In this paper, the teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL) to young learners (YLs) in the Arab classroom is discussed. In particular, the task-based language teaching (TBLT) of extensive reading (ER) for EFL YLs from Oman is considered. The specific features of YLs’ learning styles are described and applied to the notions of TBLT and ER. The particular details of the implementation of TBLT ER for EFL YLs in Oman classroom are discussed as well. It is concluded that both TBLT and ER are applicable to the work with EFL YLs, and their integration provides EFL Omani YLs with additional English language exposure as well as the opportunity to apply their skills in a motivational and engaging way.
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The term “young learners” can be defined as “those who a learning a foreign or second language and who are doing so during the first six or seven years of foreign schooling” (McKay, 2006, p. 1). In this work, students aged 7-10 years old are considered.
Characteristics of Children as Learners
The characteristics of young learners (YLs) can have both positive and negative effects on the learning process. For example, the positive features include their enthusiasm, creativity, readiness to work with the teacher, open-mindedness, a lack of inhibition, capacity for indirect (unconscious) learning, an “instinct” for interaction, and ability and willingness to take part in exercises that YL do not understand (Cameron, 2001; Halliwell, 1992). At the same time, it is more difficult to keep a child motivated, especially when a topic is difficult (Cameron, 2001).
Moon (2000) also highlights the “instinct for interpreting the sense or meaning of a situation” in YLs (p. 5), an aspect that was first emphasized in Piaget’s theory (Cameron, 2001, p. 4). Moon (2000) insists that despite distracting students from aspects of language (like grammar), this instinct has a positive influence on language learning by helping YLs “attach meaning to the words used” (p. 5). YLs are less capable of abstract thinking about the language, and when provided with rules, they may choose to disregard them and come up with their own explanations (Al Malihi, 2015). Also, children are more vulnerable to criticism and may need a greater amount of support (McKay, 2006).
These characteristics are generalized, but the possibility of such generalization suggests that YLs need a particular teaching approach that can be developed with the help of these generalizations.
The socio-cultural context of learning
Piaget’s theory implies that active indirect YL can be stimulated with the help of the environment (Cameron, 2001, pp. 3-5). However, this theory centers on the child and ignores the fact that the environment is filled with other actors. Vygotsky proceeds with this idea by putting the emphasis on the social environment, that is, the people who surround the YL, his or her socio-cultural context. The context contains actors who can facilitate learning, and this idea led Vygotsky to develop the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD suggests considering the intelligence of a child from the point of view of what he or she can do with “skilled help,” which can also be defined as scaffolding (Cameron, 2001, pp. 5-7). By paying attention to the settings and actors (primarily, parents) of the learning environment, the teacher offers YLs extra opportunities for learning. Moreover, the teacher is a part of this environment, and while he or she may lack the knowledge of the child’s parents, he or she is most capable of providing “skilled help.”
Teaching EFL to Oman YLs
EFL YLs have certain specific learning features as well. EFL teaching presupposes working with the children who do not live in an English-speaking country (Cohen, 2014). EFL students are rarely in contact with the language that they are studying; because they have little exposure to the English language, they have limited opportunities for the application of knowledge, even though TV and the Internet may help in this respect (Al-Jardani, 2012). As a result, an EFL teacher in this situation would be expected to encourage YLs to both apply and be exposed to English as much as possible. Also, unlike students who learn English as a second language in an English-speaking environment and are thus motivated to learn since they need the language in everyday life, EFL students must find another source of motivation (Long, 2014). YLs’ enthusiasm for the learning needs to be discovered, nurtured, and maintained by the EFL teacher.
In Oman, the national language is Arabic, but English is widely used in various spheres of communication, which is why it is typical for Omani parents to want their children to take up EFL (Al-Jardani, 2012). English and Arabic are sufficiently different to cause certain problems in EFL skills development among Omani EFL children, which can lead to decreased motivation levels (Cameron, 2001). For example, Arabic-speaking EFL YLs face a number of challenges in reading, such as the differences between the alphabets, the different numbers and usages of vowels and consonants, and even the direction of writing. Similarly, Arab learners find English language consonant clusters difficult to read and discern; in Arabic, the maximum consonant cluster contains only two letters (Mourtaga, 2006, pp. 80-86). By providing skilled help, a teacher can facilitate the process of overcoming these difficulties and motivate children to proceed with their studies.
Reading and Teaching Reading to YLs
Reading is essential for a language user since it is a powerful tool in language acquisition. However, it is rather difficult for an EFL child to develop (Ahmed & Rajab, 2015), and the teacher needs to provide the children with skilled help in this process.
There are two key approaches to teaching reading: extensive and intensive. ER can be defined as “reading as much as possible, for the purpose of pleasure or information rather than learning particular language features” (Al-Homoud & Schmitt, 2009, p. 383). The materials are typically chosen by the readers themselves, but their teacher can assess the difficulty level to avoid the decrease of motivation and ensure the positive impact of ER (Haider & Akhter, 2012). In general, as stated by Haider and Akhter (2012), ER is likely to benefit from teacher supervision and help (p. 129).
In the long run, ER can be as effective as intensive reading with respect to comprehension, speed, and vocabulary acquisition, but it receives more positive feedback from students (Ahmed & Rajab, 2015; Al-Homoud & Schmitt, 2009, pp. 384-386; Briggs, 2016; Kuhn et al., 2006). Also pointed out by Green (2005), ER is especially important for EFL because it “offers broad exposure to the target language and is second only to acquiring the language by living among its native speakers” (p. 306. Despite this, learners typically do not develop their understanding and knowledge of grammar rules during ER (Haider & Akhter, 2012), but they may enjoy other positive outcomes. For instance, Al Harrasi (2012) points out that ER helps to develop a child’s imagination and creativity, and Ahmed and Rajab (2015) also mention the development of good reading habits.
The fact that reading and ER have a positive effect on EFL progress has been proven by numerous studies (Al-Homoud & Schmitt, 2009, p. 384), including those focused on Arab YLs (Ahmed & Rajab, 2015; Al Harrasi, 2012). For example, Ahmed and Rajab (2015) carried out a longitudinal quantitative study with 112 primary school EFL Arab students. The study not only indicated improvements in language proficiency through the use of ER, but it also provided significant observations and implications. In particular, the authors highlighted the positive effect of extensive exposure to English in an environment that is almost devoid of it. Also, the study provided visible proof of enhanced motivation and enthusiasm, which are especially important for elementary-level classes because of the feelings of intimidation that children typically experience reading at that level of proficiency.
Ultimately, the benefits of ER from the point of view of EFL teaching to YLs are apparent: ER provides a pleasurable—and thus motivating—means of extensively exposing a child to English. It has been discovered that ER is often supported by teachers, but it remains rather innovative for the majority of Arabian countries (Haider & Akhter, 2012; Shabani & Ghasemi, 2014). ER can be carried out in a variety of ways, and TBLT is one of them; when implemented successfully, TBLT provides a flexible and non-constricting framework for ER (Green, 2005).
Task-Based Language Teaching, ER, and YL
TBLT is a relatively mature and famous approach (Butler & Zeng, 2013; Carless, 2003; Long, 2014), which has been used in teaching for almost 40 years. It is an interesting fact that TBLT was primarily developed in Arab and Asian contexts (Thomas & Reinders, 2015, pp. 12-13), which makes it likely to be appropriate for Arab learners. TBLT is a set of principles rather than an approach to teaching, but several key points need to be preserved to keep to TBLT.
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Tasks and YLs
Tasks are a suitable approach to teaching YLs (Carless, 2002; Carless, 2003), and this fact can be explained by the specifics of TBLT. Samuda and Bygate (as cited in Harmer, 2008) suggest the following definition of a task: it “is a holistic activity which engages language use in order to achieve some non-linguistic outcome while meeting a linguistic challenge, with the overall aim of promoting language learning through process or product or both” (p. 174).
A task is the basis of TBLT learning activities, which indicates that TBLT is an upside-down version of the PPP approach. The PPP approach suggests asking learners to apply new knowledge (Production) after receiving the teacher’s presentation of it and Practicing it (Hakim, 2015). In TBLT, the priorities are reversed: the application of the language becomes primary with respect to its study (Najjari, 2014), and the language (the form) is not supposed to define the meaning (the task); rather, the former may and should come after the latter (Harmer, 2008, p. 175). This approach is useful for YLs since it does not focus on the mistakes and difficulties that a beginner in a language study is going to experience, but, at the same time, it is also suitable for EFL YLs since it entails an extensive application of the language.
TBLT and ER
TBLT can be directed at ER, which allows combining the advantages of both. In particular, TBLT has the potential of providing children with the skilled help that is considered a positive addition to ER (Haider & Akhter, 2012), the lack of which is capable of rendering the method ineffective altogether (Green, 2005). TBLT has three elements: pre-task activities, the task itself, and the post-task activities (Hakim, 2015). The first allows one to provide the necessary instructions and motivation, both of which are necessary for EFL YLs. Green (2005) especially points out that a lack of clear reading purpose makes ER ineffective (p. 310). The last element presupposes the revision and evaluation of the students’ performance, which provides another beneficial opportunity for EFL students to use the language (Shabani & Ghasemi, 2014).
The Use of TBLT
TBLT was found suitable for language learning in various contexts (Hakim, 2015), including YL work and reading skills development (Butler & Zeng, 2013). An important benefit of TBLT is its orientation towards practice (Najjari, 2014), which makes it especially suitable for EFL teaching since the latter is also concerned with the extensive application of language during lessons to compensate for its absence in the general environment. Also, TBLT is a learner-centered type of teaching approach (Hakim, 2015; Long, 2014), which puts it in line with the modern understanding of the role of the teacher as a facilitator (O’Keeffe & McCarthy, 2016).
As a result, TBLT is viewed as an interactive, engaging, and motivating form of teaching, which is especially important for EFL YLs. However, it may also be interesting to point out another perspective on TBLT. Littlewood (2007) dwells on the motivational issues that a TBLT EFL teacher experiences in a classroom of Arab YLs (p. 244). This research shows that to make TBLT engaging, the teacher must make the effort to engage, and here a combination of TBLT and the motivational method of ER can be effective.
Implementing TBLT ER in Arab EFL Classrooms
The practice of teaching foreign languages (in particular, English compulsory education) to YLs is a relatively new but very popular trend in Arabian countries, and Arab teachers fully support this initiative (Al Malihi, 2015). The context of the country, in which the learning is implemented, has always been of significance for English teaching (Al Malihi, 2015; Carless, 2002; Hakim, 2015). In Oman, the lack of English context in everyday life is compensated by the opportunities for EFL YLs that have been introduced by globalization, which offers new channels of English exposure, and the governmental support of the EFL teaching (Al-Jardani, 2012). As for the challenges caused by the differences in languages, these are mitigated by the growing experience of Omani teachers (Al Malihi, 2015) and the integration of that of international Arab EFL teachers (Al-Homoud & Schmitt, 2009; Al Malihi, 2015; Hakim, 2015; Najjari, 2014; Shabani & Ghasemi, 2014).
The age of the selected population of students (7-10) implies that they may possess a variety of levels of proficiency. However, given that ER is appropriate starting at an elementary level (Ahmed & Rajab, 2015), it is not a problem; the concern lies in assisting students to find texts that are suitable for their personal level and interests. Here, the funding of EFL teaching should be mentioned: schools need to provide a sufficient number of books or access to electronic libraries (Haider & Akhter, 2012). Omani schools are typically provided with necessary materials (Al-Jardani, 2012), but EFL teachers should engage in the process and help their schools direct the funding and gather an appropriate library. Given the lack of natural exposure to English, such a library would ensure its compensation.
The financial aspect of TBLT ER is also significant for the use of technology-assisted techniques (Al Malihi, 2015). It has been proven that ER is likely to benefit from using computers for reading enhancement, especially for young readers and beginners, which implies that the advocacy for this approach to learning is also in order for a modern Arab EFL YL teacher (Al-Awidi & Ismail, 2012). Finally, because the Internet is one of the few environments in which Omani children are exposed to the English language (Al-Jardani, 2012), a teacher can encourage students to use the Internet for ER materials search. However, it is important to provide scaffolding and involve parents in the process of teaching children to use the Internet safely. Moreover, teaching children to use the Internet safely for educational purposes is likely to provide them with the opportunity to increase their exposure to the English language in the long term (Green, 2005).
As was mentioned earlier, TBLT provides more than enough opportunities for scaffolding, the importance of which is explained by Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s approaches. The literature choice and Internet instructions can be regarded as the scaffolding for the pre-test phase; as for the post-test one, it appears logical to develop appropriate but varied and creativity-related activities, especially with YLs who are naturally creative (Haider & Akhter, 2012).
This decision will also contribute to the children’s motivation. Also, in certain cases, these activities can integrate other skills, for example, speaking (a short performance) or writing (a written task, for instance, a short story about the future of characters from a book). Green (2005) especially favors the latter variant, motivating the choice by the opportunity to use the output (children’s works) as another level of reading. The author suggests that the existence of an audience makes writers more motivated. Moreover, because the writers’ level of English is comparable to that of the readers, it is easier for the readers to comprehend the texts. As a result, TBLT ER can provide both motivation and an opportunity for the additional application of the English language for Omani EFL students.
Naturally, the rest of the aspects of child involvement (for example, discipline, motivation, and the use of mother tongue) must be considered in an Arabian classroom as well (Al Harrasi, 2012; Littlewood, 2007). Here, the international experience of EFL teaching can be used to obtain ideas; for instance, the report by Garton, Copland, and Burns (2011) provides a number of interesting solutions to commonly encountered issues. For example, the authors dwell on the experience of an EFL teacher who resolves the motivation issue by providing children with a special reading space that has comfortable seats, including those atypical for a classroom (for instance, mats).
The experiences of EFL teachers appear to be a source of invaluable knowledge, but it is important to remember that individual institutions and even classrooms are likely to have specific contexts that need to be taken into account by the teacher. Similarly, it should be mentioned that our understanding of EFL teaching to YLs is still developing (Al Malihi, 2015). The specific environment, in which a teacher finds himself or herself, is likely to require creative, unusual solutions and suggestions. In the future, this experience can be used for the development of personal frameworks and to contribute to the growing bulk of research on the EFL YLs teaching.
The present paper regards the concepts of TBLT and ER as applied to EFL YLs teaching in Omani classrooms. The challenges that Omani children experience in EFL learning result in specific needs for such a classroom; apart from that, it also has the typical needs of EFL YLs, which includes the requirements for instructions, support, engagement, and motivation from the teacher and funding from the institution. The Omani environment provides opportunities for EFL children, which include governmental support and a growing bulk of teacher experience in overcoming challenges and offering skilled help. However, the environment lacks English language exposure, which makes the extensive work with the language in ER even more applicable to an Omani EFL classroom.
Apart from that ER is especially suitable for YLs due to its motivational nature. Similarly, TBLT is most appropriate for EFL YLs due to its student-centered and practice-based approach, and the potential for learners’ engagement and motivation. As a result, the effective integration of TBLT and ER combines their benefits to help in addressing the needs of an Omani YLs classroom by offering learners extensive exposure to the English language, as well as a chance to apply the English language in an engaging, motivational, and pleasurable way. It can be concluded that the application of TBLT ER in Arab EFL YL classroom is a justified decision, but its implementation requires a sufficient amount of customization and careful consideration of the learners’ specific and generic needs and opportunities.
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