The Online Student Lifestyle: How to Practice L1 in an L2 Environment

The Online Student Lifestyle
How to Practice L1 in an L2 Environment

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 5,245 views |

What do our students need in order to be successful language learners?

Good language acquisition begins and ends with practice, but how can a student make progress if nobody else around them speaks English? Learning online might seem like a lonely task, leaving the student isolated in an environment where they’re the only budding English speaker. Thankfully, there are plenty of methods our remote-learning student can use, both with your help and by working independently, to bridge the gap and achieve their learning aims.

4 Ideas How to Practice L1 in an L2 Environment

  1. 1

    A Little Analysis

    Successful language students tend to work in  roughly the same ways, despite important differences in culture and background. In fact, the same methods are used by high-achieving students in any field: being organized, maintaining a commitment to improvement, remaining open-minded about the learning process and new styles of learning, and being ready to practice the relevant skills in a genuine and honest way.

    If your students aren’t making the kind of progress you (or they) would like to see, take time to analyze why this might be. Even in the hazy and contentious field of education, the rules of ‘Cause and Effect’ always apply; every learning outcome happens for a reason, and those reasons can be laid out and studied. The same is true of your successes; if a lesson really worked, use your evaluation time at the end of the class to quite deservedly pat yourself on the back, but also think carefully about what worked, and why, so you can replicate this success with other students.

    For example, if a student continues to make the same grammar mistakes after you’ve corrected them numerous times, think of new ways to break down and demonstrate the structure. Parse the sentences and label each grammatical element, teaching the necessary vocabulary if possible, so that the student can see (and eventually hear) that they’ve forgotten the participle ending, or they’re using the wrong conjugation, or (and this is very common) that they’re allowing their L1 grammar to inflect their L2 production.

  2. 2

    Encourage Honest Review

    From the outset, encourage your students to review and practice what they’ve learned during the class, and not only because they’ll be seeing the same material again, perhaps in a more advanced or challenging format. Students who review material before their next class typically exhibit a 20-25% higher rate of retention and language acquisition than those who don’t.

  3. 3

    Ban Silence

    Encourage your students to ask questions and never to simply sit there in silence when they don’t understand. Silence is a huge problem for language teachers, as it could mean any number of things, from lack of comprehension to shyness, from distress or illness to a failed internet connection. I’ve tried to declare silence ‘illegal’ in my classroom; someone should be talking virtually all the time (preferably the students, of course). If they need time to think, that’s obviously fine, but this should be fruitful deliberation, not stunned, confused silence.

  4. 4

    Encourage Consistent Practice (even in a totally L1 environment)

    It’s naïve to imagine that thirty minutes of practice each week will result in solid progress, be it in the karate dojo, playing a musical instrument, or learning a language. Skills acquisition requires the twin fuels of time and focus. A quick burst of intense work might result in some success, but nothing encourages improvement like well-planned, conscientious and (above all) consistent practice.

    This is much easier said than done, one might argue. How can students who live in China, and are surrounded by Chinese throughout the day, ever hope to participate in a non-Chinese environment? It’s tough, but there are ways to do it:

    1. Talk To Yourself. Have your students narrate their routine as they go, complete with varied tenses, prepositions and careful subject-object constructions: “Now, I’m cleaning my teeth… I’ll wash the dishes next, and then I’m going to set my Tivo to record Game of Thrones.”

    2. Label Objects. If you’ve ever visited the home of a dedicated language learner, you might have seen sticky notes all over the place, labeling the nouns in each room (fridge, stove, sink; bed, dresser, mirror). These constant reminders are tremendously useful, and doubly so when the student says the word whenever the touch or see the object. The next step, and a more interesting one, is to make a short sentence using the noun: “My fridge is set at four Celsius, “ or, “the oak dresser is opposite my suitcase.”

    3. Set an English-Only Time. For students who live in houses or dormitories where everyone is studying the same language, a mandated ‘Zero-L1’ period can be priceless. That said, your online students probably won’t live in such an environment, so they’ll have to make their own; this might not be easy, but with a little creativity, it can work. For example, if you’re teaching a working mom, her kids will be learning English at school, and will probably think it’s the coolest thing ever that between 6:30 and 7pm every day is ‘English Only Time’.

      Similarly, students who are managers in international companies (or any kind of business, in truth) might encourage an ‘English hour’ during the afternoons of certain days, provided it doesn’t interfere with business. However, most of your students will be learning in a more isolated situation, and for them, technology comes to the rescue…

    4. Watch Media and Use The Internet. Watching a movie in English is a tremendous way to learn Encourage regular and varied movie-watching, with some caveats:
      • Avoid movies which feature culturally sensitive topics, raunchy stuff, heavy politics (unless your student is interested) or something other than PG-13 content. Assigning the wrong movie can really upset a student and compromise your reputation.
      • Be aware that watching and listening don’t comprise production; the student isn’t going to say anything while watching a movie, unless they’re in a group.
      • Set comprehension questions to ensure the movie-watching experience remains educational and focused on language acquisition. For example, if you’ve set Gladiator, ask questions about freedom, slavery and blood sports, e.g. “What does our enjoyment of human combat say about us as a society?”
      And don’t forget the radio. Most people have, and it’s a mistake. Voice of America and the peerless BBC World Service remain fantastic news sources. Be aware that they are occasionally blocked in China.

    5. Encourage Meet-ups. There are a surprising number of groups, English Corners and the like which are organized for the benefit of English learners. Every major city has one, and this is increasingly true of smaller towns, too.

Learning English online doesn’t have to be a lonely experience, but your students will need some guidance on how to bridge the gap between their familiar environment and one that will facilitate good practice.

The main advice remains to encourage solid practice and review, and to seek out opportunities for in-person practice wherever possible.

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