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TESOL tips-Assessing learners’ language needs


Assessing learners’ language needs


It seems only common sense to try to find out what our learners are learning English for and what kind of English they will need. Many will have no specific purpose in mind, but others—usually adults—are learning for clearly identified reasons: to study at an English medium university; to read the literature of their professional field; to work with English speakers. If you have a class with learning purposes in common, you can try to tailor your course to their particular language needs. The following suggestions should help you to find out, in detail, what those language needs are.

1 Ask learners about their reasons for learning and their target situation. If you ask a very general, open-ended question then learners can tell you about their needs in their own words. You will gain insight into the level of sophistication at which they can express their language needs, and the extent to which they are aware of a target language variety.

2 Ask people who are already in the target situation. These may be people who already occupy the roles your learners aspire to, or people like managers and trainers who may be evaluating the performance of your learners in their target roles. People already in the situation will have a valuable perspective on its demands; but, just like the learners, they may have limited awareness of actual language needs.

3 Observe the target situation first hand. When trying to understand your learners’ aspirations there is no substitute for actually observing the kind of activities they want to carry out in English and the environment that they will be in. Sometimes, it is only seeing for yourself that enables the comments of the learners and other informants to make sense.

4 Talk to learners again, in detail. Once you have a broad picture of the target situation, you can talk to learners about those aspects of it which might particularly influence the ways they want to use language. The following tips suggest areas that you might concentrate on.

5 Clarify receptive and productive needs. Language needs are defined by what users do with language in situations, as much as by the language which they encounter. For example, your learners may need to understand the financial press, but never have to produce such language themselves. Getting this clear will help you to develop relevant and economical teaching approaches.

6 Find out about the cognitive demands of situations. For example, if your learners say they need to ‘understand lectures’, find out why this is: will they write summaries, undertake tasks, sit exams on the basis of what they have learnt from lectures? This information can give you ideas both on skills to practise (eg, taking notes), and on language to highlight (eg, discourse markers).

7 Ask about social roles. If your learners need to ‘give presentations’, is this to peers, juniors or potential clients? Social considerations are particularly important for classroom activities, such as role plays: you need to think about how social dimensions can be recreated or simulated in the classroom, so that learners might attempt to incorporate a degree of social positioning into their classroom language use.

8 Research the target language yourself. Try to get a good range of samples

—written and spoken, as appropriate—and look at them in detail. You will perhaps be able to identify certain language features that you feel are particularly important, and which you want to incorporate into your course. For more ideas on collecting and analyzing language data, see 21 on natural language data, and 22–23 on exploiting written and spoken texts.

9 Look at how your learners will be tested. Sometimes, learners need to take a language test to gain access to their target role: eg, TOEFL or IELTS for university study. In this case, the nature of the test is one of the factors determining their language needs. See 42, Preparing learners for public examinations.

10 Remember that language needs aren’t everything. There is a danger of getting so caught up in attempting to understand, express and itemize the language needs of students that we start to lose sight of their needs as learners and human beings. Learning needs, as distinct from language needs, are discussed from a variety of perspectives in Chapter 2 of this book.




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