I started sharing my experience of working with young learners (YLs) and the results of research that I had done for DELTA Module 3. At that time I was working with a group of 10-12 year old children at BKC IH Moscow so I was interested in finding out as much as possible about YLs and designing a course for that age group. I have already mentioned that my study revealed the growing importance of a teacher’s role as well as the importance to assess learners’ needs, constant lesson evaluation and reflection. This post is aimed at examining the term ‘needs’ and suggesting some ways of approaching the issues of needs analysis to be able to develop a course that suits your learners’ needs.
Some important questions to keep in mind:
How well do you know your students? Do they belong to the same age group? What can you say about their level of English? Do they have the same learning preferences?
According to Jeremy Harmer, the age of our students is a key factor, which enables teachers to make decisions about how and what to teach (Harmer 2007:37). Most young learners are still developing physically, emotionally and cognitively. They might still struggle with reading and writing tasks as their literacy skills are not well developed. They may lack social skills because they are unaware of social norms basic to cooperative interaction. This means that teachers are not only responsible for planning course programmes with a good variety of activities but helping their learners develop and preparing them for these tasks.
In my experience, our students might be of the same age or the same level but they are still different from each other. For example, some students may have a better memory than others or they learn better from getting a visual aid or listening to their teacher’s explanation. We can tailor our teaching to match the learner styles if we know their preferred primary system such as logical, spatial or kinaesthetic. I will highlight different theories and how individual learners respond to the ways we use to teach them in the following post.
We often see the differences between learners from mixed-gender groups. Boys and girls are likely to have different interests, attitudes and motivation. The children may also have different levels of maturity, which will also affect their learning preferences and motivation. All these factors are important and teachers need to consider them when planning educational programmes, however, first teachers have to choose the tools for collecting that information.
Identifying the needs of your learners is quite a challenging component of course design. There are many different aspects of learners’ needs that can help teachers plan their courses. Needs analysis, which was introduced into language teaching through the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) movement, is obviously a necessary phase in planning educational programmes. As Brindley notes, the term ‘needs’ may refer to the information about the learners’ wants, desires, demands, expectations, motivations, lacks, constraints and requirements (Brindley in Richards 2001:54).
As teachers start working with their groups of learners, they usually notice that the aims and demands of learners as well their expectations are different. What is more, their needs can change as the course progresses so teachers can deliver needs analysis in a variety of formats and use them periodically. To my mind, needs analysis is an ongoing process and it is vitally important to use different tools for conducting it.
Needs analyses vary in their scope and demand depending on the purpose of that study, for example, it can be based on a school requirement or an individual teacher’s initiative. Teachers can use different procedures to collect information on their learners but using one source of information might be insufficient. Experts recommend using a so-called triangular approach, which means referring to at least three sources, as this will help avoid inaccuracies and ensure receiving complete information about the learners (Richards, 2001:59).
Let us consider some of the sources and tools for conducting needs analysis. First, learners can take a diagnostic test at the beginning of the course and teachers may wish to confirm their level of proficiency by setting progress tests and collecting data on learners’ performance. Teachers can study their learners’ written works and they can also interview them. The results of using the instruments described above can look like this:
Another way of getting information about the learners of a particular age group is consulting related literature or getting advice from an expert. I am sure you have some colleagues who have worked with the same age groups and eager to share their experience. There are a number of methodology books and articles written by teachers who have some handy tips for teaching particular age groups, conducting needs analysis and analysing young learner’s needs. For example, I am keen on reading blogs and articles at onestopenglish.com and books like ‘Children Learning English’ help me enormously in finding ways to manage mixed ability children.
It is not surprising that the most common needs analysis tools are questionnaires and interviews as they are easy to find or design. Although there many different types of ready-made questionnaires available, I usually create my own forms according to the age group and level of students. This allows me to collect more accurate information about the learners and decide on supplementary instruments that are necessary to use. For children of this age, I used a simplified form with some visual aids, the extract from which looks like this:
Setting up an activity like this might be challenging if the learners have not been exposed to this type of questionnaires. When I used that form with my group of juniors, I had to explain why we are working on this form and monitor to ensure the learners did the right thing, i.e. in one of the tasks they were expected to rank the options according to their preferences instead of choosing only one, as some learner might have found that confusing. Giving clear instructions, demonstration and scaffolding might facilitate this process. With more experienced learners, teachers can ask them to use this type of form to interview each other. Thus we can give them an opportunity to work in pairs, develop speaking skills and get motivated as this is an example of task with a communicative focus.
Apart from having used some particular tools, I constantly observed my learners while they were engaged in various tasks. I also followed the recommendation of obtaining information from different sources and I interviewed not only the children but their parents, administrators and their former teachers, which helped me find out about their previous learning experience, their learning needs, preferences and perceptions of language difficulties. It is not advisable to use only questionnaires, even if they are well designed, as the information collected is likely to be fairly superficial and unreliable (Richards, 2001:60).
The learners might be involved in a variety of activities such as questionnaires, project work and surveys for conducting needs analysis and confirming the current level of learners’ language proficiency. To avoid ambiguity and ensure quality of the research, it is worth collecting information from several sources. Teachers may choose to interview and carry out a survey, which will also involve the learners’ parents, administrators and their former or current teachers. Identifying the language needs, preferences and motivation of your learners can help you select appropriate materials, activities, techniques and design a course which will meet their needs and expectations. In fact, it is even possible to give the learners opportunities to make some choices about the content of the course to maintain a higher level of motivation. If the teacher is aware of their learners’ needs, they will be able to find a compromise and help the learners set short-term and long-term goals.
series of articles on needs analysis at onestopenglish