LEARNER-CENTRED ACTIVITIES

 

The term ‘learner-centred’ has been applied to many areas of language learning and teaching. We talk about a learner-centred curriculum, learner-centred methodology and learner-centred activities. In this article I will be addressing issues associated with the latter: learner-centred activities. The aim of this article is not to discuss the merits of learner-centred activities, with the hope of convincing teachers of their advantages. Given the attention that learner-centred learning has received, most teachers should be aware, if not convinced, of the positive effects such an approach can have on learning. This article, instead, will focus on a way of defining learner-centred activities. The objective will be to provide an alternative two-dimensioned definition of learner-centred activities. The two criteria used in the definition do not constitute new ways of describing learner-centred activities. It simply aims to show that enlarging the definition of learner-centred activities can highlight avenues for application in the classroom.  I hope that you will see that the distinction is a useful one to make and that it opens up a new way of looking at learner-centred activities.

For the first criterion I shall use the term learner-focused activities. This term will be used to relate to activities which focus on the learners’ needs, interests, background, etc. The second term I shall use is learner-prepared activities. This term will be used to refer to activities which have been prepared by the learners. This is to say that the learners have had a hand in finding, choosing or creating the materials which provide the input and/or output for the activity. I shall use the term learner-centred to refer to activities of these types in general, which could be learner-focused and/or learner-prepared but where no precision is required. By redefining the definition of learner-centred activities, perhaps we might gain a better understanding of what learner-centred activities are and how they can be used in the classroom. Many teachers are, I believe, less concerned with the underlying theory behind pedagogical principles than they are with how they can be practically implemented in the classroom. It should be noted that the two categories proposed are not mutually exclusive. Learner-centred activities can be learner-focused (or not) and at the same time they can be learner-prepared (or not). The table below summarises this. In the table I have given an example of each type of activity.

 

LEARNER-CENTRED ACTIVITIES

PREPARATION

TEACHER PREPARED

LEARNER PREPARED

ACTIVITY FOCUS

NON LEARNER FOCUS

The teacher prepares the lesson and chooses a text e.g. about the target culture for the learners to study and answer comprehension questions.

The learners study a text chosen by the teacher but they write comprehension questions for each other.

LEARNER FOCUSED

The teacher provides the learners with a survey (about the learners’ interests etc.) for them to conduct in the classroom to practise a certain grammar point.

The learners write their own survey to practise a certain grammar point in the classroom.

 

 

Below I will give two more examples of learner-centred activities and show how the two criteria of learner-focused and learner-prepared can be applied to them. The first activity is called ‘find someone who..?’ . It is a well-known activity in which learners have a list of, say, life experiences such as having been to the U.S. and they must mingle and ask each other questions to find learners who have done the things on the list. I have chosen this activity because it can be used in all of the different ways mentioned in the table above. It is interesting to see how the activity can be adapted in different circumstances according to the two criteria. The second activity is a simple information gap activity in the form of a grid.

 

 

FIND SOMEONE WHO….?

 

Teacher-prepared with a non-learner focus.

Strictly speaking this kind of activity is usually a learner-focused activity as the learners are obliged to find someone who has done a certain thing, can do a certain thing etc. However, if the teacher takes the questions from a photocopiable resource book, it is highly unlikely that the questions will relate much to the learners, given that learners are so fundamentally different around the world and the questions are usually based on a typically western-cultured imaginary student.

 

Teacher-prepared and learner-focused.

This time the teacher collects information about the learners. The teacher can ask them to write down a few sentences about their life experiences, hobbies, abilities etc. The teacher takes in the sentences and prepares the ‘find someone who’ questions for the next lesson.

 

Learner-prepared with a non-learner focus.

In this activity the teacher provides the topics of the questions e.g. visit Paris, drink Champagne etc. The learners then write the questionnaire e.g. ‘have you ever been to Paris?’. As in 1. this activity could be said to be learner-centred (it could be if the teachers knows something about the learners and takes this into account) but if the teacher has merely thought up what he believes are interesting topics then, once again, the questions may have little in common with a lot of the learners.

 

Learner-prepared and learner-focused .

In groups, the learners brainstorm sentences on a certain theme (things they have done, hobbies etc. which relate personally to the learners). Someone in the group writes down one sentence per person in the group. The sentences are cut up into individual sentences and then distributed among the other groups in the class. The teacher at this point makes sure that each group has the same number of sentences. The groups then transform the sentences into questions which each learner writes down. All the learners from all the groups mingle to ask each questions and find positive answers (there may be more than one) to their questions. The groups reform to share information.

 

 

As you can see there are different ways of doing the same activity. However, not all activities can be made learner-focused or learner-prepared. This is especially true when it comes to making activities learner-prepared. However, there is a reason why teachers should be particularly interested in how they can make activities learner-prepared. As I stated above, I don’t intend to discuss here the advantages of using learner-centred activities in the classroom. However, there is one point which is worth mentioning. Activities for which the learners create the materials which serve as the input can be lifesavers for teachers. Which teacher has not been in the situation where part of his/ her lesson plan has had to be abandoned because the photocopier isn’t working? The super photocopiable activity we planned cannot now be used and we find ourselves doing last minute improvisation. Imagine how this situation could be avoided if there were ways for doing our activity, or a similar one, by involving the learners in the creation of the materials using only paper and pens. Of course, the same applies to all those teachers throughout the world who don’t have access to photocopiers. Finding ways of making activities learner-prepared can make it possible to use all sorts of activities when it wasn’t thought possible. Of course, we can’t expect our learners to be able to create all materials but there are ways of making a lot of activities learner-prepared. Unfortunately, there is no overall blueprint for the ones that are. To consider whether an activity can be learner-prepared or not, below are a few questions that might be worth considering.

 

  1. What kind of input is needed for the activity? Can the learners create it themselves? Can they copy from the board into their books? Do they need paper and/or scissors?
  2. Does the activity involve some kind of information gap? How will this affect the creation of materials? Will I need different groups making different material?
  3. How many stages are involved in the activity? Can I keep the pace up if the creative demands are high?

 

One of the features of the ‘find someone who’ activity mentioned above is that it is an information gap activity. It can only really work if the learners do not know which information refers to which learner before they carry out the mingling and asking stage. This difficulty was overcome by having different groups write their own material to be distributed (virtually anonymously) among the class so that each group ended up with an original selection of material without knowing who it refers to.

The next activity is also an information gap activity but it is less complicated to set up as it is basically a pairwork activity, unlike the group activity above.

 

INFORMATION GAP ACTIVITIES

Another type of information gap is the traditional grid format information gap where two learners have half of the information and must ask specific questions to their partner to get the other half of the information. This activity is very easily made learner-prepared on the condition that the learners know exactly which information they have to provide. This can be done by providing the grid with half of the squares shaded or differently coloured. Once the subject is decided (for example personal information such as age, nationality, job, whether the person is married or not etc.) and the names are chosen for the people in the grid the learners can complete the squares which have been designated to them. One learner completes the non-shaded squares and the other completes the shaded squares. Now they have an original information gap to complete. In practical terms, this activity has now become a generic activity. This means that a teacher can keep a pile of copies of the grid, ready for use at any time (perhaps when the photocopier has broken down) for a number of purposes. Alternatively, the grid can be copied by the learners into their books.

 

VIEW EXAMPLE OF INFORMATION GAP GRID

 

There are many activities that we can make learner-centred. The question is how? To answer this we must always be on the look out for news ways and ideas of making activities learner-centred (and, in my opinion, especially learner-prepared) and be prepared to try out our ideas in the classroom. I hope this article has given you food for thought and encouragement.