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Authenticity and Autonomy

I have been teaching English as a second or foreign language now for ten years. Five of those ten years were spent training teachers of ESL or EFL. At this point in my profession, I've demonstrated to myself that my guiding principles are authenticity and student autonomy. (On a personal note, I find it oddly coincidental that my newborn daughter's name share's the first vowel sound as my guiding principles.)

When I was a teacher trainer in Seoul, Korea, students in many of my methodology courses informed me that the word I most often used was "authentic." Looking at the base content, the word didn't come up as frequently as I mentioned it. I confess this was my spin on delivering the TESOL methodology content designed in a collaborative effort between professors at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and at Sookmyung Women's University-TESOL.

But it wasn't really spin more than exaggerating what I believe to a fundamental principle in communicative language teaching and, more specifically, content-based instruction. According to Donna Brinton in Practical English Language Teaching, one of CBI's principles is to "select authentic texts and tasks." At Sookmyung-TESOL, we used Teaching by Principles by H. Douglas Brown as the core reading text for the methodology courses. This text was initially designed for students who could read English at the graduate level. All of my students were at the graduate level, but many were non-native readers. Reading Brown's book gave students the opportunity to practice reading English at their professional level. The tasks assigned to them were also authentic to a graduate course in the United States. This was one example of the appeal of an intensive CBI teacher training program, and why the program is still around today after over a decade.

After teacher training for several years, I returned to teaching ESL to students rather than instructors at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. The curriculum here wasn't based on content-based instruction, but I still wanted to develop my courses around authentic materials. After a couple of semesters, I found the right balance between authentic texts and tasks in most of my courses. Here are some points of authentic texts and tasks I used at the ESL Institute at UWL:
  1. Intermediate students were exposed to college-level textbooks in a reading course
  2. Tasks were authentic for their level of reading proficiency.
  3. Novice-high students were given authentic tasks of giving 5-10 minute individual speeches in a speaking course
  4. Advanced students used an essay writing text that many native-speakers used in their first-year English composition courses.
  5. Tasks were authentic for their level of writing proficiency.
  6. Intermediate and intermediate-high students were exposed to authentic listening texts in an academic skills building lab.
There are many excellent contrived ESL reading texts for all levels. A contrived text is one that is specifically written for ESL students at a given level. I try to stay away from these texts for a couple of reasons. The first is that a contrived reading text can basically teach itself, especially if students are autonomous learners. I've had experience where highly motivated students will work ahead and complete the book a month or two before the rest of the class. I appreciate this work ethic, but their in-class participation starts to diminish once they have reached their personal reading goals.

Another reason I stay away from contrived texts is that it indicates to the student that he or she is an ESL student and not a university student. Around 90% of our students want to finish our ESL program so they can take university courses. Because this is the basis of their motivation to pass my course, I want them to be exposed to authentic university reading texts as soon as possible. My personal belief is that novice and novice-high students can used contrived or simplified texts, but starting at the intermediate level, they can use authentic texts at the high school and college levels. I will elaborate on this point on a future posting about the reading course I just completed.

Why do I believe in using authentic materials so much? As a second language learner, I would want to start using authentic materials as soon as possible. When I realize that I can apply my language skills to authentic materials, my confidence and motivation increase. After living abroad in a few countries, I can note my own improvement after being exposed to so many texts in menus and public transportation systems. This in turn motivates me to try and read children's textbooks and newspaper headlines. Although I know I won't understand it all, I will gain satisfaction after getting meaning from the bits I understand.

Learner Autonomy

My experience with building learner autonomy comes from my first full-time teaching job in Japan. There I was teaching conversational English with emphasis on grammar. I found that many of my students preferred to learn grammar from my explanations or contrived drills than use grammar through authentic practice. My supervisors let me know that I could teach the novice level students very well, but there was a drop in satisfaction with the intermediate students.

Intermediate and especially high-intermediate students are well equipped with the basic knowledge of grammar. I believe Lightbown and Spada's textbook, How Languages are Learned, spells this out quite well. It's at the intermediate stage where students need to initiate more and experiment more with their grammar. Because it was a conversation school, I had to encourage them to speak 50-75% of the time. I found that many of my intermediate students preferred to learn the language passively through simple drills, explanation, and entertaining teaching, but I resisted to cater to these needs. Without going any further, I will say that the set-up of this private language school made it difficult for me to improve on my approach and their motivation.

Because of my experience in Japan, I learned that I was a teacher who did not like giving the answers right away if the students couldn't come up with them. I learned in my MA program that I preferred a negotiation of meaning to take place before one of us gives the correct answer. I want to know how much they know before they tell me they don't know. I did this by asking questions about their background knowledge, and I helped them along with hints and cues.

I believe learner autonomy must be taught at the intermediate level and then practiced at the advanced level. When teaching intermediate students in La Crosse, I teach grammar and vocabulary somewhat directly but then give them the tools to practice and learn more on their own. By the time they are advanced students, I no longer teach grammar or vocabulary directly. Instead, I direct them to the right sources for practice. I expect my advanced students to have sufficient grammar and vocabulary learning strategies. At that stage, I am there to encourage more practice on the skills, to note errors they need to work on, and to work on higher-order critical thinking tasks.

How have my classes promoted autonomy in the classroom?
  1. I provide the students with more opportunities for decision-making. In my essay class, I gave students a choice between 5-10 different topics to write about. In my reading class, I provided them a choice for their final projects. In my speaking class, they could choose among 20 different topics for their individual speaking presentations.
  2. On the first day of each class, I tell the students that they can control their language input. I bring a poster board with expressions such as "Could you speak more slowly?" and "Could you speak more loudly?" We practice these expressions so they are comfortable with requesting these things.
  3. I let students know that I love questions, and I encourage questions as much as possible. After I answer a question, I ask for feedback on my answers. If I answered a student, but they indicate that my answer did not help, we go through a negotiation of meaning.
  4. I vary my instruction to expose students to various ways of learning and to find the better ways to teach the language or content.
  5. I let some students make the wrong decisions so they can learn the consequences. If their decision is a big one that may cost them a passing grade, I will coach them through the decision. However, I will still avoid making the final decision. This is called hypothesis-testing.
These are just a few of the examples of how I promote autonomous learning. I used Phil Benson's principles from Practical English Language Teaching as a guide.


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