Education philosophy

10 ways to value student knowledge

Who's really teaching who?

Who’s really teaching who?
Photo by USAGYongsan


Learning from students is one of my favorite things about teaching English language learners. They always have new ideas, perspectives, and information to share, and they are always much more willing to talk about topics they have chosen for themselves! Why spend hours planning an interesting topic when you can have the students pick one for you?

Showing English language learners that you value their knowledge increases their motivation, helps minimize behavior management issues, builds a bond between student and teacher, allows for more authentic learning experiences, and reduces planning time. As a bonus, you get to learn fun facts and useful information along the way!

Here are my top 10 ways to value student knowledge in the classroom:

1. Have students take turns to give presentations on their own area of expertise. At the beginning of the term, give a short presentation yourself to model the style, length, and complexity that you expect from presentations. You don’t need powerpoint to do this, just pictures or some good old-fashioned show and tell objects. Set a regular time for presentations and have students sign up for a slot well in advance. Keep topic completely open and make it clear to students that they can choose their own topic, whether they are interested in wrestling, origami, kittens, or their favorite video game. As long as they are keen to talk about it, they can present about it. Include question time at the end and make sure you ask some yourself!

2. Assign students classroom jobs related to their skills. For example assign an above-average speller the job of spell-checker. Other students can ask them to check the spelling of a word before they ask the teacher. Other students could work as a book-counter, library organizer, test-score calculator, attendance-taker, discussion leader, illustrator, fact-checker, grammar expert, pronunciation guide, or even class comedian for when everyone needs a brain break.

3. Have students keep meta-cognitive journals or thinking journals. Students are experts on their own language learning. Have them record their learning strategies, challenges, opinions, and reflections on how they learn. Metacognitive journals can be useful when a student is struggling – ‘I know you are finding the past perfect really difficult right now. Remember when you were struggling with the past simple? What did you do then that helped you? What did you classmates do?’

4. Word of the day/phrase of the week. Have students teach you a word or phrase from their first language. I’ve never met a class that didn’t appreciate my attempts to learn Spanish/Russian/Korean/Arabic. They find it both amusing and reassuring to see that language learning doesn’t come easily to anyone, and it helps them to realize that you do understand their position and that you are trying to help them.

5. Have students designate themselves as language experts. If you are learning your students’ first language, you could have an in-class ‘grammar expert’ ‘vocabulary expert’, ‘pronunciation expert’ ‘calligraphy/handwriting expert’ ‘spelling expert’ ‘slang expert’ etc and ask them questions about what you have learned in their language this week.

6. Set up an L1 media and culture club. Have students suggest books, TV, music and food to you and a group of similarly-minded teachers. Ask the students for suggestions about what you should learn next, and give them feedback on their choices. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, their lives and their culture, and students are no different.

7. Use students’ families’ knowledge. Ask students for a list of their families’ skills, and call on these skills whenever possible throughout the term. For example you can ask that a family with particular cooking skills donates a dish for your class potluck, that a bilingual parent comes into class to help translate for a day or that a parent with DIY skills helps you to build the new class bookcase. If you are teaching abroad, you can also use families’ knowledge in smaller ways, such as compiling lists of family members who would be willing to advise you on local issues (e.g – where’s a good toystore that I can buy a present for my niece from? How do I know where I can park without getting a ticket? Which is the best local gym? Where should I go over the long weekend?)

8. Encourage students to make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. Whenever you read or discuss a new topic, allow time for students to compare their new learning with what they already know and have experienced. Reading a story about a family could provoke a good discussion about different types of families, students’ families, families students have seen on TV, and families students have seen in other books.

9.Encourage students to bring the outside world in. Potlucks, show and tell, family visitors, books, photographs and journals are all good ways for students to share their knowledge with the class. Model it yourself by giving nuggets of information about your life outside of school. Students are infinitely curious – I found that even a photo of me in jeans walking my friend’s dog led to a huge number of questions, great discussion, and connections to students’ own lives. An inspiring teacher I worked with used to have her (adult) children frequently visit the class, which her students loved.

10. Create a class blog to help students share their knowledge with others. I have to confess I haven’t actually done this….yet! But I have seen so many great examples of students’ writing online that I am itching to try it. Nothing says ‘your voice is important’ more than providing a worldwide platform for students to share their opinions and stories with others. Have you set up a class blog? I’d love to hear about it! I’ll be researching this topic over the next month and will post some ideas soon. To keep up to date on new posts, please follow @earlyyrsenglish on Twitter, or click subscribe at the top of this page.

What have I missed? How do you value your students knowledge? Add to the list by leaving a comment below.


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