In Vietnam, I taught English in an environment where traditional teaching methods mostly focused on grammar and vocabulary. After many years of studying English, my students were good at doing grammar and vocabulary exercises, but they could not communicate in English well. They have trouble understanding native English speakers. As a teacher of English, I would like to help my students realize that the ultimate goal of learning a language is to use the language in communicating with others. Although the classroom customs do not focus on communication, I assert that I can teach them to communicate well if my focus is on providing students with motivation, comprehensible input, and error treatment.
Learners with good motivation tend to do better than those without it. Groccia (1992) defined motivation as “what stimulates students to acquire, transform and use knowledge” (p. 62). Since motivation arouses students’ interest in learning, it plays an important part in second language acquisition. Lightbrown and Spada (2006) argued that “the best predictor of success in second language acquisition is motivation” (p. 185). Richard-Amato (2003) also concluded that “motivation is an extremely important affective factor. Without it, learning any language, first or second, would be difficult, and perhaps impossible” (p. 115). If learners have good attitudes toward native speakers of the language, they will desire contact with them. This type of motivation is often termed integrative motivation (Lightbown &Spada, 2006). Others have instrumental motivation as “a desire to use language to obtain practical goals such as studying in a technical field or getting a job” (as cited in Richard-Amato, 2003, pp. 114-115). In addition to instrumental and integrative motivation, students are also motivated by other factors. They may come to a classroom from different backgrounds and life experiences, all of which contribute to their degree of motivation for learning a target language.
One of the other forms of motivation for language learning is called pedagogical motivation (Watson & Smelter, 1984). Pedagogical motivation is a way that teachers use can make their classroom activities inherently motivating through task design such as warm-ups, task variety and cooperative learning. Research has shown that the best way for teachers to motivate students is to create a supportive environment where the students are stimulated and engaged in activities appropriate to their age, interest, and culture (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 65).
Crooks and Schmidt (1991) suggested three ways to motivate students in the classroom: (1) motivating students into the lesson, (2) varying the activities, tasks, and materials, and (3) using cooperative rather than competitive goals. One example of getting students involved in the lesson is to have interesting warm-up activities, which are very important in teaching. They can “lead to higher levels of interest on the part of the students” (as cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 65). A variety of tasks, activities, and materials will help avoid boredom. Cooperative learning also helps the students increase self-confidence, and active participation within a small group not only increases interest among the students but also promotes critical thinking. Thus consideration of pedagogical motivation as well as integrative and instrumental motivation will play a significant role in my teaching; if students are not sufficiently motivated during class activities, they will not take the tasks seriously and will learn little.
Although motivation puts students in good position to learn, language learning is best effected through comprehensible input. “Comprehensible input” refers to students understanding the message that is presented or said to them. Many studies into comprehensible input in ESL/ EFL have been undertaken. Researchers typically agree comprehensible input is an important factor in second language acquisition (Ellis, 1990; Gass, 1997; Krashen, 1985). Krashen (1985) argued that learners acquire language by understanding messages in linguistic elements at a slightly higher level of difficulty (p. 2). He called this i+1. The i stands for learner’s interlanguage or current level of competence. Therefore, we say i+1 is the optimal level that will move students from their current level to the next level along the natural order, by understanding input containing i+1 (Krashen, 1985, p. 2). Krashen believes that if students read or hear language at this optimal level of competence, they will automatically acquire the new +1 forms. Contrary to Krahen (1985), Ellis (1990) stated students need to pay attention to the language (word or structure) in the input that they receive. Another issue is how we measure the level ‘i’ of our students’ language competence precisely, and how we give them ‘i+1’ input so that their language output is affected desirably. Taking both Krashen (1985) and Ellis’ (1990) concerns into account when teaching a grammar point like conditional sentences, for example, I would design some listening and reading activities containing conditional structures. Students who need to learn the conditionals should be required to do a lot of meaningful listening and reading that contains a lot of conditionals. When students have a chance to see and hear conditionals being used at a greater frequency than in normal text or speech, they have a better chance to acquire this grammar point. Martha Trahey and Lydia White (1993) (as cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 147) called this method input flood. In their study, there was no teaching of conditionals, nor was any error correction provided. Students improved in their understanding of the grammar point they were exposed to (p. 147).
Because Krashen (1985) only focused on input, teachers have to look elsewhere for ideas on output. Swain provides this in her Output Hypothesis in which she claims “that among other functions, output is a significant way [for learners] to test out hypotheses about the target language” (Richard-Amato, 2003, p. 65). It is important for teachers to let students know if the hypothesis is correct by identifying and analyzing, and when necessary, correcting students’ errors. It is important for teachers to do error analysis, which means identifying sources of errors, analyze why errors are made, and suggest that language learners are doing something wrong or they are in process of acquiring a language (p. 37). Error analysis is a very necessary step in the teaching and learning process because it helps “understand how learners process second language data” (Lightbown & Spada, 2006, p. 80) and “determine in what ways the students are progressing in the developmental process” (Richard-Amato, 2003, p. 37). Additionally, through error analysis, teachers will know how well they are performing and whether they should either change or keep the same materials or teaching methods. Teachers then must give appropriate feedback towards the students’ errors.
After teachers do error analysis and decide which error needs to be corrected, they need to be careful about how they correct students. Many studies on teachers’ attitudes toward students’ errors have been carried out (Budden, 2002; Carroll & Swain, 1993; Havrenek & Cesnick, 2001; Lightbown, 1998; Ur, 1996; Winitz, 1996, etc). These researchers have indicated some possible advantages in providing correction in context. They typically agree that the attitude of teachers toward students’ errors plays a significant role in language acquisition, but they do not always agree on how much or when teachers should correct students’ mistakes. Havrenek & Cesnick (2001) claimed that corrective feedback could benefit both a person, teacher or student who gives feedback to a peer (p. 104). The important point is when teachers should correct students’ performance. Ur (1996) and Budden (2002) agree not to correct mistakes in oral production. Ur argued that it is tricky to know exactly “where the emphasis is on getting the language corrected” (Ur, 1996, p. 247). Budden (2002) stated that students may lose their motivation if we give them too much correction. Therefore, depending on the situation, students’ levels, and stages, teachers need to give different types of error correction. Many other factors should be considered in giving error correction such as motivation, attitude, anxiety levels, willingness to take risks, age, and cultural expectations related to the language situation (Richard-Amato, 2003). In my teaching situation, error analysis will be tricky and time-consuming because teachers are not trained well in analysis techniques, and more importantly, the curriculum does not encourage teachers to do error analysis in their teaching. Though error correction is generally difficult, I do not plan to correct my students’ mistakes at the production stage, if the mistakes are minor.
In conclusion, motivation, comprehensible input, and error treatment are three important factors in second language acquisition. They play a crucial part in encouraging students to use language actively in and out of the classroom. Therefore, I need to be selective with the input. Moreover, my attitude toward students’ mistakes will lead to their feeling safe in a learning environment where they will be more comfortable taking risks. Without the fear of being interrupted, my students will not feel embarrassed, even if they are criticized when they make mistakes. Finally, my students’ motivation will improve if I relate the points they are learning to real life. I hope my students will benefit from my much more learner-centered philosophy.
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