Both adults and children develop their communicative competence at different paces. How can we help them to accomplish their communication goals, regardless of their level of proficiency?
I will focus on two strategies that not only help low level students, but all language learners:
1. Building rapport
We may teach a language class that lasts a month or we may teach a class in a school that lasts the entire year; in either scenario, we can build and sustain relationships with learners that can motivate them in their learning. Mendler (2001) points out that personal connections contribute to an atmosphere of trust where teachers can easily deliver strategies to help students believe in them and in what they are capable of doing.
Often times, we have students who are afraid of asking questions about something they missed in class or something they do not understand just because they think their teachers are unapproachable. When an atmosphere of trust is established, teachers often feel empathy and take valuable actions towards students who are struggling. Learners will be intrinsically motivated to meet their needs and will see feedback from teachers and peers as a meaningful resource.
2. Setting short-term goals
Learning another language includes different language skill areas such as listening, speaking, reading and writing. For some learners learning the foreign language could be a big challenge and they may feel overwhelmed trying to face and overcome those challenges. However, if we guide them through setting short-term goals, they will build bridges to link their actions with the language goals. It is valuable for them to know where they are at and what is expected of them. Likewise, teachers will be able to develop a set of strategies, monitor students´ progress in using those strategies and adjust their teaching so that the students can be active learners and committed to their learning.
I will illustrate those points with how my five-year-old student built up her confidence in learning English. In the beginning of the school year, she was observing the environment and our interactions; she was reluctant to talk and afraid of making mistakes. While most of the class was blending some sounds and started reading, she was still working on recognizing sounds in the initial, middle and final position. Her pretty face showed insecurity and a call for help. I observed her interactions with her peers and her preferences during centers. I noticed she liked stapling pieces of paper to make little books. At first, she did not write anything on them, just drew some pictures. I then joined her as she played with the little books and she told me she made the book about cats. Then, she asked, “How do you write ´gato´ in English? Can you write it here?” It was something to acknowledge: her interest in English and in writing! I then told her that I could sound the letters out and that she could write it as it was her book. She agreed and her face lit up every time she wrote a letter. When she finally read the word cat, she could not hide her emotion and a big grin covered her face.
I shared her happiness and it was the perfect time to set a goal. We talked about the things she wanted to do while learning English and she said that she would like to write more words in her little book and even make more little books. So, the short-term goal was set: she wanted to make a book about animals, so she will work on identifying the sounds of the names of the animals in her little book so that she could write them. She felt motivated and mentioned that she then wanted to write letters.
As a teacher, I cannot hide the joy of seeing students believe they can be successful learners regardless their age and level of language proficiency. By taking the time to create a level of trust through our interactions with our students and by setting short-term goals, our learners will develop their language proficiency and their communicative competence.
Brookfield, S.D. (2009). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass
Lee, J.F.; Van Patten, B. (2003). Making communicative language teaching happen. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mendler, A.N. (2001). Connecting with Students. USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.