Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Confidence building to learn English....!!!

Confidence building to learn English
Peer intervention as a teaching method:

Dr Asantha U Attanayake

Peer intervention is used in the form of a correction method in the language classroom. Contemporary times, in English language teaching, it is used as one of the correction methods and not as a major part of teaching methodology. But in the Sri Lankan context, for adult learners (those who have five - ten years of English language learning background in school behind them), I have experimented that it helps immensely in language teaching as an independent discourse. In other words, it could be used as a complete language teaching methodology.

Basic mechanisms
One basic requirement is that learners are in small groups (of four - five). They work on the basis of the sameness. When the sameness is emphasized, sharing steps in. The idea is to make learners use their previous knowledge to accomplish the task given to them. It is assumed here that any Sri Lankan adult learner who decides to follow an English course would have some knowledge of basic language structures, some basic vocabulary, and some ability to read at least a couple of words in English. It is understood that this knowledge has various levels in it. One might find this disadvantageous in a classroom that requires catering to different language improvement needs. But when using peer intervention as the main teaching technique, this heterogeneity in language ability is exploited as one of the main assets.

The struggle
In using peer intervention as a complete teaching methodology, a task is given to a small group, for instance, a simple task such as to read instructions and understand the task or read a small paragraph. Students are asked to read aloud in the group. One student reads aloud while others listen or they could take turns to read aloud.

As it is natural for them to find many words that they do not know how to pronounce, there is a struggle to pronounce those words from the part of the reader. It is crucial that this struggle takes place and the reader and the other members in the group feel this effort. It is at this juncture that peer intervention is required.

Peer intervention comes in here as a support for the struggle. There is a possibility that a group member or members who listen to the loud reader will know the correct pronunciation and helps in the reading. This I would name as the first correct input. Correct input is essential in the learning process, yet it has to be given only when it is required to make the learning effective and meaningful. The necessity is created via creating the struggle. Then the first correct input from peers will be helpful and remembered by the reader/s who struggled. In addition, those who listened without knowing how to pronounce the very word/phrase would also benefit as they also faced a silent struggle.

On the other hand, there is uncertainty from the part of the reader and listeners when faced with a word/phrase whose pronunciation is not known by anyone in the group. Still, in such an occasion, the most important elements for the discourse that I am discussing here are present: the struggle and the need to know the way to pronounce the word/phrase correctly. This is true about getting to know the meaning of a word as well.

Teacher’s role
A teacher needs to give students the time required for loud reading and should see that the loud reading takes place. Herein, teacher is required to monitor the task by going round the class, moving among groups, listening to students’ reading aloud, making sure that every member in the group gets the chance to do loud reading, etc.

The next step is the second correct input. Once the group members read the instructions/paragraph within a time period that is sufficient as perceived by the teacher depending upon the proficiency level of the students, teacher must read the text (for instance, instructions to carry out the task or the paragraph) aloud. With the previously created struggle to read/pronounce, students will be alert to catch the word/phrase they could not pronounce while they were reading aloud.

This way, that is, by creating a struggle, the learners are made to feel the need to know the correct way of pronunciation and then by giving the opportunity to listen to the correct input twice, their need is gratified. This is the opposite of Behaviourism. Behaviourism is a learning theory that only focuses on objectively observable behaviours and discounts any independent activities of the mind. Where Behaviourism professes that behaviours are acquired through conditioning, herein, learners are made to undergo an internal process of ‘searching for’ in the form of a struggle. Once what the learners ‘search for’ through a mental process is given in the form of correct input, then the entire learning process becomes a cognitive exercise.

In carrying out a task, be it reading or writing, sameness is emphasized. Learners in a group are asked to write the same thing and are required to check for the sameness among the group members.

Herein, the philosophy behind is that the first correct input would be given by a member/members of the group. This is on the assumption that a learner who knows how to pronounce a word correctly or how to use the simple present tense correctly (if it is the task assigned to them) will not agree to read or write it incorrectly for the sake of getting the sameness in the group.

He/she will argue, point out to others the correct way/correct verb to use and this becomes the first correct input. The second correct input will come from the teacher, and what has been done by the group will be checked immediately when the teacher’s input is given.

The other importance of checking for/emphasizing on the sameness of answers within a group is that it makes the learner continuously interact with his/her small group. For this interaction, certain amount of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in English is required if the environment to be conducive to English language learning. While monitoring, the teacher needs to give basic essential utterances for the groups to interact in English. For instance, utterances like, “What is your answer?”, “Mine is this”, “I think it is...”, etc could be given to groups and could even be drilled/parroted as the chance to use them immediately in groups will produce immediate results. Herein, students whose proficiency level is very low will be more than happy with the newly found ability to use one or two utterances in English in groups in order to carry out a task. This will make them feel confident about themselves and this confidence in speech will project them to be confident in doing the task (loud reading, fill in the blanks, etc) assigned to them in the group.

Psychological approach
In relation to English language teaching in the Sri Lankan context, more than a pure educational approach, what is appropriate and effective is a psychological approach. Herein, building confidence, developing confidence and maintaining it are three key concepts that should be used at different levels of teaching according to my perception. This is because, unlike in other countries, especially Western and European countries who profess the theories and teaching methodologies for English language teaching to the entire world may not necessarily have the attitudinal problems we encounter here in Sri Lanka.

Our closest neighbour India, as I stated in a previous article, does not discriminate a person who speaks in an accent that is highly inflexed with one of the 1652 mother tongues available in the sub continent. In addition, India has been able to produce a scholarly generation who speaks sense no matter what subject area they speak about. Therein, accent, pronunciation etc do not matter much (but one should not be misled here that the situation there is 100 percent perfect, but it is certainly better than ours especially where discourses at an academic level are concerned) as content and the quality of argumentation are what one is evaluated on.

Unfortunately in our context, we have not taught our English language learner who has undergone the English language learning process about 10 years to talk sense! Neither have we been able to persuade, or convinced the elitist community who have been projected as superior in their accent and pronunciation (Forget about the content they speak, whether it makes sense or not!) that what is important is not imitating or aiming to be like the native speaker of English, but to produce a native Sri Lankan speaker of English (with all kinds of Sri Lankanness attached to English) who uses rich content in his/her speaking. Herein, I admire the task of the Presidential Task Force on Language and IT and its convener, Sunimal Fernando’s untiring efforts to bring about a mass attitudinal change in relation to the speaking in English.

Teaching methodology
So, in short, in addressing the issue of teaching English to the vast majority of Sri Lankan youth who are from rural areas, the approach must be that of a psychological one. Therein we need to develop a homegrown teaching methodology with necessary incorporation of the accepted theories vis-a-vis language teaching the world over.

What we need to consider is the kind of language teaching we have carried out over the decades and the kind of input we have given to the learner in the process. It is obviously some knowledge about grammar which stands alone as a discrete entity, independent of being used in communication (be it speech or written), some vocabulary items and essentially “what is your name?” with the definite answer “My name is .......” and “How are you?” and “I am fine thank you” as the sure answer (forget even if the student is down with viral flu), the ultimate results of the so-called Communicative approach being used for teaching English, the achievements of the goal, communicative competence in the Sri Lankan context. The output is 63 percent failures in O-L English in 2006 that amounted to 73 percent in 2009.

Yet, without disregarding the fact that there has been some input over the years through their school career, we need to make use of it in planning curriculum for Sri Lankan learners of different levels and age groups. In such a context, making use of the learned knowledge, peer intervention could be used as a complete teaching methodology for adult learners in the manner that has been discussed through this article.

The writer is a lecturer in English Language, English Language Teaching Unit, Colombo University

What is important here is the process whereby the learner struggles and it is felt by the others and the support extended by the peers to cope with the struggle; and secondarily the support by the teacher. The mechanism should be carefully monitored by the teacher, and for this teachers should be trained accordingly.

Teachers must be made aware of the characteristics that are specific to the Sri Lankan learner and the failure we experience in teaching English. Without this, teachers may not be fond of deviating from the Western or European professed teaching methodologies which they have been following throughout their careers.

A complete paradigm shift is required in changing the attitude of the teachers of English and others who are at the decision-making level (to be open to changes as regards teaching methodologies) in developing and supporting a homegrown methodology to teach English in our country.

The writer is a lecturer in English Language, English Language Teaching Unit, Colombo University


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