“Please can I have more words to make flashcards with!”
“That’s what we’re doing Tega, we’re circling the unfamiliar words from your practice sentences so that you can make flashcards with them”
“Oh, yes! Lets count them up! 1,2…25, Yes!!! That’s so many more new cards”
“Now, these are for homework, same way we did them before, but with new pictures, new examples, and remember to choose examples that mean something to you!”
“Yes, got it! Now I can earn over 100,000 pts!!!
This conversation represents one of my favorite teaching moments and the kind of learner motivation that I strive to foster with every lesson. The lesson goals included two tasks: 1) Ask your friend whom you are going to visit about the weekend weather, and 2) Compare the weather between two cities. I ended up modifying the lesson to include only task number # 2 because my student was so enthusiastically engaged in the opening activity that we ran out of time. Every lesson began with a flashcard review. In this case, I had asked Tega, a 10 yr old boy that I tutor, to complete a set of flashcards on Quizlet. He included examples of how to use the word, pictures, pronunciation, the Chinese character on one side, and the English translation on the other. I pointed out a few of the learner strategies available to review the flashcards through Quizlet, such as the asteroid and the timed matching games. He tried both and was immediately hooked. He begged me to keep playing so that he could try the self-quizzes. I was tempted to cut him off to stick to the lesson plan, but he mastered every level of the flashcards and then begged for more. Following this activity, he was more generally motivated to learn Chinese and his motivation level continued throughout the remainder of the lesson.
I believe that successful language teaching must be student-centered. It is insufficient to require student participation, to plan the perfect task-based lesson plan, or even to maximize time spent in the target language. At all levels of planning, I try to be reflective about how to help my students to become motivated and independent language learners.
Student motivation should be both intrinsic and extrinsic. In high school, whether we were watching French movies or completing grammar exercises, I liked French class. I also had friends from France that came to visit one summer and a crush that spoke French. Needless to say, I was very self-motivated. However, this is not often the case with all of our students. Some students will be extrinsically motivated by grades and class expectations regardless of how much they like the subject. I believe the majority of our students however, do not come to class decided about whether they will like language class or whether they will work hard to succeed. Thus, if my students do not engage in and enjoy their studies or if they do not receive satisfaction through their efforts, I believe this reflects on my passion and my approach to teaching.
During my first year of teaching, my job required training in the audio-lingual method, which was very effective at teaching vocabulary, pronunciation, and accuracy with grammar. Why then did my students seem so disinterested? And why was I not enjoying teaching? I wanted my high school students to feel the kind of motivation I felt while learning Chinese as a missionary in Taiwan. I had to buy food, read menus, ride the train, follow a map, make phone calls, teach lessons, and collaborate with my native-speaking companions. Learning Chinese meant survival. Although my students are not learning Chinese in an immersion environment, I will try to afford them opportunities to engage with native speakers using resources such as: pen pals, collaborative blogs and wikis, social media, italki etc. Engaging with native speakers and using technology are both effective ways to motivate students to want to learn Chinese (Freeman Larsen, 2011).
Understanding my students’ motivation also requires choosing relevant and authentic content. After years of observations and discussions with more experienced teachers, I now believe that content must be both “useful” and relevant (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p. 124). Such student-centered teaching will “empower students to take action and make decisions in order to gain control over their lives” (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p. 141). This does not require me to infuse my class with pop culture, but to always build off of “what students already know” (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p. 58). This can be done through pre-tasks, and teaching moments in which students “focus on the structures” of the language without teaching them explicitly (Larsen-Freeman, p. 62). It also means giving students the opportunities for self-correction, self-assessment and reflection. Peer reviews, informal feedback during partner vocab card practice, and debriefs with the class after oral presentations are all examples of effective opportunities for student-directed feedback that I have used in my classroom (Larsen-Freeman, 2011 p. 18). Furthermore, I believe it is important to give students more choice in class content on which they will be assessed. For example, they may choose the list of vocabulary items and phrases to be tested on in a particular communicative unit.
I also try to build-on students’ knowledge by delaying the introduction of characters and allowing students to get accustomed to the phonology of the language first (Tomlinson, 2012). Recent studies show that students “learn to speak and understand Chinese faster than they learn to read and write” and that they need time to learn character phonology before they can gather meaning from characters (Ye, 2013, p. 611). In fact, Pinyin can facilitate greater comprehension in learners with an orthographic L1 (Ye, 2013, p. 612). Ye (2013) also cites studies that show pinyin can help students “gain control” of the patterns of the language before they learn to read characters, and that this will enhance their “reading competence and vocabulary expansion” (p. 612). Characters should be introduced in conjunction with their pinyin, but only once students have mastered the corresponding speech patterns.
I try to encourage my students’ independence through a task-based language teaching approach and an analytic syllabus. Task-based language teaching reduces my role as the teacher to “monitor…of student performance” (Larsen-Freeman) and puts the bulk of responsibility for learning on the student. The primary goal of each lesson is for students “to communicate with their peers to complete a task” (Larsen-Freeman). These tasks are based on real-life situations in which my students are likely to use Chinese.
This approach works in connection with an analytic, “task-based” syllabus (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p.149). An analytic syllabus communicates clear learning outcomes to students and organizes clear and measurable instructional goals for the teacher. For example, a task-based syllabus will require students to complete meaningful, self-directed, and collaborative tasks such as: register for a WeChat account, invite friends to go sing karaoke, learn and sing a karaoke song in Chinese, give directions to a party over the phone, plan and present plan for a service project to help the local Chinese community, interview a Chinese local and report it as a group, and introduce your family to your penpal.
In conclusion, teaching a foreign language is an informed acknowledgement of students’ needs throughout the language acquisition process. It can be discouraging to read in a Mandarin teaching job post: “we only accept native speaker applications.” I have to remind myself often that I am a “[role model] of successful language learning” (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p. 169). Unlike native speakers, I remember first-hand the linguistic challenges western learners face when learning Chinese and know how to work through them. I also understand how to survive in the target language culture. In short, my personal non-native language learning and teaching experiences put me best in a position to understand, plan and instruct according to my students’ needs.
Larsen-Freeman, D., & Anderson, M. (2011). Techniques and principles in language teaching. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Materials development for language learning and teaching. Brian Tomlinson. Language Teaching, Volume 45, Issue 02, 2012. pp 143-179. DOI 10.1017/S0261444811000528.
Ye, Lijuan. “Shall we Delay Teaching Characters in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language?” Foreign Language Annals 46.4 (2013): 611-27. ProQuest. Web. 13 Aug. 2016.