Overall, I tend to favor a more eclectic approach to language teaching, learning, and syllabus design. I believe that designing a syllabus should be, first and foremost, learner centered. I believe that conducting a well-designed needs analysis is imperative and a critical component of learner centered classrooms. I believe that learners must be provided with the opportunity to develop their autonomy and must interact interdependently with teachers and fellow students in order to enjoy the benefits of a learner centered syllabus.
Research findings have consistently indicated that adult language learners rarely achieve native proficiency in an L2 across language learning environments (Singleton & Ryan, 2004: p. 61). Adults have also been said to be further disadvantaged by fossilization in environments where the L2 serves a medium for communication. The aforementioned refers to persistent errors made by L2 learners that emerge from interference of their L1s in speaking as well as writing (Han & Odlin, 2006: pp. 3, 25-26; Dr. Terry Royce, personal communication, February 2008). These factors imply that acquiring a second language after puberty is difficult and rarely results in complete success through learning (Singleton & Ryan, 2004: pp. 107-108). To my mind, these results provide for the rationale that adult language learning should emphasize assisting students in using a second language skillfully as opposed to emphasizing the attainment of native proficiency in an L2. Adult language learners will more than likely increase their motivation and ability to learn a language by becoming actively involved in the learning process and focusing less on strictly memorizing grammatical targets (Kelly & Sandy, 2002). From this, it naturally follows that language learning environments must be structured in ways that increase learner participation and accountability in the classroom. In other words, students must learn to perform autonomously as well as interdependently.
The following quote by Rousseau accurately reflects my developing view of autonomy as it relates to teaching in ESL and EFL contexts:
Whatever [your pupil] knows, he should know not because you have told him, but because he has grasped it himself. Do not teach him science; let him discover it. If ever you substitute authority for reason in his mind, he will stop reasoning and become a victim of other people’s opinions (Benson, 2001, p. 24).
I believe that autonomy in a classroom setting implies that the learner will take the initiative to gain insight into the process of acquiring knowledge or a skill. Benson (2001) defines autonomy as “the capacity to take control over one’s learning” (p. 110). I am convinced that taking initiative is a prerequisite for controlling one’s learning. When learners decide that they want to actively direct their own learning, they are, in effect, on the path to becoming more autonomous. Thus, the decision to become autonomous largely rests with our students and their views of language learning, learning in general, and how a classroom should be managed. Dam and Little (1998) summarize the aforementioned very clearly when they say that autonomy is simply a matter of “conscious intention,” active involvement in the learning process, and the capacity to transcend “the limitations of personal heritage” to master a subject (p. 1).
Ultimately, autonomy manifests itself when the learner takes steps to approach the target (which refers to whatever is being taught) through a variety of means such as being able to incorporate knowledge and advice from peers and teachers in a meaningful way. In order to achieve the latter, students must believe that they have the abilities or skills to solve whatever problems they are faced with. Autonomous students also tend to actively reflect on processes, which are conducive to autonomous learning. This naturally leads such students to contemplate and incorporate methods that enhance and expedite their progress. These students are also aware of their weaknesses and strengths in an effort to increase their performance in a second language (Thanasoulas, 2002, p. 3).
In addition, I believe that autonomous students realize that autonomy is, at best, a relative concept. All students, regardless of ability, must, at some point in time, work with others to ensure the welfare and success of everyone involved. When classrooms are structured to promote positive interdependence (i.e. engaging in meaningful actions that benefit everyone), our students will engage in “promotive [sic] interaction” to a greater degree (Johnson and Johnson, 1998). I believe this in turn will probably lead our students to gain more control over their language learning, which will more than likely lead to success in the classroom. I believe that interdependent classrooms provide for more egalitarian classroom settings where students are able to participate confidently and openly with their peers without fear of rejection or being ostracized.
The development of student autonomy and interdependence correspond with the creation of learner-centered curricula and syllabi where learners take on a more central role in the learning process (Wenden, 1991: p. 1). Learner centered curricula are based on the ideal that adults learn best when they perceive new content as essential, representative of their “current self idealized concept,” as well as relevant to their life experiences. In addition, students tend to learn better when they engage new information through a variety of “sensory modes” (Nunan, 1998: pp.22-23). As a result, the basis for my syllabus will take into consideration the needs of the learner and place learners at the helm of classroom management. The role of the teacher will simply be that of a facilitator of the learning process.
I have also come to find value in content-based instruction as a viable approach to language teaching. According to Richards & Rogers (2007), the ideals that embody content based instruction were said to have been first promoted by St. Augustine, which suggests that the concept has existed long before it was formalized and contextualized (p.204). This approach to language teaching emphasizes the role of “content” in the lesson while deemphasizing the role of target grammar structures, which corresponds very well with my viewpoint of grammar and vocabulary as a by-product of the situation in which it occurs. The idea here is that it that students “learn a second language more successfully when they use the language as a means of acquiring information, rather than as an end in itself [sic]” (p. 209). The aforementioned is beneficial and effective as long as students find the content of a lesson “useful and leading to a desired goal” (p.209). Furthermore, in order for students’ autonomy to blossom, these problems or challenges must be perceived as worthwhile for students to continue to pursue them (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 83; Deci et al., 1996, p. 60). Richards and Rogers (2007) believe that “intrinsic motivation will spring from an interest in what is being communicated by the language” in the classroom as long as it relates to students needs (p. 157). Thus, I believe that focusing on content areas in the creation of a syllabus may actually empower students to learn more effectively.
I believe situational, functional, and task based syllabi serve as impetuses on which the framework of content and communicative based activities can be built. All three types of syllabus frameworks appear to be useful for teaching writing, reading, listening and speaking (Richards, 2001: p.156). As a result, I believe that an eclectic approach to syllabus design will best serve the needs of my adult students. In the following syllabus, I will incorporate all three frameworks into the syllabus design.
Finally in regard to the production, editing, correcting, and submission of written work, I believe that learners should have multiple opportunities to brainstorm, submit multiple drafts, engage in peer editing, as well as to consult with the teacher. I believe that learners should maintain a diary to reflect on their learning experiences as well as improve their writing in general. I believe that holistically assessing students work is the best way to gauge student’s aptitude as in holistic scoring, “readers” [whether peers or the teacher] must “respond to a text as a whole, rather than to a dimension that may stand out to an individual as particularly weak or strong…”(Ferris & Hedgcock, 2004: p. 308). I believe this will be especially useful when teaching classes with students at varying levels. Rubrics could be designed for students at every level. In line with encouraging autonomy, the students could determine which level scoring rubric is appropriate and should be applied to their papers.
I believe that these teaching philosophies, when properly implemented and effectively applied, will lead learners to perform more efficiently and enable them to furthermore develop their language abilities inside as well as outside of the classroom.
Benson, P. (2001). Autonomy in language learner. Essex: Pearson.
Csikszentmihayi, M. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and effective teaching: A flow analysis. In J. Bess (Ed.), Teaching well and liking it: Motivating faculty to teach effectively (pp. 72-89). Baltimore MD: John Hopkins University Press.
Dam, L., & Little, D. (1998). Learner autonomy: what and why? TLT Online. Retrieved April 6th, 2008, from http://langue.hyper.chubu.ac.jp/jalt/pub/tlt/98/nov/littledam.html.
Deci, E., Kasser, T., & Richard, M. R. (1996). Self-determined teaching: Opportunities and obstacles. In J Bess, (Ed.), Teaching well and liking it: Motivating faculty to reach effectively(pp. 57-71).
Ferris, D.R. & Hedgcock, J.S. (2004). Teaching esl composition. Mahwah, New Jersey:
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Kelly, C. & Sandy C. (2007). Rethinking activities to incorporate theories of learning. The Language teacher, 31(7), 29-31.
Nunan, D. (1988). The learner-centered curriculum. Glasgow: Cambridge.
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Singleton, D. & Ryan L. (2004). Language acquisition: the age factor (2nd edition). Buffalo, New York: Multilingual Matters.
Thanasoulas, D. (2002). What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered? Karen’s Linguistic Issues, December 2002. Retrieved April 6th, 2008, from http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/learnerautonomy.html.
Wenden, A. (1991). Learner strategies for learner autonomy. New York: Prentice.