LEARNER VARIABLES I: TEACHING ACROSS AGE LEVELS
A. Teaching Children
Popular tradition would have you believe that children are effortless second language learners and far superior to adults in their eventual success. On both counts, some qualifications are in order.
1. Intellectual Development
Since children (up to the age of about eleven) are still in an intellectual stage of what Piaget (1972) called “concrete operations”, we need to remember their limitation. Rules, explanations, and other even slightly abstract talk about language must be approached with extreme caution. Some rules of thumb for the classroom:
a. Don’t explain grammar using terms like “present progressive” or “relative clause.”
b. Rules stated in abstract terms should be avoided.
c. Some grammatical concepts, especially at the upper levels of childhood, can be called to learners’ attention by showing them certain pattern and examples.
d. Certain more difficult concepts or pattern require more repetition than adult needs. For examples, repeating certain pattern (without boring students) may be necessary to get the brain and the ear to cooperate. Unlike the scene with the little boy who had no pencil, children must understand the meaning and relevance of repetition.
2. Attention Span
One of the salient differences between adults and children is attention span. But short attention spans do come into play when children have to deal with material that to them is boring, useless, or too difficult. Since language lessons can at times be difficult for children, your job is to make them interesting, lively, and fun. How do you do that?
a. Because children are focused on the immediate here and now, activities should be designed to capture their immediate interest.
b. A lesson needs a variety of activities to keep interest and attention live.
c. A teacher needs to be animated, lively, and enthusiastic about the subject matter.
d. A sense of humor will go a long way to keep children laughing and learning.
e. Children have a lot of natural curiosity. Make sure you tap into the curiosity whenever possible, and you will thereby help to maintain attention and focus.
3. Sensory Input
Your activities should strive to go well beyond the visual and auditory models that we feel are usually sufficient for a classroom.
a. Pepper your lessons with physical activity, such as having students act out things (role play), play games, or do Total Physical Response activities.
b. Project and other hands-on activities go a long way toward helping children to internalize language. Small group science projects, for examples, are excellent ways to get them to learn words and structures and to practice meaningful learning language.
c. Sensory aids here and there help children to internalize concepts. The smell of flowers, the touch of plants and fruits, the taste of foods, liberal doses of audiovisual aids like videos, pictures, tapes, music, all are important elements in children’s language teaching.
d. Remember that your own nonverbal language is important because children will indeed attend very sensitively to your facial features, gestures, and touching.
4. Affective Factors
Children are often innovative in language form but still have a great many inhibitions. Children are in many ways much more fragile than adults. Their egos are still being shaped, and therefore the slightest nuances of communication can be negatively interpreted. Teachers need to help them to overcome such potential barriers to learning.
a. Help your students to laugh with each other or various mistakes that they all make.
b. Be patient and supportive to build self-esteem yet at the same time be firm in your expectations of students.
c. Elicit as much oral participation as possible from students, especially the quieter ones, to give them plenty of opportunities for trying things out.
5. Authentic, Meaningful Language
Children are focused on what this new language can actually be used for here and now. They are less willing to put up with language that doesn’t hold immediate rewards for them. Your classes can ill afford to have overload of language that is neither authentic nor meaningful.
a. Children are good at sensing language that is not authentic; therefore, “canned” or stilted language will likely be rejected.
b. Language needs to be firmly context embedded. Story lines, familiar situations and characters, real-life conversations, meaningful purposes in using language, these will establish a context within which language can be received and sent and thereby improve attention and retention. Context-reduced language in abstract, isolated, unconnected sentences will be much less readily tolerated by children’s minds.
c. A whole language approach is essential. If language is broken into too many bits and pieces, students won’t see the relationship to the whole. And stress the interrelationship among the various skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), or only won’t see important connections.
It takes a very special person to be able to teach children effectively. Along with all these guidelines, an elementary school teacher develops a certain intuition with increasing months and years of experience. If you don’t yet have the experience, you will in due course of time. Meanwhile, you must begin somewhere and these rules of thumb will help.
B. Teaching Adults
Although many of the “rules” for teaching children can apply in some ways to teaching adults, the latter age group poses some different, special considerations for the classroom teacher. Adults have superior cognitive abilities that can render them more successful in certain classroom endeavors. So, as you consider the five variables that apply to children, keep in mind some specific suggestions and caveats.
1. Adults are more able to handle abstract rules and concepts. But beware! As you know, too much abstract generalization about usage and not enough real-life language use can be deadly for adults, too.
2. Adults have longer attentions spans for material that may not be intrinsically interesting to them. But again, the rule of keeping your activities short and sweet applies also to adult-age teaching.
3. Sensory input need not always be quite as varied with adults, but one of secrets of lively adult classes is their appeal to multiple senses.
4. Adults often bring a modicum of general self-confidence (global self-esteem) into a classroom; the fragility of egos may therefore not be quite as critical as those children. Yet we should never underestimate the emotional factors that may be attendant to adult second language learning.
5. Adults, with their more develop abstract thinking ability, are better able to understand a context-reduced segment of language. Authencity and meaningfulness are of course still highly important, but in adult language teaching, a teacher can take temporary digressions to dissect and examine isolated linguistic properties, as long as students are returned to the original context.
Some implications for general classroom management can be drawn from what we know about differences between children and adults. Some management: “do’s” and “don’ts”.
1. Do remember that even though adults cannot express complex thinking in the new language, they are nevertheless intelligent adults with mature cognition and adults emotions. Show respect for the deeper thoughts and feelings that may be “trapped” for the moment by a low proficiency level.
2. Don’t treat adults in your class like children by: calling them “kids”, using “caretaker” talk (the way parents talk to children), talking down to them.
3. Do give your students as many opportunities as possible to make choice (cooperative learning) about what they will do in and out of the classroom. That way, they can more effectively make an investment in their own learning process.
4. Don’t discipline adult in the same way as children. If discipline problems occur (disrespect, laughing, disrupting class, etc., first assumes that your students are adults who can be reasoned with like adults.
C. Teaching Teens
The “terrible teens” are an age of transition, confusion, self-consciousness, growing, and changing bodies and minds. What a challenge for the teacher! Teens are in between childhood and adulthood, and therefore a very special set of considerations applies to teaching them. Perhaps because of the enigma of teaching teenagers, little is specifically said in the language-teaching field about teaching at this level. Nevertheless, some thoughts are worth verbalizing, even if in the form of simple reminders.
1. Intellectual capacity adds abstract operational thought around the age of twelve. Therefore, some sophisticated intellectual processing is increasingly possible. Complex problems can be solved with logical thinking. This means that linguistic metalanguage can now, theoretically, have some impact. But the success of any intellectual endeavor will be a factor of the attention a learner places on the task; therefore, if a learner is attending to self, to appearance, to being accepted, to sexual thoughts, to a weekend party, or whatever, the intellectual task at hand may suffer.
2. Attention spans are lengthening as a result of intellectual maturation, but once again, with many diversions present in a teenager’s life, those potential attention spans can easily be shortened.
3. Varieties of sensory input are still important, but, again, increasing capacities for abstraction lessen the essential nature of appealing to all five senses.
4. Factors surrounding ego, self-image, and self-esteem are at their pinnacle. Teens are ultrasensitive to how others perceive their changing physical and emotional selves along with their mental capabilities. One of the most important concerns of the secondary school teacher is to keep self-esteem high by:
· Avoiding embarrassment of students at all costs,
· Affirming each person’s talents and strengths,
· Allowing mistakes and other errors to be accepted,
· De-emphasizing competition between classmates, and
· Encouraging small-group work where risks can be taken more easily by a teen.
5. Secondary school students are of course becoming increasingly adult like in their ability to make those occasional diversions from the “here and now” nature of immediate communicative contexts to dwell on a grammar point or vocabulary item. But as in teaching adults, care must be taken not to insult them with stilted language or to bore them with over analysis.