A web site for the developing language teacher

A brain-based approach to teaching
English as a second language
by Tanju Deveci
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Meaningful content is a subjective concept. Therefore, it is difficult to define it. However, Dorner (2002) asserts that the following factors need to be considered.

1- It comes from real life, the natural word around us. The brain has been equipped for millions of years with the ability to adapt to natural surrounding to ensure survival. Therefore, the content matter should provide the most powerful context for learning the target language. It depends on the prior experiences we have had. We can learn most easily when we can relate content to what we already know. Making that connection enables the brain to see a pattern and make a mental program. This also helps assimilate new learning and raise expectation of success. Learning never happens in a vacuum; learners always have some starting knowledge, understanding, skill or experience. We need to bear in mind that students learn the most and remember the most at the beginning of the lesson. Therefore, this is a critical point of learning. There are some key questions that a learner need to ask himself/herself at this stage:

• What's in it for me?
• Is this a puzzle I want to solve?
• What do I already know?
• What do I need to know?
• What do I need to do to find out?

2. It is understandable, in part, because it is age-appropriate. Our brain develops in predictable stages, becoming capable of increasingly more difficult tasks. Each new stage is dependent on complete development of the previous stage. Students who are presented with information that their brain is not yet capable of processing will not "get it."

3- It allows the brain to seek patterns as a means to creating meaning. The brain learns by sifting through massive amounts of input, processing thousands of bits of information per minute arriving through all 19 senses. This information is processed in a multi-path, multi-modal way. As the brain attempts to make sense out of the chaos which surrounds each of us, it constantly searches for patterns that can impose meaning on the input it received.

4- It creates intrinsic rewards rather than relying on an extrinsic reward system. When our brain perceives new information as meaningful and therefore understood, it sends out feelings of well-being. This sense of accomplishment is heady and effective and does not require an external reward.

The role of teachers is different in meaningful learning. They are not the only possessors of knowledge, but they guide students. Actually, knowledge is constructed by the learners themselves, it is not transmitted form teachers to the students. In contextual learning students learn better when they think about what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Therefore, teachers' primary role is to stimulate and support activities that engage learners in thinking. Teachers need to be more careful with the ways they check their students' understanding. They should ask more questions such as "Why did you say that?". If they know more about a student's thinking, they can more accurately help the student learn.

It is known that people think and process knowledge in different ways, which is also acknowledged and supported by Multiple Intelligences Theory put forward by Howard Gardner. Kennedy (2000) notes that according to this theory, the frontal cerebral cortex is made of thousands of modular units responsible for our conscious thinking, remembering and behaving. Constellations of modularities are responsible for the strengths or insufficiencies of individual intelligence. Modularities on the right and left cerebral cortex are interconnected through the corpus callosum. Modularities may vary in size, density, and connectedness which alters conceptual complexity among individuals. With this theory, some individuals would likely possess different language competencies. Students can attach meaning to the language input in foreign language classrooms only if this information matches their individual language competency. Here the responsibility of language teachers is to vary their instructional strategies to address multiple intelligences. Howard Gardner suggests that there are eight intellectual variables associated with human performance. Some activities that can be used in English language classrooms for each intelligence type are as follows:

a - Activities that strengthen the verbal-linguistic intelligence: Listening and tape exercises, lectures, vocabulary activities, word games, word memory devices, working with metaphors and similes, summarize in your own words, situations and dialogs, grammar skills, oral presentations/reports, group discussions, debates, story telling, reading-literature, newspapers and magazines, writing activities, journal writing, word-processing programs and on-line communication.

b - Activities that strengthen the logical-mathematical intelligence: Word order activities; classifying and categorizing; sequencing information; prioritizing and making lists; outlining; word puzzles; grammar relationships and drills; number activities; logic games and activities; problem-solving activities; developing patterns and pattern games; creating functional situations; hypothesizing; critical thinking activities; gap activities; cause and effect activities; computer games; activities involving; develop equations to describe phenomena; utilize statistics to develop arguments; examine demographic data deductive/inductive reasoning and cultural comparisons and contrasts.

c - Activities that strengthen the visual-spatial intelligence: Craft and art projects; draw/color or illustrate concepts/things/ideas; design a logo that communicates a concept; mind mapping; graphic organizers; creative visualization and response drawing; color clues; visual presentations (video, slide, photography); creating video/slide projects (computer); creating models; design, construct or build models; improve a product; graphs and diagrams; reading/creating maps and interpreting directions.

d - Activities that strengthen the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: Flashcards; dance; using self to act out an event or thing; field trips; team construction projects; cooperative or competitive games like classroom board races and the fly swatter game.

e - Activities that strengthen the musical-rhythmic intelligence: Creating songs; creating rhythms to practice grammar; writing lyrics to illustrate a concept; linking historical periods to music of the period; creating music for drama related activities; singing; linking familiar tunes with concepts; creating songs or jingles to summarize concepts or ideas; playing music in the classroom to stimulate appreciation; developing a score for a video or audio presentation.

f - Activities that strengthen the interpersonal intelligence: Paired activities; board games; interactive software programs; surveys and polls; letter writing/pen pals; leadership development; collaborative activities such as team problem solving; jigsaw expert teams; group mind mapping and webbing; group brainstorming; peer teaching; group note taking exercises; developing an interview schedule with an individual to learn a specific concept; tape an interview with a significant mentor; simulations; peer teaching; and class or group writing projects.

g - Activities that strengthen the intrapersonal intelligence: Independent study and individual instruction (one on one activities); monitoring of own skills; developing a complete set of personal goals; developing a family history; mapping places in the environment where they feel comfortable, most creative and happiest; personalized authentic assessment; exploring personal interests; researching and online activities; as well as writing activities such as keeping a diary; journaling; learning logs; essays; and personal reflection.

h - Activities that strengthen the naturalist intelligence: Descriptive in nature; identifying and categorizing one's surroundings; hands-on learning; and taking nature walks or field trips.

Varying our learning activities can let individual students attach emotional meanings to the activities done in class, which will enable them to remember the content matter in the long run. This is because emotions stimulate our brains to recall things better. Choosing activities which are new, or require students to engage their emotions facilitates learning.

The activities mentioned above will bring color to our classrooms. However, there is still something missing: BRAIN GYM, which is as a series of simple and enjoyable movements. Besides varying classroom applications, brain gym exercises will make all types of learning easier. They are especially effective with academic skills. For complete learning to take place, the information received by the back brain needs to be accessible to the front brain. Otherwise, students will be locked into a failure syndrome. We can avoid this by ensuring whole-brain learning through Brain Gym activities that enable students to access the parts of the brain previously inaccessible to them (Dennison & Dennison, 1994). Brain gym activities connect left and right brain. They include physical movement and co-ordination, which encourages diffusion, unconscious processing of learning, relaxation, alertness, re-organization of the brain and right/left brain integration. Some of the activities are:

- short bursts (3/4 minutes) of gross muscular physical activity

- gross muscular activity which demands movement outside our comfort zones e.g. pat head/rub tummy

- hand-eye co-ordination exercises

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