LEARNERS & LEARNING COMPETENCY
Assessing the Linguistic and Cultural Needs
and Performance of my Students
Community is core to embedded cognition and optimum learning. Community can be the self as learner - the learning self and the teaching self - and/or the class and teacher as learners. To be effective for as many students as possible, the teacher needs to learn what the student needs to learn. To learn what they already know, in addition to what they want to learn. Multiple students have multiple ways of learning. To recap the I, Thou, It concept, the teacher’s task is to be the learner here: to assess the best way for a student to engage in learning: the best way for a student to achieve cognition and comprehensible output, both in colloquial speech and academic composition.
A student may be competent in basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS), and perform poorly in cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Their socio-linguistic output can mislead the teacher into assumptions that will retard the student’s progression. I have found that creating language games in which both proficiencies are covered, gives me a fairly accurate assessment of the student’s knowledge.
When I first started my internship classes, I knew only that the students were at the most basic level in English; that there would be different levels of “basic” in my class of 25 or so, from 6 different cultures and languages. I started by asking everyone to introduce themselves. This activity gave me instant information about their comprehension of the question, and their ability to pronounce English. I then had each student come up to a white board and write their name. This gave me an instant report of their familiarity with writing and their possible level in their L1. I followed up with physical games, such as “Simple Simon:” another quick way to assess their vocabulary knowledge and level of inhibition in class.
The students' disabilities in my class were primarily psychological, as many of them had experienced great hardship. Most had come from refugee camps in a country other than their homeland. I did have one student with some intellectual impairment, but she was always cheerful and willing, and did not disrupt the class.
I devised strategies for as many approaches as possible, by creating activities in which every student could partake and have fun. Within each activity, I focused on an approach to suit certain students’ needs. Eventually, I was able to reach them all. My point here - is that in such a large and diverse class, providing a sense of community, i.e., safety, no matter the level of language, is crucial for optimum learning. There are many wonderful moments I remember, but one of the most poignant and thrilling was with my oldest student - I’m guessing in her 60’s - and my least schooled in her L1 (she had never held a pencil or written her name before this class). I had given my students little notebooks to have and to use to write down unfamiliar words they encountered outside of class. She came to me at the end of my internship and, in Nepali, asked me for a notebook for her father. That was the day Steve Iams, my advisor, came to watch, and was able to translate for me. That incident represented so many of my goals for successful strategies and processes.
The class laughed and joked in as many languages as they knew, as they reached for English.
I required English only for their lessons, and used all of their linguistic knowledge as my helpmate. The more competent students helped the less so, and this community of joy in learning was my ultimate reward as a teacher and learner of my students’ needs. You may correctly asume that
I am a devotee of Vygotsky!