How can the new to English language learners and their teachers work together to provide a successful language learning experience when curriculum content is the priority?
Rubin & Thompson (1982) researched and found 14 characteristics of a good language learner.
If each characteristic of a good language learner can be developed for young learners into a ‘child friendly’ question, translated into their mother tongue (maybe orally) and unpicked, question by question, each characteristic can act as a guide for learners to try out new strategies.
1. Do you take responsibility for your own learning?
Are learners making their own choices about how to learn best? We can offer guidance but we cannot tell learners what works best for them. We have to show learners elements of how to take responsibility for learning and support them in choosing strategies that are most effective and most comfortable for them. Examples could include self-assessment, personal target setting, identifying parts of their personal learning programme and working towards making each specific, manageable, attainable, realistic and timely manner (SMART target).
2. Do you make a study routine?
School routines help learners make the best routine for learning through the day, but does their home learning routine also encourage this? Often, language learners have to go an extra mile not just in school, but at home, to grasp aspects of survival language then to learn more complex language structures and vocabulary. In addition to this, what does their routine include? Is it a sequence of activities frequently followed that allow the young learner to make the best progress?
3. Do you use language creativity to play with grammar, words and sounds?
Are learners experimenting with different ways of using the new learning? It is easy for learners to use a new phrase in one way but can a learner consciously identify other ways to use phrases creatively e.g. use in other language structures?
4. Do you make opportunities to practice the language?
Once outside the classroom learners need to consciously make a concerted effort to actually use the language. It is easy for a learner to allow themselves to be shy and falsely enjoy someone speaking for them. If a learner plans possible opportunities to practice, it is a powerful tool to help them become more confident using the language in more unknown situations.
5. Do you focus on meaning rather than understanding every word?
In order for a learner to feel successful it is important to for them to acknowledge and be happy with not understanding every word – especially in the beginning. If the general meaning is understood then this should be deemed a success. All too often learners become bogged down with speech that far supersedes their current level of understanding. The language can be taken step by step in a progressive manner according to need and following a clear, progressive programme which can help learners to identify where they are on their language learning journey.
6. Do you find ways to remember the new language?
Learning in the classroom setting is a start but when the learner takes the work home, are they using strategies to help them remember? They need to find ways of remembering what works for them. Studying different memory strategies and assisting learners in choosing ones which are the most effective for their learning can offer an effective platform for success.
7. Do you celebrate errors and learn from them?
Learners often say to themselves “No, that’s not right.” or “I made a mistake.” Can we focus on the positive element of making an error? For example, “Great, I made a mistake, I can learn from that!” This would follow with strategies for then correcting and learning. Learners can choose to celebrate and embrace errors and learn from them rather than feel inadequate by making them. The learning of a language is a journey and learners need to enjoy it!
8. Do you use your mother tongue to help you?
Learners should never underestimate the power of using the mother tongue to support the learning of their new language. As Cummins (2000) clearly states, “the level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development.” All too often, we see children actively avoiding the use of their mother tongue because it is not seen as ‘cool’ or useful either by themselves or a peer or parental figure. It’s important for learners to translate into their mother tongue to help clarify meaning or use both languages to label or make notes. Can they use their family and friends who speak both languages as a resource for supporting understanding and learning new language?
9. Do you use the context to help you learn?
Learners must use all the contexts around them to help find clues to support comprehension. If an adult can guide them into identifying different contexts and how they could use them, learners are more likely to take ownership over language practice in new environments.
10. Do you make intelligent guesses?
This may sound like common sense, but are the learners taking contextual clues and forming judgements. They need to ask themselves, do they feel confident in taking a guess if they haven’t really understood?
11. Do you learn chunks of language e.g. phrases?
Many learners focus almost solely on learning vocabulary. However, to remember phrases and to be able to build in new vocabulary in a sentence in new contexts and be able to interchange words in the phrase with other new vocabulary or even to learn chunks of language as a whole, but not broken down into parts, is essential.
12. Do you learn some tricks that keep people talking?
Can learners develop their own strategies to support and increase opportunities to practice by starting or continuing conversations? Maybe they develop a number of open ended questions for use in conversations, or some conversation starters to assist them in making the first move.
13. Do you learn ways to say things differently or guess when you aren’t sure?
Saying sentences in a different way not only helps learners to play with the words and therefore familiarise themselves more thoroughly with the language but also allows them to express themselves when they do not have, or are finding it difficult to find, the right vocabulary to get their point across and they have not been understood.
14. Do you learn different styles of language e.g. writing or talking for formal or informal situations?
We use formal and informal language every day. It is an important part of our culture that allows us to show respect for each other in different contexts. The most obvious example of young learners using informal language is in the playground whereas you would find more formal language in the classroom when communicating with a teacher. If learners can acknowledge the differences and learn how to use the language in different situations it will not only help them adapt quickly to the formalities of different environments but support their understanding and adaptation into their new culture.
The questions in this text are available for learners as a poster (see picture: www.axcultures.com/resources). They were adapted from ‘14 Characteristics of a Good Language Learner’, Rubin, J., & Thompson, I., (1982) How to be a more successful language learner. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
This is a Across Cultures Article by Caroline Scott
Rubin, J., & Thompson. I, (1994) How to be a More Successful Language Learner. Boston: Heinle
Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power, and pedagogy. Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.