My language teaching philosophy centers on the idea that language instructors should strive to bring learner needs and educational goals into harmony. Unfortunately, these two are often out of balance. In fact, one could even argue that much of the current discourse in second language learning actually hinders our understanding of learners, because “human beings are not lists of independent variables; they are coordinated wholes” (Snow, 1992, p. 10). In other words, it is not age, aptitude, or motivation that ultimately characterizes learner potential; it is instead the interaction of these factors within educational settings. To a great extent, the teacher is responsible for ensuring a good fit between the learner and the learning environment.
Throughout the period spanning my training and early career, I often reflected on how this balance might be achieved. When I was enrolled in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, the late Dr. Teresa Pica, for whom I worked as a teaching and research assistant, guided me toward an understanding of language learning as a process mediated by social, affective, and cognitive variables. As a result, within a holistic approach that acknowledges social context, learner needs, and motivation, I view the provision of comprehensible input, opportunities for production, and corrective feedback as key ingredients in second language instruction (Pica, 1994).
These elements were also the foundation for the English Language Program at Penn. During the term that I taught Language Through Film there, we used popular films selected by the students for in-class discussions. Having recently been accepted into U.S. higher education programs, these students benefited from both the exposure to issues in American society (e.g., as shown in such films as Driving Miss Daisy, A League of their Own, and Forrest Gump) and the opportunities to build vocabulary and attain fluency offered in the course. They learned about their new environment while learning from it, in accordance with their goals and interests and those of the program.
Shortly after graduating from Penn, I traveled to Tokyo to join J. F. Oberlin University’s English Language Program. There, I took on various roles, including: assistant professor, teacher trainer, curriculum designer, grading coordinator and program evaluator. Of course, the theme of establishing harmony between learner needs and program goals can be discussed from any of these perspectives. My focus here, though, is specifically on teaching. As an English professor, I came to see more clearly the need to acknowledge and address a multitude of factors in classroom learning.
For instance, the university students I taught included those who had mastered English grammar during high school, but lacked confidence in speaking. Often sitting alongside them were returnee (kikokushijo) students, who spoke English effortlessly, but occasionally struggled with rules of grammar or usage. I thus utilized contextually appropriate methods that would capitalize on the strengths of both learner types. I developed a reading course in which we used student-selected news stories as the basis for group discussion tasks. Adopting principles I had learned while reading about task-based language teaching, I would visit each group to prompt the less fluent talkers by asking follow-up questions and focus the talkative ones on form by using corrective recasts and/or brief metalinguistic explanations. Such experiences led me to a more flexible, spontaneous, and responsive teaching style. This was, in fact, my most popular and longest-running course. I taught it as an elective in spring and fall for nearly eight consecutive years.
Later, I left Japan to enroll as a Ph.D. student in the Department of Second Language Studies at UH Mānoa. During two semesters teaching in the English Language Institute (ELI), I continued to cultivate my teaching skills. Again, my focus has been on actively seeking out ways to coordinate learner needs and institutional expectations. I have recently been able to apply this focus to specific techniques I’d used in the past, but had yet to refine.
To explain, in Intermediate Academic Writing for International Students (ELI 73), many students are overwhelmed by the amount of writing they are required to do for courses in their respective majors. Given that most of these students come to study in the U.S. from overseas, they tend to be highly motivated and very proficient. In spite of this, some do not take advantage of on-campus resources such as the writing center. Thus, in addition to fostering writing fluency and teaching academic conventions, I adapted my approach to writing conferences in order enhance their value for my students (see Jackson, 2013). Course evaluations indicated high levels of student satisfaction. I had conducted conferences in my writing classes for many years, but only recently did I come to appreciate how they appeal to both academic and interpersonal needs.
These and similar attempts to reconcile learner needs and educational objectives have led to some of the most rewarding moments of my teaching career. Based on the above examples—from listening, speaking, reading, and writing classes—I conclude that all of the valued and important aims in language education can be achieved in this fashion, including the development of communicative and academic abilities. Not surprisingly, learner needs are a core principle in discussions of curriculum development, task-based language teaching, and second language acquisition. However, they cannot be understood easily or out of context.
Returning to my opening comments, we live in a world in which educational decisions are often made for the sake of convenience. Such decisions may subtly prime teachers’ expectations, but the best teachers I know are mindful of the disharmony this can bring. They see students not in terms of prior education or placement level, but rather, they try to understand the whole learner in context. These teachers strive to achieve a balance between learner needs and educational goals through communication. By dialogically constructing the aims of education, as Freire would say, they put us one step closer to empowering students and creating a better world.
Freire, P. (2006). Pedagogy of the oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. New York, NY: Continuum.
Jackson, D. O. (2013). From writing conferences to writing conversations. In D. C. Mussman (Ed.), New ways in teaching writing, revised (pp. 302–304). Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.
Pica, T. (1994). Research on negotiation: What does it reveal about second-language learning conditions, processes, and outcomes? Language Learning, 44, 493–527.
Snow, R. E. (1992). Aptitude theory: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Educational Psychologist, 27, 5–32.