Tue, Nov 20, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Working together to learn English

By Kao Shih-fan 高士凡

If you've ever been in an English classroom in Taiwan, you may find the following scene familiar. As you walk in, you find the desks lined up in columns facing the teacher, platform and blackboard.

The teacher is explaining lots of words, phrases, grammar and sentence structures by lecturing, while the students are busy filling their books or notebooks with many English and Chinese words.

The class looks awfully neat and disciplined, doesn't it? However, the teaching effectiveness is really questionable because it is not very student-centered and students depend on the teacher all the time, waiting for instructions such as repeating, reading aloud, translating sentences, answering perfunctory questions and so on.

If we agree that English is best learnt through communication and interaction, making students work together in pairs or groups is one of the best interpersonal approaches in the classroom. Group work usually means groups of six students or less, with the optimal number being three or four.

As mentioned above, many teachers lecture to teach English, making students feel that learning English is like learning math instead of a language for daily communication. In many cases, the teacher, not students, is the one doing most of the talking in the classroom.

From the perspective of learning theory, student learning retention (how much students remember after two weeks) is only about 5 percent when taught by lecturing. Only 5 percent! No wonder many teachers complain that they work so hard to teach every sentence in the texts but students still can't remember them.

The reason is simple: students don't initiate conversations or actively take part in learning; on the contrary, they are just passive learners, receiving knowledge by only listening to the teacher. It is likely that the low participation rate in the classroom accounts for the low learning retention.

Conversely, students' higher involvement in the English learning process yields higher retention of the material.

For example, research shows that students' retention rates are much higher when they work together, such as in group discussion (50 percent) and cooperative learning (75 percent), compared with traditional teaching methods like lecturing and reading. Thus, teachers should facilitate students' learning by getting them to work together, instead of mostly talking.

Most teachers (myself included) tend to talk too much in the classroom, without allowing enough time for students to respond to them or to initiate talking. However, if we as teachers realize that no matter how hard we try, the efficacy of lecturing is very limited, then we should make students work together in groups as much as possible.

Research has made the surprising finding that individual student practice time can increase five-fold over traditional methodology if even only half of the English class time is spent on group work. Therefore, the greatest advantage of group work is the amount of English output produced by each student. We all know that output is no less important than input since most of us learn how to speak English by actually speaking it. The more students use English in communication, the more they will acquire communicative competence.

In addition to less dependence on the teacher and more individual output, working together has many advantages. When working together, students can exchange their ideas and learn from each other.

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