To develop communicative competence—the ability to use the language to accomplish communication goals—students need to be actively involved in using the language themselves as much as possible. For this reason, language teaching needs to focus on the learner and the learning process, following an approach known as learner-centered instruction.
In this approach, instruction focuses on the learner as an active participant in the learning process. Students define learning goals, identify their preferred learning styles, and choose learning strategies. The teacher provides guidance on what makes a learning goal both realistic enough to be achievable and challenging enough to be interesting. The teacher also helps the students understand which learning strategies will support achievement of their learning goals.
In learner-centered instruction, the teacher creates a learning environment that is authentic: it resembles as much as possible the environment in which students learned their first language. This learning environment has three important characteristics:
- In the classroom, students attend to models provided by the teacher (input) and then build on those models as they use language themselves (output).
- The teacher facilitates learning by scaffolding instruction in ways that support skill development while promoting student autonomy.
- Classroom activities incorporate real-world situations that are relevant to students’ learning goals.
Learner-centered instruction encourages students to take responsibility for their own language skill development and helps them gain confidence in their ability to learn and use the language. Teachers support students by devoting some class time to non-traditional activities, including teaching students how to use learning strategies, how to use available tools and resources, and how to reflect on their learning and evaluate their progress.
Language teachers who are new to learner-centered instruction sometimes make the mistake of thinking that if they put students in groups to work on activities, their teaching will automatically be learner centered. However, learner-centered instruction is not about specific teaching techniques, whether lectures or drills or group tasks. Learner-centered instruction is about the questions that a teacher asks when preparing to teach. In teacher-centered instruction, the teacher asks, What am I going teach in class tomorrow, and how am I going to teach it? In learner-centered instruction, the teacher asks, What are my students going to learn tomorrow, and how are they going to know that they have learned it?
Many students have had experience with learner-centered instruction and expect it to be used in their classrooms. Students who are accustomed to more traditional teacher-centered instruction may resist the learner-centered model at first because it expects them to be more involved in the learning process. However, when they discover that learner-centered instruction enables them to develop real-world language skills while having fun, they usually become enthusiastic participants.
For further description of learner-centered instruction and contrast with teacher-centered instruction, see Models of Language Teaching in the What Is Language Teaching? section.
Background Resources on Learner-Centered Instruction
The learner-centered approach to teaching grows out of the educational philosophy known as social constructivism, which emphasizes the active role of the learner in the learning process. Early proponents of the constructivist nature of education include Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey.
Summaries of these theorists’ contributions to constructivism are available here:
- Social Constructivism. Graduate Student Instructor Teaching & Resource Center, University of California at Berkeley. http://gsi.berkeley.edu/gsi-guide-contents/learning-theory-research/social-constructivism/
- Education Theory: Constructivism and Social Constructivism. University College Dublin Open Educational Resources. http://www.ucdoer.ie/index.php/Education_Theory/Constructivism_and_Social_Constructivism
For a list of major works in constructivist theory, go here:
- Annotated Bibliography on Constructivism in Education. Institute for Learning Centered Education. http://www.learnercentereded.org/jpact/Current/bibliography.htm