Learner Development

General Competency Two.  The teacher understands how children learn and develop, and can provide learning opportunities that support their intellectual, social and personal development.

Principle 2.  Language teachers understand how students learn and develop and can relate this to their development of language proficiency and cultural understanding.   They provide learning experiences that are appropriate to and support learners’ development.

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How students learn languages is an intriguing topic that has been explored by many researchers.  Many theories abound, but it’s a difficult field that I’m sure will continue to be debated.  An article I read recently, Second language acquisition (SLA) research: its significance for learning and teaching issues by Florence Myles, does an interesting job of summing up research into two points:  “Language acquisition is highly systematic” and “Language acquisition is highly variable.”

At first glance these statements seemed to be in opposition to one another . . . but in reality they refer to two separate aspects of language acquisition.  First:  Language acquisition is systematic.  All learners of a second language seem to go through the same set of steps, which are very similar to the steps taken to learn their first language.   Second:  The amount of time it takes to go through those steps is highly variable.  One variable is the age of introduction of the language.  Teenagers and adults are able to decode the language more quickly, thus appearing to learn it faster, but have a difficult time moving from decoding to fluency.  Meanwhile young children may take longer to start using the language but once they do they are more likely to continue to a native-like fluency and pronunciation.

In order to address this dichotomy, teachers need to be prepared to address and re-address the same topic in different ways, in order to “catch” the students where they are at in their phase of development.  An exercise like my Royal Family lesson plan lends itself to this kind of modification; the students are free to express themselves how they are able at their own current skill level.

Some other factors were discussed by Peter Skehan in his article: Individual differences in second and foreign language learning   These factors include language aptitude, motivation, learning strategies and learning styles.  A teacher of foreign languages needs to take all of these factors into account in order to effectively present information that is scaffolded to the students’ current levels of needs.

An interesting article was published in National Geographic about how teenage brains develop, which I analyzed in my essay: Beautiful Brains.  How should the assertions of this article effect the way we approach teaching teenagers?   I think it is key to be mindful of how a teenager’s priorities will differ from those of an adult.  According to this article, what an adult might see as “reckless” risk-taking is actually, on the part of a teenager, is a survival skill.  If they weren’t willing to take risks, where would the motivation be to assert their independence as they prepare to leave their nests?  When a teacher is attempting to motivate a teenage student, the arguments that might be effective with an adult, probably will not apply to a teenager.

One of my projects for use in the English Language Learners classroom, is a website with reviews of different Young Adult Fiction books written in English with a focus of immigrant story through the eyes of young people.  My plan with this is to establish a connection for the learner between histories that are familiar to them and their own situations, and utilize that connection to motivate them to acquire language.   Similarly, in a Spanish classroom, I would like to get the students reading as soon as possible.  The best source for language acquisition is a language guide, a person who is able to speak to the level of the student and at the same time to challenge them to go beyond what they already know, but, books are also valuable learning tools.  They are portable, of varying level of challenge, and introduce words and topics that are new to the learner.  They also provide a common basis for discussion between language learners.  I would like to add to this website some materials that are not traditional “literature”, such as youtube videos, or scans of ads from magazines.  It is important for the students to receive input from a variety of sources.

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