Focus on the learner Essay
Focus on the learner
A. Learner’s profile
Virginia is a 29-year old native Spanish speaker born in Madrid. She is currently studying a professional training course and works as an animal caretaker. She is one of the A2 or Elementary proficiency level students of the Celta Teacher Training Program at International house Language School. She took part of the same program two years ago, but she didn’t continue studying English afterwards.
Virginia studied English in primary and secondary school following a traditional teaching method, which used grammar as the starting point and foundation, for the development of all language skills — speaking, listening, writing, and reading, however there was relatively little focus on speaking and listening.
As reported by Virginia, she was exposed to explicit information about the structure of the language and to rules that she had to internalize through repetitions and direct translation with little or no opportunity of participating in activities that encourage meaningful communication. This situation hindered the development of her speaking skills, and made her fail in her attempts to attain the necessary fluency and confidence to successfully communicate in English during her trips abroad.
Knowledge of grammar without meaningful practice of the language is ineffective, as Jim Scrivener says: “There is no point knowing a lot about language if you can’t use it (which sadly, has been the experience of many language learners in the past – able to conjugate a verb, but unable to respond to a simple question)” (Scrivener, 2005; 146)
As a result of the different frustrating situations she had to face when trying to make herself understand in foreign countries, and due to her love for travelling, she developed an intrinsic motivation to study English. She thinks English is a lingua franca that opens doors to other cultures, on the contrary, she doesn’t have any extrinsic motivation as she doesn’t need to speak English for any other purposes than socializing and travelling.
She is a participative student who has never missed a class. Her favorite activities are the ones that foster speaking skills, especially role-plays or discussions in groups, because they give her the opportunity to interact with her classmates and communicate in real time about real or similar to real life situations.
Virginia’s learning style is visual; a technique she uses in order to spell words is seeing the words in her head and she can better understand and remember explanations by writing them down or looking at pictures and diagrams
She claims that one of her strengths is her knowledge of grammar rules associated with verbs conjugation; specifically the use of simple present and present continuous and adds that writing is the easiest among the four language skills, because writing tasks provide enough time to brainstorm and choose the correct language to express her ideas. Among her weaknesses she mentioned her lack of fluency, because she has not time to think on the grammar rules when she speaks, especially when talking about a past event, as she hardly ever knows whether the verb she wants to use is regular or irregular.
B. Language problems and Solutions
Analyzing Victoria’s output in class I could notice that she has two evident language problems; one of them is the use of simple past of irregular verbs, and the other one is the differentiation of the vowel sounds /aɪ/ and /ɪ/. I find these problems in the grammar and pronunciation areas very interesting to analyze, because both of them are very common in Spanish native speakers learning ESL, therefore, finding engaging and interesting activities to overcome them could be helpful in similar cases in the future. Examples and solutions for the student’s language problems in the different areas are exposed below:
Virginia struggles with using irregular verbs in the past “I´m learning to surf. I buyed a surfboard. I´m loving it although I’m not very good.” “The teacher who teach me English when I was a child was not strict” “I lose the train this morning” (neither the correct word has been chosen in this case “miss”, however, I only focus on the verb)
In order to help Virginia with her problem in this grammar area, I have decided to use the activities of the lesson “Girls’ night out”; unit 5, pages 56 and 57 of the Elementary student’s book “New English File”, Oxford University Press. The subject of the lesson revolves around a group of young female journalist for a famous women’s magazine who are asked to go out for the evening with her girlfriends, and then write a report about their experiences. The topic is engaging, as it suits Virginia’s age, gender, interest (tackles some cultural matters of different countries) and is quite close to her cultural background, considering that Spaniards are very sociable and much of their life is lived in the streets. The material exposes the student to the structure through reading, listening and speaking activities.
Virginia will have to deduce which are the past tense of a set of irregular verbs from the text in order to do exercise 3A. Grammar (look at the reports again and find the past tense of these irregular verbs), and then listen and practice the pronunciation of the verbs in exercise 3. B (listen and check, practice saying the verbs). She will also have the opportunity to fill in sentences with the correct form of the same irregular verbs in exercise 3C 1 and listen these verbs within a meaningful context in exercises 4 B and C (Listen to Silvia talking about their girls’ night out).
In terms of speaking, the student will have to use the simple past of irregular verbs in the exercise 5C (Think about the last time you went out with friends, look at the questions and plan your answers) Virginia will have plenty of opportunities to see and use the target language as in real life communication.
1: This exercise send the student to the explanation on page 130 (5C) and to the exercise on page 131 (5C)
Virginia struggles with discriminating the /aɪ/ and /ɪ/ sounds. : “I filled in a registration form for a diving school”: /ˈdɪvɪŋ/ “The school has wifi” /ˈwɪ fɪ/ “The school has a library”: /ˈlɪbrəri/
To help her to differentiate the pronunciation of the vowel sounds /aɪ/ and /ɪ/. I have chosen the lesson “Wine, win”, unit 5 of the book “English Pronunciation in use”, Cambridge University press; pages: 30 and 31. Besides providing explanatory pictures of mouth modulation for a better pronunciation (Section A and B), it offers exercises that focus exclusively on the different pronunciation of minimal pairs, which usually confuse nonnative speakers, as Spanish does not differentiate between long and short vowels.
Minimal pairs effectively facilitate pronunciation acquisition. “When learners compare and contrast discrete sounds in the environment presented in minimal pairs, the importance of these sounds in denoting word meaning is transferred to their mind naturally. Experience shows that ―pronunciation classes… make students more conscious of their own pronunciation and aware of ways in which their pronunciation differs from the model offered” (Rajadurai, 2001: 14)
Virginia will have to spot the /aɪ/ sound among minimal pairs in exercise A and the /ɪ/ sound in exercise B. The student will also have to discriminate and identify the words that have the/aɪ/ or the /ɪ/ vowel sounds in exercise 11.1. (Make words with these beginnings and endings and write them in the correct part of the table) and in the exercise 11.2 (Read the dialogue. Circle the sound /aɪ/ and underline the/ɪ/).
Despite the fact that this material doesn’t approach pronunciation within a context similar to real life, it offers a lot of practice opportunity, which in my opinion as a nonnative speaker of English is essential for the reason that Spanish phonological system is significantly different from that of English, particularly in the aspects of vowel sounds.
Virginia’s English lesson at school were focused on talking about the language rather than on talking in the language; as a result, we can deduce that she was not exposed to proper and useful input since these type of classes do not require that teachers be experts or even fluent in the language. However, her motivation, along with the use of relevant and meaningful materials as the ones presented in this essay can help her to improve her language skills and attain proficiency in English as a result.
Hancock, M (2003) English Pronunciation in Use. Cambridge University Press. Oxenden, C, Latham-Koening, C and Seligson, P. New English File, Elementary Student (2007). Oxford University Press. Scrivener, J (2005) Learning Teaching, A guidebook for English Language Teachers. Second Edition. Macmillan Books for Teachers. Rajadurai, J. (2001). An investigation of the effectiveness of teaching pronunciation to Malaysian TESL students MacMillan Dictionary : http://www.macmillandictionary.com/