Volunteering with English for Action – Discovering Participatory Learning

1 Nov

Volunteering with English for Action took my focus from the textbook, into the hands of the learner.

Coming from a TEFL background, where the classroom is firmly teacher-led, and in the beginning stages a similar project in West London, I was keen to learn more about the idea of participatory education, and its impact for ESOL.

Based on the teaching methodology of Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, EFA champions ‘learner-led’ education. Friere believe there could exist no such thing as a ‘neutral education process’. He believed learners, rather than simply ‘banking’ education fed by teachers, should become active participants in education, and acquire tools to deal critically with their surroundings, rather than simply accept information, and as an implication, the governing structures from which that information came.

So what does it all mean in an ESOL classroom?
From start to finish the atmosphere and approach of the classroom differed wildly from EFL. Each session begins in the hands of the students, and, prompted by photographs or a text, discussion is initiated. Critical thinking, language analysis and English learning germinate from this learner-led scenario; actively building on knowledge, rather than passively banking it.

Learners are encouraged to accumulate language by participating in discussion. Language acquisition comes as part of discussion which challenges the learners to critically assess their world, and learners become better able to critically engage with their world with increased language acquisition.

As discussions are initiated by learners, they are therefore focussed on issues affecting them. As a result, learners are inclined to actively engage with language learning, and in this, not only acquire language, but tools for thinking around these issues.

Rather than the teacher standing in front of the class, groups are arranged to facilitate discussion; and rather than target language being pre-planned, the necessary language needed to further the discussion comes out as an organic process throughout the session, and is taught when needed.
I was very interested in taking part in this process, and saw a different way of doing things. But as my time went on in St. Mary’s, and I came to lead a group of beginners, I was forced to re-think. How can participatory education work for beginner language learners? How can discussion be learner-led when there is very little starting-ground? This is a challenge I am set to explore in the coming months. Watch this space! I think we’ll see some interesting results.


One Response to “Volunteering with English for Action – Discovering Participatory Learning”

  1. caitums November 1, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    Loved your blog Lydia! The question of how to make participatory tools work with beginners has come up more than once in the EFA office! Although free ranging discussions in English aren’t possible for complete beginners, there are other participatory activities which have, in my experience, worked really well.

    Generally miming, games and pictures are very useful for allowing people to express themselves and break down hierarchies, even when they don’t have the English language to understand complex spoken instructions or participate in discussion. One example is that I got students to place images of different situations where they spoke English (e.g. doctors surgery, parents evening) on a graph against a y axis that showed how easy or hard the situations were and an x-axis that showed how useful English was in that situation. I had to teach what ‘difficult’ and ‘useful’ meant (a bit of handy translation from some higher speakers helped with this) and then even beginners could express their priorities for the course.

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