A learner-centred lesson.
Many teachers claim to follow a learner-centred approach but what does a learner-centred approach actually mean in practice? I hope to show what it means by describing a lesson that contains, in my opinion, 12 key principles of a learner-centred lesson. The lesson plan and materials are included at the end.
This is one of my favourite lessons. The task is for learners to write and perform a Rap Song. The lesson focuses on how a sound (phonemes such as the monophthongs/u:/ /I:/ /ɑ:/ and diphthongs /eı/ /ɔı/ /ɑı/ /əʊ/) can be used as a stimulus to build the foundations for a poem or song. The lesson starts by eliciting single phonemes and then builds to create words with those sounds for example from /u:/ we can make blue, shoe, true (rhyming words) and then sentences (‘I’m feeling blue’) and finally students write and perform a rap song.
- Learners generate the language.
The language generated in the lesson comes from the learners knowledge and imagination. The teacher inputs sounds for example /ɔı/ but the learners generate the actual language of the lesson: first brainstorming words with this vowel sound (boy, toy, joy) and then creating sentences with these words (I want joy). The great advantage of language input coming from the learners is that the language is graded to the learners’ level naturally. This means that a lesson can be adapted to any level (beginners to advanced) as the learners’ themselves generate the target language.
- Authentic task.
The lesson has an authentic task: to write and perform a Rap Song. This is a real-life task, people do write songs. Admittedly learners may protest that they are unlikely to ever write a Rap Song. However it is a far more authentic writing task than multiple choice or gap-filling exercises which learners do frequently in a classroom context but would never do in real-life. Besides Rap Songs are essentially speaking sentences in a rhythmical manner ( etymologically ‘to rap’ means ‘to say)’. The advantage of Rap songs is that aside from having a definite rhythm, there are no specific rules of structure, anything goes!
The lesson follows a logical order that is transparent for the learners and provides effective scaffolding as each stage needs to be effectively completed and checked before proceeding to the next stage. This ensures both understanding and a successful outcome. The lesson consists of 3 main stages:
- Introduction and setting the scene. This stage needs to arouse interest in the topic by the use of visuals, brainstorming what students know about rapping and rappers and to personalise the topic: Do you like rap? Teachers could play samples of Rap music but the disadvantage of this can be that it sets an ambitious target (model) at the beginning of the lesson when we are more interested in the writing processes than a polished final performance.
- Input and practice. There are three stages that build on each other: 1) Introduction and practice of sounds; 2) Sounds used to create words; 3) Words used to create sentences.
- Creation, performance and reflection. Learners collaboratively write and perform their rap songs while other learners (replicating the X factor judges panel) reflect and provide feedback.
- Sense of achievement.
The performance of the rap songs provides a sense of success and task achievement. The teacher can encourage applause after each short performance giving learners a sense of well-being and heightened self-esteem while promoting a positive group dynamic.
- Learners are the main resource.
Apart from an optional visual of a Rapper and strips of paper with a phoneme at the top, there are no materials for the teacher to prepare. The main resource is the learners: they provide the language, the creativity and imagination. A learner-centred approach necessitates that the lesson is not ‘content driven’, in other words the course book or syllabus should not dictate the target language but in contrast the language is emergent through the lesson activities.
- Collaborative learning.
The majority of the lesson (70%) involves learners working collaboratively in pairs or groups. This collaboration and interaction between learners provides an acquisition rich environment for learners to practise the target language. It also provides opportunities for peer teaching of lexis, for example a learner may come up with the word ‘joy’ (or at a higher level ‘coy’) as a rhyming word for /ɔı/ and other learners ask what it means. In the learner centred classroom the teacher recognises that learners, in contrast to the teacher or course book, are an important source of input and this can only be accessed when learners are interacting and communicating with each other.
- Appropriate aims and integrated skills.
This is an integrated skills lesson focus. There is intensive listening to individual sounds and rhyming words as well as public speaking practice in the performance of the rap songs and a high degree of collaborative speaking in pairs and groups as learners work on the lesson tasks. The main skill aim is to collaboratively write and perform a ‘rap’ song. Many learners find writing activities boring, lonely, difficult and time-consuming. Often learners are not effective writers in their L1 and are unaware of effective writing processes. For this reason this lesson aims to provide a fun, collaborative task that is scaffolded to ensure that students are sufficiently challenged but also achieve success and a sense of achievement.
Learners are introduced to and practise specific sounds (i.e. /i:/, /U:/). In addition they raise their awareness of the sound – spelling relationship in English. The lesson also aims to raise awareness of words that rhyme and to practice the features of sentence stress and rhythm in a song.
- Movement and energy
Learners stand in a circle and produce the sounds chorally, then they mingle around the classroom writing words, finally in groups they write their rap songs before the class becomes a studio and songs are performed. Each stage involves movement which generates energy. The learners are physically active in the lesson and involvement and engagement is high.
- Novelty and fun.
Writing a rap song is novel. It represents a break from routine. The focus on sounds, rhythm and rhyme highlights pronunciation which is typically an area learners prioritize but teachers neglect. A learner centred approach depends on active and enthusiastic participation of the learners in a stress-free environment which encourages laughter, spontaneity, a large quantity and variety of learner to learner interaction and a sense of fun.
As the teacher, we cannot know the content or quality of the final rap songs nor the learners response to the topic or activities, there is therefore an element of risk. However a teacher locked into a risk free routine will not develop as a teacher and will not find rewards in his lessons or the learners’ progress. Without taking risks the teacher and learners never expose themselves to the possibility of failure nor to the rich learning opportunities that imagination and creativity can offer.
Writing a rap song provides learners with the opportunity to be creative and express themselves freely. This encourages learners to experiment with the language, to be creative and to challenge themselves to express themselves imaginatively. Learners need the freedom to experiment with the language. They need opportunities to be creative with their production and the time and space to make errors. The aim is to challenge and encourage learners to produce language rather than structuring in advance what will be achieved.
- Whole person learning.
The most important principle is to remember that a learner is a thinking, feeling and acting person. Learning is a process internal to the learner, it can not be transmitted from an external source (no matter how good the coursebook or teacher). Put in another way we can say that all learning has a mental, emotional or physical manifestation and in the context of this lesson a combination of all three.
The vast majority of lessons are not learner centred. Opportunities for learners to participate are structured and freedom for learner creativity limited. The majority of teachers are compelled to follow a traditional approach driven by content prescribed by the syllabus or course book (whether this is grammar based, lexical or a communicative approach). This contrasts with widely accepted beliefs that for effective learning to occur a learner needs the freedom to experiment with the language, to be creative with their production and to have the space to express themselves and make errors. In a learner centred approach language is learner generated. The primary concern is based on what the learners do in the lesson such as decision-making, discussion, critical thinking, co-operating and negotiating their needs with the teacher. A learner centred approach therefore prioritizes learning over content knowledge. The syllabus and lesson aims in this scenario derive from the learning and teaching process and the negotiating of individual learner needs rather than being prescribed or pre-determined in a content driven syllabus. The main source of language is the learner, their experiences, ideas and feelings.
If you try this lesson or adapt the ideas to your context, I would really appreciate feedback on how it went for you.