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Playing Games to Learn English

Did you know that Mano en Mano’s drop-in English class employs a cutting edge method of language instruction? Let me tell you about it!

Traditional vs. Non-traditional Language Learning

Over 40 years ago, when I was studying French to go to West Africa as an English teacher with the Peace Corps, my fellow volunteers and I endured 8 hours of language instruction per day. We memorized dialogues and repeated substitution drills for hours on end with dictatorial teachers who insisted on perfection. When I completed my language training, I could order theater tickets in Paris fluently and could discuss which movie I liked and why. But when I arrived in West Africa, I could not have conversations with the families I ate with; I could not even buy a bar of soap at the corner shop! This way of teaching and the outcomes were—and still are—very typical of traditional foreign language instruction in this country.

As readers of the Adult Education column of the newsletter know, our drop-in English class at Mano en Mano is run very differently from a traditional language class like those I suffered through so long ago. Our adult participants engage in games and other hands-on activities that provide them with fun but necessary opportunities for repetition of key structures and vocabulary in English. Furthermore, the content of the games and activities is almost entirely based on students’ jobs or other self-identified English needs. This practice, known as “learning centers” is becoming increasingly popular in adult English-for-speakers-of-other-languages (ESOL) classes in many states.

This method is popular for three reasons: one, that adult ESOL classes are always very mixed, having students with a wide range of educational backgrounds and ages, as well as a wide range of exposure to and need for English. This factor makes it impossible to conduct a class with a single instructional focus. In contrast to a traditional class, learning centers provide opportunities for students of all levels and experience with English to engage in some meaningful learning.

The second reality that causes learning centers to be seen as a useful way of managing a class of adult English language learners is that more attention is being paid nationally to factors affecting real adult second/other language acquisition. Adult ESOL did not arise as a separate field of inquiry, but rather grew out of de facto situations where adult education classes were filling with immigrants needing English instruction. As a result, the field of ESOL had to invent itself after it already existed, and many of those advising the field turned to models of foreign language learning and language acquisition in very educated adults. However, the last 15 or 20 years or so of immigration have caused adult ESOL classrooms to fill with many learners with minimal or no formal education at all. For these learners, the models of language acquisition based on the way educated people learn foreign languages proved to be inadequate for adult ESOL and results of learning have been poor and drop-out rates very high.

Recent brain research and extensive research on adults learning other languages, especially when they have little formal education, have pointed toward the need for intense repetition and opportunities for natural language use as being essential for adult brains to retain and use language. The question was, then, “How could adult ESOL teachers encompass the incredible range of education and needs in their classes and include the repetition needed and natural language use for effective language acquisition?” Learning centers seem to fit that bill!

And finally, centers work well because the content is highly relevant to the learners and not content dictated by a book. As I noted about my own language training for the Peace Corps, my French training did not equip me for life in West Africa. Typically, textbooks for English either have content chosen for high interest for college or high school students, or are heavily focused on the perceived needs of adults in the US. Teachers using centers work with learners to find out what content and English they need and then shape centers to provide practice that allows learners to master content they can relate to.

Characteristics of Learning Centers

Learning centers have been used in K-12 education for many decades. They were instituted in the 60’s when early childhood experts realized that children would thrive in self-directed, interactive learning contexts. In K-12, centers are often stations where students can explore a subject that is not covered in depth in the regular curriculum. Sometimes centers are set up so students can do all direct learning by interacting with materials; still other centers are designed to provide practice with some aspect of the curriculum which was directly taught and which students need to master. For adult ESOL, centers are typically used as practice activities or for direct learning.

Research also indicates that all learners benefit from more social interaction while learning than normal, teacher-fronted classes ever permit. Centers require that students interact with others, whether in a game or in working on some language-focused activity such as matching verbs to their past tense forms or putting words on cards into correct word order. This is where natural language use occurs as students use English to play the game or to talk to each other about how to finish the activity correctly.

A Spreading Phenomenon

Seven years ago, a regional adult education director in NY state asked for help in increasing retention of ESOL students and in improving their learning outcomes in her region. It was in that project that learning centers were first developed beyond one or two classrooms for adult ESOL learners. Several teachers found that centers not only addressed the problems mentioned above (the extreme mixed nature of classes and the need for repetition that cannot be achieved in a formal class), but they also made it easy to integrate students who arrived at all times during the instructional year. Also, just as experts knew decades ago when centers were first conceived of, students loved the social nature of the centers. Learning results increased noticeably as retention and attendance improved dramatically, too.

Since that time, I have been promoting the use of centers and have had the privilege of training teachers of adult ESOL in other regions of New York and in many states, including Washington, Nebraska, New Hampshire and just this summer, South Dakota, as well as in British Columbia, Canada. All these states approached me for help, just as New York did, because of the problems endemic in adult ESOL: classes with students of every age and level of education with widely varying exposure to and need for English and poor learning results.

Spreading the Word in Maine

In 2012, Maine asked me to implement a project, including an online course, training ESOL teachers around the state in the use of learning centers, and now many programs are actively using them. In June of 2013, my Americorps assistant, Kristen, and I presented sessions at the Maine Adult Education Association’s annual state conference in Waterville, sharing with attendees what we have done at Mano en Mano. At the conference, several Maine teachers from other cities and towns joined us to show off their new skills and the wide variety of centers they have created. They were also able to share with interested teachers their experiences in launching this radically different way of presenting English instruction.

Our students at Mano en Mano have told us they love the centers, too. They are exactly like those described above: mostly older adults who may have limited formal education and who are learning another language for the first time. Even though most of our students have rudimentary English acquired on various jobs, most are afraid to use their English because they worry about being correct and being embarrassed by making errors in front of others. They also rarely use English on their own, so do not practice much. They tell us that they remember things more easily through playing the games and doing the activities. They also tell us they like interacting with other students in an informal way—being able to talk and laugh as they practice English. When offered the choice of traditional classes or learning centers, all firmly voted for learning centers.

Now Maine’s adult education team is looking to expand the use of centers into adult education (adult basic education – ABE—and GED preparation classes). Our experiences at Mano en Mano will help me shape the trainings for these efforts to make adult learning and language learning more effective and relevant for a wide range of students.

Robin Lovrien, Ph. D Adult Education Director


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