Published 6th October 2020

meaningful teaching

There is a lot going on when it comes to learning a language. A language learner needs to get to grips with vocabulary, grammar, natural language, linguistic inconsistencies, pronunciation – and then to be able to produce all of that on demand without any preparation in a real-life situation. It’s a lot. So if there are any ways we can make language learning easier for our learners then we should embrace these techniques as much as possible. One thing we can do is to make language learning more meaningful. In this piece we will explore ways to make language learning meaningful.

Because we are always striving to be the best EFL teachers we can be, we decided to do some digging and find out the best ways we can make language learning more meaningful and thus more effective for our learners. And because we’re such good friends, we thought we’d share them with you too, so that you can be the best teacher you can be too. It’s a pleasure.

Here we go, five ways to make language leaning more meaningful:

Make it personal

Personalisation is key. Maybe not so much for understanding, but for retention. If a learner doesn’t or can’t make connections with the language on a personal level they won’t remember the language when they leave the classroom, because they won’t have a need to. This is important for learning any subject but especially when it comes to learning a language. After all, we learn a language in order to speak a language and use it in real life. It follows that we need to learn language which we will need to use in our real lives. If we learn language totally unrelated to our lives and our reasons for learning a language, we won’t have a need to use that language and, as we all know, you either use it or lose it. 

In the classroom, make sure that your lessons always include an activity (or more than one!) which relates the lesson content to the learners. This is most easily done in warmer and production activities. When asking your learners to discuss a topic with their partners or in their groups, be sure to add in an angle which relates to their personal lives. For example, if you are learning about recycling, ask them how they recycle at home; if you are teaching the third conditional, ask them to relate a personal regret they have. In this way they are using the language to talk about themselves, which is likely how they will need to use the language outside the classroom. 

Read more: 3 Factors Affecting Personalised Learning

Make it relevant

A further aspect of making it personal is making your lessons relevant to your learners. It is difficult for our learners to engage with content when it is not appropriate for them or relevant to them. Unfortunately, as many of our coursebooks are UK-centric, there are many learners who might not relate to the content in coursebooks. This is a further obstacle to learning.

When you are preparing your lessons, take a critical look at the materials you are using and ensure they are appropriate for your learners. This is generally in terms of content, topic and visuals which might be utilised during the lesson. If you discover that your materials might not be best suited for your learners, discard the materials and find and create new ones which accomplish the same aims. 

Read more: The Case For and Against Coursebooks

making learning meaningful

Increase learner autonomy

You should know by now that EFL teachers don’t hand everything to their students on a silver platter. We provide opportunities for our students to discover and figure out language for themselves. Essentially it is our learners doing the work, not us. This is an important part of learning – we don’t do this just so we can teach less! Making our students work during the learning process makes it more memorable for them as it is more cognitively demanding. 

Practically speaking, this means giving your students time to think. Don’t always jump in with definitions or explanations. Give them time to think about the language themselves. Ask them leading questions which will direct them to the answer. Let them discuss it with their partners. The same goes for error correction. Don’t immediately tell them what the answer is. Tell them where the problem is but let them correct it themselves.

Read more: Effective Error Correction

Harness the zone of proximal development

If a lesson is too easy for a learner, it won’t be effective for that learner. The same will happen if the lesson is too difficult. Either way, the learner won’t be primed for learning, the language won’t be meaningful and the learner may even lose motivation. The zone of proximal development is the sweet spot when it comes to learning. It is the developmental zone which is just above a learner’s current knowledge. You need to target your lessons to be in that area and then learning will take place. 

Always have your students in mind when planning your lessons. Obviously you can’t plan lessons which target learners individually but you need to get to know the capabilities of your learners. Knowing this means you will be able to have activities at hand to help the lower level learners and add another level of challenge for the higher level learners. 

Lower the affective filter

The affective filter is a term coined by the linguist Stephen Krashen to refer to the mental boundaries of a learner in a classroom. If the affective filter is high, a student feels uncomfortable and will be shy to speak and learning will subsequently be difficult. If the affective filter is low, the student feels comfortable and will speak easily and often. When a learner is relaxed and happy in a classroom, they will have less anxiety, and they will participate in classroom activities without fear of making mistakes, and this is where learning takes place because it is meaningful. 

Arguably one of the most important jobs of the EFL teacher is to ensure a good learning environment in the classroom. This means planning activities which help your students get to know each other and form relationships. This will help the students enjoy their lessons more, which will make the learning more meaningful.

These are just five ways you can make language learning more meaningful for your learners.  If you consider these five tips when you plan your lessons, your lessons are sure to be more meaningful and memorable, and your students will improve exponentially.

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