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Helping Students Articulate Their Experiences in English

Helping Students Articulate Their Experiences in English
Admin - Jan 28 2016

One of the challenges in ESL/EFL classes is how to motivate language learners to articulate experiences and ideas in English. This is especially true in basic to intermediate level classes wherein the rudimentary rules of English are either just being introduced to or being appreciated by the students. Several factors that cause students' hesitation to communicate in English are commonly encountered. These include--

·       students' self-awareness that their English competency is limited and that they rather wait until they are comfortable enough to use it;

·       students' fear of making mistakes and undergo unwanted embarrassment;

·       students' do not really know yet how to approach specific communication scenarios and are not able to articulate ideas or experiences even if they wanted to.


These reasons are understandable and are to be expected. After all, any new idea encounters some resistance among the audience it is being introduced to. An effective strategy is to adopt a two-pronged approach that 1) transforms the classroom into a student-centered environment and 2) motivates learners to participate more, to have a greater stake in their communicative development, and to assume more responsibility in the learning process. But before going into details, determining the key objectives and setting the parameters within which these objectives are to be attained is critical. For example, what does it take a learner to become articulate? Alternatively, how should teachers measure or assess learners' proficiency in determining that they are articulate enough for their competency level (basic, intermediate, advanced)?


What does 'articulate' mean?

Technically, the term "articulate" can either be an adjective or a verb. In the former case, it ascribes coherence and fluency to a person's ability to express an idea, an experience or a feeling (Example: That was an articulate speech).  When used as a verb on the other hand, "articulate" means to express something expertly (Example: Articulate your stand in the debate).


In addition to its meaning, there are several other points to consider when pedagogically tackling the word "articulate." First, the action word "articulating" resides on a different level than merely "communicating" in the sense that it implies a level of fluency or expertise that may not necessarily be found in the latter. A person can, for example, attempt to communicate something using a crude form of sign language and still succeed in doing so. That is, as long as the person or audience in the receiving end of the communication process understands the message. To articulate the same message is entirely different, however. This is because "to articulate" means to exhibit sophistication and efficiency in communicating something. 


Second, being "articulate" encompasses both written and verbal skills although it is applied more often to how people speak. This is seen in the words that are synonymous or interchangeable with the term "articulate": persuasive, effective, fluent, eloquent.


Third, being articulate is somehow not the norm, even in the context of native language speakers. That is, articulate persons are indeed a special breed. Perhaps all native New Yorkers can communicate in English. However, it is a certainty that only some are articulate users of the language.


What does this imply in an ESL/EFL scenario? First, it establishes the fact that developing articulate users of a second language is an extra challenge over and above the goal of helping all the learners communicate in an acceptable way. Second, being "articulate" in a second language learning class is highly relative and should ultimately depend on the class level. That is, a learner in a basic level EFL class may already be considered "articulate" even when the learner has the vocabulary of a grade school level native speaker.


Student-centered approach as a means to enhance communicative skills   

That said, it is easy to see why a student-centered approach is the best way to develop second language skills. The primary reason for this is that the socio-cultural contexts within which the learning process takes place should be strongly aligned with those of learners. This entails a lot of work on the part of ESL/EFL educators but competent and successful educators understand and readily adapt their teaching strategies to the needs of their students. Establishing a culturally neutral learning space may be possible and acceptable to some extent but it is more preferable to approach language learning in a way that encourages students to draw from resources, issues and experiences that are highly relevant to them. Otherwise, their involvement in the learning process will tend to be half-hearted or tenuous and transforming them into articulate users of a second language becomes more difficult than it already is.  A 1996 study by well-known language educator James Cummins provides a lucid explanation on why validating the cultural identities and unique personalities of learners are crucial to the success of an ESL/SFL classroom. According to the study, second language students will already be at a disadvantage when their socio-cultural backgrounds are marginalized in the learning process. This is because the bulk of what constitutes the students' core personalities is deemed irrelevant in the classroom. Understandably, marginalization or neglect on the part of the ESL educator can only be reciprocated by learners with disillusionment and lack of interest.


When the ESL/EFL educator successfully establishes a student-centered environment, on the other hand, the classroom dynamics becomes livelier and more participatory. As being articulate often implies being an expert on the subject being communicated, the obvious shortcut is to give a free rein on what students want to share. It becomes clear to students that they have a stake in the learning process and that they can always attempt to communicate in English using the ideas and experiences that matter to them, without fear of being misunderstood or reprimanded. At this point, ESL/EFL educators should have already learned and appreciated some aspects of the local culture as well as some information about their students.


Once a student-centered classroom is established, students become more independent of teachers and would sometimes take the initiative to communicate and learn. Self-learning becomes an attractive and rewarding pursuit. In addition, students in mono-cultural classes will readily associate with each other and participate in collaborative learning. Once students realize their central role in the classroom, educators may then function as learning facilitators instead of professors.


Motivating students to become articulate users of English

When this stage is reached, ESL/EFL educators will find it much easier to motivate students into becoming expert users of English. There are tons of materials, resources and articles online that aim to help educators develop motivation among their students. Here are some of the key motivational techniques that will push learners to become more effective and fluent English communicators.


1.     Educators should demonstrate and their own enthusiasm and excitement about lessons and class activities. Genuine enthusiasm is contagious.

2.     Build nurturing relationships with less motivated students.

3.     Make students responsible for their learning development by giving clearly communicated assignments or roles. Make students accountable for the completion of the assignment or fulfillment of the role.    

4.     Identify and use high interest topics in the classroom.

5.     Develop learners' confidence such that their classroom involvement becomes more meaningful and rewarding as the course progresses. 


Once learners are properly motivated, the potential of transforming them into exceptional English users--whether in written or verbal communication--greatly increases. To help them become more articulate, educators should encourage them not only to ask questions but also to continuously experiment with the language. Make it clear that mistakes are unavoidable but amply reward those whose linguistic experiments are grammatically correct. Regularly equip motivated learners with new vocabulary or advanced sentence structures that should be integrated in their daily conversations or journals.  

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