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What our school is missing: Nurturing real-life skills.

As the Moroccan economy is steadily becoming service-based,  new real-life skills and competencies are needed in the job market. However, the reform in the teaching of foreign languages is not yet addressing the needs of 21st century learners.

Despite what is claimed in many official documents (including the docoments that have been issued by the Ministry of National Education and by the Supreme Council)  and the statements made in many press conferences, the teaching of English as  a foreign language still adheres to traditional paradigmes.

Recently,  “Mr. Rachid Benmoukhtar, Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, emphasized that foreign languages (…) are necessary to improve future generations’ opportunities to access the job market and enhance Morocco’s competitiveness in a constantly changing world”(here). The goals that are made in this statement are not new. Similar statements have been made starting from the year 2000 (the National Charter on Education and Training)  up to the last two school years (the Strategic Vision and the accompanying documents).

Although I totally agree with the minister concerning the view that schools should prepare the kids for the job market and make them competitive citizens , the basic question that has neither been asked nor answered is: What have we done in our education to target the aim that is broadly outlined by the minister?

In this permanently changing world, I see that there is a huge gap between what the official statements/documents claim and what is happening in our schools. The ministry of education has taken certain measures to enhance and reinforce the teaching of languages (I am speaking in this blog only about English as a foreign language) such as the adoption of International and Vocational Streams for the Moroccan Baccalaureate. On the ground, however, almost nothing seems to be changing for various reasons. First, the teachers are still using the same textbooks, the same teaching materials (the chalk and the board) and mainly the same curriculum and syllabus.tests

Similarly, for the enhancement of language teaching in our schools, the assessment procedures have to change. It’s nonesense to claim that the teaching of English aims at developing certain communicative competencies while the assessment procedures still adhere to traditional, discrete point, paper and pencil tests.

You cannot compete globally with traditional 20th century (or earlier) skills. The world has changed and the global (as well as the Moroccan) economy is changing fast. New life skills are required. Today, individuals need different social, affective, communicative and thinking skills. It’s unfortunate to say that you cannot achieve this (no matter what) with the current situation in Moroccan schools. Today’s English language learners need to develop the globally required life-skills along with language communicative competencies. Such skills include, but are not limited to, the following:

real-life_skills

If you think about what our kids are learning these days in our EFL classes (maybe in our schools), you won’t find almost any of the above skills. Our curricula/syllabi heavily focus on the rote memorization of facts and rules. Our EFL language classes testify this. We still execcively highlight learning the rules of ‘the past perfect’, ‘the conditionals’, ‘the passive’…. We go over the reading comprehension texts with no attempt to train the learners on any target reading strategy, etc,. Our tests (as already mentioned) are of the true or false type.

Learning in such a way might have served its purpose in a different era. Today, the world has changed and so our school/teaching should be. Such traditional teaching systems foster only adherence to rules, followng instructions and manual guidelines, memorizing nontransferable facts and seeing the world only as either black or white. This of course cannot increase students’ opportunities to easily access the job market. To be global citizens and to access the job market requires the development of the already mentioned and other real-life skills.

Pedagogically speaking, the teaching of English in Moroccan schools  needs to integrate the development of language competencies (such as talking about past events, describing a process, writing a coherent paragraph, etc,…) with other real-life skills (such as those listed above). At the level of implementation this is not a complex or difficult task. It requires, however, afollowing a strategic, clear and goal-oriented process:

  1. The national curriculum is the area to start with (note that I am adopting the definitions of the curriculum and the syllabus as stated in  Course Design). We should have a unified, clear and consise curriculum. This curriculum should state the broad goals of teaching the Moroccan learners. Hence, targetting the real-life skills like the ones stated above should be a goal of the cross-subject area curriculum.  An imporant aspect of the curriculum which is, unfortunately, missing in our educational system is a clear-cut profile of the learners at each level. Designing a national curriculum certainly requires outlining the target profile of the learners.
  2. A second step is related to the design of the EFL syllabus (the syllabus we are concerned with here). Expecting to promote the teaching of foreign languages, as
    stated in the Strategic Vision,  with the currently available curriculum/syllabus is simply an unrealistic goal. The ministry is supposed to start from reforming the current syllabus in a way which would allow it to include real-life skills. There are various classroom activities which can embed such real-life skills including presentational speaking activities, project-based tasks, case studies, etc,. As already said concerning the overall profile of the Moroccan learners, we should have a clear foreign language profile of the Moroccan learners. This profile shall include the target communicative and other real-life skills which the learner should develop by the end of each grade level.
  3. Once the specification of the target real-life skills is outlined in the national cross disciplinary curriculum and the EFL (subject-specific) syllabus, materials writers should think of activities which target both EFL specific skills (reading skills, grammar, etc,.) as well as real-life skills. Such activities should no longer be of the ‘fill in the blanks type’.
  4. To prepare the learners for the ever-changing world and for the emerging ‘social’ (because it relies mainly on being creative, sharing, collaboration etc,. instead of executing simple tasks in an assembly line) job market, today’s classroom activities should be open for multiple solutions, promote creativity, sharing, working together to PRODUCE common knowledge (e.g, preparing a project, designing  a poster, preparing a multimedia presentation,acting out a play etc,.) instead of activities which heavily rely on reproducing/recasting what the teacher has presented (e.g, rewrite the sentences starting with ‘if’).
  5. It is of equal importance to briefly mention that targetting the development of real-life skills in the teaching of EFL requires a shift in the focus of our assessment systems. You cannot ask a teacher to focus on ‘collaboration’ in communication while your tests simply ask the leraners to ‘add the appropriate prefix to the words’. Real authentic assessment requires involving learners in joint-effort, collaborative projects (similar to the ones they are doing while learning). I am not undermining the testing of language skills such as the ‘use of ‘will’ to talk about the future’. This should happen in a natural context, in as much as the way it takes place in real-life. These micro language competencies can be assessed while observing the performance of the learners in real-life tasks. The development of ‘observation’ rubrics should go along with teaching.

To conclude, if we really want to promote the teaching/learning of foreign languages, prepare our learners for the future, and make them ready for a highly competitive world, the (near)future of English in the Moroccan schools should be totally different from what it is now. The Startegic Vision might be considered as an overall perspective. Without having (at least) a clear syllabus and a clear learner profile, targetting the aims outlined in the Vision appears useless.

We need to transform the teaching of English in our schools from:

  1. grammar-based to skill-based classes,
  2. focusing on teaching reading texts to a focus on training the learners on reading strategies,
  3. focusing on memorizing rules and forms to using them in MEANINGFUL situations (plays, discussions, debates, etc, )
  4. focusing on Practice exercises to stressing APPLICATION and INTEGRATION in real-life tasks (e.g, a presentation/ a role play/ a study project),
  5. focusing on exams and tests to focusing on skill development,
  6. adopting pure language-skill classes to adopting multiple-real life skill classes.
  7. adopting individual-based to collective and collaborative tasks.
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Fundamental Principles for Language Teaching

No matter what language skill a teacher is targeting, there are certain basic principles that should govern the teaching of EFL in language classes. The principles that are dealt with in this article should be taken into consideration throughout the process of materials preparation to the actual teaching and implementation of the syllabus in the classroom.

The principles are based on the theories of learning, mainly the constructivist theory, the current approaches and methods to language teaching and the currently adopted principles of syllabus design and materials development.

ECLECTICISM:

Variety in the teaching approach is a prerequisite for successful teaching in language classes. By approaching the tasks and the activities differently, the teacher ensures that he/she’s meeting the needs of the different learner styles within the class. Having said this, all teaching should be within the communicative (in the broadest sense of communicative) sphere; that is to say, no matter what method you adopt as a teacher, the learners should aim towards the use of the target structure or function or skill in authentic real-life situations.

COMPETENCY-BASED:

Whatever the approach is, teaching should lead the learners towards the ultimate use of the target structure, function, and notion or vocabulary item for meaningful and authentic communicative purposes. For this reason, specifying the target competencies for any lesson should be in the form of performance outcomes like ‘by the end of this lesson, students should be able to express/ ask for/ use/ say/ etc…’. Focus should also be on equipping the learners with real-life competencies such as ‘finding relevant information’, ‘delivering an effective presentation’, ‘compensating for lack of a word in an interaction’…

DISCOVERY-BASED:

Having said (in different contexts) that the teaching of grammar and language functions should be text-based, the teacher’s role in the teaching of these two components should be that of a facilitator. The teacher should plan text-based lessons and guide the learners to notice the target structure/functions in the text. Then, the learners discover both the form(s) and the use(s) of the target structure/function. Adopting a discovery-based approach to the teaching of language enhances the learners’ autonomous learning, and trains them to, independently, understand the unfamiliar language in its further real-life situations.

CONTEXTUALIZATION:

All the content that is embedded within the lesson should be theme-related. The theme is at the center of all the skills. Therefore, whatever skill the teacher is dealing with should evolve around the same theme. In addition to the reading/listening texts, the grammar and functions lessons should also start from theme-based authentic materials. The topics that are to be dealt with in writing tasks should be theme-centered as well.

CONNECT TO OTHER DESCIPLINES/CULTURES:

Linking the teaching of English to other disciplines/cultures enhances both language learning and cultural awareness. By linking English to other subject matters, you tap on the learner’s already existing schemata. This facilitates further learning, and boosts the learner’s confidence to use English by talking about subjects/topics they already know. It is also necessary to link language teaching to other aspects of local or global cultures. This brings language to the heart of real-life communication.

STRATEGY-TRAINING:

Teaching reading, listening and writing should move from testing-like classes towards a more focus on strategy training. Teachers are invited to raise the learners’ awareness to the type of strategy which is appropriate for the target sub-skill. It is recommended that teachers talk about strategies explicitly, model them, and subsequently ask the learners to practice their use. Each reading/listening or writing lesson should focus on the practice of one or two strategies at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The teaching of listening comprehension

As listening is an integral part of language as a system of human communication, it should be a compulsory and integral component of any language teaching syllabus . The ELT syllabus should focus on the teaching of real-life listening strategies that are involved in daily human interactions. For procedural purposes listening comprehension lessons should follow the steps below:

1.  The preparation stage

The teacher is invited to select only one or two sub-listening skills as suggested in the syllabus. For the effective achievement of the goals stated for listening comprehension, the teacher should be aware of what each sub-skill is and what is involved in its teaching. Focus on one sub-skill at a time ensures the spiral progression of the practice of the sub-skills.

2.  The execution stage

The listening comprehension lessons should follow three main stages:

  • Pre-listening:

The main objective of the pre-listening stage is to activate the students’ schemata and make them ready for the listening activities. Activating background knowledge should be taken as a listening sub-skill in itself. For this reason, ‘activating background’ knowledge should be an integral part of every listening lesson. The teacher is invited to vary the strategies used to activate the learners’ background knowledge from lesson to lesson. Pre-listening activities include:

  • Group brainstorming.
  • Pair-work interactions (on a topic related to the topic of the listening lesson).
  • Whole class discussions/debates.
  • Think-Pair-Share.
  • Poser sessions.
  • Portfolio discussion.
  • Oral presentations.
  • Video-watching , etc…

Any of the activities above could serve as pre-listening activities for the listening comprehension lessons.

  • While-listening:

This stage should deal with the development of the target competency. Each listening comprehension lesson focuses on training the learners on one or two listening strategies.  Being aware that listening skills, like reading skills, cannot be developed over one session or even one year of instruction, it is preferable to state the objective of the listening comprehension lesson in the form of a ‘training’ objective. That is to say, the teacher can say, for instance: ‘by the end of this lesson, the learners will have training in scanning for specific information / skimming for the gist.

It is assumed that strategy training should be the main focus of each listening-comprehension lesson. Therefore, the learners should be instructed on how to practice the target skill. For this to happen, the teacher is invited to move from simple skills to those which require more cognitive involvement on the part of the learners.These steps can be followed for strategy training in listening comprehension:

  • Select one listening comprehension strategy at a time. (e.g. in Unit 1: making predictions about the listening passage/ scanning).
  • Name the target strategy and state it as the objective of the listening lesson.
  • Model it using the same listening passage or a different one.
  • Allow the learners to practice it.
  • Provide scaffolding to the learners as they are practicing the strategy.
  • Allow the learners to independently practice the strategy.

 ‘Making predictions’ should be taken as a listening skill. In fact it is a real-life skill; whenever we are listening to someone speaking, we make predictions about what he/she’s going to say later. So, the learners should be trained on how to use the given clues to make predictions about subsequent details in the passage being listened to. In video-viewing, using images and the sequence of events can help the learners further predict what’s coming next.

‘Skimming’ is an authentic skill which is frequently practiced in real life. ‘Skimming’ is when the learners identify the main idea of a spoken/written text. While trying to identify the main idea of a spoken passage, the listeners do not have to listen to all the details in the text. The main idea (the gist) can be understood from the first sentence(s) or from the first part of what is being said. In video-watching, images are sufficient to provide the learners with the main idea. So, the teacher should choose the most appropriate part of an audio/video track which would allow the learners to get the gist of what is being listened to.

In unit 2 of the textbook, for instance, the target sub-skill is ‘scanning for specific information’. In this this strategy, the learners try to locate specific details in the text. Specific information can also be understood using video images as support. A detail can be names, dates, figures, numbers, percents, amounts of money, etc. So, as a strategy, the teacher is advised to train the learners on how to locate specific information in an audio text usually through directing them to where the detail is being discussed without having to listen to the whole text.

  • Post-listening:

The post-listening phase of the lesson should be devoted to discussing the importance of the strategy dealt with in understanding the text . During this phase, the teachers can also further exploit the content of the text. If the audio/video text is about a topic related to ‘family’ or ‘friends’, for instance,  the post-listening stage can be devoted to a speaking session in which the learners talk in groups or give a short talk to the class about their families or relatives. In this stage, the teacher can also link the listening class to a ‘reading comprehension’ or a ‘writing’ class, making the topic being discussed as a starting point for the coming lesson. Other activities that can be dealt with after a listening lesson include:

  • Pair-work  on the ideas  dealt with in the listening audio/video.
  • Group work discussion on an aspect of the text.
  • Short talk/presentation related to the topic.
  • Paragraph writing about the topic (about my family, for instance).
  • Quick-writes.
  • Story-telling in reaction to the topic.
  • Role-plays (imitating the people in the video).
  • etc.,

What do you think?

On observing a language class

        Observing an English as a Foreign Language class – or maybe any other language class- is different from observing any other school subject. Two things, among many others, are highly appreciated  in language classes. First, a language teacher has to take into account the fact that language is taught for the sake of being used in real life. Hence, while teaching, all the tasks and activities should drive towards this final objective. Consequently, evidence of the pupils’ learning would be observed only if they can use what they have learnt in meaningful communicative situations. It is indeed boring- somtimes frustrating- to see a teacher emitating exam-like exercises all along the session. True, there are summative exams and the learners should be prepared for that as well, but this should not blind us to the point of ‘inventing’ a boring language lesson. Exam-like exercises should be targetted in part of the practice stage of the language point being dealt with.

        Related to this is that any meaningful interaction activity should normally be conducted in pairs or small groups, more or less the way real-world interactions do take place. It’s ‘dehumanising’ language teaching when you ask students at the end of a grammar, language functions or vocabulary lesson to “give an example”. No problem if that is done while checking understanding of simple concepts or vocabulary items; but as an opportunity for language USE, no one ever asks as to give him/her examples in real life.

        FollowIng the textbooks the way they are now would not certainly lead to achieving any of the above points. It’s highly appreciated when teachers strive to build situations (role-plays, e-mail exchange, information-gap activities…) through which the learners interact and use the language they have just learnt.

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