Today’s language learners must be equipped to navigate our increasingly globalized world. This requires learners and teachers to understand that language is always embedded in a larger social context. Our language goals, learning strategies, and teaching practices should reflect this accordingly.
Language learning should be strategic. As a teacher, I encourage my students to become autonomous learners. Through strategies-based instruction (SBI), my goal is to equip students with skills that help them recognize gaps in their own proficiency and identify how to bridge those gaps for communicative success. A multitude of language learning strategies exist, covering the entire spectrum of language. From cognitive strategies, which include how to identify, retain, and retrieve vocabulary, to metacognitive strategies, which involve planning, organizing and evaluating language. From affective strategies such as how to overcome writer’s block, to social strategies that involve actions learners take when interacting with others. I seek to expose my students to a variety of language learning strategies to develop their awareness of effective strategies, and allow them to choose what works best for them.
Another way that I encourage autonomy among my students is by emphasizing the importance of practice outside the classroom. The time that I have with students inside the classroom is so limited and they need more language input than I could ever possibly give them during that time. For this reason, I implement extensive reading and listening components in all my courses. My students participate in book clubs, read newspapers, and listen to and record podcasts on their own time, all with authentic material chosen by the students. Not only does this provide additional authentic language input for students, but it also fosters learner autonomy and strengthens their motivation to learn.
Language learners today need communicative competence and more. Current global realities demand that students be able to not only communicate meaning, but also understand how and why meaning is made. This symbolic competence, a term developed by Claire Kramsch, enhances the notion of communicative competence for the 21st century. In my classroom, symbolic competence manifests in discourse-based instruction that is sensitive to historical factors, aesthetics, and takes into account the real, imagined and virtual worlds we live in. By combining instruction in form, genre, style, register, and social semiotics, I seek to foster a richer and more complex view of English as a global language.
Along similar lines, current global realities require that our students be versed in 21st-century literacies such as online collaboration, research literacy, and email etiquette. In the past, I have utilized educational technology such as Blackboard and Moodle to create an online community alongside our classroom community. I invite my students to participate in online discussions, practice writing and commenting on blogs, conduct and evaluate online research, as well as exchange emails with myself and each other throughout the course. These kinds of interactions are seldom tackled in language classes, yet they are so relevant to our students’ lives.
When students are exposed to strategies-based instruction, are empowered to take learning into their own hands, develop symbolic competence, and gain knowledge that will help them in their daily lives, they become active participants in their own learning. They become less reliant on a teacher and more willing to explore and take risks in language by themselves. This is the stage I strive for all my students; where I become more of a language mentor in the classroom rather than an instructor.
Language teachers should be analytical. When designing a course, I take into account student motivation and goals and consider the availability and variability of language input in addition to culture specific expectations of use and proficiency. Through needs analyses, exit tickets, online quizzes, and performance-based assessments such as journals and online portfolios, I aim to determine what students need to learn, what they want to learn, and why. In addition to providing me with ways to understand and assess them, these tools also give my students concrete evidence of their progress and help them set goals for future language learning.
Language teachers should be reflective practitioners. Through classroom investigation, teachers gain a deeper understanding of teaching. For me, keeping a teaching journal and conducting action research in my classroom have proven to be invaluable. By reviewing the informal, daily classroom musings and questions that arise in my teaching journal, I am often prompted to investigate an issue in the classroom. This action research typically involves identifying a problem in the classroom, video recording myself, watching and reflecting on the video, and finally, creating and implementing a plan to improve my teaching. These reflective practices are essential to my continued professional growth.
As a language teacher, I am in a unique position to interact with students from diverse cultures who bring their own personal experiences and beliefs into the classroom. It would be remiss of me to ignore this window into the greater global context of English learning and teaching. Along the same lines of developing symbolic competence in students, I believe in encouraging critical thinking and discussion about topics that may perhaps be controversial to some. In this way, the goal of language learning transcends functional communication and may just lead to a more understanding, egalitarian, and ethical world.