Learner-centred methods in ESL

Learner-centred methods in ESL

Anastasia Yakovleva points out several ways to create an encouraging, student-friendly environment. 

Empowerment, personalisation, authenticity. These ELT-buzzwords are among many others that have appeared to sharply reframe the way we teach, learn and collaborate with our students and colleagues. You’ve probably noticed them not once while browsing through the books on methodology and listening to CDP coaches. 

Having been in the same situation, I started wondering if they’re used just to beautify teaching mundane: daily lesson preparation, a feverish hunt for engaging and applicable materials which will make my students thrilled to bits, meetings with parents… Let’s add regular homework check-ups, revise&check lessons and occasional teacher training courses when possible. 

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve never been happier living this life, helping my students and seeing how their faces are glowing with newly acquired knowledge, even a bit of it. On top of that, there’s been a feeling that it’s time to put them into the limelight. What helped my wish come true and realize the real value of the fancy words mentioned is called a learner-centred approach. 

The chase for classroom freedom

Previously we refreshed some of the methods, in which teachers are a leading light. They are effective and they do help teachers as well as their students to achieve learning goals. However, different approaches serve different goals and outcomes. 

Teacher-centred methods of instruction may set some limitations to the lessons’ scenarios, preventing students from acting more openly and less formally with the teacher and peers. What is more, it’s always a teacher who is brainstorming and processing information, making it more a ready-made product rather than a set of hints for a student’s personal learning investigation. The latter option, an essential element of the learner-centred approach, opens up a door to the world in which ideas, experience and knowledge are brought by students to their classrooms. Be ready to listen and try to soak up everything as they share something that eventually empowers your teaching. 

How to recognize the learner-centred classroom 

  1. It enables active learning by giving students room for interaction through problem-solving tasks and brainstorming sessions in order to debate over the possible solution(s). Classroom cooperation here is a vital tool to establish efficiently working communication among all the learners and a teacher;
  2. By switching focus from an educator to students, learner-centred teaching not only provides a greater level of classroom autonomy but motivates learners to reflect on the level of comprehension of the target language and identify each topic’s relevance for the educational process;
  3. Language acquisition challenges become an essential part of every lesson’s agenda, and learners are encouraged to formulate and answer each other’s questions, discuss and explain reasons for the stance they have on something with a minimum of a teacher’s intervention. 

There are several models of student-centred teaching, though the basic methodological framework remains the same: learners as active agents bring more dynamic into a classroom environment. Let’s recap some of them. 

Inquiry-based learning: pulling the trigger of students’ curiosity 

Based on posing questions to be discussed and issues to be solved, it goes far beyond simple Q&A sessions to let learners be more enthusiastic and immersed in a discussion. However, awakening interest is no mean feat for teachers: yes, they need to be less active, but it does not mean ghosting students completely and letting the lesson go with the flow. In fact, the teacher may possess the following roles: 

  • facilitator, 
  • role model,
  • delegator.

How the model works: a teacher suggests students ask questions regarding the topic being discussed and make wider research of a target language and/or communicative case while looking for answers. Their findings can be presented through presentations, blog posts, role plays etc. The content Q&A area can be chosen collaboratively in advance and should address learners’ current needs. 

Steps to implement the strategy in your classroom: 

  • After choosing the content to debate over, students are supposed to conduct pre-discussion research to come up with insightful ideas and prospectively share them with peers.
  • Encourage students not to be predictable and look for less ready-made samples and/or way too ordinary ideas.
  • Define collaboratively the way results and findings will be presented in a classroom so that students will be familiar and comfortable with the chosen format of presenting ideas and insights.
  • Don’t forget about the post-research and -inquiry reflection (here the format is completely flexible).

Expeditionary learning: reaching out to real language environment

Gaining its momentum as a top-notch learner-friendly model, expeditionary learning takes both teachers and students outside of the traditional classroom walls. In terms of second language acquisition, it may include educational trips abroad to provide learners with maximum language exposure, accents, etc. Another way is connected with reaching out to English-speaking communities who live in your home country and feel ready to assist you and join the discussion in order to provide learners with the exposure needed.  

How to modify the approach during a lockdown: Google Earth interactive ‘trips’ can be organised so that learners can (re)visit destinations that touched their hearts or have another personal significance. Learners can act like travel guides to their teacher and peers. To deepen research, another place should be somewhere they haven’t been, but fascinated by. If a class is conducted entirely online, create a shared folder and ask students to upload photos they have taken during the trips and provide them with useful language worksheets in advance.

Game-based learning 

The holy grail in modern student-centred teaching, gamification tools let students participate more actively even when the classroom agenda appears to be highly comprehensive. Learning through games means helping your students to develop their soft skills along with language acquisition in general. 

Applying game-based learning, however, means hours spent on planning and researching. Still, the benefits are obvious: first, the level of comprehension is growing, thus allowing kids to discover how the language items are used in real-life situations. Second, the usage of games may encourage a healthier competition to spur the motivation of learners. 

Goals that gamification can help you to achieve:

  • Better exploration of the target language through problem-solving strategies 
  • Overcoming learners’ internal struggles, especially if the topic has been avoided by them before 
  • Reduction of the stress level and learner’s anxiety issue that is usually associated with the traditional way of learning and completing assignments 
  • Better in- and out-of-classroom communication between students and their teachers through fostering we-are-on-the-same-page feeling. 

There are plenty of online sources that offer various games dedicated to different topics. You can find some examples of online ESL games here and here

Personalised learning 

As it stems from the model’s name, lessons materials should be tailored to meet students’ language needs as well as interest and skills that they want to master. Without a solid partnership in which everyone is trusted and respected, the model will not work at its best. Being the broadest approach type, the personalised model may include inquiry sessions, gamification and expeditionary learning as well. 

The contribution of such a framework is far-reaching yet always demanding. On the one hand, students appreciate when you provide them with more than just one rock-solid and non-negotiable course option, on the other hand, the interests and motivation of learners tend to fluctuateю Or they, while clearly stating goals and expectations, still want you to guide them constantly on the bumpy road of language learning. Be open and honest (NB! pulling the wool over their eyes won’t be a good start) and let your students know what and why should be personalised after conducting needs analysis and entry interviews. A gentle reminder is below: 

What can be customised:

  • curriculum 
  • ways of assessment 
  • learning materials and ways of conducting classes
  • classroom design (desks’ positions, equipment, online platforms that serve the educational needs to its fullest)

Differentiated instruction

Evolved in 1975 to bring more diversity into classrooms, the model continues to meet educators’ and learners’ requirements in terms of respecting individual capabilities and levels of comprehension. Those who teach multi-level groups may take the opportunities into account for better teaching. For language teachers in comprehensive schools, colleges and even universities, differentiated instruction can be the only way to approach everyone. It works efficiently to avoid the risk of demotivating students with certain struggles and giving too much attention to classes’ bright minds, turning them into teacher’s pets. 

The pillars of differentiation are somewhat similar to the personalised model and include:

  • content 
  • process
  • product 
  • learning environment 

Other more specific approaches where the shift has been made from teacher- to student-centred learning environment include the task-based method with a focus on engaging learners by giving them puzzling and interesting assignments so that the students are becoming risk-takers and innovators. The natural approach makes freer practice possible with the communicative focus on everyday language practice. The silent approach puts the teacher off the stage to let learners express themselves without the teacher’s excessive interference during the target language practice.

Settling down in the land of meaningful connections

So many approaches, so little time… and so much commitment brought to every lesson I’ve conducted throughout all those years thanks to the methods’ diverse nature. Making first steps towards a more student-centred environment may be frightening and more time-consuming (just initially, though), but definitely worth trying. 

How has it changed the way I teach and perceive my students?

Well, there is a world of difference: along with better comprehension level among students achieved, there is a deep mutual understanding and trust. Kids and teens are hard nuts to crack, and protecting rebellious self is a part of their identity. Staying open-minded and non-judgemental is crucial. So, take their hands and show what they personally can do to shape their own future. Even one small step made during English class is one giant leap for their communicative achievement. 

Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.

Анастасия Яковлева

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