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Educator Kay Gallagher writes that there is a need to promote languages in the classroom.


Educator Kay Gallagher writes that there is a need to promote languages in the classroom.

Literacy is one of the main goals of education. Millions of young learners around the world achieve remarkable success in the complex and challenging task of learning to read and write. In many countries today however, including the UAE, literacy in the mother tongue is no longer sufficient: students are required to become literate not only in one language, but in two — and sometimes more — languages.

Literacy in a primary language plus emergent literacy in a second language is the minimum target set for all students in the UAE today. In government schools, students must learn to read and write competently in Arabic, and they must begin to acquire literacy in the entirely different script of English too.

In international private schools where English is the primary language, students must become literate in English, and they are also required to begin to acquire literacy in Arabic.

Languages essential for development

The overall intellectual benefits resulting from additional language learning are now proven, and the advantages of being biliterate are many, regardless of the student's mother tongue.

What is more, bilingualism and biliteracy are often essential for further study and for employment in the knowledge economy of the 21st century. As such, students in UAE schools today are in a linguistically advantaged position, but it is essential that they are able to take full advantage of the rich lingual environment that surrounds them.

Unfortunately, if you ask young learners in UAE schools about their experiences of second language learning, you will hear from all too many of them that learning to read and write in a second language is a very negative experience. You will hear this from an Arabic-speaking child learning English in a government school just as often as you will hear it from an English-speaking child learning Arabic in a private school.

It is likely that this negativity is a major contributory factor in the low second language proficiency amongst school leavers that is being increasingly identified as a major educational issue.

Engage young learners

Numerous studies have shown that positive motivation and positive emotional attitude play a huge part in successful language, and therefore it is clear that the negativity and frustration expressed by many second language learners in schools needs to be listened to and addressed by all of us who are involved in language teaching.

A large part of the solution to this antipathy towards learning a second language is in the hands of language teachers. To begin to redress the problem of student disengagement leading to poor attainment in the second language, language teachers need to attend to two key inter-related principles of successful language teaching and learning: the learner-centered principle and the active involvement principle. Although these two simple principles are certainly not new in education, they are crucial in developing those vital positive learner attitudes towards the acquisition of second language literacy.

The learner- centred principle demands simply that teachers understand and harness the interests of their learners. The interests of learners in schools in the UAE are of course as many and diverse as the young learners themselves. However, what excites the interest of young learners from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds in this country — just like children and teenagers in all developed countries in the world today — is their love of doing things with technology.

Young people of the 21st century are fervent users of new technologies, including computers, CDs, videos, cell phones, DVDs, email, text messaging, and so on. Educators need to be increasingly aware of these new and different ‘worlds' that our children are experiencing. We need to stop decrying children's love for popular technological culture, and instead we need to harness it in the classroom.

The second inter-related principle is active involvement: for successful language learning, learners need to be actively involved in using language purposefully for genuine communication.

In order to tap into the interests of young learners, and in order to attend to the needs of the age we live in, they need to be provided with a range of multimedia-based activities in the classroom.

Students switch off when they are treated as passive learners. They want to do things with the language they are learning. Successful learning therefore will occur when teachers engage their interest in a range of purposeful and communicative reading and writing activities, employing a variety of media, in the language classroom.

A range of resources

It is becoming clear that schools in the 21st century can no longer depend solely on word-based textbooks to capture the interest of learners who are increasingly captivated by multi-modal representations outside of school. To provide purposeful and genuine communicative activities and to motivate young learners, language teachers must draw upon a range of multimedia resources.

Educational managers and financial managers therefore need to provide schools with multimedia resources, and they need to employ and empower teachers with the professional knowledge and the technological skills to use them appropriately.

Success in a global environment

To conclude, if language teachers make active involvement of learners in learner- centred activities their mission in the classroom, and if they are able to draw on multi-modal text types and not depend only on traditional textbooks, then young learners will develop those vital positive attitudes towards second language literacy.

This will lead UAE students to the higher biliteracy levels that are essential for success in today's global linguistic environment.

- The writer is the supervisor of Teacher Education at Abu Dhabi Women's College

Activities to provide positive learning experiences in the classroom

- Personalised activities: Preference surveys; online questionnaires; ‘find someone who' activities; chat room postings on pre-assigned opinion topics

- Language focus activities: Online and/or paper-based; matching; multiple choice; and gap-filling exercises in spelling, grammar and vocabulary

- Problem-solving activities: Role-play activities to solve realistic problems; crossword puzzles, jigsaw story puzzles; language-based computer simulation games

- Information gap activities: Activities where learners need to talk or write to each other to find out information from each other in order to complete a task; emailing companies for information.

- Games: bingo: Twenty questions; memory games; guessing games; board games with a language focus; language-based computer games.

- Information processing activities: Taking notes; recording spoken texts; writing emails, text messages and memos; interpreting visual information from graph form into written form

- Picture activities: Writing captions for pictures, sequencing cartoon strips; filling in speech bubbles; describing pictures; comparing and contrasting pictures; illustrating written text.

- Literature-based activities: Illustrating poems and scenes from stories; predicting what might happen next; reading, writing and listening to stories and poems read aloud or on audio or videotape; completing an unfinished story; comparing a book to its film version.

- Writing activities: Drafting and re-drafting a piece of work with the help of peers and/or teacher; completi