Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Endless Loop

Today I taught a group of students at the Zurich University of Teacher Education (PH Zurich). I corrected the following utterances:

  • “What means ‘intelligible’?” (should be “What DOES ‘intelligible’ mean?”)

  • “Last year I have gone there, it was great!” (should be: “Last year I WENT there…”)

[eye roll] How many times I have corrected these ‘miscues’ or ‘mistakes’? However, did these utterances hinder the students’ ability to communicate? No! Did the students know the rule? Yes! Were they able to correct themselves? Yes! Did they say it incorrectly again after being corrected, made to repeat the expression correctly and write it down to remember? Yes!!

What does this example show us? It shows that language is not learned in isolated moments of “learning the present perfect”. It shows us that noticing language takes place all the time, in different contexts. Some things, like the present perfect, are so different from German, that it is only in extended exposure, use in different situations as well as in explicit practice that they have a chance of being ‘learned properly’ and even learning them properly does not guarantee that they will come out of our mouths properly. Research on this is explicit (one example is Macaro 2001).

If you look at textbooks such as “Cambridge English for Schools” you will find a course syllabus that goes from one language point to the next – do children learning with this type of textbook come out of their obligatory education knowing English better than children who had a more ‘holistic’ exposure to the language? No. Furthermore, studies such as show that children hold more positive attitudes towards foreign language learning in more holistic, content challenging methods such as CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) (see Lasagabaster 2001) where it is a given that the language will progress cyclically. Do positive attitudes lead to learning? Yes!

If you take the example of the Explorers textbooks, you see a very clear cyclical progression of grammar and vocabulary. In a first encounter, the children are exposed to the item, such as the past simple. You see multiple exposures to the past simple in Explorers 1. As children go from Explorers 1 to Explorers 2, they are asked to use the past simple in isolated situations and with support (e.g. with the help of a ‘Workout’ or by using the Resource Book or seeing substitution table). By the time the children get to the 6th grade, to Explorers 3, they are then asked to use some verbs in the past tense actively, without any support. The language items defined by the curriculum are all in there in this manner so you need not worry about meeting the aims just because you don’t see the language presented explicitly and exclusively in grammar/vocabulary exercises.

Back in 1997, the Council of Europe wrote about the importance of ‘embedding’ language items into challenging thematic contexts and repeating them in different contexts (e.g. teaching “They have/don’t have” through the context of describing pets to comparing mammals and birds to comparing families in different cultures). This same progression you see in first choice. You see this progression in Explorers and you see this sort of progression in the new materials for the secondary school, Voices. In fact, you see this same sort of cyclical progression in newly-developed textbooks all over the world. Is this how I learned French? No! Does it mean that I have to teach French the same way I learned it? No.

Is there one way of learning and teaching a language? No. Is there a better way or a worse way? Maybe. Is there a perfect course book? No. Is a linear progression better than a cyclical progression and vice versa? No. If you have a cyclical progression of language items in your English course books does this mean the children won’t learn properly? No!
So enjoy teaching and rest assured through the processes of noticing language, making hypotheses about its use, practicing it explicitly and using it with varying degrees of support and in different contexts, all the major goals listed in the curriculum are covered.

Achermann, B. and Staufer, K. (2009). Sprachstrukturen in Explorers 1 bis 3. Retrieved online: http://www.explorers.ch/downloads/sprachstrukturen.pdf.

Doyé, P. and Hurrel, A. (Hrsg.). (1997). Foreign language learning in primary school (age 5/6 to 10/11). Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

Gass, S. (2001).-Second Language Acquisition: An introductory course. 2nd edition, with L. Selinker. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lasagabaster, D. and Serra, J. (2001). Language Attitudes in CLIL and
Traditional EFL Classes. International CLIL Research Journal. Vol. 1 (2).

Macaro, E. (2006). Does intensive explicit grammar instruction make all the difference? Language Teaching Research, Vol. 10, No. 3, 297-327