Home > Classroom Management > Learner Expectations – The Elephant in the Room

Learner Expectations – The Elephant in the Room

I wonder if many would disagree that the job of the ESP trainer is to ensure that, following their course, clients can better perform key business functions and add value to their organisation.

In my opinion, the most effective way to do this is to identify what learners need to do in English, assess how well they do it now, diagnose what linguistic areas are causing perfhey do it now, diagnose what linguistic areas are and meaning’ version of the ‘time and motion’ study.

Therefore, in order to achieve time bounded results and provide maximum value to the learners and other stakeholders,  language presented and practised must be that which is most likely to be used in work place situations.

If the learner is B2 or above, they’re likely to have most of the grammar and much of the vocabulary they need to perform their job and their major issue is likely to be effective utilisation of that language to achieve particular purposes.

As a result, effective business English teaching should avoid lengthy grammar teaching and subordinate accuracy to fluency and meaning. I’m sure many people will reply to that; well, duh! However, how many of your learners agree with you?

In the language classrooms of many cultures, the teacher represents ultimate authority, learners expect a directive approach and accurate use of grammar is viewed as the ultimate purpose of study. This means that many learners come into our classrooms with rather set expectations of what’s going to happen, for example:

  • We’ll study grammar
  • We’ll learn new words
  • The teacher will make me learn
  • My input is not wanted and not needed

You may think I’m being a little flippant and I probably am but I’m also sure that some of these observations will resonate with you and your experience. How do we reconcile this with the general values of modern language teachers:

  • Context and meaning are of pre-eminent importance
  • Fluency is of greater importance than accuracy
  • Realistic practise is critical for remembering and using new language
  • Grammatical study should take second place to real language use

I truly believe that focusing on the latter list is most likely to produce in long term linguistic effectiveness but I also know that, for some learners, practice is not learning. Giving them a gap fill exercise resonates with their experience and is therefore how they perceive learning. Learners often view talking in class as a cop out as it doesn‘t result in new knowledge. In their opinion learning is distilled to the acquisition of words and grammar, recalling them in stressful situations will just happen.

Being flippant again?

How many learners with books of uncatagorised, decontextualised vocabulary have you encountered and how often have the same learners asked to study the present perfect, again?

Obviously, even if we don’t agree with many learner opinions of learning, we need to accept that their experience and worldview is valid and must be accommodated into the learning process. At the same time, allowing the learners ‘wants’ to dominate the learning process may mean that ‘needs’, of both learners and stakeholders, are not addressed. So, how best to ensure learners are taught effectively but their perspective and experience is respected?

Here’s an approach I’ve been using:

  • At the start of the course, express your values overtly, sincerely and honestly and explain how they will affect classroom activities.
  • Ask learners about their expectations for grammar learning, vocabulary input and error correction, listen empathetically and explain why you may disagree with anything mentioned.
  • Negotiate an approach that accommodates all opinions and put it in writing in the form of a training contract.
  • Explain aims and approaches before activities and how they relate to the training contract.
  • Summarise achievements at the end of each activity and ask learners to assess progress at the end of the course.

In my experience, this framework works and you win respect from the learners. It also guarantees that you can incorporate the wants of other stakeholders who, at the end of the day, are probably paying the bill anyway.

  1. June 20, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Nice post. I especially liked the followed comment:

    “At the start of the course, express your values overtly, sincerely and honestly”

    Yes, this is so important! Learners today meet so many different teachers, each with their own slant on what language learning is about and how best to do it. I nearly always start a course with some sort of discussion about how people learn languages, and there are nearly always “aha” moments as people realise that there are different ways of doing things.

    • June 20, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      Thanks for your comments Evan. I agree with you as always. However, in my context (short intensive courses) it can be difficult to go into sufficient depth.

      Just experienced an interesting example. I introduced my style to the group we discussed and set a plan then went into developing socialising language.

      In this topic I try to look at real language used to build relationships. The learners did ok in controlled situations but failed to use the TL (modals in relative clauses) in natural situations.

      At the end of the day, I receive the feedback that the content could be more challenging.

      Challenging? You couldn’t use the language.

      Now, I know they mean quantity, there wasn’t enough. Forget that this language is real business speech based on corpus.

      I don’t want you to make me communicate better, just give me more!

      I’ll stop now, being flippant again.

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