By Ross Ng (ELED 2018 Graduate)
While planning a lesson, a teacher usually asks two questions: (1) What do students lack at the moment? (2) What do students need or want to learn? Answers to the first question can be obtained rather easily through a comprehensive assessment of students’ current knowledge or skill level given availability of a valid and reliable assessment tool. The second question may appear straightforward too, yet needs and wants are not always the same. What we think students need may not be what they truly want. We, as teachers, can focus on teaching what we think they need, but it may turn out that the whole lesson covers instructional content that students have no interest in learning at all. If we fail to fulfill students’ wants, they will simply be demotivated, and there will be no more chance for us to equip them with what they need. This can be illustrated with reference to English reading instruction in the context of Hong Kong.
There are three major ways to teach reading texts: skill-based instruction (you teach a reading skill using a text), text-based instruction (you teach the content of a text), and discourse-based grammar instruction (you identify a language focus in a reading text and teach text grammar). Text grammar, though widely promoted by the Education Bureau in recent years, is not very popular in Hong Kong and will not be the focus of the discussion here, which will mainly focus on the conflicting skill-based instruction and text-based instruction.
Text-based instruction is undoubtedly common in Chinese language education in Hong Kong as there is a list of core texts in the syllabus of standardized exams, especially at secondary levels. At least one to two double lessons are usually devoted to one single text, where the historical background, writing purpose, main ideas, organizational structures, language features, writing styles, etc. of the text are explained by the teacher by means of direct instruction or discovered by students through inquiry-based approaches. The rationale for teaching Chinese in this way is easily understood as those core texts are usually classics, and in-depth analysis of such texts enables us, as Chinese people, to understand more about not only the text itself but also our own culture. However, as an English language teacher in Hong Kong, I cannot help questioning the usefulness of such an approach in English language teaching. After all, reading texts used in English lessons are mostly contrived texts written by publishers, so what is the purpose of spending so much time on its content? Shouldn’t teachers equip students with skills to comprehend texts in the real world instead of focusing on the content of one single text? Does students’ ability to understand one single text entail their ability to comprehend a similar text in the future?
Possessing such questions, I stuck to the skill-based instructional approach in my first year of teaching with a belief that the ultimate goal of reading instruction was to equip students with generic and transferable reading skills such as prediction, skimming, and scanning. With an ideal in my mind, the outcome of my instruction was however unexpectedly disappointing. Within the first two months of my teaching, a number of complaints from students and their parents were received. “He is a competent teacher, but he [allocates] his time unevenly. He uses his own way of teaching and does not focus on main points in the text, which makes me confused,” said one student. Obviously, the way that my lessons were planned deviated from students’ expectations. They expected lessons to focus merely on the reading texts while I devoted the lessons to reading skills, the importance of which was not acknowledged by my students at that moment. Finding the lessons meaningless, students were reluctant to pay attention or stay focused, so all my preparation turned out to be futile.
From a short recount of my personal experience, it is seen that what students need to learn and what they want to learn, though not necessarily the same, are inextricable from each other. Theoretically equipped, teachers are certainly better informed of the students’ learning process than students themselves and so more aware of how students can learn well. However, it is beyond the doubt that affective variables are also integral to learning. A positive learning attitude substantially benefits the learning process while a negative learning attitude may adversely impact learning outcomes. For this reason, it is unreasonable for teachers to totally neglect what students want to learn even if students’ wants are perceived by teachers to be irrelevant to a certain extent. It is believed that only by having students engaged and cultivating a positive learning atmosphere can lessons be effectively conducted and can teaching objectives be fully achieved.