Step 1 - the Bottleneck to Learning

Two bottleneck areas were identified: a procedural obstacle in which students have not mastered the necessary steps to successfully complete the set tasks; and an emotional bottlenecks in which students affective reaction to (not) using speaking skills hinders learning and consequently passing summative assessments. Specifically, it was identified that:

  1. Students have difficulty using critical thinking and reasoning skills. 
  2. Students have difficulty speaking English in class and managing their emotions during summative assessments.

“What’s in a name?” Decoding in English language teaching

1. Bottleneck to learning

Language can be considered as a whole unit. In addition to the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing), critical thinking and reasoning skills as well as the ability to refer back to past experiences and background knowledge are also important. In other words, there is a close interconnection and interaction between the cognitive and emotional aspects of language.

This case study is based on a course taught in the final year of a three-year degree in Languages and Modern Cultures; the module concerns English Language and Translation. The course is divided into three modules: 1) Translation; 2) Listening; 3) Reading and Use of English. The latter two modules are known as the lettorato inglese modules. That is, a language lab with a mother-tongue lecturer which runs for 20 weeks over two semesters. The emphasis is on practical language acquisition (hands-on/group work) rather than theoretical (grammar rules/lectures). The teaching style is informal to ensure that all students feel comfortable participating.

Each lesson lasts 2 hours and is repeated twice a week so as to widen participation. There is not a minimum requirement for attendance, in fact it is not at all compulsory to attend lessons and students from other departments as well as members of the public can participate in classroom activities. Decoding was used in the Reading and Use of English module, mainly during classroom activities.

In this course, students are encouraged to move away from the school-based approach of memorising sets of rules and endless vocabulary lists. Instead they are supported in developing a more intuitive and even playful approach to language acquisition which contextualises their learning in a more holistic way. For example, after modelling and practicing new forms, students are asked to take part in role-plays or discussions which use the target language either in a more natural way or at least in a way that feels more real to them.

It is worth mentioning that rather than viewing all of the courses they study as individual or separate units, students are required to view them synergistically. For example, a word learnt in a literature class can be recognised and understood in a newspaper article, for example, and eventually used in a conversation. This nurtures a certain idea of ‘ownership’ whereby language becomes a part of the person and their cultural identity/heritage (transition from the singular to the global).  In fact, participating in speaking activities not only consolidates previously acquired knowledge, but also improves communication skills which can later be transferred across the disciplines and into the workplace. A reluctance to do so therefore links in with referring back to past experiences (creating meaningful memories) and critical thinking skills (knowing when to use a word and its possible effects on the listener) mentioned earlier, thus coming full circle.

The final exam for Reading and Use of English module is the one which most students have difficulty passing at the first attempt. It assesses comprehension of a text through gap-fill exercises (multiple choice, word formation, cloze). Some of the language competencies assessed include knowledge of grammatical structures, collocations and vocabulary.