Lifelong learning: overcoming the language barrier at the ...

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Lifelong learning: overcoming the language barrier at the Vaal Triangle Technikon, South Africa

Noreen McFarlane, Jacques Vermeulen, Vaal Triangle Technikon,

South Africa

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 33rd annual conference, University of Wales, Bangor,

1-3 July, 2003


The role of English as the medium of instruction at tertiary level in South Africa has been a contentious issue for some time as South Africa has 11 legislated official languages. The legislated language of instruction is English which gives rise to a number of problems related to the learning process. To the vast majority of South Africans, English is a second or third language of communication, which leads to problems pertaining to English language proficiency within the learning environment. The aim of this paper is to discuss the relationship between the problems related to the levels of English language proficiency of learners and the method of teaching, applied within the context of lifelong learning.

The context of lifelong learning

McClelland (2001) states that lifelong learning reflects a holistic view of education and recognises learning in and from many different environments. Based on this view the authors describe lifelong learning as an all-purposeful learning activity, undertaken on an ongoing basis with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence. Lifelong learning contains various forms of education and training:-formal, non-formal and informal; individually, in a group setting or within the framework of social movements.

The Unit for Lifelong Learning at the Vaal Triangle Technikon, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, has been involved in various training and developmental activities since 1991. These activities include affordable short-term training and development programs, based on fitness for purpose; in-house training on request from industry, commerce and the community with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence on an ongoing basis. The Unit prides itself on offering courses that transfer directly usable skills thus engaging in meaningful lifelong learning activities.

The barrier to English proficiency: the South African situation

The language policy of South Africa, as stated in the South African Constitution, Act 108 of 1996 (South Africa, 1996), aims to redress the injustices of the apartheid era, where two languages, namely English and Afrikaans, were given status and privilege over all other languages. Eleven languages made up of nine African languages together with English and Afrikaans are now recognised as the official languages of the diverse South African population (Barry, 2002). However as a result of the functional and economic value attached to English both nationally and internationally, the economic survival of the African language population requires high levels of proficiency in English.

As the legislated language of instruction at tertiary level is English and 80% of the South African population also choose English as the language of learning and instruction (Barry, 2002), this gives rise to a number of problems related to lifelong learning. To the majority of South Africans, English is their second or third language of communication, which leads to problems pertaining to English language proficiency. These problems include interpersonal communication skills, verbal expression and understanding; skills that impact on the acquisition of skills and the demonstration of outcomes required within the social context in which lifelong learning occurs.

Over the last six years 90% of the registered learners at the Vaal Triangle Technikon speak English as a second language (Vaal Triangle Technikon, 2003). This has a significantly negative impact on the academic success of the learners (de Beer & Raijmakers, 1997).

It stands to reason that learners cannot conceptualise or reason effectively if they are not competent in communicating via the language of instruction. It is unrealistic to expect learners to engage in the process of critical thinking if they can barely construct a sentence or paragraph, or for that matter analyse a text and argue a point in a language which is not their mother tongue (van den Berg, 2000). Language development is thus important, not only in itself but also due to the role of language in learning and thinking, with regard to social interaction and intellectual growth (Chamot, 2002).

Language, literacy and communication are intrinsic to human development and central to lifelong learning (Wessels and van den Berg, 1998). Literacy is understood as a creative activity, through which learners can begin to analyse and interpret their own experiences and then make connections between these experiences and those of others (Narsee, 2001). According to Freire (1973) it is in this sense that literacy is connected to language, grounded in the historical and cultural background of the learner and centred in the personal and social construction of meaning.

Overcoming the barrier to English language proficiency in lifelong learning

Due to the increasing number of learners from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and the lower achievement levels of these learners, educators now focus on more effective learning and instructional approaches for these learners (de Beer & Raijmakers, 1997 and Waxman, Padron and Knight, 1991). These approaches are targeted towards improving the learners’ higher-level thinking rather than just increasing a mastery of basic skills (Waxman, Padron and Knight, 1991).

Language teaching within the South African context

In terms of the outcome-based approach to education as accepted by the South African Qualification Authority (SAQA) (South Africa, 1995), the teaching of languages falls under the learning area of Language Literacy and Communication. One of the outcomes that is specified is that learners should display critical awareness of the way in which language is used (South Africa, 2002).

The first specific outcome of the learner area is to develop the learner’s comprehension of the way in which language is used to reflect and manipulate people’s convictions, actions and relationships (Niemann, Swanepoel and Venter, 2000). The skills of reading, listening and observing are emphasised. Clayton (2000) indicates that it is reading that promotes the essential cognitive development skills one must process in order to succeed in adult life. Comprehension is the focal point of the reading process as it involves relating vocabulary to experience; understanding ideas, concepts and processes; recognising relationships; making comparisons; drawing inferences; reflecting, interpreting and reading between the lines. As these skills are mastered, comprehension occurs and leads to one being able to critically evaluate ideas, which is necessary within all fields of learning (Pienaar, 2000).

The second important specific outcome of the learning area – Language Literacy and Communication – is that learners use language in order to learn (South Africa, 1995). This can be interpreted as the intrinsic value of language as an instrument for problem solving, decision making and creative thinking – critical and evaluative –that needs to be developed across the entire curriculum of further education (Niemann, Swanepoel and Venter, 2000).

Teaching methods applied

In lifelong learning environments, educators should put more control of the learning environment into the hands of the learners (Wilson, 1995). The learning environment should encourage learners to become active learners – learning material should be relevant and connected to real life situations. Emphasis should be placed on outcomes: in other words what the learners become and understand in the end (South Africa, 1997).

In order to help students master the cognitively demanding academic and abstract content of instruction at tertiary level various developmental programmes have been introduced in South African tertiary institutions. These programs typically include a course in English that runs for one academic year of perhaps three contact hours per week for the academic year of 28 weeks (Ayliff, 2001).

However learners that register for lifelong learning activities, designed and presented by the Unit for Lifelong Learning at the Vaal Triangle Technikon, South Africa do not have access to the courses aimed at improving academic English for tertiary level learners. Thus to overcome the English proficiency problems related to lifelong learners, as well as to attain the outcomes specified by SAQA, the authors applied the method of Socratic teaching from a constructivist perspective to the teaching of skills-based learning programs. Lifelong learning instructional programs are aimed at the acquisition of skills and the demonstration of outcomes, regardless of the language barrier.

From the constructivist perspective, educators should create learning situations where learners can build their own knowledge through an active learning process. With active learning, learners create patterns, rules and strategies through hands-on or imagined experimentation. Learners become ‘self questioners’ as learners rely heavily on multiple sources of information in the process of learning (Steffe & Gale, 1995). Constructivist learning experiences include reflective thinking and productivity, including learner collaboration and consideration of multiple perspectives. Constructivist orientated educators mediate between learner prior knowledge and new knowledge, creating learning environments that help the learners to develop increasingly complex understandings and skills (Richardson, 1997).

This leads to Socratic teaching; a method whereby educators encourage inductive learner thinking and active learner participation by means of questioning (Friedlander, 2003). Socratic teaching is the oldest teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking. In Socratic teaching the focus is on giving learners questions not answers in order to develop an enquiring, probing mind. The abilities gained by focusing on the element of reasoning in a disciplined and self-assessing way and the logical relationships that result from such disciplined thought, enable learners to connect to real life situations and events during the learning process (Friedlander, 2003 and Anon, 2003).

Application of the teaching methods

To demonstrate the application of the teaching method employed by the authors, the Intro Engineering program offered by the Unit for Lifelong learning at the Vaal Triangle Technikon will be used as an example. Intro Engineering is a ten-week program presented by the Unit for Lifelong Learning, which aims to improve prospective students mathematical, science and communication skills.

Limited English proficient learners often experience difficulties in learning mathematics that have little to do with processing mathematical ideas (Reyher & Davison, 2002). The difficulties centre on the learner’s language processing ability (Reyher & Davison, 2002). Davison and Pearce (1992) report that English and mathematics are usually treated as two different subjects with teachers of mathematics rarely seeing part of their jobs as helping students to improve their language skills. However as success in the field of Maths and Science is related to the student’s ability to relate vocabulary to experience; to understand ideas, concepts and processes; to recognise relationships; to draw comparisons and inferences; to reflect, interpret and to read between the lines (Communication skills), an integrated approach to teaching is thus utilised in the Intro Engineering program.

Table 1 identifies typical skills enhancement techniques used for the subject Mathematics, linked to principles of Communication

Table 1: Typical skills enhancement techniques applied in Mathematics linked to Communications

|Method |Example |

|1. Direct use |Copying information from the board, the text or a worksheet |

|2. Linguistic/ translation |Writing the meaning of a formula in complete sentence meaning |

|3. Summarising/ Interpreting |Explaining how to solve a problem in the learner’s own words |

|4. Applied use |Having learners write their own story problems |

|5. Creative use |Having learners write a report on a mathematical project |

Source: Davison, and Pearce, 1992.

Learners’ past experience with mathematical terms can assist in giving meaning to new mathematical terms. The introduction of a new term should be carefully orchestrated through repetition in a mathematical context, through saying the term out loud and spelling it (Reyher and Davison, 2002). Questions relating to the context of the mathematical term should also be asked thus enabling the learner to connect to real-life situations and events – an aim of Socratic teaching.

Table 2 identifies typical skills enhancement techniques used for the subject Communications, linked to scientific concepts. Students were asked to write a user’s manual on how to replace a brake disc pad. The manual had to be clearly and logically structured.

Table 2: Typical skills enhancement techniques applied in Communications linked to Science

| |Teaching aids |Learning techniques applied |Teaching methods |

|Comp|Images of a motor |Language proficiency. |Question and answer |

|ilat|vehicle brake system |Language techniques applied included: thesaurus, alternatives, |sessions |

|ion |distributed to the |basic structure of a sentence, spelling, punctuation, |Whole group discussions, |

|of a|students. |abbreviations, grammar and report writing |Lectures, |

|user|A short descriptive |Real life application. |Buzz groups, |

|manu|explanation accompanied|Write a manual on how to replace a brake disc pad, based on the |Small group discussions and|

|al |the images. |teaching material received. | |

| | |Research application. |Problem-based learning. |

| | |The topic had to be researched in the library, or on the internet | |

| | |and conduct interviews with workshop mechanics. | |

| | |Life skills orientation. | |

| | |Life skills applied included: time management, conflict | |

| | |resolution, assertiveness, problem-solving, planning and listening| |

| | |skills amongst others. | |

Source: Sutherland, McFarlane & Vermeulen, 2002.

It can be seen that the integration of mathematics, science, reading, writing, speaking and listening activities fits the whole language approach to instruction (Reyher & Davison, 2002) and that a learning situation is created through which the learner acquires knowledge and skills through active learning – the constructivist perspective.

Findings and conclusions

• The Socratic teaching method as applied from a constructivist perspective, appears to not only lead to the acquisition of lifelong learning skills but also to overcome the language barriers experienced by limited English proficient learners.

• The success rate of learners that have registered with the Unit for Lifelong Learning, measured via continuous assessment and client feedback, has increased since the implementation of these teaching methods.

• Empirical data relating to the success of the teaching method outlined in this paper are presented in the poster entitled ‘Demonstration of the relationship between meaningful lifelong learning, English language proficiency and teaching methods.’

• In conclusion the study of language should form part of a curriculum in order to overcome the language barrier faced by limited English proficient lifelong learners.

• Effective instruction should activate or assess learners’ prior knowledge; model or illustrate appropriate learning strategies and connect both prior knowledge and learning strategies to new learning objectives such as the acquisition of new skills.

• The goal of effective instruction should be to shift the responsibility of learning from the educator to the learner.


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