Final Reflection: Applying learning theories to language teaching
Cognitivism holds that learning is a mental process. It is therefore clear that memory, thinking and motivations are key to learning, especially language learning. Thus, internal and external incentives may facilitate or hinder language learning. When the learner is stressed, this can increase the affective filter and reduce learning capacities. Also, a language learner needs to understand the process, memorize some linguistic elements and be able to retrieve them at the right moment to communicate. So in applying cognitivism, it is important to bear in mind that too much information or less information may not help the learner in achieving learning objectives. It is against this background that the language teacher should pay attention to the Zone of Proximal Development which is critical in achieving learning goals. In many teaching situations, I had students who felt overwhelmed by the amount of information (cognitive load) and fell behind in the materials covered in class.
Some students are more focused on structure (grammar). Such students are rule-oriented and once they understand the rules, they are able to produce. They often request for guided practice where the teacher assists them in the process, and gradually they take ownership of the learning process. As McLeod (2008) notes, “The aim of education should be to create autonomous learners (i.e., learning to learn).”
Similarly, according to constructivism, the “learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so” (Instructionaldesign.org, 2017). This highlights that learners have agency and they are not passive learners. Thus, in language teaching, I use the communicative or task-based approach to encourage students to practice the language. They can thus actively participate in the learning process, by engaging with other learners and being more creative. They gradually develop their skills by building on authentic tasks to solve real-life problems. As they succeed, they expand and explore other domains and areas outside of their zone of comfort. Positive reinforcement and positive outcomes are incentives that keep them going.
Against this background, I see how behaviorism could help understand language learner’s attitude. As students engage in practicing, I try as much as possible to reduce error corrections during such moments. Too much interruption creates more stress and the avoidance of speaking because the student is afraid of losing face in the classroom. To avoid such embarrassing situations, I ask my students how they wish to be corrected. Once we agree on error corrections method, I ensure that my behavior doesn’t negatively influence the student’s will to participate and to speak. Thus positive or negative reinforcement are important factors in helping second language learners develop their speaking, writing and listening skills.
As I teach adult language learners, I realize that the principles of andragogy apply. Adults have already developed learning habits or styles and they have a broader understanding and view of the world. They tend to stick to their learning style or the style that makes them more comfortable. It is therefore important to build on their style while gradually encouraging them to explore other possibilities, and expand their capacities (McLeod 2013). For example, in teaching reading, I always do some pre-reading activity to activate prior knowledge. This also creates a sense of confidence and the students come to the text with prior knowledge and the cognitive tools to analyze the text at hand. Andragogy therefore builds on behaviorism because it is grounded in the learner’s experience, that is, past behavior and choices. Experiences that provided satisfaction tends to be relied upon for exploring new fields and ventures. This type of learning also builds on cognitivism because it resorts to memory, representation and retrieval. When I realize that a given student is struggling with a text, I split the class into groups and encourage them to work together. The weakest students work with peers with better understanding. Thus, the advanced students can assist the weak students. This kind of collaborative reading strategy is a scaffolding strategy, allowing students to find to learn from each other.