Consciousness raising and the foreign language learner

    In their book on second language teaching (1988:51) , W. Rutherford and S. Sharwood Smith talk about the notions of “explicit” and “implicit” knowledge and the impact these have had on second language acquisition. They argue that helping our learners achieve the much desired goal of “spontaneous, unreflecting language use” will depend on many factors such as their age, their level of proficiency, their intellectual maturity and the reasons why they are learning the foreign language. Regarding the use of explicit teaching and implicit learning and whether to focus on one or the other, Rutherford and Sharwood highlight the benefits of what they refer to as language consciousness raising in the language classroom, i.e. promoting our learners’ interlanguage by fostering self-discovery and by using a variety of resources and tasks that will draw our students’ attention into ‘noticing’ new language structures and patterns.

   But how can we use consciousness raising tasks in an effective way so that we can maintain our students’ motivation levels up? Below you will find some key concepts to consider in order to promote student autonomy and learning through discovery in effective ways that will foster language acquisition.

The importance of brainstorming

   Cultivating the anticipation of discovery should be one of our main tasks in the language classroom. We must activate our learners’ schemata and previous knowledge by having them guess what the topic and aim of the lesson are through brainstorming, through authentic and engaging activities that trigger our learners’ minds and imagination. We must train them to expect the unexpected. The teacher is there not feed them with input and instructions but to provide the stimulus and let the learners give the response and be actively involved in the learning process.

Discovering new knowledge

    Ur (1996:169) stresses the positive impact to language acquisition of the ‘journey of self-discovery’ through imaginative writing/speaking. When students find the task and the topic interesting, challenging and relevant to their age, they will ‘strive’ harder than usual to ‘produce a greater variety of correct and appropriate language’ in order to express their ideas.

‘Noticing’ new language patterns

The importance of noticing in successful language learning has been highlighted by many linguists and SLA researchers (Skehan, Long, Harmer, Thornbury). There seems to be a general consensus among them that some form of attention to input is necessary for effective learning to take place. Noticing is considered to be successful when it leads to language acquisition, when our learners’ attention is shifted towards a TL structure, which is then acquired, internalized and eventually becomes part of their TL output.

    Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output.

    The key is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output. This blog post’s main purpose will be to draw our attention as teachers to the importance of this concept in foreign language learning and in particular to grammar teaching.

   The role of age in ‘noticing’ and interlanguage development

    Age plays a very significant role when it comes to negotiation of meaning, noticing and language learning. Younger learners have a limited attention span and will focus mainly on the communication of meaning and less on form/grammar. Adult learners on the other hand are more reflective and are thinking more analytically about their own learning. Their metacognitive awareness and their previous knowledge of learning languages play a very significant role in triggering this noticing that will eventually transform their interlanguage and will foster language learning.

Input enrichment and task authenticity

        Our main aim is not for our students to merely notice a TL structure. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to expose them to linguistic input but to also provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking.

    By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

    For Harmer, ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classrooms learners have limited opportunities to practice the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language.

Learner autonomygoal setting

    In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use (listening strategies, reading strategies, organization, etc.) to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.

Consciousness raising and learner interaction

    In many cases our EFL learners have limited exposure to the TL outside the classroom and therefore they do not have many opportunities to practise the language. In order to foster their language development we must create the appropriate environment to help them do this during the lesson. We must help them develop communicative skills that will eventually promote language acquisition. By encouraging interaction among the students through collaborative writing or speaking tasks, STT (student talking time) is increased and our learners gradually begin to develop language fluency and learn from one another.

    We must give them the freedom to interact in the TL, to try to communicate successfully and appropriately (not necessarily accurately), to get their message across without the fear of errors. Our learners’ interlanguage will constantly evolve through creative mistakes. It’s not just the drilling and the exercises that will boost their linguistic development but the interaction, the constant effort to turn their passive vocabulary into active.

Making conscious decisions about the lesson

    Active involvement is key to a successful learning environment. By letting our students have their say and choose the topics they want to focus on, we instantly give them a more active role, we make them co-designers of the lesson. Learning is then more meaningful to them as it is connected to their everyday lives, their preferences and interests. Through this inclusiveness our learners feel they are in control of the lesson flow and become more engaged in the language tasks.

    Reflecting on the lesson is also beneficial. We must show to them that their opinion matters by giving them the opportunity to comment on what they liked from the lesson, what troubles them or any changes they would make.

References

Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rutherford, William and Michael Sharwood Smith (eds.) Grammar and Second Language Teaching: A Book of Readings. New York: Newbury House

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Watkins, P. (2014). Learning to teach English. (2nd ed.) Delta Publishing.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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