A brain-based approach to teaching English as a second language by Tanju Deveci
The information about how
the brain works is accumulating continuously. It seems like there is no end
to this information, and we will be having even more information about the way(s)
the brain works as the science of neurology develops. It goes without saying
that learning is dependent on the way our brain works. Therefore, we, as teachers,
need to adapt our teaching techniques according to the brain research.
Maybe one of the most important findings of the brain research is that the brain is much more malleable than previously thought. The specialized functions of specific regions of the brain are not fixed at birth but are shaped by experience and learning (Genesee, 2000). Here, the word 'experience' is the key word, and when we consider that learning and teaching provides individuals with new experiences, the role of learning experience aided by teaching and teachers seems clearer. That is to say that teaching and teachers can actually make a difference in brain development.
However, experience should be purposeful and meaningful if we want the brain to change in a desirable fashion. The importance of meaningful learning appears to be crucial in Caine and Caine's (1994) twelve principles of learning as well. They assert that the search for meaning is innate. We cannot stop this search, but channel or focus it. The human brain survives by searching for meaning, and responds to meaningless and meaningful information and situations differently. Therefore, if we want our learners to use and develop their brains we need to teach for meaningfulness. Before going any further, I believe that it is essential to mention Caine and Caine's all twelve principles, which, I feel, contribute to the search for meaning in one way or another:
1-The Brain Is a Parallel Processor: The human brain is always doing many things at one time. Therefore, teaching must be based on theories and methodologies that guide the teacher to make orchestration possible. Teachers need a frame of reference that enables them to select from the vast repertoire of methods and approaches that are available.
2- Learning Engages The Entire Physiology: The brain is a physiological organ functioning according to physiological rules. Stress and threat affect the brain differently from peace, challenge, boredom and happiness. Everything that affects our physiological functioning affects our capacity to learn. Stress management, nutrition, exercise, and relaxation, as well as other facets of health management, must be fully incorporated into the learning process.
3- The Search For Meaning Is Inborn: The human brain tries to make sense of our everyday experiences. This is in its nature, and we cannot stop it at all. Therefore, in our classes we need to exicite our learners, and arouse their curiosity. Our learners need to discover information themselves. In this way, they will be challenged.
4- The Search For Meaning Occurs Through Patterning: Patterning refers to the meaningful organization and categorization of information. The brain is designed to perceive and generate patterns. "Meaningless" patterns are isolated pieces of information. Learners are patterning, or perceiving and creating meanings all the time. We can influence the direction.The information should be organized in a way that allows brains to extract patterns.
5- Emotions Are Critical To Patterning: What we learn is influenced and organized by emotions. Emotions are crucial to memory because they facilitate the storage and recall of information. The emotional climate in the school and classroom must be monitored on a consistent basis. The environment needs to be supportive and marked by mutual respect.
6- The Brain Processes Parts And Wholes Simultaneously: There are significant differences between left and right hemispheres of the brain. However, the two hemispheres are interactive.
7- Learning Involves Both Focused Attention And Peripheral Perception: The brain absorbs information of which it is directly aware and to which it is paying attention. This means that the brain responds to the entire sensory context in which teaching or communication occurs.
8- Learning Always Involves Conscious And Unconscious Processes: Students need to review how and why they learned. This will let them take charge of their own learning and they will develop personal meanings.
9- We Have At Least Two Different Types Of Memory: A Spatial Memory System And A Set Of Systems For Rote Learning: We have a natural, spatial memory system that does not need rehearsal and allows for instant memory of experiences. However, facts and skills that are dealt with in isolation are organized differently by the brain and need more practice and rehearsal. We, as educators, need to know that teaching devoted to memorization does not facilitate the transfer of learning and actually will interfere with the development of understanding.
10- We Understand And Remember Best When Facts And Skills Are Embedded In Natural, Spatial Memory: We learn languages through multiple interactive experiences involving vocabulary and grammar. Our language is shaped both by internal processes and social interactions. Therefore, success in learning a second language will depend on using all the senses and immersing the learner in a multitude of complex and interactive experiences.
11- Learning Is Enhanced By Challenge And Inhibited By Threat: The brain downshifts under threat, and it learns optimally when appropriately challenged.
12- Each Brain Is Unique: Systems in every individual brain is integrated differently, which means that we need to provide choices to attract individual brains.
As pointed earlier, long-lasting language learning can only take place when the instruction is meaningful for the learners. Dhority & Jensen (1998) also accept that the brain is a natural meaning-seeker and meaning maker. New information entering through the brain stem will pass through the thalamus to the hippocampus. Here a search is conducted for matching information. If a connection is made, the information will go to working memory. However, for the brain to store this information in the long-term memory, the information needs to be relevant and meaningful to the learner. Meaningfulness can be achieved in contextual learning, where natural learning environment is created.
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
I have pointed out that
the brain seeks meaningful patterns and resists meaningless. We tend to connect
and interpret new experiences through ones with which we are already familiar.
Therefore, we must design activities where our learners directly and interactively
experience things, which will let them construct new knowledge. And the motivation
for this can only come from a deep sense of personal need. So we need to provide
opportunities where making meaning is prompted by some problem, question, or
disagreement that involves personal ownership of the issue. Tomlinson (1999)
points out that when the thing to learn has deep and personal meaning, and when
it is life shaping and relevant, the brain responds to it differently, and learning
becomes more effective.
Also, when the brain's natural tendency to construct meaning from patterns is used in second language teaching, classroom learning can become more like learning in real-life situations.
I propose that English as a second language can be taught best in immersion programs where meaning is embedded in contexts taking into consideration all twelve learning principles of Caine & Caine (1994).
Therefore, we need to have closer look at what is meant by contextual learning and immersion, which include meaningful learning experiences for learners.
Contextual learning will occur only when students process new information or knowledge in such a way that it makes sense to them in their own frames of reference (their own inner worlds of memory, experience, and response). This approach to learning and teaching assumes that the mind naturally seeks meaning in context-that is, in relation to the person's current environment-and that it does so by searching for relationships that make sense and appear useful. Contextual learning is meaningful to learners, and this requires learners to analyse and process language more deeply. This aids their contextual/episodic memory, which is activated by direct association with events, circumstances, or location. Episodic memory can last for years with moderate review and has unlimited storage capacity. Our brain sorts and stores information based upon whether it is heavily embedded in context or in content.
Connecting content with context is an important part of bringing meaning to the learning process. For that connection to take place, a variety of teaching approached may be used. As a result of recent brain research and development, we have learnt how people learn. The following teaching approaches include context as a critical component:
· collaborative/cooperative learning
· project-based learning
· service learning
· work-based learning
We must be very careful
how we go about using these approaches. The critical thing is that they should
be used at the students' developmentally-appropriate level of learning, that
the diversity of students should be considered, that the environment should
be established to support self-regulated learning, that multiple intelligences
should be considered, and that appropriate authentic assessment should be included.
Teachers' role in contextual teaching differs from the roles of those in teacher-fronted classes. They are facilitators rather than plain teachers. They continuously draw on their students' prior knowledge and experience when building up their learning environment. Since they are not the ones transmitting knowledge all the time, they engage their learners actively in their learning.
I argue that the most effective language acquisition can be achieved in immersion programs because of the fact immersion programs provide both meaning and context, which are necessary elements for the brain to take up a second language.
Early immersion students enter into the process of learning a second language at a time when it does not compete with other interests, as it is an integral part of their normal school activity. Older students, on the other hand, quickly recognize that learning a second language involves considerable time, dedication and effort, consequently preferring to spend their time and energy elsewhere. In other words, older students excel in their initial rate of second language achievement because they have a greater ability to consciously learn grammar rules while younger students excel in long-term second language achievement. However, both children and adults go through a hard time when they attempt to acquire a second language in schools.
I have been to many schools where English is only used in the classroom and the students' native language is reserved for use during informal social interactions or in group/pair work activities. I suspect that this is because the students are generally not taught the formulaic language, which would allow them to communicate in social situations in the second language. Speaking the target language all the time does not mean students are following an immersion program, and actually I believe that we cannot disregard our learners' native tongue (L1) totally.
Therefore, let me start by describing what I mean by language immersion. In language immersion, the usual curricular activities are run in English. That is, English becomes the medium of instruction as well as the object of instruction. Our curriculum should be organized around themes, which arouse our students' interest. Caine & Caine (1994) state that appropriate themes invoke emotions, provide a personal challenge, and stir imagination. All these elements will contribute to the meaningfulness of our teaching.
Genesee (1994) says that in immersion, second language teaching is embedded in a rich and meaningful communicative context. The goal of learning language is not grammatical perfection, but meaningful communication among students and teachers. Students remain motivated to learn the second language when they have a sense of academic accomplishment and of increasing competence in using the second language for communicative purposes. The behaviorist notion of "practice" as a means of learning, which is prevalent in conventional programs, is replaced in immersion-type programs by the notion of "creative construction," in which learners are encouraged to experiment with linguistic forms in order to communicate with one another and with their teachers about academic and social matters. Errors in language use are not seen as bad, but rather as indications of the learners' active efforts to master a complex linguistic system. In immersion, the learner is seen as progressing through a series of stages toward full target language proficiency; the learner is not expected to start off like a native speaker.
In immersion, English will serve as a vehicle for discussions of academic matters and is only a secondary focus of instructional attention. In immersion, students are expected to acquire the language skills that are important for communicating about and understanding the academic subject matter set out in the program of instruction.
It has been argued by some researchers like Krashen that comprehensible input is important for second language acquisition. That is to say, students can only acquire language that they can understand. In this regard, immersion programs will provide extensive comprehensible input, which can also encourage our learners to use English productively especially if we include native speakers in the classroom.
Naturally, teachers will have to take on new roles in immersion programs. Mard (2002) argues that maybe their basic and the most important responsibility is to be a companion to their learners. Immersion students need the teacher as an immersion language interlocutor and as a negotiator of meaning in cognition problems. The teacher provides the children with the shape of the immersion language and those means that they need in order to use the immersion language themselves. When teachers socialize with their students in breaks etc., they need to use English, which will have a direct influence on the active acquisition of the immersion language. Besides this the teachers can deliberately choose subjects which learners link to life outside the school environment that they would otherwise experience almost entirely in their first language. Teachers need to make sure that nothing seems like an imperative routine which has to be passed quickly. For example, if they are talking about the weather on a particular day, it needs to be discussed in a way that students feel like it has personal importance for them. The routine questions should be repeated in order that more learners have the opportunity to answer individually and all of them get more chances to digest the input of the immersion language.
The most important thing at the beginning of immersion is to make students feel safe, which could be done through familiar daily routines. The children will not become alarmed, even though not understanding everything the teacher says in the immersion language. They will also feel secure if they know that the teacher understands their first language. Students can use their L1 while talking to the teacher although the teacher answers in the immersion language. Therefore, teachers do not themselves need to use their students' first language in order to assure that their message is understood and to ease the children's adjustment to immersion. The teachers do not need to be concerned about the things that their students do not understand. The students may themselves figure out the content of the teacher's message in English.
Teachers need to be aware of the fact that the acquisition of a new language happens individually. They have to give sufficient linguistic tools for those children who want to begin to use the new language immediately. On the other hand, they need to know that some learners might have a silent period in their language acquisition.
Teachers should insist on getting full answers from the students, at least during the early stages of language learning. This is because we cannot assume that students know which grammatical structure belongs together with a key word. Grammatical structures and sentence formation can be brought out also in different language games, so that the communication will not be mere unnatural drilling. Teachers should reinforce their linguistic message with gestures, facial expressions, pictures and concrete material in order to facilitate communication.
Teachers have an important task to arouse the immersion students' curiosity, enthusiasm, and interest for English. They can encourage students to use the new language through didactical stories.
Students will find it safer to use the new language at the early stages of the language acquisition if their teacher dramatizes a story with them and build up a territory of shared experience through this story.
As I mentioned earlier, in language immersion, grammar is not taught as separate rules. The content of communication is more important in language immersion than its correct grammatical form. Therefore, the teacher should encourage the use of English, and should not pay too much attention to correction of grammatical and structural mistakes. The corrections are made indirectly, so that they do not hinder communication. The students should become interested in grammatical forms and structures when they feel that they need more detailed information about the language itself (Buss & Lauren, 2002).
Teachers need to give a lot of responsibility to their students. Students should actively take part in the decision making of the aims of teaching and working methods.
Teachers need to have positive interactions with students. They can personally greet each student when they arrive in the morning, and be more aware of what they say to students. We know that threat biologically impair a student's ability to learn. When a student feels threatened, the brain can downshift to the stem quickly. In such a situation even though the brain reacts, it does not store information, which can make learning almost impossible. Students must feel their talents and opinions are valued, and teachers must create and nurture an atmosphere of trust. There should be certain procedures since they give students a feeling of safety and security because they know how to do what is expected of them. This enables students to concentrate on the content being presented instead of wondering how the teacher expects a certain task to be done (Dorner, 2002).
Brain-compatible learning environment is one of the crucial elements for our language program to be successful. This kind of environment needs to be body-friendly. The furniture should be rearranged to provide more space, and to more comfortably seat students. This will reduce stress by allowing students to have more personal space. Furthermore, the environment needs to be enriched. The school should offer an interesting and inviting setting, with emphasis objects from the real world. A lot of resource should be available to the learners. Among these are books, videos, etc. Dorner (2002) states that immersion in enriched environment causes neurons to enlarge and dendrites to grow, which results in a denser, heavier brain that has a greater capacity to problem-solve.
Some may believe that language immersion can only take place in an English-speaking environment. Although I, also, believe that immersion in English-speaking environment may lead to quicker language acquisition, I am convinced that we can immerse students of English as a second language in their home countries as well. The main way of doing this is to create appropriate physical environment, which, in return, affects the emotional states of our learners. In such environment, students are given English names and identities, and they imagine that they are in England, or the United States of America. If they are business English students, we can create an office environment where every student plays a role of an employee, the manager, the photocopy-man, etc. Dhority & Jensen (1998) say that playing with a new identity can be a very liberating experience and students will responds in remarkable ways. Their ego-investment and self-consciousness will begin to diminish, and spontaneity and humor will soon take their place.
Depending on their roles, they can carry out their daily routines, work on business reports, take part in "office meetings", etc. They are encouraged to use English as much as possible, and their L1 actually becomes the foreign language. The physical environment includes all types of English or American artifacts and posters of places in England or America. Guest speakers should be invited to class, as well. Actually, immersion should not be limited to the classroom. They can even have fieldtrips to American/English firms working in their-home towns. If the necessary arrangements can be made, they can even work at these firms for a few hours a week.
Finally, it is crucial to mention that the brain strives to have feedback to survive. Assessment is one way of giving feedback. Assessment has always taken place and it will preserve its importance and necessity in the future as well since it informs students of their progress. However, how we assess our learners is of great importance. Our learners need to have plenty of feedback, but it has to be specific and immediate. We also need to vary our assessment techniques. The main reason for this is that we know that students learn in various ways (and at different rates). In our assessment techniques we have to focus on the development of "whole brain" capacity and each of the different learning styles. In this way, we can have more complete and accurate information about our learners' language acquisition. Jensen (1996) suggests that we use observations in problem-solving, give learners a choice in activities and games to play and watch, use discussion and reflection after a play, movie or musical, watch the type of learning and intelligence used most, allow for the use of music and sounds, allow students assess themselves, give them a choice on type of assessment, let journal or diary writing with reflection and personal growth and allow them to produce mind maps. In these ways, students will be able to demonstrate understanding by being able to use the learning in different contexts. They will produce meaningful products that move beyond personal success, and students will be able to use a variety of inquiry skills to solve problems, create products, and access information. Therefore, learning will be reflected by assessment. As long as the rubric or guidelines for success are clear, students will not be surprised to see the results of the assessment, and assessment will incorporate high-level, complex knowledge (Tileston, 2000).
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Tanju Deveci studied Adult Education at Ankara University, Turkey. He did masters in English Language Teaching at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, and received his PhD degree in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning from Ankara University. He taught EAP in Bilkent University, and Sabanci University in Turkey. Currently, he works as an Assistant Professor of Communication at the Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi.
Among his research areas are speech acts, andragogical orientations of language learners, learning styles and lexical competence.Tanju Deveci can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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