Four Universal Acquisition Skills to Rocket Your Classroom
Do your students lack self confidence in the target language? Are they struggling along at a turtle’s pace to pass their IELTS or TOEFL exams? Do they carry gaps in their language skills? If you’re an EFL teacher, this may ring a bell!
Ask yourself if your students have had enough practice with universal language skills
In my experience, very few students feel totally confident with their overall English proficiency. They may be good in certain areas such as reading comprehension or oral expression but lack confidence in other areas.
With exams looming up on the horizon it is natural for anyone to feel unable to manage all the bells and whistles. Some of your students may look like they are racing along at high speed linguistically but they may not be practicing all their skills on a daily basis, partly because they doubt their ability to do so!
When it comes to applying what they know in new contexts they may have a hard time using some vocabulary correctly, especially when incorporating it in writing essays or answering difficult comprehension questions. They may also have a hard time describing and interpreting a detailed graph correctly.
What can you do to launch them into improved overall mastery of the language?
You may say practice and more practice and of course practice is the key to mastering any skill and language is no exception. But a language progressively increases in difficulty and unfortunately core mistakes keep repeating themselves at higher levels so your practice needs to be accurate.
Second language learners have several disadvantages since they are not operating in their native language:
***Their reaction and preparation time my not be as fast or as accurate as a native speaker.
***The practice they have been doing may have been unmonitored.
***Their exposure may have been lopsided, not including enough practice with universal skills.
Therefore it is good for us, as teachers, to analyze the kind of practice we consistently give students in the classroom in order for them to become as proficient as we want.
Universal Skills that Underlie Your Daily Practice
Accurate practice in universal skills may offer a good solution at any level so let’s review the most important linguistic skills that underlie all languages.
Making affirmative statements
Making negative statements
The skills for doing this are very precise in many languages especially in English which has a very specific word order. Most academic textbooks rely heavily on making affirmative statements but you need to consider whether or not your students have really acquired enough of all of the universal skills for accuracy at any level and can perform masterfully like a pro.
Scaffolding Acquisition of Universal Skills
As teachers, you may have showed your students exactly what to do and assumed they have acquired the correct procedures. But don’t forget that they may have been working with content that leans more heavily on a particular skill such as descriptive narratives. They may have barely had enough opportunity for personal interaction.
Even if your students have practiced, taken notes and understood all the concepts, they may be unable to function as automatically and effortlessly as you want. They may not be able to repeat correct procedures when they are suddenly expected to perform.
Using universal language skills in a second language is comparable to performing a task learned as a child, such as tying your shoes. As an adult you can tie your shoes upside down and in the dark without even knowing how you did it.
Likewise if you are a native speaker teaching ESL/EFL you know how or why you say certain things in a certain way and you can perform upside down and backwards in the dark without knowing how you did it!
Trying to get a speaker of another language to do the same by explaining it is like asking a child to tie their shoes before they have had the necessary practice to learn the skill.
In a second language, under stress, the demands and variables are constantly shifting from one skill to another. Yet we expect our students to perform automatically and effortlessly as if they were native speakers.
One way to come closer to this goal is to be mindful of the universal skills when working with reading materials and descriptive texts. If you’re already doing this, you’re doing well. If you aren’t, then think about how you can incorporate universals into your lessons:
Students receive enough of these in a passive form so turn passive to active. After any reading or conversation have students use a reflective approach by rewording and repeating the affirmations that have been covered, making sure they use the correct word order.
Imagine that the affirmative statements were actually negative. Have students repeat them for fun in the negative, insuring they use the correct word order and stressing the negative as an exercise in contradicting what has been said.
This is one of the most vital acquisition skills in English; one that even advanced students often fail worldwide. You might ask questions about everything you’ve covered, giving students passive exposure to questions but they need active practice in forming questions correctly.
Instead of asking questions yourself, delegate the asking to your students. Make sure they use the correct inversion process for English.
Be sure not to accept incorrectly formed questions.
Get students used to answering questions about content, either in written or spoken form and have them use the question itself as a guide. This includes repeating part of the question in the answer which scaffolds basic word order and reaffirms correct verb tenses and meaning.
Ask lots of Yes/No questions. Make sure students answer with more than one word to insure active listening of the initial question and to answer with the correct verb form.
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