Utilising real-world language approaches to teaching

Utilising real-world language approaches to teaching

Students often struggle to see the connection between their classroom experiences and their lives outside of school. But when students do feel like what they are learning is relevant, they are more likely to feel engaged, motivated, and resilient.

Many instructors consider the question of how to make their class feel relevant, and they often prepare explanations and demonstrations that tell students how and why what they are learning can be useful. You might highlight the career opportunities learning English provides, or how it can facilitate cultural exchange or participation in global movements focused on social issues. While this is a useful thing to do, everyone is different, and trying to come up with one explanation that resonates with so many different students, each with their own interests, prior knowledge, and goals is difficult (if not impossible!).

As such, it is no surprise that research has found techniques that centre the learner and help them make the connections, for themselves, can be even more effective than having a teacher try to make a convincing case.

For example, as discussed in my whitepaper, Brave Steps Bright Horizons, a different kind of approach is to prompt students to try and make those kinds of connections themselves, asking them to reflect on what they are learning in class and what they could do with that knowledge outside of it. But there are other techniques educators can employ to improve students’ perceptions of relevance. Let’s dive into a few ideas worth considering in the context of language learning.

1. Use authentic language

One reason language learning is so powerful is because of how much it can unlock, in terms of careers, hobbies, travel, arts, social connections, and more. Using authentic materials from these varied domains in your class can help students see what a dramatic effect developing their English Language skills can have.

In particular, students who see how engaging in language learning allows them to do something they couldn’t do before will be able to experience the relevance of what they are learning directly.

For example, learners can benefit from practice materials that include real-world materials and scenarios, such as shop signs, traffic markers, and conversational practice around common interactions like asking for directions or making a purchase. The use of songs or dialogues from shows and movies can help learners see authentic use cases, as well as demonstrate that they are learning how to engage with other cultures and media. And career-oriented language learners can benefit from vocabulary and cultural knowledge that allows them to collaborate with others productively.

2. Connect to goals 

How can you help the right students get the kinds of materials that will resonate most? While students may take language courses for many different reasons, teachers often don’t know what those are. Do you collect that kind of information? If not, consider asking them, perhaps as a brief assignment. You may be surprised to learn the variety of goals that students have for the course, and to see the commonalities between students, as well as some of the unique reasons you learn about. Once those goals are clear to you, it can be easier to develop activities that target them, such as pairing specific students with the kinds of materials discussed above.

Of course, in some cases, the answer might simply be that they are required to take the class. In those instances, it may indeed be up to the instructor to help students make additional connections. Even then, having the sense of larger goals (like academic or career plans) or even common interests, can help you come up with something that will feel personally meaningful to your students. So, be sure to use ways – such as surveys, icebreakers, and assignments – that let you surface information about your learners, beyond just the basics.

3.Try project-based learning

Returning to the idea of doing something with the language, consider how larger projects can be used to let people engage with language productively. Adjusting this to the level of your class can require some creativity:

  • Students with limited proficiency may benefit from projects that create simple media and presentations, making use of extensive scripting and practice opportunities.
  • With more advanced proficiency, learners can try to grapple with more complex real-world scenarios, and can feel particularly motivated if these are similar to tasks they want to prepare for in the future. Explore the use of career-relevant activities, such as going through a simulated process of applying for work in English, from analysing job advertisements, crafting resumes, and conducting mock interviews. Or, have students take the lead on creating presentations on career-relevant skills that they teach each other about. Ultimately, providing learners with more unconstrained ways of engaging with open-ended tasks will allow them to explore topics of personal interest.

4. Have an impact

One factor to focus on when crafting these kinds of project-based learning opportunities is the ability to have an impact on something that matters to them. Whether contributing to the school community, to a local initiative in their area or connecting to a global conversation on important social issues, the key is to empower students to see the tangible outcomes of their efforts.

By aligning learning opportunities with causes that resonate with students’ interests and values, teachers can promote a sense of purpose and agency that will fuel resilience and motivation, helping students feel good that their learning is helping them make a positive contribution.

In conclusion…

As you can see, fostering a sense of relevance in education is not merely about providing explanations or demonstrations of utility; it's about empowering students to discover those connections for themselves. By centring learners and encouraging self-reflection, educators can support the kind of learning that transcends the classroom.

Whether through aligning activities with individual goals, utilising authentic materials, or embracing project-based learning with real-world impact, educators can cultivate a learning environment where students feel empowered, engaged, and equipped to make a meaningful difference in their lives and communities.

Explore more strategies to build resilience in English Language Learners in Dan’s whitepaper, Brave Steps, Bright Horizons: Teacher strategies for supporting resilience In English Language learners. You will also find additional practical tools for teaching resilience on the website: www.macmillanenglish.com/brave-steps-bright-horizons

About the author

Dan Belenky, Ph.D. is a cognitive scientist with a passion for using learning science research to help educators and learners achieve their academic goals. He has over 15 years of experience researching the psychology of learning, motivation and overcoming challenges, and applying it to the design of educational experiences.