There are many definitions of a ‘good’ language learner in modern English language teaching, and this raises the important question of how to improve weak students in English. We have moved from the era of the teacher as a source of explicit instruction to one where, often, they are seen as facilitators, with classes focused on the learner. Fortunately, there are many different things you, as a teacher, can do to help!
To help your weaker students, you should focus on four areas. First, teach them language learning strategies. Second, encourage and support them to increase their confidence. Third, find ways to increase their motivation. And finally, help them learn how to be an independent learner.
Read on to learn about these methods in depth…
How to improve weak students in English
There are many things beyond a teacher’s control in the classroom. From the facilities to the student’s personal life, there are many factors you cannot control for. But, you can control for the four factors mentioned above, and really improve your lessons. So, to help your weak students, you should:
Teach strategies that the students can use in every class.
Teach your students strategies they can use inside and outside the classroom. Moreover, help them learn cognitive strategies, metacognitive, train their memory, teach compensatory strategies, and get them used to using social ones.
Encourage your students every step of the way.
You should make sure they understand mistakes are not only normal, but necessary. You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and you cannot become a fluent user of a second language without making mistakes along they way. Build their confidence!
Increase your student’s motivation by helping them set goals and discover reasons for learning.
Student’s usually don’t want to learn for learning’s sake, but because they had some kind of purpose in mind. If they began studying English for work, establish what qualifications they want to earn or what they want to use it at work for. Do they want to give presentations in English? Do they want to participate in videoconferences with their counterparts in other nations? Furthermore, are they hoping to go on overseas business trips? If they study English because they enjoy English-language media, get them to watch and review movies, read interviews with their favourite stars, even write their own scripts!
But what if your students didn’t choose to study English? What if they have to – because they are at school, or their parents are making them. In which case, you need to find ways to make learning fun! We describe ways to do this later in this article.
Encourage your students to take control of their own learning.
Learning a language is not an easy task, and it isn’t something you can learn passively. The image of a teacher standing at the front of the class, writing and teaching grammar drills and having students listen and repeat, is a sad and boring one. In much of modern language teaching, it is the student who is at the centre of the class. Encourage your students to be independent.
Characteristics of strong and weak students of English
To understand how to improve weak students in English, we need to be clear on what a “strong” student of English is. Let’s look at the background to such questions.
There were many studies carried out in the mid-1970s seeking to define a “good language learner”. One of the most well-known of these is the research of Joan Rubin (1975), which gave several key characteristics of a good language learner, stating that a good language learner is…
- is a willing and accurate guesser.
- has a strong drive to communicate, or to learn from communication.
- is often not inhibited.
- is prepared to attend to form.
- practises, and takes advantage of opportunities both inside and outside the classroom.
- monitors their own speech and the speech of others.
- attends to meaning.
In her 1975 paper, Rubin also stated that there are “lots of other things a good learner does which need exploring.” In subsequent years, a significant amount of this exploration has been carried out that elaborates on Rubin’s list. For instance, Bot, Lowie and Verspoor identified these additional factors;
- Aptitude and intelligence.
- Attitude and motivation.
- Ego permeability: “the willingness of learners to give up part of their own (L1) identity.”
- Language anxiety.
- Language processing disabilities.
- Field independence.
- Language learning strategies.
The good language learner
So, what do we see here? Putting the above two lists of characteristics together into simplified sets, then, leaves us with the following:
- a good language learner uses language learning strategies
- good language learners are confident, uninhibited, and does not suffer from high levels of language anxiety
- a good language learner is motivated
- good language learners are often young
- a good language learner has a high level of field independence
- good language learners are often intelligent, and have an “aptitude” for languages
How to improve weak students in English: teach strategies!
Strategies are behaviors, techniques, and habits that language learners us to make their learning more effective. Theories of language learning divide strategies into categories including cognitive, metacognitive, memory-related, compensatory, affective, and social (Oxford 2003).
Firstly, we should look at three key strategies: accurate guessing, attention to form, and attention to meaning.
Accurate guessing is the ability to take meaning from lexical cues, redundancy, gestures, and grammatical structures. A student should be ‘tolerant of ambiguity,’ a very common phrase in modern English language teaching. Essentially, this means students should be comfortable with not knowing everything about a language before trying to use it. Students learn best through using a language, but some learners are hesitant to use English when they feel they are unclear on meaning and/or usage. Yet, a tolerance of ambiguity correlates with language achievement in many cases.
Attention to form
Attention to form is a student’s focus on the patterns and elements that make up language. Some students may focus on form, and some on students may focus on forms, but there is ample evidence to support the idea that a good language learner is one who pays attention to form. As a teacher, it is important to teach your students how to do so. We mentioned above that a teacher-centred class can be a boring one, yet when teaching meaning it is often a good thing. It is vitalthat your students understand the grammar forms and rules of the language.
Attention to meaning
Attention to meaning is the ability of a student not only to take cues from the language they hear/see, but to understand the rules that govern relationships in the language, the context of the speech act, and the moods of speaking.
Cognitive, metacognitive, and social/affective strategies
In more recent discussions on strategies, researchers have added several additional classifications. Some of these are cognitive, metacognitive, and social/affective strategies. You will encounter these categories in many places today.
Cognitive strategies are direct strategies. They are the strategies used to learn, for example mnemonics. When a student uses learning materials, cognitive strategies are the ones they use. Though the term “cognitive strategy” sounds complex, they are actually usually very simple. Using pictures to remember meaning, taking note, underlining and testing are all examples of cognitive strategies. When wondering how to improve weak students in English, these strategies are simple and easy to teach, but extremely helpful.
Metacognitive strategies are used to think about learning. They are how a student analyses their own learning. Essentially, they help your student “learn how to learn.” Again, these can also be pretty simple, and there are many. Some examples include connecting new and old information, or evaluating learning progress. Have your students process how what they have learnt before and ask how it relates to what they are learning now. Ask your students to evaluate their own progress, to decide what their strengths are, and to identify the areas they need to improve in.
Social strategies and affective strategies
Social strategies require the presence of another person, and affective focus on emotion management.
How to improve weak students in English: teach confidence!
There is indeed a strong relationship between successful language learning and being self-confident and adventurous. Imaginative, outspoken students often improve faster at a language. Confidence is often key to learning English, but, this idea is far more complex than you may think at first.
It is better to consider confidence in terms of learner anxiety, as whereas confidence may be the cause of strong language ability, it can also be because of strong language ability! A student may be confident in English because they know they are good at it. So, it may be better to think about shyness and learner anxiety.
To sum up, learner anxiety has a strong negative correlation with language success. A nervous, worried, or shy learner often struggles to progress because their anxiety holds them back. Also, fear of failure and fear of looking stupid can be a heavy weight on students. It is important that students do not allow their fear of making mistakes to prevent them using language. So, as a teacher, you should teach students that mistakes are ok, and natural.
This means creating a welcoming, warm space in your classroom, and fostering teamwork and peer cooperation between your students. Discourage laughter at someone’s mistakes, and encourage celebration at someone’s successes. You should make sure each student has a chance to demonstrate what they have learned in front of their
peers, and make sure it isn’t too challenging for them. Always remember: never set a difficult problem as a way to “punish” a weak-performing student.
It can take months to build up your student’s confidence, and only a second to knock it all down again.
How to improve weak students in English: make class fun!
Working with highly-motivated students is easy. They want to learn, and they will work with you, the teacher, to make reach their goals. But weak students are often unmotivated, and this can be more challenging. However, once you learn what kind of activities interest your students, lessons become far more lively and interesting. They become… fun!
There are a vast array of methodologies and theories swirling around the EFL industry these days, from CLIL to TBLT to PPP to a hundred other acronyms. These are useful to know about, but you also need to know a good amount of games and activities. Often, communicative games are the most fun, and most productive, but consider the goals and needs of your students before deciding what skills to concentrate on.
You should use warm-ups and review games, and create challenges to fit in in with different stages of your lesson plans. Try to make your classroom enjoyable, and to leave students with a positive impression of a class that makes them want to return.
Search the internet for more activities, kindly shared by other language teachers, such as the JALT My Share site.
How to improve weak students in English: make classes learner-centered!
You cannot expect to know everything about your student, and you should not expect to know everything about how your student learns best. So what’s the best way to solve the problems of struggling students? Have them take control of their own learning.
Methodologies such as Task-Based Language Teaching are useful for making a class learner-centered, but any methodology allows this. A simple way to make your classroom more learner-centered is to encourage students to monitor their own learning, and to identify their own needs and goals. Don’t test your students – get them to test themselves! Why not have your weaker students design tests for the whole class? Ideas such as these are simple ways to encourage weaker English students to use what they know.
Furthermore, think about what you, the teacher, are saying in the class. Is there any way to make it your students who are speaking, not you? Try to reduce teacher talking time, and increase student talking time. Remember, the more students are talking, the more they are learning to use English!
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