29th May 2023
David Ausubel (1968) wrote that “the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach them accordingly.” But how can English language teachers learn what their students already know about English? And how can teachers learn what students already know about the world? In this blog post we’re going to look at activities TEFL teachers can use to learn about their students.
What can you learn about your students?
Learning about your students is a means to an end. There are three main reasons why it is useful for you as a TESOL/TEFL teacher to learn about your students.
A few years ago, I interviewed several experts about the most important factor in language learning. The most common answer? The relationship between teachers and their students. One way to build relationships is to show genuine interest in people. Finding out about your students and remembering what they say will help you build stronger relationships with them.
Knowing what to teach
There are three kinds of vocabulary that students need to learn. These are
- Common words
- Words about teaching and learning
- Vocabulary that relates to your students’ interests
Without getting to know your students, it’s impossible to decide what vocabulary to teach for the third category.
Knowing what to teach isn’t limited to vocabulary. Finding out what aspects of English your students struggle with can help you plan what to focus on in future classes. If your learners say that listening is a big challenge for them, spend more time on listening. If your students say that they have trouble making small talk, spend five minutes at the beginning of each class doing small talk activities. But you can’t decide on these priorities without first getting to know your students.
Knowing how to teach
Everyone has preferences about classroom activities. No two groups of students are the same. Most teachers observe their students and try to repeat activities that their students appear to enjoy. Another way to find out what students enjoy is to ask them. You could give your students a questionnaire, but it can be more interesting to make this a topic of discussion for surveys, role plays and opinion gap tasks.
Activities for young learners
It can be challenging to get to know students who speak little English. The following activities can help you get to know young learners, even at beginner levels.
Asking referential questions
Lots of questions that teachers ask are questions we already know the answer to. These are called “display questions”. Teachers love asking “What’s this?” or “What color is the dog?” or “Can frogs jump?” These questions are useful for checking students’ understanding. However, the answers to these questions don’t tell us much about the students themselves.
Along with display questions, try asking your students some genuine (“referential”) questions as well. Even at low levels you can ask students about their:
- preferences (e.g. “What ____ do you like?”)
- possessions (e.g. “Do you have a ____ ?)
- experiences (e.g. “Have you seen a ____?”
- abilities (e.g. “Can you ____?”)
- opinions (e.g “What ____ do you want?”)
Listening to what students say (as well as how they say it) will help you learn more about your students.
Draw, then describe
Get students to draw a picture of something they like, then talk or write about it. You could ask students to draw about their home lives, hobbies, or something they enjoy about learning English. Many teachers worry that students won’t have the vocabulary to be able to write or say something meaningful. You can challenge students to each ask you two questions about vocabulary or grammar. Students will be more motivated to learn vocabulary describing their hobbies than to learn vocabulary for the generic hobbies in your coursebook. The same goes for pets, sports, countries, and school subjects.
Class Activity Survey
Get students to survey each other about what they like about English class. Students could ask each other:
- which activities they like or don’t like (using yes/no questions). For example, “Do you like singing songs in English class?” “Do you like playing games in English class?”
- what their favorite parts of class are. For example, “What’s your favorite activity in English class?”
- what their least favorite part of class is.
- what they find most difficult in class.
As a follow up, ask students to decide which activities are most or least popular. Listen to what students say. You may find it is impossible to avoid some of the activities that students dislike. However, you can still explain to students why some of these activities are necessary.
Venn Diagram comparison
Students speak to a partner about learning English. From this they could make Venn diagrams, showing things in common, such as:
- what they find easy or difficult doing in English
- preferences for activities
- what they use English for outside of class
- what they dislike about learning English.
Get students to report back afterward. You could even collect the Venn Diagrams at the end of class and read these to better understand your students’ preferences.
End lessons by asking students to make their own sentences, using “Today I liked …” and “Today, I didn’t like …”. Students share their answers as a wrap up. Praise students for honest answers. Learning what students don’t enjoy might hurt your pride, but it’s just as important as finding out what students enjoy.
Feedback from Students
Higher-level students should be capable of giving meaningful feedback. You can teach students to give feedback to each other using sentence stems, such as:
- “I like how you …”
- “It would be even better if …”
- “When you … I feel …”
As well as giving feedback to each other, students can use these sentence stems to give you feedback on your classes. When I’ve done this, I’ve been surprised both by what students appreciate and what suggestions they have.
Activities for adults
Unlike children, adults often already have strong preferences about what works for learning a language. Getting students to share these ideas can help you better understand your learners’ expectations. Adults also often have specific motivations for learning English. Finding out about these motivations can help you personalize lessons and make sure that your students are getting what they want out of your language classes.
You could ask students to make a presentation about what they use English for, at work, or outside of the classroom. Other students can act as judges and give feedback or be audience members and ask follow-up questions.
Get students to survey each other about why they are learning English. You could include questions like:
- “What is hardest for you to do in English?”
- “I will be a successful English speaker when …”
- “When have you used English successfully?”
After the survey, get students to share some of the most interesting answers. You can then discuss the answers with the whole class. This might lead to some insights into students’ expectations.
Question Swap Mingle
Get students to write a question that they have about learning English. This could be something they want advice on, like “How can I improve my listening?” or “How can I remember more vocabulary?” It could also be something more personal, like “How do you stay motivated learning English?” Each student should write one question on a small piece of paper. This should be written neatly enough so that others can read it.
Next, students to stand up and mingle with their classmates. They find a partner, ask their question, and listen to the answer. Then, they swap questions. The students then ask the new question to a different classmate. This continues until each student has answered all the questions. Students can then share the most interesting answers they heard with the rest of the class. Listening to the questions and answers can help you understand areas which your students have trouble with.
Find Someone Who
In Find Someone Who, students create a checklist of attributes. They then ask their classmates if any of these describe them. Usually, students try to find classmates who can speak multiple languages or have more than three siblings. Listening to the answers can tell you more about who your students are. But teachers can also turn Find Someone Who into an opportunity to learn about students’ preferences about language learning. Students could try to find someone who enjoys doing role plays or prefers listening to speaking. Listening to the answers will give you useful information about what your students like to do in class.
Rank Your Needs - Opinion Gap
In opinion gap tasks, students share their opinions with their classmates and reach a consensus or make a decision. Opinion gaps often involve discussing holiday destinations or preferences for restaurants or entertainment. Opinion gaps can also focus on student’s opinions about learning English. For example, ask learners to rank their English learning needs from most important to least important. You could give students a list of needs (writing emails, travel, food, describing movies, etc.) and ask them to select their top five. Or you could ask students to decide on their own needs from scratch.
English Study Role Play
Think up a relevant scenario where your students might ask each other about their English learning habits. You could make students:
- service staff at your school. They would need to survey the students in the class (playing themselves) about their English learning needs and preferences.
- part of the human resources department at a fictitious company. They would need to interview the employees (the other students) about when they use English and what for. Finally, the human resources staff could decide on the English learning priorities for the company.
- The education department. They have been tasked with learning about the English language preferences and habits of the population. They must interview the citizens (the other students) about why they use English and what they find difficult about studying the language. After collecting information from a class survey or interviews, students can then report their findings.
Listening to the answers from students will again give you useful information about what students want to learn and why. Dressing this up as a role play might encourage some students to be more honest about their preferences.
Getting to know more about your students can help you to personalize lessons and focus on more of what your students want. However, most of us, regardless of what our students say they need and want, still need to follow a syllabus or a coursebook. You can use information about your students from the activities above to:
- set expectations. If your students say their aim is to sound like a native speaker, you can make them aware how long that will take. Setting expectations near the beginning of a course can avoid disappointment later.
- help you explain the rationale behind activities. If students say that they don’t like doing group and pair work, you can explain why you do this in class. This can help you to get buy-in from students.
- package what students need in what they want. Your students may think that they need practice doing exam questions. You may know that they need help with vocabulary and grammar. You can then include exam question practice in class, and afterward give students feedback on their grammar and vocabulary use. This should keep students motivated and ensure they make progress.
- tweak activities. Although we all need to follow a syllabus or a coursebook, most teachers have flexibility in planning lessons. Show that you listen to your students by doing more of what they are interested in.
Finally, even if you don’t make big changes to what you end up teaching, just going through the process of getting to know your students should help you build relations with your learners. Moreover, talking about language learning is a relevant topic for students. One thing we know all your students have in common is that they’re learning English.
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