Nowadays the contact that the students have with English is greater than used to be, therefore they never land in our class without any English knowledge. Even before stepping in a classroom to learn to communicate orally, they have already been exposed to English and may be using it according to their interests and needs. They sing, they play games while chat with other gamers, they study or have studied in regular school, and a number of other way that they are exposed to the language. What is amazing though is the degree of language knowledge they bring with them. Hence the importance of before trying to teach, get to know them and how much they can contribute to the whole group and the group can in turn strength each learner’s potential to improve and contribute to each other.
I never thought I really needed to take this into account until I started working with 9th graders in the elementary school project which groups are formed of students from beginner to pre-intermediate level. Then, I found the necessity to understand those differences and started categorizing them in 4 levels, considering productive skills ( writing and speaking) in order to help me stabilish a point to start, plan the actions and constantly assess if they have improved accordingly.
I started using this criteria few years ago after observing students differences in output where I reflected on their ability to produce language in terms of quantity and quality. It is especially interesting to watch some students who achieved pre to upper intermediate labels without being able to communicate their ideas in L2 even in simple topics where they still need a heavy support of vocabulary. They achieve this level because they become good test takers and are able to achieve the lowest requested grades to pass. In this case, I work with the table above to show him/her where the weakness and strengths lie and how we may work to improve to the next level. This model of assessment helped me a lot when I started with the 9th graders as the groups have students from a variety of experiences and language knowledge. What degree of knowledge and abilities they hold is something to find out as quick as possible. Because of the variety of knowledge, It is very difficult for me to base my expectation or planning on grammar alone as I dont believe that language is simply learned by knowing grammar, but by playing with the language through meaningful manipulation as I reflected back in November.
I can remember as far as I can recall my first days in the classroom telling students about memorizing, then years later to internalize and then now, I understand that language needs to be manipulated in a variety of ways, and the ways will depend on the needs of each age range and individuals.
Another way I find very helpful to guide me is to consider if student already know a content I want to teach by checking if he can recognize ( as soon as they hear or read) or able to use ( grammar point or vocabulary, for example).and what is the distance from one process to another. This is also a diagnostic stage and helps me plan the activies according to their needs instead of considering that all of the contents need to be presented, practiced and then freely produced in this order. That is why I ended up moving away from PPP model of teaching. I prefer to work with tasks that leave space for students to use what they know, raise awereness of what they need to know to express themselves more e better and this is the point where I invest on collaboration. By identifying each others needs, they are also able to offer more and collaborate with me and me with them.
I wrote the draft on Feb/01 in the morning, then in the afternoon I bought Big Questions in ELT by Scott Thornbury. I found out that the first Big Question – How many words do learners need to know? demmands from me further reflection on the topic of vocabulary learning.
Access Scott Thornbury’s blogpost on the topic of Vocabulary Size or run to get your copy and reflect on the Big Questions in ELT. Or even better…do both.