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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

English as a Window to the World

In our current age, when we are already immersed in the middle of this global village with its diversity and complexity, and with a generalized technological penetration, which surprises us everyday, we cannot abstract ourselves from the close relationship that exists between these realities and the new paradigms affecting language teaching methods. As English teachers, we should therefore adopt new ways of approaching the topic of foreign language acquisition. In this new global dimension, language teaching methods should be more innovative and creative and allow students to get actively involved in their learning process. Thus, we should motivate our students to discover, share, construct and reconstruct their knowledge more meaningfully. It’s them who need to learn, we already speak English.

Learning a foreign language implies a great deal of commitment and practice. In this context, discovering a new language plays a very important role in students’ language acquisition. But achieving this goal implies building a new curriculum scaffolding that translates into forming independent and democratic students. We should educate students who are capable of constructing their own knowledge through discovering heuristically, playing interactively, working cooperatively, and participating actively in language activities.

Teaching a foreign language cannot be compared with teaching any other subject, as learning a foreign language is a very complex and idiosyncratic process, in which teachers must always be on the alert and observer what their students learn, when they learn it and how they learn it. When learning a foreign language, students preferentially take in and process language information in different ways, such as, watching and hearing selectively, reflecting and associating intuitively, and producing informatively. Teachers, therefore, should choose teaching methods selectively and try to find ways to individualize the English learning process. For example, I have watched how students learn English interactively and playfully through computer-based language learning systems. In fact, a child or youngster on keyboard is unstoppable when it comes to working at the computer. Teachers should therefore seek new ways to best integrate technology into effective pedagogy.

In this context, I firmly believe that computer assisted language learning (CALL) is undoubtedly a very effective tool, not only as a supply of language content but also as a guided, empirical and revealing resource for foreign language learning. CALL allows students to learn independently, which is something they enjoy very much because basically they feel in control of everything. But unfortunately, for many Chilean English teachers, self-learning is not the ultimate methodological goal, so many have decided not to use technology or use it as an uncontextualized support. Nevertheless, this sense of self-control is precisely one of most important aspects CALL systems pursue.

So, as we cannot escape from technology, the only alternative seems to be joining it and incorporating it into the design and development of an EFL curriculum. To this end, I propose here a three-stage approach, which includes a presentation or pre-computer session, self-learning or computer session and practice or post-computer session. Of course, these three stages pursue different objectives. Thus, at the presentation session, teachers have to explain what the learning topic is about; at the self-learning stage, students have to explore through different tasks to construct their knowledge; and finally, at the practice stage, teachers encourage their students to put into practice what they have previously learned. This is done through using a wide range of production activities. These three learning stages should be closely and intentionally co-related for curriculum extrapolation and integration. It doesn’t make much sense if schools have state-of-the-art CALL systems and teachers continue to disassociate inputs acquired at the different stages.

Through informal conversations with Primary- and Secondary-school teachers, I have found out that many schools have invested large quantities of money in computer labs, which are partly used and without a planning that allows organizing their use by teachers of other subjects, including English teachers. This lack of planning results in students clicking here and there aimlessly. This is terrible because the computer session should always be carefully planned. At this stage, students are supposed to acquire the basic inputs they need for the next stage, so teachers have to plan everything very carefully in order to be able to guide and monitor their students more appropriately.

As for the post-computer session, it is recommendable that teachers use a multi-task, production approach, through which they provide their students with as many opportunities as possible for them to practice the basic inputs they have previously learned. Practice here means that students should work collaboratively with their classmates. At this stage, teachers should act as a facilitator helping their students produce and overcome their fears of making mistakes.

In conclusion, in our current age, with English being the global language and with the Chilean Ministry of Education intensifying the use of English in the country, English teachers need to reflect on their teaching methods, re-conceptualize their roles, learn more from observation and improve their professional skills. All this signifies that, as English teachers, we must give our students more opportunities for real discovery, effective application and natural language production. In fact, we must help them learn to learn.

Author: Fernando Vera, bachelor's degree in English, Master´s degree in Educational Investigation and Master's degre in Educational Management(c).

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