What I Teach When I’m Teaching English
I have just written about Secondary Learning Objectives. That post was a fairly general introduction to the concept. Here, I would like to give some specific examples of Secondary Learning Objectives within the context of my own field, English language teaching.
EFL teachers find themselves in a relatively unique position amongst the faculty. In teaching the language required to perform a wide variety of everyday social, professional, and academic interactions, these scenarios are often explored from new perspectives for both the students and the teacher.
EFL teachers in particular often find themselves in cross-cultural situations, either because they are expatriate teachers living and teaching in a foreign country, because they are teaching visitors or immigrants in their own country, or simply because they are non-native teachers teaching local students a foreign language. Whatever the circumstances, a certain amount of exposure to an alien culture and its norms is unavoidable.
And it’s not just that; learning new ways of describing, discussing and even thinking about things can change a student’s approach to situations even within their own culture, even if they don’t travel or ever use the foreign language outside of the classroom.
Although I believe teachers of all subjects should strive to bring the real world into their classrooms, which I have written more about here, it is almost unavoidable in the EFL classroom if you want to teach the language effectively. Language without a context is of little use to anybody, and as soon as you generate meaningful contexts in the classroom, you are asking your students to think about new types of social interactions, to take different perspectives, to express thoughts and ideas they might not have expressed or even thought about before. They are not just learning a language, they are in many cases having life experiences as well.
English Language or English Culture?
I’d like to add a small caveat here. With the rise of practical, communicative, interactive teaching methods in EFL, I have seen a proliferation of one particular trend that I consider to be a misstep.
With everything I have just said, it is still important to remember that the brief is teaching English language. If you’re teaching in a foreign country, as I am here in Indonesia, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of your students are not likely to study, work or live abroad. Depending on the economic background of your students, it’s entirely possible that many of them won’t even travel to an English speaking country. If they’re going to use English at all, for many of them it will be with other non-native speakers, perhaps speaking with international clients in their workplace, for example.
So when teachers spend all of their lesson time teaching within the context of the lifestyles of people in their own countries, I consider it a mistake. So many American teachers fill their syllabus with lessons about Thanksgiving and Independence Day celebrations, while English teachers teach whole units on English weather and English schools.
I don’t believe that a language can ever be divorced from its culture entirely, and a particularly interesting thing about English as a language is that it is spoken as a native language in so many different countries such that it is cleft to numerous different cultures. Different teachers will bring very different backgrounds to the EFL classroom, not to mention the non-native-English-speaker teachers. However, the kind of culture that is essential for the students to learn about is how the language is used, the different ways that native speakers communicate, what is polite and impolite in intercultural interactions and other such elements related to the language and its application. Students learning English in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia do not need to learn about the cookies Australians eat on Anzac Day.
If we focus on the right things, the realities of our students’ futures and their needs and reasons for learning English, and we apply the language we teach to those scenarios, we can even help them address certain elements of their own culture and how they interact with people in their own environment in ways that will actually and practically benefit them in the future.
As a caveat to the caveat, I’ll acquiesce that occasional insights into Western, European or other foreign cultures can indeed be fun and interesting to students, even if they are never likely to visit those countries. I just don’t think that entire courses nor course books (I’m looking at you, almost every ELT Text Book ever) should be designed around this as a central theme.
Common EFL Secondary Learning Objectives
There are many examples of secondary learning objectives relevant to EFL, certainly more than can be described in any kind of depth here, so I’ll offer a selection from my own experience, but I’d love to see your additions in the comments section below.
First of all, I make it an absolute priority to apply all of my target language to practical, real life contexts that my students either can relate to in their own lives or are likely to encounter in the future. As such, my lessons contain a lot of functional language that is useful in personal relationships, academic settings, formal situations, professional environments, social engagements and just general everyday activities.
When I am teaching business English, the importance of these real life contexts becomes abundantly clear. The seemingly right words said in the wrong context or accompanied with the wrong behaviour can be just as harmful to a business relationship as saying the wrong thing altogether. With this in mind, in my classes we practise, alongside the language itself, how to shake hands when meeting someone from a Western country, how to conduct a business meeting with regards to chit-chat, exchanging personal information, boldly and confidently sharing opinions while also giving opportunities for other people to speak, and even when to give out business cards.
In truth, errors in these interactions will likely not be damning to a business partnership, but they absolutely could cause uneasiness or a vague disconnect enough to disrupt a relationship.
Secondary Learning from Lesson Procedure
The examples described above still constitute concrete learning objectives—things that the teacher introduces explicitly and has the students address in some way consciously, either by repeating them, elaborating on them, discussing them or merely thinking about them. But there are other examples that are more implicit, such as those related to the lesson’s procedure, i.e. the activities used and how they are administered.
I use as much variety as possible in the dynamics of my lessons. I try to give students opportunities to listen and observe, to work independently to discover and work things out for themselves, to work in pairs to help each other achieve goals and to work in larger groups to bring multiple perspectives and strengths to a situation. Aside from the problem solving skills that these group dynamics promote and develop, students also develop numerous other communicative abilities this way.
Students working independently learn how to trust their own ideas and assumptions and also develop the grit and resilience required to solve a problem alone without giving up.
Students working with other people learn to cooperate, of course. But to elaborate on what this means, students become better at identifying their weaknesses and their peers’ strengths and learn how to leverage these; they learn how to develop, express and back up opinions and ideas, perhaps in the face of disagreement; they learn to collaborate and combine individual ideas to make something bigger and better together; they learn to organise, designate tasks and identify leaders.
Learning How to Learn
An especially important secondary learning objective that I have written about several times before, for example here, is the promotion and development of learner autonomy and learners learning how to learn (Say that three times fast!).
When students sit still in classrooms, silent but for the droning lectures of the teacher, staring at a whiteboard or a powerpoint presentation, copying notes from the teacher and filling in exercises in the textbook, it is arguable as to whether or not they truly learn the material, but it is certain that they do not become more effective learners.
As teachers, it is essential we encourage our students to think for themselves, to come to understandings and conclusions without always being led there directly. Otherwise, students learn only how to rely on their teachers, which becomes a problem when the teacher is no longer there. I have worked with countless students, for example, who have graduated quite happily from school with sufficiently impressive grades and gone on to be accepted to prestigious universities overseas. But when they get there, they are shocked to see how much independence is required. They have a good knowledge of the topics they learned in school, and at the point of joining the degree programme, they are easily as smart as any of their classmates. But as time goes on, they find that the other students are leaving them behind simply because they are more capable of taking charge of their own learning, of doing research projects outside of the lecture hall, of following up on lectures with further reading, of seeking out practical experience in the field.
Even for those that don’t go to university, the professional landscape is changing rapidly. With the rise of mechanisation and now also AI, there are becoming fewer and fewer menial or unskilled jobs. More people than ever before are now required to be independent at work, to decide for themselves what tasks should take priority, to identify problems and provide solutions, in short, to take initiative. And these are not naturally occurring skills. We must put our students in these kinds of situations as early and as often as possible, so that they are not just learning the material, but they are also learning how to learn.
Over to You
Many of these ideas you will notice are not confined to the English classroom at all. Many of them are approaches and practices that all teachers can implement in order to broaden the scope of what is being learned in the classroom far beyond just what is on the syllabus.
I’d love to see in the comments what others think about this and what examples you can share of secondary learning objectives that you have had in your classrooms.