Tag Archives: grammar teaching

The talking cure

dinner-with-andreIf, in last week’s post, I came across as a bit downhearted, this week I offer a pick-me-up.

A couple of months into this project, a Spanish-speaking friend (let’s call him Andrés) generously offered to be my regular conversation partner, not as one half of an intercambio, but simply to give me the opportunity – which I only sporadically have – to experience sustained conversation in Spanish on a regular basis. Accordingly we have been meeting once a week in a local bar for upwards of 90 minutes, with no fixed agenda, and we just talk.

The experience is liberating. For some reason, the unwillingness to communicate that I wrote about last week simply evaporates and I achieve a degree of fluidity (I’m loathe to call it fluency just yet) that I’ve only ever experienced in dreams. The talk is wide-ranging and capricious, jumping from politics to psychology, by way of travel, literature, cinema, language, language learning and relationships. The 90 minutes flash by.

When I say we just talk, it’s not quite as unstructured as that. I talk; when I’m lost for words, Andrés intervenes. He takes notes and, at the end of the day, we review some of the problems I’ve had. The experience is not unlike the one that Edmund White recounts, in his autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony, describing Lucrezia, his private teacher of Italian:

Her teaching method was clever. She invited me to gossip away in Italian as best I could, discussing what I would ordinarily discuss in English; when stumped for the next expression, I’d pause. She’d then provide the missing word. I’d write it down in a notebook I kept week after week. … Day after day I trekked to Lucrezia’s and she tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.

mydinnerwithandre-madmanOccasionally, I’ll ask Andrés if we can do the ‘Earl Stevick’ activity. That is the one that Stevick describes in Success with Foreign Languages (1989: 148):

Another of my favourite techniques is to tell something to a speaker of the language and have that person tell the same thing back to me in correct, natural form. I then tell the same thing again, bearing in mind the way in which I have just heard it. This cycle can repeat itself two or three times… An essential feature of this technique is that the text we are swapping back and forth originates with me, so that I control the content and do not have to worry about generating nonverbal images to match what is in someone else’s mind.

This technique is particularly effective when telling stories. For example, I told Andrés about a long exchange I’d had with the elderly woman who does my dry-cleaning, in which she passionately defended socialism. Having listened, Andrés told it back, in the first person, while I tried to catch the changes and improvements. Then I had another shot at it.

And all the time I keep asking myself: If I just did nothing else, could I learn any language this way? Is this all it takes: a table, two chairs, a ‘better other’, talk, reformulation, a note book, a  glass of wine? Does it matter if the ‘better other’ is not trained, knows nothing much about pedagogical grammar, is simply a native-speaker who is good enough a listener to be able to work out what it is you’re trying to say, and can reformulate it for you?

mydinnerwithandre-almostovernowWell, when I compare these conversations with the intensive classes I took earlier this year, I have to admit that the undivided attention you get in the one-to-one situation, along with the exponential increase in talking time and the chance to choose the topics and control the direction of the talk, is a huge plus.  On the other hand, I do remember valuing enormously the capacity of those (very experienced) classroom teachers to provide on the spot explanations of elusive grammar issues in response to learners’ errors, and this is perhaps the one ingredient that I would want to add to my conversations with Andrés. The one ingredient.

This is not to suggest for a moment that I am less than completely satisfied with my conversations. I know that I can go and look up the grammar stuff in my own time: I have my notes which act as a record of the difficulties I had. More important than the grammar stuff is the fact that the conversations with Andrés have endowed me with a capacity that I’ve rarely experienced in all my years speaking Spanish: the willingness to communicate (WTC).

Until recently, WTC has been construed primarily as an internal attribute of learners: something they have. However, as MacIntyre et al (2011: 93) argue, ‘perhaps it is time to widen the scope of the WTC concept to more explicitly take into account moment-to-moment dynamics within the social situation and the key role played by the communicative partner(s).’  Or, as Yashima (2012: 132) puts it: ‘WTC can only be enhanced and developed through the social processes and communicating with others. It takes two to tango.’  my-dinner-with-andre1

My experience with Andrés confirms that the willingness to communicate is much less an individual trait than a social one: not something you have but something you make. Something you make together. In fact, Andrés himself summed it up perfectly, quoting the Spanish writer Carmen Martín Gaite:  La elocuencia no está en el que habla, sino en el que oye. (Eloquence is not in the one who speaks, but in the one who listens).

Andrés has given me my voice back.

References:

MacIntyre, P.D.,Burns, C., & Jessome, A. (2011) ‘Ambivalence about communicating in a second language: A qualitative study of French immersion students’ willingness to communicate,’ Modern Language Journal, 95, 81-96.

Stevick, E. (1989) Success with Foreign Languages, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.

White, E. (1997) The Farewell Symphony, London: Chatto & Windus.

Yashima, T. (2012) ‘Willingness to communicate: Momentary volition that results in L2 behaviour’, in Mercer, S., Ryan, S., & Williams, M. (eds) Psychology for Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stills from Louis Malle’s 1981 film, My Dinner with André, New Yorker Films (permission sought and pending).

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What are classrooms good for?

5285506260_8969d9afc7_zMy recent experience as a student on a short intensive Spanish course has given me pause for thought. While I can’t claim that the experience was representative of all classroom language learning experiences, there were nevertheless a number of features of it that I think are fairly typical, such as the way that the coursebook determined the lesson sequence, the alternation between teacher-fronted and more learner-centred activities, a focus on form as well as on meaning, and, notionally at least, an overall allegiance to the practices (if not the principles) of communicative language teaching. (The centre’s publicity material claims that they use un método comunicativo).

So, what follows is not so much a critique of the classes themselves, nor of the teachers, nor of the materials that we used, but more a critique of the current orthodoxy, in the sense that I have described it above. I should also stress that, since the classes were experienced as if refracted through the lens of my own specific needs and dispositions (some would say obsessions), these comments should be interpreted solely in that light: the other students may have had a very different experience (and this diversity of perceptions is itself a typical feature of most classrooms, I would think).

So, what was the class good for?

The fact of the matter is that I didn’t ‘learn’ a great deal, if learning means ‘the acquisition of new information’, ‘the internalization of input’ etc. I did pick up a number of potentially useful formulaic expressions (of which I’ll be writing more about later) and had some fossilized errors brought to my attention (as mentioned in my last post), but if this was learning, it tended to be sporadic, incidental, and, in fact, largely accidental – a by-product of tasks that had an altogether different purpose.  This mismatch between what I was taught and what I learned may owe to the fact that I had been placed in a level slightly lower than my supposed one; however, it seems to me that the accidental nature of the learning is symptomatic of an approach to language teaching that presumes to know what learners need, rather than teaching them ‘at the point of need’, an approach, in other words, that imposes an agenda that is not the learner’s agenda.

For me, the real benefit of these classes was the chance to be communicative within the safe ‘climbing frame’ that the classroom dynamic offered. ‘Chance’ is the operative word here, since most of these opportunities to be communicative were fortuitous, a case of grabbing some pretext to talk and running with it, rather than the pretext being built into the overall design of the lessons. For example, in one lesson, a passing reference to dogs (in a grammar exercise) precipitated a discussion about the rights and wrongs of keeping big dogs in small apartments, about attitudes to dogs in the different countries represented, and about films about dogs, during which I was able to tell a story about a neighbour and her annoying dog, this whole (highly productive and interactive) digression taking up about 25 minutes of classroom time.

To their credit, the teachers not only allowed these opportunities to evolve (in most instances), but were maximally supportive in providing help (in the form of recasts, for example) or feedback (in the form of correction).  These teacher interventions seemed to represent real learning affordances, and served to distinguish what is called ‘instructional conversation’ from the kind of talk that occurs in ‘the real world’. The conversations we had were like dress rehearsals. They gave me the confidence to make the transition into the real world, where – for the first time – I deliberately sought out opportunities to initiate talk, and elaborate on the talk of others. I remember one day in the second week where I experienced a real ‘turning point’ moment, as I crossed the street to talk to an acquaintance at length, even breathlessly, about the classes I was taking. In the old days I would have crossed the street in the other direction – i.e. to avoid such an encounter.

5285505744_7049ab1ef1_zBut it has to be stressed that these emergent and scaffolded classroom conversations were seldom planned. They emerged. What was planned was a succession of coursebook-based exercises, where the primary focus was on grammar. And on a relatively narrow range of fairly low-frequency grammatical items, at that. Or it was on vocabulary, but, again, often vocabulary that not only took the form of isolated words (as opposed to words in their typical phraseological environments) but were words of relatively low frequency and utility.

The problem is (you guessed it) the coursebook. Not this particular coursebook (which was as good in its way as any comparable EFL coursebook) but the culture of the coursebook in general. Once you pin your curriculum to the mast of a coursebook, you effectively circumscribe the learners’ ownership of the process, undermining the very sense of agency that might have impelled them to the classroom in the first place.  (It was perhaps ironic that the coursebooks were on loan: we didn’t own them).

Over the two weeks of the course there was a constant tension between the coursebook agenda and the agenda that we, the students, managed to fabricate from random affordances. The salient learning moments tended to occur when we moved away from the book, not when we were immersed in it. (This is not to say that the book’s themes, texts and tasks didn’t sometimes stimulate a conversational detour, but these detours were unintentional, and might just as easily have been motivated by copies of the local free newspaper).

Defenders of the coursebook might say that these teachers did not know (or had not been trained) how to use the books in a discriminating, and productive way. There may be some truth in this, but it seems to me that the very presence of the coursebook imposes constraints that even the best teachers find difficult to circumvent.

First there is the grammar: one of the teachers herself admitted that the grammar problems that learners of our level typically face involve structures ‘lower down’ the grammatical hierarchy, such as past tenses, por and para, and so on. Certainly, the bulk of the correction we received when we were in ‘free talking’ mode had much more to do with ‘lower level’ (and more frequent) grammar items than anything to do with the immediate syllabus.

Then there were the texts, themselves chosen or written because they embed the ‘structure of the day’: rarely authentic, inevitably out-of-date and only accidentally relevant or of interest. Then there were the tasks: primarily form-focused, and narrowly focused, at that.  Rather than the coursebook expanding opportunities for learning, it seemed to shrink them.

I have to stress that none of these criticisms is directed at the teachers themselves, nor at the actual coursebook (whose writers I happen to know!) but more at the kind of education that prioritises imported content over the locally generated. Generating lesson content locally would, of course, make a different set of demands on teachers (but demands that these teachers could easily have risen to, and, in fact, often did). More importantly, it requires a different attitude, the kind of attitude shift that a ‘dialogic’ approach assumes. As Claire Kramsch (1993: 31) put it,

A dialogic pedagogy is unlike traditional pedagogy… It sets new goals for teachers – poetic, psychological, political goals that … do not constitute any easy-to-follow method. .. Such a  pedagogy should better be described, not as a blueprint for how to teach foreign languages, but as another way of being a language teacher.

So, what are classes good for? They are good places for incidental learning to occur, particularly of the kind that emerges naturally out of classroom tasks. They are even better places to rehearse, experiment, take risks – and get ‘at the point of need’ support. These opportunities, and this support, combined with the total immersion in the language that I experienced four hours a day, five days a week, hugely facilitated my transition from the learning context into the using content. For that I am very thankful.

References:

Kramsch, C. (1993) Context and Culture in Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Next week: What drives me?


Back to School

Mis cuadernos

Mis cuadernos

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in a language classroom in the role of student. But, as a way of improving my Spanish, it seems as good a place to start as any. (And I might even discover some things about classrooms that I didn’t know).

How will instruction help? Ellis (2008) cites studies in which instructed and non-instructed learners are compared and which find that the former tend to display a greater degree of ‘grammaticalization’ than those who had simply picked up the language off the street, as it were. He concludes that ‘it would follow that a learner who displays “stabilization” might be able to continue learning with the help of instruction’ (p. 31).

Encouraged by this observation, I signed up for a two-week intensive course (4 hours a day, five days a week) in the language school affiliated to one of Barcelona’s several universities.

I chose to do an intensive course on the principle that ‘short sharp shock’ is more efficacious than the long slow haul. This is a view supported in the literature: Muñoz (2012: 142), for example, cites Rifkin (2005) to the effect that ‘there may be ceiling effects in instructed [foreign languages] given the low exposure to the language…. In that respect, Rifkin argues that students must immerse themselves to reach advanced proficiency, either in a domestic immersion program or abroad’. Muñoz cites a number of studies that would seem to confirm this view.

The psychological effect of committing to a course (not to mention handing over the dosh) can’t be overemphasised. Months before the course began I was already feeling the positive effects of having assumed a degree of ‘agency’ with my Spanish: I was no longer simply adrift in a sea of potentially threatening crosslinguistic currents, at the mercy of whatever language flotsam I bumped into. Instead, I felt myself becoming a tiny bit more adventurous: initiating exchanges, venturing a joke, pushing the conversational boundaries, ‘entering the traffic’, to use Kramsch’s (2006) felicitous metaphor.

school thingsImmediately prior to the start of the course, though, I had a bit of setback in the form of an email from the course administrator, explaining that only two students (myself included) had been enrolled in the advanced class, hence the course would he reduced from 4 to 2 hours a day, but ‘the price will remain the same, since you will attend almost private lessons, which are actually more expensive’. To which was added: ‘There is also the alternative for you to attend 4 hours a day in a lower level (B2.2 – high intermediate) but with some other students’.

I have to say that I was a little nonplussed by the prospect of ‘almost private lessons’. I’m planning to enlist a private teacher later on, but in the meantime I’ve been looking forward to the group experience, not least because of the opportunities for low-risk interactive practice that this (theoretically) provides. Also, two hours a day just doesn’t seem like the most effective use of my time, and not what I understand as ‘intensive’.

In the event, after a short interview on day one I was shoehorned into the high intermediate group: 6 or so other students from a range of nationalities, and with varied learning histories and motives. All placement is a kind of compromise, let’s face it, and I resigned myself to the fact that, even if I might be sacrificing challenge, I would be rewarded by the many more opportunities for interaction.

The centre itself is well-fitted out and resourced. The four hours of each day are divided into two classes, each with a different (native speaker) teacher. The coursebook (copies of which are loaned to us for the duration of the course) forms the basis of the curriculum, the teachers having been assigned alternating units to teach. Over the two weeks I have had three teachers, all of whom are clearly very experienced, dedicated and muy simpáticas. (If they ever get to read this, I thank them unreservedly).

I kept a sketchy diary of the experience as it evolved. Here is how I summarized the pluses and minuses:

Things I like (because they seem to facilitate the achievement of my goals):

  • There is lots of free-ranging, fairly unstructured classroom talk, almost always as a whole class, sometimes in the form of teacher orchestrated Q & A as a way of leading into the coursebook topic, but often spontaneous and student-initiated, arising out of, but not strictly relevant to, some form-focused activity, such as a grammar exercise.
  • Teacher’s feedback during these exchanges in the form of correction is salient, and maximally available as uptake (although the feedback can be lost unless you make a deliberate attempt to note it down, in which case you may lose your speaking turn).
  • Incidental learning, primarily of vocabulary and phrases, occurs during these exchanges and also during grammar exercises (where in fact often the grammar focus seems secondary).
  • The teachers’ ability to pull example situations out of the air to explain aspects of grammar and lexis that arise, and the excellent listening practice this provides.
  • Mistakes I make that represent fossilized forms are brought to my attention, e.g. overgeneralization of qué (‘what) when I should be using cuál (which); mas + de instead of mas + que (‘more than’) with numbers; underuse of imperfect forms with stative verbs (estaba, hacía, etc): this really does seem to verge on de-fossilization, leaving me quite often thinking (and sometimes voicing aloud) ‘I’ve spent nearly thirty years saying that without realizing it was wrong!’
  • The opportunity to ask questions and get immediate answers about language issues.
  • The other students (once the class level stabilized) and especially the way they conspire to ‘subvert’ the (coursebook) lesson by initiating their own topics, but also the easy familiarity that develops which means that opportunities to reference each others’ lives, interests, foibles etc (often in a jokey way) grow exponentially.
  • The (admittedly few) opportunities to work in pairs or small groups, such as doing collaborative writing.
  • The opportunity to re-use – and be rewarded for using – recently encountered items in subsequent stages of the lesson or even subsequent lessons (although often this requires a deliberate effort on my part, i.e. it’s not a requirement of the task).
  • The challenge of doing a presentation to the rest of the class, and the feedback on this – this was a high point.

Things I am less keen on:

  • Teacher chalk-and-talk; e.g. board-centred grammar explanations, with teachers varying in their capacity to involve the students in these stages; and/or prolonged teacher-initiated diversions on minimally relevant lexical or grammatical topics.
  • A tendency to be over-prescriptive: “people say this but they shouldn’t”, along with a lack of rigor in distinguishing between written vs. spoken grammar.
  • Overreliance on English for vocabulary explanations, either by students or teacher, when it was not always clear the extent to which the informant’s English was up to the task or that all of us spoke English well enough to understand the translation. (I was surprised how much I was irritated by this tendency to ‘fall back on’ translation: the struggle to articulate or interpret definitions and examples in Spanish seemed to be well worth the effort).
  • Overuse of the coursebook, and the way the coursebook themes and texts dictate the lesson content, even when students generate engaging topics themselves, as well as the fact that sometimes a good hour or more would be devoted to working through the previous day’s homework exercises.
  • The relatively narrow and somewhat specialised focus of the coursebook grammar syllabus. Why do writers of coursebooks think that higher level students need to spend a great deal of time focussing on low-frequency structures of relative complexity? The subjunctive was not one of the areas I had diagnosed as being a significant learning target.
  • The way the lesson depends on the class ecology, so if a particular student is absent, this delicate balance is disrupted.
  • Activities that have minimal learning outcomes, e.g. taking turns to read a text aloud, watching a 25-minute travelogue, anticipating the gaps in the lyrics of a song whose content is highly figurative and hence unpredictable.
  • Lack of much sense of urgency: if this is an intensive course, where’s the intensity? It’s almost as if the pace is more leisurely because it is an intensive course. (Admittedly, the other students seem comfortable with the pace and may indeed be instrumental in setting it).

I am a schoolboy FaucettIn the next post, I’ll describe the effect that these two weeks seem to have had on my progress, and also on my own understanding of what classroom instruction is good for – and how these benefits might be optimized.

References:

Ellis, R (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kramsch, C. (2006) ‘The traffic in meaning’, Asia Pacific Journal of Education 26, 99-104.

Muñoz, C. (ed.) (2012) Extensive Exposure Experiences in Second Language Learning, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rifkin, B. (2005) ‘A ceiling effect in traditional classroom foreign language instruction’, Modern Language Journal, 89/1.


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