OCDE: Aprendiendo inglés en tiempos de Tik-Tok
Junio 6, 2024

TikTok and textbooks: how today’s 15-year-olds learn English

Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills, OECD

For me, learning English at 15 was mainly about learning to read and write. I graduated from school with the highest mark in the written exam but while I could happily discuss advanced English literature, I quickly figured out that I couldn’t hold even a simple conversation in English. I just never really had cause to use conversational English inside or outside school. It was only when I got to university and had a professor who only spoke English that I caught up.

Learning English today could not be more different from my generation’s experience. Gone are the days when students only encountered the language via teachers and textbooks for a couple of hours a week in a classroom. Now it is everywhere: across the Internet, on social media and available 24/7 direct to students’ smartphones.

Next year, as part of work co-funded by the European Commission, PISA will test students’ English proficiency in 22 countries around the world. To better understand what drives language learning – and to put the PISA results into context – a research team from the OECD visited schools in five of those countries: Finland, Greece, Israel, the Netherlands and Portugal. The team observed English lessons and interviewed 15-year-old students, English teachers and school leaders about their experiences.

From those conversations, it was clear that learning English now transcends classroom walls. Today’s teens, almost regardless of background, are surrounded by English while navigating a digital landscape that reaches far into their lives, in and out of school. They use it to browse the Internet as they research a science project. They watch English language films and series on Netflix or watch in another language, using English subtitles to follow along. They scroll videos on YouTube and TikTok, reading posts, leaving comments and messaging other social media users – all in English. They play video games with people from across the world, using English to talk strategy and swap tricks.

This may well be having an impact on language proficiency. Many of the students we spoke to see their exposure to English outside school as widening their vocabulary and helping their comprehension. They and their teachers agree that it motivates them to learn, providing a window into a global world where English is the predominant language.

But there are challenges too. Teachers described students’ newfound familiarity with the language as giving some of them a false sense of their own proficiency, leaving them less inclined to take their English lessons seriously. Some students and teachers we spoke to talked about a lack of connection between what is learned in the classroom and how English is encountered outside school, creating tensions between teachers and students and misunderstandings or disagreements about what constitutes “accurate” English.

In contrast, what goes on in classrooms may feel a little more familiar to my contemporaries. Yes, many of the teachers and students we spoke to use digital technologies to make English lessons more engaging and relevant to students’ lives. They take advantage of the wealth of authentic English language material now just one click away and use game-based digital platforms to liven up traditional vocabulary and grammar drills. But textbooks remain a key feature of most English language lessons. For teachers, they provide a clear course structure and reduce the planning load; for students they can offer a sense of security. However, we also heard about how quickly they can feel outdated or repetitive and that they do not always challenge today’s more exposed learners.

Perhaps the biggest transformation in foreign language classrooms in the last decades has been a shift to the communicative approach, which emphasises interaction as the main means and goal of language teaching. It is striking then that in every school we visited, the students, their teachers and school leaders spoke enthusiastically about the need for English learners to have more opportunities, in and out of the classroom, to use English in authentic ways, and particularly to speak it. Teenagers have never had so much access to the language but they want more. Crucially, they want to be active users and not just consumers of English.

Read more: How 15-year-olds learn English: Case studies from Finland, Greece, Israel, the Netherlands and Portugal (link)

Find out more about our work on foreign language proficiency internationally (link)

Watch our webinar: Lights, Camera, Fluency: How pop music, podcasts, and Tik Tok are impacting English language learning (link)

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