Things learners do not enjoy about their foreign language lessons

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In the last two years or so, I have carried out short interviews with around 150 year 8 and 9 MFL students of various ability which I ranked as very able (38), able (72) and less able (40) based on their (Midyis) test results. I asked them the question: “Which 3 things about your language lessons do you neither enjoy nor find conducive to learning? Why?”. Although there was a high degree of idiosyncrasy and variation across the informants’ answers in terms of individual preferences, seven ‘things’ stood out as being disliked and found ‘not very productive’ by at least 40 % of the students. Here they are:

  1. Tasks they do not feel prepared for – 52 % of the students found demotivating and not very productive to be required to carry out tasks they felt were beyond their linguistic competence level. Unsurprisingly, most of the students in this category included the less able ones. However, some of the more able students complained about this issue, too, possibly because, being perfectionists, they hated not being able to be 100 % accurate.
  2. Long sessions of writing in lessons – 65 % of the students stated they disliked or even ‘hated’ doing writing in class for 15-20 minutes or more, most of them feeling that it was boring and should be done at home when one would have more time and focus to learn from it. Not surprisingly, here, too, the less able students were those with the strongest negative feelings about long writing sessions.
  3. Listening comprehension tasks from course-books– 55 % of the students mentioned this as a motivation inhibitor and as an activity they did not feel they learnt much from because they felt that the actors on the course-book audio-tracks went either too slow (in the lower level activities) or too fast (in the higher level ones). They enjoyed listening to the teacher speaking to them in the target language as they felt it was a more natural context for practising listening.
  4. Target setting / Being given targets – 45 % of the students felt they did not learn much from this process because after the target-setting session they would not look at the targets often enough to do something about them. They found the process tedious and unproductive.
  5. Very long sessions on the iPad – 60 % of my informants reported generally enjoying using the iPad in class but not for the whole lesson. They felt that they needed a mix of activities. 40% mentioned tiredness and/or boredom as the reasons why using it for the whole lesson resulted in less focus and interest.The more able students seemed to be the ones who objected more strongly against the overuse of the iPad. The suggestion made by the students was that each session should not be longer than 15-20 minutes maximum.
  6. Lack of group-work – 45 % of the students reported disliking lessons where they had to work alone from beginning to end. These students (mainly belonging to the able and less able group) said that there had to be some form of group work in every single lesson. 25 % of these students mentioned movement around the classroom as a desirable feature of such group-work activities.
  7. Learning verb conjugations – 40 % of the students reported disliking learning verb conjugations through drills, gap-fills and even online conjugators (this was painful considering that I created one at www.language-gym.com). Most of the students who mentioned this belonged to the less able group and a minority to the more able groups. These learners found learning conjugations challenging and said they learnt them more effectively at home as they felt less under pressure and had more time to focus on them.

The above findings are hardly generalizable, as they are situated in a very specific educational and cultural setting and the sampling was not randomized. Hence, it would be interesting to see if colleagues working in different contexts would obtain similar or divergent findings.

Of course, the fact that students do not dislike something does not entail that we should not do it, if we do believe those things are actually highly conducive to learning. For example, although it is true that learners do not particularly enjoy verb conjugation drills, I have noticed remarkable improvements in terms of verb/tense awareness (not necessarily ‘acquisition’) since I started to regularly use online verb conjugator trainers (5-10 minutes at a time); hence, I will keep using them as short homework and/or warm-up/follow-up activities in the context of grammar learning sessions.

Ultimately, however, I do believe that we should try and heed our students’ preferences as much as possible and be ‘brave’ enough to ask them if they truly enjoyed and learnt from specific activities we stage in class. You will be very suprised at how mistaken some of our assumptions often are.

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