Form-Focused Instruction in Afternoon Secondary School EFL-Lessons?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

Spurred by some rather disappointing test results in recent international, national and regional comparative studies more and more educational policy-makers in Germany seem to be convinced that implementing purely structural measures such as a) reducing the number of school years specified for the Abitur (the main university entrance qualification in Germany) from 13 to 12, b) extending primary and secondary half-day education to full days, or simply c) lengthening students’ time at school with an increasingly test-centered and outcome-oriented philosophy of education is vital to strengthening Germany’s future competitiveness in the global economy and to ensuring a high standard of living for all.

All this has resulted in an increasing number of English lessons in German secondary schools in the afternoon, especially at the intermediate and upper-intermediate levels. Teaching and learning English in the afternoon is quite different from teaching and learning it in the morning, however. On extended school days with more than six preceding lessons in subjects other than English, it seems that many students tend to find it hard to concentrate and focus their attention on learning English, especially if this is the final lesson of their school day. The following result of an informal, merely explorative survey which included 274 7th and 8th-grade learners at a comprehensive secondary school in Dortmund, Germany is, of course, non-representative, no more than a snapshot really, but it does indicate the kind of problems with which EFL-teachers and learners are already now confronted and will be perhaps increasingly in the near future: three quarters of the students interviewed said that they find it easier to learn English in the morning lessons than in the afternoon lessons, mainly because they feel that their capacity to focus on what is being taught is reduced in the afternoon (see Kurtz 2004). How relevant or important is this for SLA research and foreign language pedagogy in general and for practice-oriented EFL-theory construction in particular?

Current international research on form-focused sequences of instruction in communicative classroom environments revolves around concepts such as ‘focusing attention’, ‘noticing’, ‘consciousness and awareness (-raising)’ as well as ‘language learning strategies’. However, many of the (empirical) studies on which these concepts are based were not carried out in all-day school EFL-classrooms. The participants of these studies were predominantly adult second-language university students exposed to the target language not only in the classroom. As far as I can see, potentially inhibiting factors to form-focused EFL afternoon instruction, such as fatigue, stress, poor concentration, reduced attention capacity, and perhaps reduced motivation to focus on systematic language work have not yet been addressed adequately in research. It is therefore very difficult to say if these rather general concepts (which are drawn from research done in a significantly different learning environment) and the implications for teaching and learning ‘deduced’ from them are equally valid with regard to the changing learning conditions outlined above.

Reducing form-focused sequences of instruction in all-day schools to those days where English is taught before noon is certainly no solution. With only three or four English lessons a week, too much precious learning time would be squandered. Disregarding the learner’s impression of limited capacity to focus and concentrate on what is being taught in afternoon lessons is no solution to the emerging problem either. Theories based on mental capacities that are (probably) only available to a limited extent in EFL afternoon lessons are not really convincing. Empirical research carried out in actual afternoon classes is definitely needed to shed more light on this (for a critical review of national and international research and a detailed analysis of the theoretical implications and methodological consequences of learning and teaching English in all-day schools see Kurtz 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2007).

Kurtz, Jürgen (2004). Englischunterricht am Nachmittag: Ergebnisse einer Schülerbefragung. Englisch, 4, 121-130.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2006a). Kernprobleme und Entwicklungsperspektiven des Englischunterrichts an integrierten Gesamtschulen. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung, 1, 1-35.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2006b). Einige Impulse zur Weiterentwicklung des Englischunterrichts an integrierten Gesamtschulen im Verbund mit den Grundschulen im jeweiligen Einzugsgebiet. In: Angela Hahn & Friederike Klippel (Hrsg.) (2006). Sprachen schaffen Chancen. Dokumentation zum 21. Kongress für Fremdsprachendidaktik der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Fremdsprachenforschung. München: Oldenbourg, 127-138.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2007). Englischunterricht an schulischen Ganztagseinrichtungen – auch nach der Mittagspause? Lehren und Lernen, Zeitschrift für Schule und Innovation in Baden-Württemberg, 33, 6, 24-28.


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