Language Learning’ (what a smart name to promote the course!). It was essentially an 8-Sundays gathering with teachers and teacher educators from around the world, and discussing eight different chapters from the book, ‘Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching’. The sessions were led and facilitated by Scott Thornbury; a book in himself.
Earl Stevick, who I had never heard of before, has made some tremendous contributions to the field of education and it’s a shame it took me eight years to find him but finally, I did. As the title suggests, the book is an exploration of ‘meaningful action’ for language teaching and learning, and a tribute to Earl Stevick’s work by various scholars and educators.
Here is what CELTA didn’t tell me but GMILE did.
“Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom.’’ 1
Apparently, this is no secret and it has been known for a while that to have a happy and a healthy memory of a language learning experience, there is a lot more involved than using the latest technology or methods. It’s just me who has been slow to catch up. In my humble opinion, this quote should be cited in every pre- and in-service teacher training program.
Here the inside relates to a range of terms, such as learner’s motivation, beliefs, identity, self-concept, emotions, agency, autonomy, ideal and possible selves, etc., while the between relates to the relationship among the learners, and between the learner and the teacher.
To be fair, CELTA did talk about and highlight the importance of rapport building in a classroom, which I believe is one of the key ingredients of a successful course recipe. Hence, in this post, I would like to indulge in the ‘inside’.
Language is a part of our identity. We use it to express our thoughts, ideas, and emotions. When we are learning a foreign language, we aren’t only learning its rules or skills, we are also altering our self-image, because language is part of our social being.
“Every time learners speak, they are negotiating and renegotiating a sense of self in relation to the larger social world” 2
In the language learning process, beliefs play a huge role in determining the final outcome. It could be the beliefs we have about the language itself (it’s too complicated/fun/useless/etc.) or the process of learning (I must converse with a native speaker to learn the language/I should do grammar activities to improve my accuracy/etc.) or, as Jane Arnold 3 points out, in chapter 2, the most important belief is about oneself; whether we believe we are good at language learning or we believe we are making progress and can learn the language will ultimately play a huge role in our progress. A learner who believes s/he can’t learn the language is right. S/he can’t unless s/he changes this belief.
An extension of beliefs is self-concept. It includes our behaviour, abilities and our unique characteristics. As learners, if we have a positive self-concept, we would be able to put in the necessary efforts to improve in a foreign language. As we improve and notice the progress, our self-concept is validated and we continue to make progress. Littlejohn, A. 4 explains in his book how ‘Feelings of success fuels motivation, as achievement enhances self-image and confidence in an upward spiral in which increased levels of achievement-enhance motivation which in turn leads to further increases in achievement.’
Unfortunately, the vice-versa is true too. With a negative self-concept, we would continue to struggle with our feeling of inadequacy and eventually without much progress would quit learning. The inner dialogue learners have is crucial. If they come to believe that they are not good language learners or this isn’t possible for them, then it is highly likely they won’t succeed at learning the language due to poor self-image. Thankfully, beliefs are dynamic and can be altered.
As teachers, we can influence our learners’ self-concept and beliefs. Teacher confirmation plays an important role in fostering self-esteem. Here are a few specific confirmation behaviours 5 for us teachers. We appreciate learners (verbally or non-verbally) when they do something well, extend a vote of confidence in their possibilities with encouraging comments, give heed to what they say, make eye contact and genuinely smile at them, show genuine interest in responding to their queries or questions, take an interest in them as individuals.
When a teacher accepts, respects and/or appreciates learners’ contribution, it validates their ideas and motivates them to invest further. They feel valued and are willing to risk more of their identities. It also reduces affective filters and makes them well-disposed to process the classroom input. This has a domino effect. Due to the stronger emotional connection built around the new language, they are now able to store the new language successfully and probably transfer it to their long-term memory. The more they process and comprehend, higher are the chances of their further classroom contribution, which in turn boosts their confidence and self-efficacy. The cycle continues….. The environment we create and the validation the learners receive creates a strong foundation to build a strong language learning path.
‘Teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal – or keep them from learning much at all.’ 6
How did Mr Scott Thornbury practise what the book presents?
- he addressed each participant by their name and remembered their nationality and current location (we were 18 of us from Japan to Brazil)
- he always opened the zoom room 10 minutes prior for small talk (It wasn’t empty talk. He would recollect utterances from the previous conversations)
- he encouraged everyone to participate and sometimes nudged the quiet ones to contribute
- he never declined/rejected/opposed our responses/viewpoints; in fact, a couple of times my answers didn’t match the questions but Scott accepted it and validated it by highlighting its importance in another context
- he actively asked for volunteers to co-present on any of the chapters covered in the course
- he gave constructive feedback only after I had insisted him
- he didn’t preach, rather shared his experience and knowledge
- he kept the last session open by asking us to select a chapter for discussion
- he didn’t have a time-limit for participants to share their views, in fact, on a couple of occasions, he had to screencast the remainder of the session’s presentation (the man likes to talk 😉 )
- he validated each one of us by responding appreciatively to our contributions in the discussion forum
- (the best part) his humility, his genuine smile and his ‘ughhhhhhhhhhh’s too 😉
From the book to my classroom
- pay attention to how my learners feel or what they say in the classroom (‘I feel nervous/excited’ / ‘You know today…,’ / ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand’)
- limit correction and increase positive reinforcement
- let them observe and comment on their achievements, be it however small
- remember they are learning the language for a purpose, find that out, felicitate it and validate it
- intermittently, during lessons ask how they are feeling
- during reflection, ask when they felt least or most motivated during the lesson
- during reflection, ask what they could do today which they couldn’t earlier (be it however small)
- during reflection, focus on what they have achieved over what they could have or didn’t
The materials, the content, the techniques, the methods are lifeless tools; it is the people in the classroom who add life to it and give it meaning. It should never be the other way around.
Disclaimer: I did my CELTA in 2013, so I may be out of touch with the updated version of it.
1 – Stevick, E. (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle
2 – Norton, B. and McKinney, C. (2011) ‘An identity approach to second language acquisition’, in Atkinson, D. (ed.) Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition, London: Routledge, pp. 73-94
3 – Arnold, J., (2013: 29/30) ‘Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s Influence on Language Teaching’, Cambridge University Press
4 – Littlejohn, A., (2008) ‘The tip of the iceberg: factors affecting learner motivation’, RELC Journal, 39 (2): 214-25
5- Léon, I., (2005) ‘La confirmación del profesor de inglés percibida por el alumno en Educación Secundaria, unpublished MA thesis, University of Seville
6 – Palmer, P., (1998) The Courage to Teach, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers
I would term this as an important blog for all teachers. Every point you have mentioned here is extremely important and necessary for a positive language learning experience.
Every learner is different and hence the tools and techniques to motivate them have to be different too. No one size fits all – I guess a good teacher not only realises this, but endeavours to put it into practice as well.
Talking about motivation and appreciation, I remember quitting my guitar classes primarily because of a lack of the right kind of appreciation. Every time I played something to my teacher which was better than my previous attempt, he would only pick up his guitar and show it to the class how it is to be actually played and the others would go ‘Oh yes, that’s better.’ You could call me extra-sensitive but I felt it to be quite discouraging. So, I know what you are saying.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for your comment, Soumen.
The guitar class example you mentioned highlights what a lot of research have found about fundamental human needs of appreciation and recognition, especially when we are at a nascent stage of an endeavour. It fuels motivation. I believe we all are extra-sensitive 🙂