If someone told me that it would take between three to ten years to acquire the language skills that I needed to study at a post-secondary level, would I be up for the challenge or decide that it was just too difficult? Research in the area of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) indicates that it can take this long (Collier, 1987, Hakuta, Butler, and Witt, 2000). So when I noticed that many of my international students appeared to be struggling academically and disengaging in my language and communications course, I felt that I needed to find a new strategy or approach very quickly.
I started off with a simple Google search: student + language learning + motivation. Little did I know that what I would eventually discover would significantly change my approach as a language teacher, and also affect my own learning.
To provide some background, the students in my course were studying in a 4 semester post-graduate program at a college to improve their language and communication skills in order to find employment in Canada as a health care professional due to the shortage in the country. I knew that the language level they needed in order to find employment, and successfully (and safely) perform duties in the healthcare field, would mean that many of the students would have to work very hard to improve their English in a short period of time. What was even more challenging was that many of these students had studied in English and did not see the need for improvement.
My 20 years' of experience as an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor helped me to understand the difficulties that new international students face in terms of academic expectations and culture shock (I had gone through a similar experience when I moved to Hong Kong several years before). For example, it was not uncommon to have students arrive here in Canada on the weekend, and then be sitting in my classroom Monday morning. I could always sense their level of anxiety those first few weeks and felt that what they needed was someone who cared about them first as people, and then take an interest in their success as students. This group of eight internationally trained professionals were no different except that time was not on their side. They had spent thousands of dollars to enroll in the program, and set very high expectations for themselves in terms of landing a good job, and being able to stay in Canada.
When I discovered Angela Duckworth's work on grit, I instantly saw a connection between SLA and grit. I could see how grit, which is defined as "perseverance and passion for long term goals", was important for language learners given the number of years required (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007, p. 1087). I could see how language learning was a "marathon not a sprint" but I needed something more concrete that I could use in the classroom.
Then I discovered Carol Dweck's research on mindsets. This is when everything changed for me as a teacher. The notion that results are based on effort rather than talent or aptitude for language learning was key. I was so excited and read everything I could that weekend. On Monday morning, I talked to my students about mindsets. I wrote "EFFORT = RESULTS" on the board. There was no formal lesson that day because we spent the whole class talking about mindsets. Before the class was over, I showed them a copy of an essay that I had written for a course in my Master of Education program (for some reason, I had saved it). Every page was marked with red pen which uncovered several errors in APA formatting! I talked to them about how I felt when I saw that paper and how I looked at the mistakes as a way to improve my own academic writing. The message that I was trying to convey was that even me, the English teacher makes mistakes and needs to work hard to improve!
We continued to talk about "EFFORT = RESULTS", and learning from feedback throughout the rest of the semester. I could see "light bulbs" going off over students' heads when I returned their assignments and they told me how their grade reflected their effort (either they worked hard or actually admitted that they didn't make an effort).
At the end of the semester, I asked students to provide feedback on their thoughts and experience as learners over the past 4 months. Although these examples are anecdotal, students expressed how my belief in their abilities and praise of their effort and hard work (not intelligence), encouraged them to persevere and work hard to improve their language skills.
Here are some of their comments (with grammatical errors included):
"I have a positive attitude to learning. I love to gain new experiences and knowledge and a growth mindset."
"Efforts equals to results. I learnt through this that, although do many attempts, but never give up as tiredness at the final end stage."
"It's been always your words which motivates me to work hard. I will try to work hard and continue to put more effort to improve my writing skills."
"The biggest thing I realized on each step is efforts = result. I am thankful to you for motivating and encouraging me."
There are numerous examples from students in other cohorts that speak to the importance of motivating them to work hard and my belief in their abilities. By introducing growth mindset, many students were able to see the connection between "EFFORT = RESULTS", learn from their mistakes and persist even in the face of setbacks. It was a shift in their thinking because initially they may have believed that they would not be able to reach the level of language needed to work as health care professionals in Canada. Now they understood that it was possible. In my view, it is important as educators to use all strategies available to help our learners succeed.
Dweck recently spoke at an educational conference in February 2016 where she explained that "Growth mindsets are not a magic trick that will solve every challenge in the classroom" (Ebad, 2016). Furthermore, Dweck talked about the importance of sitting with students to figure out what they are thinking, and tie this process with their learning. My biggest take-away from Dweck's talk was her comment related to "growing brains for a larger goal". For my students, improving their language skills was not just about learning to write a better essay but for a more meaningful purpose which is to work in Canada in the healthcare field.
I will also remember one student in particular who struggled with all three of the English courses that I was teaching. She was barely passing in each course but stayed after each class to ask for help. Her attitude motivated me both as a teacher and learner.
Good evening Teacher, Today in the cultural reflection I got 50% . Respected , Teacher please tell me my mistakes so that i will not repeat the same in next assignment . You are very motivational teacher as you told me my weak points in writing . Now, I am doing good efforts for overcome this. Thank you for this from my core of my heart.
Reflecting back, learning about growth mindset and applying it to SLA has been a highlight in my professional career. Although I am no longer a classroom teacher, I continue to talk about growth mindset and second language acquisition at TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) conferences including one in Moldova (where I presented via Google Hang-out). I am very excited about an upcoming conference in Costa Rica this July where I will talk to English teachers about growth mindset and its role in language learning.
Not only have my students been able to think about growth mindset in terms of their language learning, but they can also see how it applies to all aspects of their lives. As future health care professionals in Canada, continuous professional development will be required as part of their jobs. Having a growth mindset can positively affect how they approach life long learning.
Blad, E. (March 14, 2016). Nurturing Growth Mindsets: Six Tips from Carol Dweck. Leaders to Learn from Conference – Washington, March 2016. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/2016/03/nurturing_growth_mindsets_six_tips_from_carol_dweck.html
Collier, V. P. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 21(4). 617–641. doi:10.2307/3586986
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087–1101. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997.
Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? The University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Policy report 2000-1. Adolescence, 40, 503–512. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/13w7m06g
Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A., TESL has 20 years' experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Curriculum Writer in Canada and Hong Kong. Patrice has taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs such as English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP), Business English, and language/communication courses for new immigrants. She now works as a teacherpreneur writing English courses, and travelling whenever possible to deliver short term teacher training.