Diagnosing a Target Learner Group's English Problems
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Diagnosing the Target Learner Group of TEFL Students

The Enormous Advantages of Knowing your Study Group's Learning Problems in Advance!

(Adapted from "Thai Problems in Learning English": Module 3 of the TEFL for Target Learner Groups Course)

Obviously, every caring teacher wants to do a good job for his or her students, which is why we talk about Target Learner Groups.

ESL teacher with a target learner groupA "Target Learner Group" may be defined as a group of EFL or ESL students who all, or nearly all, share the same native language. Members of such a group share in common certain easily definable learning difficulties based on the differences in operation between their own language and English. In the real world of teaching English abroad, nearly every student group falls into this category.

It obviously would be ideal, therefore, if you, as your students' teacher, were able to know in advance, from the very first day of class, exactly what their learning problems are, what caused them, and what you can do to help.

Well, you certainly can know these matters in advance! And the means of discovering these is not very difficult at all. However, to do this, you must focus on comparing and contrasting the way your target learner group's native language operates against the way English operates, along with how the individuals in your group actually use their own language in practice.

What we are really discussing here is, in a very real sense, diagnosis. To make an analogy, a doctor will not prescribe automatically the same medication, treatment or therapy for every patient suffering from the same disease, but will instead inquire about medical history, the time the problem began, the family history of disease, get a full description of the patient's symptoms, etc. From this diagnosis, combined with the doctor's excellent training, experience and judgement, comes the appropriate treatment.

The fact is that we EFL and ESL teachers are doctors also, namely "language doctors", who have a duty to diagnose our students' learning needs before we embark on a period of "treatment", or instruction. Unfortunately, most traditional English teacher training programs prepare graduates to teach in an almost identical manner to all learner groups, whether they be Mexican, Austrian, Saudi Arabian or Japanese, arrogantly (perhaps) believing that the teaching techniques thus imparted apply equally well to all national groups. Even certain presenters at TESOL conferences tend to fall into this mistaken pattern, as do most attendees. We don't.

We of TEXT-AND-TALK Academy know that each Target Learner Group has its own set of learning problems based on the operational differences between their language and English.

Luckily, in our case, all Asian peoples share English learning problems that are nearly identical. Thus, in our course, by learning about Thai learning problems, you end up being fully suited for teaching English with excellent results to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian learner groups, as just a few examples.

To uncover this information about other learner groups, however, requires a two-step process.

First, visit a good encyclopedia or other reliable source of information, and read all you can about how your students' native language operates.

We don't mean you need to learn their language! You need only pinpoint differences between their language and English, and then extrapolate this data in accordance with the formula given in our course to determine what the learning problems actually are.

And, second, you should speak, if you have the opportunity, to some teacher who has already acquired experience in teaching this type of learner group.

Now you are armed and ready for the classroom!

Below, we will demonstrate how this process actually works in practice.

Let us assume that you are in Cairo , Egypt , and your target learner group’s native language is Arabic. They speak the Cairene (or Cairo ) dialect, which is the one most widely understood owing to its use in music, print and film. Upon arrival you do some some language research from the encyclopedia or some other reliable source and discover the facts below.

General Information about Arabic:

  1. Usage areas. Arabic is a Southern-Central Semitic language spoken in a large area that includes North Africa , most of the Arabian Peninsula and other parts of the Middle East.

  2. Application and dialect groups. Arabic is the language of the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, and is the religious language of all Muslims. Literary Arabic, usually called Classical Arabic, is essentially the form of the language which is found in the Koran, with some modifications necessary for its use in modern times. It is uniformly used throughout the Arab world. Colloquial Arabic includes numerous spoken dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible. The chief dialect groups are those of Arabia , Iraq , Syria , Egypt and North Africa . With the exception of the dialect of Algeria , all Arabic dialects have been strongly influenced by the literary language.

  3. The spoken language. The sound system of Arabic is very different from that of English and the other languages of Europe . It includes a number of distinctive gutteral (throat-produced) sounds, and a series of consonants pronounced with the back of the tongue raised against the roof of the mouth. There are only three actual vowels: a, i and u, though each of these possesses both a short and a long pronunciation, giving a total of six vowel sounds.

  4. The alphabet and script. The Arabic alphabet consists of cursive script. There are 17 actual consonant characters, but these, with dots placed above or below where they are to be used in a sentence, produce an actual total of 28 consonants.

  5. Word structure. Arabic words always start with a single consonant followed by a vowel, and long vowels are rarely followed by more than a single consonant. Clusters containing more than two consonants do not occur in the language. An arabic word is composed of two parts: the root, which generally consists of three consonants and provides the basic lexical meaning of the word; and the pattern, which consists of vowels and gives grammatical meaning to the word. To illustrate, the root ktb combined with the pattern short-i and long a gives kitab (“book”), whereas the same root combined with the pattern long-a and short-i gives katib (“one who writes”, “clerk”). The language also makes use of prefixes and suffixes, which act as subject markers, pronouns, prepositions and the definite article.

  6. How words are written. Words are written back-to-front, and sentences are written right-to-left. Separation between words varies: Some words may connect to the previous word, but some not; and some may connect to the following word (causing sound and character shape changes), and some not. Short vowels are shown by signs above or below the consonants they belong to.

  7. Punctuation. There are no capitals. Much punctuation has been borrowed from English. Arabic has a question mark and a comma, which are written backwards. It also has a semicolon which is inverted. Colons, quotation marks and other punctuation marks are the same as in English.

  8. Verbs and tenses. Verbs in Arabic are regular in conjugation. There are two tenses: the perfect, formed by the addition of suffixes, which is often used to express past time; and the imperfect, formed by the addition of prefixes and sometimes containing suffixes indicating number and gender, which is often used for expressing present or future time. In addition to the two tenses, there are imperative forms, an active participle, a passive participle and a verbal noun. Verbs are inflected for three persons, three numbers (singular, dual and plural), and two genders. In Classical Arabic there is no dual form and no gender differentiation in the first person. The classical language also has forms for the passive voice.

  9. Noun cases. There are three cases (subject, object and possessive) in the declensional system of Classical Arabic nouns; however, nouns are no longer declined in the modern dialects. Pronouns occur both as suffixes and as independent words.

Whew! Having discovered this considerable amount of general information about the native language of your Target Learner Group (and keeping what you have learned in mind), you should now talk to an EFL/ESL teacher who has expeience teaching Egyptian learners about what problems the students have in the classroom, so that you can convert the whole of what you have learned into a practical plan of action. Through conferences with such a teacher, the following is what you will discover:


(Courtesy of teacher Kathryn J. Nail)

  1. Cultural factors: classroom performance. Egyptian people live in a society that outsiders might term “aggressive”. This is because to show weakness is to make oneself vulnerable to harm. Politeness itself may be regarded by the people as a weakness; thus, though Egyptian students are respectful of their teacher, politeness as such, either among the students or between themselves and the teacher, may be somewhat less of a concern to Egyptian students than to students of other places. Children also seem to be somewhat more difficult to control as a result of these factors, particularly if they come from wealthy families, and so are cared for (spoiled?) by nannies. Classrooms and schools themselves segregate learners according to whether they are wealthy or not. In other words, poor people and wealthy people never study together.

  2. Application of English outside the classroom. Generally, upper-income learners use English as a second language outside the classroom, meaning approximately 50%-75% of the time, owing to extensive contacts with foreigners. Less affluent learners, however, use English as a foreign language, meaning they use it very little, owing to fewer opportunities. Children of all income levels, however, seem to welcome a chance to speak in English with foreigners, even if they know only a few words.

  3. Willingness to do homework. Adults are generally diligent about doing homework. Whether children do homework or not depends mainly on parental involvement. Wealthy families tend to pay very high rates to teachers to come and ensure that their children accomplish all of their homework assignments in the evening.

  4. Students’ desire to improve pronunciation. Egyptian students do not tend to have any severe pronunciation problems with English, and are willing (and unembarrassed) when it comes to speaking and pronouncing more clearly.

  5. Tonality/intonation. Arabic is not a tonal language, and its intonative system is similar in function to that of English.

  6. Use of articles in Arabic. There is no equivalent of the article “a” in Arabic, though the article “a” is implied when a thing, animal or person is not addressed specifically by the use of the Arabic word for “the”. Combined with the lack of a verb “be” in present tense (see 10 below), this causes the speaker to “skip”, or omit, words in English. For example, if an Arabic speaker wishes to say, “This is a pen”, he actually will say, “This pen”, whereas if he wishes to use “the” with “pen”, he will say, “This the pen”. Furthermore, most Arabic speakers who already have learned the English verb “be” will still leave out “a” when speaking and writing – even after speaking English for years.

  7. Inflection. Arabic is highly inflected. It has masculine and feminine case endings, and there is no “it”. Everything can be expressed as singular, dual or plural. Since Arabic is inflected, quantity thus expressed by adding particular forms in the middle of three-consonant root words, and possession shown by particular masculine or feminine endings — the plural endings -s or -es in English are not easy for Arabic native speakers to learn: with the result that these are usually ignored, omitted or misused in spoken English.

  8. Showing possession in Arabic. There is no verb “have/has” in Arabic. Furthermore, in addition to pronominal (before the noun) suffixes used for indicating possession (as in my, her or his), there is also a special letter meaning “to” which is used to describe possession, and that letter has a prefix. Thus the sentence “ America has one president, Clinton” in Arabic speech is rendered as “To America one president, Clinton”.

  9. “There is” / “There are”. There are a total of eight different ways to render the meaning of “There is” / “There are” in Arabic. English learners, therefore, have no great difficulty in learning the one way used in English.

  10. The verb “be” in Arabic. There is no verb “be” in the present tense; therefore, am, is and are exist in a present time communication only by implication and inference. The Arabic verb “be”, in any case, is not equivalent to the English “be”, in that it is used in past time only, only in special circumstances – and generally only when speaking of oneself. As for the use of “be” in future time, there is no equivalent of “be going to” (or even “will”). “Be”, in this case, is shown by a particle which itself is shortened to a prefix, and that is attached to the beginning of a verb.

  11. Noun/adjective arrangement. Adjectives come after nouns in Arabic, no matter the number used. If a noun has a possessive (pronoun) ending, the article meaning “the” must be added to the adjective, not the noun. This often results in Arabic English learners saying something like, “My bag the new” in English.

  12. Verb placement. When a verb in Arabic comes before its subject, it is always in singular form. It may change gender, but does not change number whether the noun-subject is singular, dual or plural. Verbs that come after a subject (which occurs only rarely) will be singular for a singular subject and plural for a plural subject.

  13. Word/syllable stress. Arabic word stress is generally on the first syllable (or root letter) of a word, or the syllable containing the long vowel.

  14. English pronunciation problems and patterns, and their origin. The consonant x, although a consonant also in Arabic, for some reason is pronounced as “ehk-ehs” in English words! The th (both sounds) and the s and z sounds of English also exist in the Arabic language which your students are using, owing to the Cairene dialect having created the same basic pronunciation for th, z and zh as that used in English. There is no p or v in Arabic. These are usually pronounced b and f, respectively, and therefore need to be practiced in the classroom. Arabic speakers pronounce every consonant and vowel in Arabic, and so tend to pronounce every vowel and consonant in English as well. Thus, the world “knifed” (as in the English “He was knifed by a mugger”) will be pronounced as kuh-NAI-ehf-ehd by native speakers of Arabic.

  15. Confusion in number identification. The “teens” and “tens” of English tend to get reversed in their usages by Arabic native speakers. To indicate why this happens, we need only to look at the Arabic word for “thirteen”, which is talatasher, meaning “3 and 10”, and then at the word for “thirty”, which is talateen, showing the masculine plural object/possessive een ending for “3 tens”.

  16. Transliteration of English words into Arabic. Egyptian learners of English may occasionally transliterate an English word into Arabic, but they do not do so often. The reason isprobably because it is considered unnecessary: The English alphabet is easier than their own, and learners feel confident that they can learn to use, and remember, the correct sounds of English words. They also probably realize that an English word transliterated into their own script is likely to lose its correct sound.

Now that you know the relevant information about how Arabic operates, and have conferred with an experienced teacher of Egyptians, you will need to show your understanding of what problems your Target Learner Groups is going to have in learning English, and how you, as their teacher, are going to help.

To accomplish this, you final step is to rate the TLG and plan accordingly, in terms of any problems, about how the teacher can help the students overcome these. (Note that the tendencies in learning difficulties shown below are general ones, and some, or even many, may not apply to Egyptian learners at all!) Nonetheless, you should complete an analysis and rating of all the below.

Why don't you really do this now, to prepare yourself for the next TLG you will be teaching, regardless of what nationality they are, or what native language they use?

TENDENCY #1. Cultural factors: classroom performance.

TENDENCY #2. Application of English outside the classroom.

TENDENCY #3. Willingness to do homework.

TENDENCY #4. Students’ desire to improve pronunciation.

TENDENCY #5. Tonality/intonation.

TENDENCY #6. Use of articles in Arabic.

TENDENCY #7. Inflection.

TENDENCY #8. Showing possession in Arabic.

TENDENCY #9. “There is” / “There are”.

TENDENCY #10. The verb “be” in Arabic.

TENDENCY #11. Noun/adjective arrangement.

TENDENCY #12. Verb placement.

TENDENCY #13. Word/syllable stress.

TENDENCY #14. English pronunciation problems and patterns, and their origin.

TENDENCY #15. Confusion in number identification.

TENDENCY #16. Transliteration of English words into Arabic.

Do you see now how this is done? If you did the exercise, do you feel you have actually prepared yourself to teach English to speakers of Arabic? If so, that is wonderful, and it is also very necessary, if you are to be maximally effective as an EFL/ESL teacher of any target learner group.

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