The above article came out in Education Week. It’s well worth a good read and a discussion.
The above article came out in Education Week. It’s well worth a good read and a discussion.
When I moved ‘up’ to Budapest, as we say, I never thought this move would send me in so many directions, and make it possible for me to live in several countries around the world. At the time, i was a successful teacher in a rural town and never imagined travelling would be possible: the socialist system didn’t let us travel to the West except on a very tight budget every third year. I had only been to Britain once, but the following year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and opened up opportunities in professional development and elsewhere too.
I soon found myself on a course organized by the newly set-up department of the university, the Centre for English Teacher Training, or CETT and graduated as a certified teacher trainer. It was unique at the time, not only because I came off the first such course ever, but because all teacher training at the time took place at designated ‘training schools’ affiliated to the universities. That system is still in place for all subjects, so let me point out that the normal procedure for training takes place at those institutions within a semester during the last year of studies. it consists of twenty hours of visits and teaching by the university students, so in the Dutch sense of the word, it counts anything but ‘stage’. Discussions and reflexion sessions are done, but the depth and extent of it all is rather limited, and the teachers training the students there are designated to do so on account of their reputation as outstanding teachers, not because they are fully qualified in directing reflexion sessions. The system had a confidence that all getting through this stage and all the trainers do and will do a great job.
While I was doing the training course, I met a completely different system of thinking, and the most important message was that our job was not to show the trainees how to teach English, but to make them develop to their full potential as teachers without criticizing them. This is a unique feature in Hungarian education at large, which I kept myself to all through the years while I did this kind of work.
This mentor training course we are offering was developed by Caroline Bodoczky and Angi Malderez. The course material was published by Cambridge University Press titled Mentor Courses and it was the Winner of the 1999 Ben Warren Trust Award for ELT Methodology books.
(quote from the web-site of IATEFL-Hungary)
The outstanding feature of this system was that training was intensive and fully immersive. Trainees were asked to go to the school, which was not necessarily a training institution, several days a week and hold lessons for one class of students all throughout the year in pairs. These pairs were fully responsible for their teaching and evaluation and all aspects of their work, were allowed to make their own decisions, but were supervised by the trainer. Every teaching our was discussed, disseminated, evaluated in detail. Self-reflection was the order of the day. Trust was the basis for it all to work well, and it did. Even those trainees that didn’t really want to go into teaching afterwards, did their best.
Unfortunately, the system existed only for about a decade and only in Budapest (though this means a very sizable part of newly initiated students in the country), and then it was scraped by new laws. Training time was cut to half, most of staff at CETT was made redundant, and this for most meant a huge step back towards the usual, much less effective format. I did this for one more year and then left.
The old, semester-based format is the only teacher-training existing in Hungary now, except that with English, the format is filled by the same fully-responsible trainees coached by colleagues trained with me or a little later. I’m happy to see that IATEFL-Hungary is organizing a mentor training course next year, which may attract a few young teachers again to the trainer/mentor profession and will be able to train their trainee students at their local schools for at least a semester. Elsewhere, it’s twenty hours watching and doing it, counted together. With this, we are back to the old days of mostly academic training coupled in the last few months with a little look into how teaching is done. Let me quote one of the articles from The Guardian (to be found below among the articles), which clearly states the most important qualities of good teachers versus academic knowledge:
In recent years a very dangerous idea seems to have been accepted by the decision-makers around the education system that the best teachers are the best qualified teachers, leading to a sliding scale of funding that financially disadvantages those without high-class degrees from the classroom. The reality is very different. A good teacher has to be an exceptional communicator, with patience, common sense, focus, more than a little belligerence and vast reserves of tolerance and empathy. Many prospective teachers simply do not possess these qualities and yet are accepted on to teacher training and even passed despite every indication that they do not have what it takes. The most fantastic academic background cannot make up for a lack of these qualities, but a great communicator with a third-class degree has far more than the necessary knowledge to inspire a class of teenagers.
The only positive side of English teaching in Hungary is that this is the section in education whose members stick relatively strongly together, hold meetings, annual conferences, training courses among themselves, it’s all dynamic. The teaching philosophy seems to be relatively level, teachers trying to use modern, communicative methods, building on students’ interests and abilities. However, the aim is the same for all: put students through exams at the end. And that doesn’t make it easier at all.
As it happens around the world, teaching a language starts by following university courses. In the Dutch system, universities constitute the WO section of education, which stands for ‘Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs’. Those who wish to become teachers, have to do practice teaching as well as following university courses during the last two years of their studies. This is called ‘stage’, pronounced, unlike pronunciation of the English word of the same lettering, as /’sta:ʒǝ/. In general, teaching practice takes several days a week over a year, when the student visits and later conducts lessons in several hours a day, followed by ‘reflexion’, that is, discussion of what has happened, what went well and what didn’t, and what could change another time. There is also opportunity follow university studies part-time, in which case practice lengthens a couple of years and course-work formats are changed somewhat.
In theory, this system looks very good because it gives over a hundred hours of practice for the development of the trainee to become a full-blown teacher. However, as a former teacher trainer confided to me, the quality of trainees is often quite low, while trainers often neglect their trainees, cutting down on the reflexion stage, sometimes to a quarter hour per week, sometimes to nothing. In this case the whole idea of development through discussion, reflection and self-reflection suffers a deadly blow, as it happens to a friend of mine also on ‘stage’. Her practice turns out to be a full-time job without being paid. It looks like employment-lead training in Britain, except that there she would be paid a salary.
Teaching practice takes place at schools of any kind anywhere in the system where the leadership offers opportunities to those on practice time. One looking for job opportunities most usually reads about vacancies for people with one year experience in their specific sector (VMBO/MAVO, MBO, HAVO, HBO or VWO for secondary-level applicants) followed by saying that ‘stagiaires’, those on teaching practice, are also most welcome. There are a few ads for people with several years of experience, but the stated number is usually below five years. This probably doesn’t have much to do with refusing experience, but a belief that those freshly out of WO have more dynamism, but also with a very steeply rising salary-scale until fifteen years of experience. This to me means, on the one hand, that the system believes and appreciates a fast improvement in quality with the first years of practice, but also that experience quickly becomes expensive. However, older, more experienced teachers don’t get further pay-rise, so they don’t become overly more expensive for schools to employ them instead of a 40-year-old. Hopefully, this gives chances for older people to move, but it my also be an indication that most experienced teachers don’t usually have any incentive to do so.
This system is different from the British or Hungarian systems. In Britain, for a teaching diploma, one needs a separate line of studies after the specific subject is fully completed, at which point the would-be teacher enters teaching college. Here I would need help from British teachers about the ways of how and where teaching practice is carried out, as I have no relevant experience. However, one article, listed below by Daniel, describes the author’s path to teaching and out of this article, we can safely deduce that teacher training in Britain has a great variety of forms depending most often from the training school’s own ways. As teaching requires post-grad studies in Britain, the Dutch system may only resemble this in its institutional variety.
How the – much more unified – system works in Hungary is discussed in a the following post.
China, education, English as a foreign or second language, grammar-translation method, Hearing (sense), IELTS, learning to communicate, Netherlands, Teacher, Teaching English as a foreign language, tests
As to teaching and teachers, I hope that quite a lot of ideas may already have been presented in my previous postings, but I’d like to add and elaborate further.
Most importantly, I think that interaction, speaking and revising are also the main areas which most teachers tend to forget about, unfortunately, though in the name of doing good to the customer.
Very often, in more traditional classes, especially with very low frequency lessons, there’s no time for listening practice at all. By that I don’t mean that students don’t have the opportunity to listen to their teachers – oh, yes, they do the talking all the time very often. The problem with that arises if they either talk in the students’ native languages, which happens all too often in China, but probably, as I’ve already mentioned, in the Netherlands, and even in other countries as well, or if they don’t really stop talking – to check the understanding of their students, that is. These two cases are definitely not cases of time well spent to a smaller or greater extent and can’t be counted towards listening practice. There’s no practice without a degree of interaction, and more precisely, not without performing a task in the meantime. That can be done even while the teacher talks himself/herself, but can’t be done with the teacher talking incessantly.
Teacher talking time, or TTT is very important for students. Let’s not forget that if nothing else, the teacher is the basis for a while for the aural/oral perception of the foreign language, and even if there’s some systematic work on listening with taped native material, he or she is the most frequent example to follow. Without examples, spoken language can’t be formed, thus no interaction can be expected of the learner. On the other hand, extended solo lectures are also not enough basis for interaction, and can become utterly boring and counter-productive in the long run. While talking, the teacher should at least frequently stop to ask the opinion of the students, which provide incentive to talk and also feedback to the teacher about understanding. If this latter fails, TTT was useless, and the nature of teaching should be adjusted approriately.
Very often, in more traditional classes, especially with very low frequency lessons, there’s no time for listening practice at all. If there’s a listening part to an important test for the students in the country, teachers tend to run a few practice tests through without discussing the results and parts of the test, so the learners have no idea about the reasons for some answers that they have missed, they have no chance to pick up the odd piece of vocabulary, they only have the tension of concentrating on several tasks at the same time for an hour: reading and understanding the questions, listening to the material and then making logical decisions, which, however, often doesn’t happen on the basis of the material heard, only on the possible answers. In many cases, if someone is weak in the language, or is taught with translation, he/she also has to translate the questions for himself or herself. A very tall order to succeed. Even so, in many cases there’s no time for a re-run, as I’ve experienced it in my Dutch classes, and anyway, the real tests also demand that the applicant listens only once.
Instead of this, according to English teaching traditions, even the highest-level language exams (Cambridge First Certificate, Cambridge Proficiency, IELTS, TOEFL, PTE General, PETS) allow the student to listen to texts twice and adjust their answers with the second listening, or with BULATS, the computer adjusts the listening and the question to the applicant’s previous answer. This follows an understanding of the workings of the brain, which needs first wider contexts, and often also adjustments to what has been heard before it can make informed decisions on details. This is why, for testing purposes, we need a second listening opportunity.
But this is only a question of testing methodology. The other, more important question is whether the students receive proper listening practice before that all-important final test, or are left to practice on their own, or perhaps not given anything in this direction. It sounds obvious to me that listening skills need to be built up just like grammar skills, from easier to more difficult, originally with a strong focus on language already covered and cutting out the kind otherwise. But not for many of my colleagues. Moreover, learners need appropriate activities and tasks to perform while listening. From answering general questions, through following the text with the script to gap-filling, re-arranging the text and repeating some sentences or items of important or problematic vocabulary or grammar should feature strongly among the techniques. These should be varied quite often and all should be ‘do-able’ so as not to frustrate the students but build up a proper understanding of the text.
By ‘do-able’, we usually mean that for developmental purposes, we are not supposed to ask deduction questions right at the start, or the kind that need outside knowledge. We should also not ask questions on passages that are unintelligible, difficult to follow even for native speakers, or demand spelling of unintelligible, or items not yet learned. Asking the students to write a series of answers only after a whole listening passage is also above most learners even at higher levels for the sake of practice. Giving answers in full sentences in response to listening is not a do-able task even when the text is broken down, at least on lower levels.
Instead, we can first ask near-beginners, for example, how many people talk and in what situation, what’s the relationship among them, and the like. Fill-in questions in the later stages should not contain groups of words, rather parts of groups where the other part helps understanding by making quess-work possible. In any case, expected language is a lot more understandable than the unkown or unpredictable kind. The listening passage should not contain non-understandable, unpredictable grammatical items that haven’t been introduced. If we want to introduce grammatical features, we should use it with items that are not difficult to hear.
There’s also debate about how long a ‘do-able’ listening passage may be. I myself have experienced in my teaching as well as my own language learning a very sharp decline of general attention after two minutes, often, at lower levels, even after one minute. With a foreign language, long-term memory on the basis of the logic of the text doesn’t work nearly as well as with our own, or on high levels of language competence. Before the student can think in the target language, he relies only on short-term memory, which mostly relies on understanding each and every word, interprets them and puts them away shortly. After a while, while the listener is still struggling to understand and interpret the ever-flowing following items, earlier memories quickly fade and the task becomes impossible to execute. Rather, such a long task above the student’s level of competent understanding will execute the learner.
I may here add as an aside that this is to a large part the reason why simply living the everyday life of a foreign country trying to learn the language doesn’t work in itself for a few years for most people. Without getting help in interpreting the language showering the new-comer, he or she will be inundated so much that exhaustion takes over very soon for a long time. Some formal help is also needed. But it’s also true that work or some other special activity that demands absolute attention and provides the ultimate need for learning (as I’ve pointed out elsewhere) can also speed up the learning process very effectively if there are helpful people around. Workplaces may not be ideal, but partnerships very much so. At later stages of development, all immersion kind of situations do so too.
Dictation seems to be a good listening task, but while it is also a writing task, we mustn’t forget that it relies on no understanding of the text much and it’s not creative at all. Above a certain level, when students have little problem with the spelling of individual words, normal slow dictation tends to become very boring and even counter-productive. As a result, some students may commit mistakes they wouldn’t in creative writing because of over-confidence, or get no benefits that they could carry over to their creative writing, when they only focus on meaning, still committing mistakes they no longer make in dictation. At levels starting at mid-level, scripting of videos by native speakers without the intention of dictating could be set as task, but with several rewinds if necessary. The difference for the learners’ hearing abilities between live dictation and machine sound from videos can still be huge, so this is the phase to be practiced carefully because at exams, machine sound must be decoded while performing additional tasks.
Such advice can be extended for quite a while longer, but I’m sure it’s already understandable enough. These types of points can also be extended to reading tasks as well. Part of the reason is that just as listening is a necessary basis for talking in oral interactions, reading can be understood to do the same in written interaction. Similar questions can first be put to students about the general meaning of the text, by way of fast extensive reading. Once the context is worked out with this help, more specific questions can be asked and activities can lead to intensive reading within the borders of boredom. Here we can come back to the general demand for teaching in interesting ways. On the one hand, both listening and reading material should be introduced by discussions or at least a few well-designed question about the possible meaning of the text and the feelings of the students about the topic. On the other, we should provide enough room after listening and reading tasks for discussion before the whole activity becomes boring, by which I mean overworked. Before discussions, more detailed work can be done on specific language items like grammar, or vocabulary, of which reading is the most fool-proof means of development. But if we don’t ask the group for their opinion, we have only done half of the useful work, because we haven’t activated the material just heard or read. Active use in post-listening and post-reading activities revise the meanings, vocabulary and grammatical features of the text in a way that involves the learners deep, if interesting enough for hem, making the activity memorable.
Which means that it’s more important to devise and carry out discussions than reading. We can set up interactive tasks just as easily as reading tasks, but interaction can happen preceding, following or instead of reading, the most important point being that it can’t be neglected for fast learning of the target language. Culturally, Far-Eastern, or South-Asian, Middle-Eastern cultures may pose a major obstacle to interaction if they demand absolute quiet and attention concentrated on the teacher most of the time. People of those cultures would find little help towards their interactive oral skills. So, as far as behaviour is concerned, the relaxed atmosphere of relatively free Western cultures can provide a lot more possibility for language development than stricter cultures. Sometimes, though, the infamous misbehaviour known from Hollywood films is also a major obstacle of course. I can assure everyone that the same may face you in Hungary or China if you try the appropriate places, and the one principal in the Netherlands I’ve talked to also warned me of behaviour special only to Holland, although, I suspect, she has had no experience of the same in said countries where I have. But that’s another story, perhaps pertaining to the headline ‘pigheadedness in education in the Netherlands’, where I have to stop before I can also be accused of the same.
Extreme cases of misbehaviour aside, speaking and interactive tasks must often be given after careful planning. For whole activities, asking just a couple of simple interest-raising questions may not be enough. There must be a task to be performed with and end-result to be achieved. Task-based learning and role-plays are effective because, paradoxically, they steer attention away from the language necessary for them to be performed. Students are less controlled in such cases and, consequently, feel less inhibition to express their preferences and opinions, all in pursuit of a common goal of the group. Role-play also allows them to change personalities, which is often very exciting, but not for everyone and not at every age, so discretion should be used when assigning such tasks. In more elaborate and complex cases, the activity works like a simulation, without computers, naturally, but with real roles for everyone involved, which may help the more reticent ones.
It is sadly usual that, if such interactive tasks are given at all, feedback is not asked in return at the end. Except in very strange cases of group dynamics, the whole class would find it interesting to get a glimpse of what other groups thought about the case in question. Feedback serves as a satisfactory closing down of the activity or a whole study period and also serves to revise and reinforce some items of language that may be important for all. Good interactive tasks usually also serve as natural basis for written work, as homework in cultures which use it, or at following classes in cultures where homework is not often used, for example in the States or Britain.
Furthermore, there are strong arguments to using discussions not only as planned. With the multitude of different kinds of learners in each class, every single lesson planned the same way for different groups naturally tends to, and should be encouraged to, go in different directions. Differences should be encouraged and will surely emerge if the students are allowed room to contribute to the proceedings. They have a right to do so, they are the customers, we have to provide for all of them. Besides, providing for them doesn’t necessarily mean we have to give all the answers: we are there to provide the framework for learning, and that framework includes all members of the group with their differences. Consequently, they should be invited to discuss and give answers if necessary to problems other members have. On questions of grammar and vocabulary usage, it’s mostly the teacher who is best positioned to decide on best answers. In other cases involving opinions and decisions on tasks, better leave the group to decide for themselves, like with the ‘balloon debate’ represented above with my photo.
What a teacher must under all circumstances care for is that debates and discussions do not lose their aim and become loose and limitless. A friendly teacher would do well starting a lesson with personal questions of interest to the students, but that should lead towards a point and not become an hour of talking about how they like the latest music. Chatting on the level of teenage street conversations is also important but its level is not enough for foreign language development after a short while. After that, nobody can take home anything new. So it is up to the discretion of the teacher and his/her flexibility do decide when to channel introductory chats into learning.
I’m sure that I don’t need to discuss handling grammar here. Most of my readers, I think, are professionals and grammar is the area almost everybody feels comfortable with enough. The only remark I’d like to make is that, as I earlier warned, grammar should not be overdone, especially with the mostly isolating languages, those without differences of forms of words. On the other hand, word forms of agglutinating and fusional languages, those with a lot of changeable affixes and forms need to be thoroughly drilled before higher levels of understandability and fluency can be achieved.
I do, however, feel the need to talk about the good old ‘grammar-translation’ method. Quite a few teachers in Middle-Europe, those who have connections through teachers’ associations, the BC, meetings, conferences and summer courses, those who manage to and willing to keep up with English-teaching methodology in Britain and the USA have long ago refuted this method. Yet, I meet colleagues and students from time to time who try to stick to it. I’ve meet them not only in China, where, as I’ve described the situation in an earlier post, it is still widely in use, for lack of anything better known to many, but here in the Netherlands and also in Hungary.
For people so inclined, I’d like to point once again to the intricate ways the brain has to take to process information both ways when trying to translate, which is not only difficult but also extends reaction times, especially because it almost always involves writing down the translation, and writing is already a lot slower than speaking. We can say, then, that this method reduces the possibility for using a lot of language within any given period, while it demands levels of knowledge that the learners are still only striving for. For translating a text, we must be in full command of both languages, which is not the case all too often. No wonder that translating and interpreting are two very demanding high-level professions very distinct from teaching, and are taught those already in full command of the target language. I can hardly imagine a slower and more dragging method than this for lower-level learners. Translation is also conspicuously missing from internationally accepted English language tests. Teachers using this method should at least keep this in mind. But one thing is sure: the conservatively or intellectually inclined students can feel after such a lesson that they’ve been given something, they’ve achieved something during the lesson: they’ve understood a text now. Alas, this hardly helps them communicate better in the target language if it stays the only method of teaching/learning.
With this we’re already at vocabulary practice. While the system of grammar structures can, with good, ordinary practice, listening, reading or writing, also be acquired, particular words and word groups may resist memorizing until the language system is internalized. Until then, a lot of rote learning may sometimes help, but even afterwards, words must be practiced and recycled systematically. The house won’t stand without its building blocks.
The original source of vocabulary is necessarily the teacher. For good results, we do our best starting our very first lesson already in the target language. In this way, they find it natural to try and think in the other language already at the outset and find it gradually easier on the way, getting used to it quickly. Not much time is lost on thinking in two languages, trying to translate everything first, then translate it all back to the target language. At the same time, care must be given to meaningful vocabulary work all the time, avoiding unnecessary and rare items until much later or perhaps never. The aim is not to teach them everything, but to let them develop their second or foreign language competence as fast as possible and prepare them to respond in and to likely situations and language use. Unlikely, old-fashioned, too formal phrases don’t have much place in EFL classes. They can learn them later if they decide to specialize in the literature or linguistics of that language.
I could even say that vocabulary is one of the greatest responsibilities of the teacher, because the learner is inclined to forget the new words even in their own language and can at home tell his/her father that they haven’t learned anything today. The student must be made to keep a vocabulary booklet of his/her own from the start, it should not only be encouraged but regularly checked. But not only that. Because of the forgetfulness of the students, the teacher is responsible to make sure that the students also remember the words covered. The teacher must explain the new vocabulary and important idioms, and soon must recycle it – within the same lesson, at the next lesson, or even next week. I understand how difficult it is for us to remember with each group what items we’ve taught, but we can keep track of it ourselves too. It’s a nasty argument if later students start grumbling that they were tested about vocab they’ve never properly covered. If that happens, as it quite often does, I sympathize with the student. Of course, the student is responsible for his/her own work on the language, but without help, he or she is at a loss and can’t cope.
After good introduction of basics of the language by the teacher, to make sense of vocabulary regularly and to revise it, learners need good dictionaries in the first place. Only good two-way dictionaries can help, those that not only give one supposed meaning to the target word in either language, like some weaker Dutch-English dictionaries do, though the ultimate horror sometimes comes from my Chinese-English double dictionary published by Oxford UP, which, if I randomly open the Chinese part, may come up with a Chinese word like 衰 (shuāi) and give me ‘decline’ as translation. Does it then mean ‘get smaller’, or ‘refuse’ like in refuse an offer – or a request? There are example phrases that help with this one, but far from everywhere. Also, smaller and simpler dictionaries either don’t give example sentences, or give no idiomatic phrases at all in which the words are used. Soon, learners will find such dictionaries inadequate. On the other hand, at later stages, single-language dictionaries can become more and more useful as they become increasingly usable, when the learner has reached a level on which he or she can think in the target language. So, if possible, we have to give good advice on which dictionaries students should buy for their money.
Even if the learner achieves the ultimate aim and can think in the target language fluently, the teacher has his/her role to the end. Because it is so difficult to reach that ultimate aim, the teacher should focus on working towards that aim providing guidance and structure to learning in class and for home work as well and caring for recycling all the way. He or she should also see to it that the language is learned in a complex way, not only as individual skills. I find a so-called ‘grammar lesson’, or ‘vocab lesson’, or ‘listening practice lesson’ as full lessons very strange. All the skills had better be mingled, providing new angles to ideas and new ways and expressions to utter them.
Now I’d like to add something about what is not really necessary to do in school classes. One such thing is too much translation. Words or idioms may be translated if necessary, but real translation is a completely different skill to the usual four skills. It had better be avoided, especially if the language levels of students is relatively low. How could they then benefit from translation, a complex skill requiring total competence in their own language as well as the target language, if they don’t have a complex competence in the new language? No wonder that most Chinese students, who also suffer from inappropriate language patterns to follow, fail miserably after a decade of being taught English 6-8 classes a week, while their abilities at repetition is outstanding, as attested to by the fact that they manage to learn the tens of thousands of characters of their own mother tongue. No mean feat. The reasons can be found if we think about how important creative, interactive use of the language is, how inefficient sheer word-repetition is, and how futile it is to translate from or into a language that you don’t understand or can’t use in the first place. Studying their own characters happens in the context of their mother tongue, it’s not something out of thin air, as words of an unused language are.
Another thing that has little place in purposeful class work is using complex tests. The Chinese prove its futility too. But above that, we have to remember that most tests are used as the measurements of achievement, so they should be treated as such, not more. Fortunately, there are tests devised for assessment of development. In this case, however, the students must be well prepared for them, meaning that they should contain material already covered in a re-structured way. They serve the teacher to be able to ascertain how far his/her students have progressed. Using the large, general test instead of this kind only frustrates students.
My usual approach is that once the language is properly acquired through purposeful and well-constructed activities, practice tests among them for structures and vocabulary too, the important, hot assessment tests, for language proficiency tests or university entrance test, for example, will be taken care of by the skills acquired along the way. Sitting through examples of these kinds of tests are necessary as far as the need to experience the feeling and the structure is concerned, but repeatedly doing them is overly and unnecessarily tiring and purposeless, because most of the time they’re so long that they can’t be properly discussed, though that could lend some usefulness to them. That discounted, better keep with meaningful interaction in class. Correcting usual written work, compositions, grammar tasks is enough to keep the teacher up some of the night alright.
Now a late addition to this post. It seems obvious that although language teachers usually speak in terms of the four skills, development of the students’ language use often happens, or rather should happen, along different lines, and particularly without using tests in the first place. I’d like to point out, too, that the role of the fifth skill, translation, should be reduced as much as possible. Instead, active use of and thinking in the target language should be promoted, especially using the sixth skill, that is, thinking! For anyone having doubts about its applicability or being in need of related methods, I’m directly providing a link here to a very interesting article which leads on to the details of the methods themselves: It’s about The Learning, Not The Tools.
Some final words. We can use a wide scope of methods that we think is best suited to our students, but we are only human, and not omnipresent or omnipotent. Consequently, there may always be a few students who we can’t help. They are also human and may have their priorities far from our classes. Don’t let yourself be disheartened by failures, you also learn from them. On the other hand, real results tend to come slowly. We may only see them many years after our work is done.
Another important additional factor for success is the relationship to the language. Many claim in Hungary that pupils didn’t learn Russian because everybody hated the people as occupiers. That may be so for most. I didn’t have such thoughts, but started to suffer for lack of the usefulness factor: it was highly unlikely that anyone might use Russian in the streets because the occupiers locked themselves in their barracks. Another likely factor was that we didn’t learn any useful language. We knew about Comrade Lenin‘s early life and later importance, but we didn’t learn to talk about things people, let alone young people, talk about. It follows that, one way or another, the student must be aware why it could be useful for him/her to speak that particular language. It may be a good idea to reinforce this awareness at the beginning of a school year when a teacher takes a group over from last year’s teacher. Even in California, where acquisition of Spanish may happen, it takes a brave student, or a conscientious one, to study Spanish at school. Or to study Italian in New York.
Photos are less likely to work with those who like and need listening to learning. In this respect, if the popular song repertoire is not so enticing, the teacher can use the modern media of international television. Over the internet it is possible to receive broadcasts of far-away lands, which then can be played (and shown on the whiteboard or with the OHP from the computer) over and over again if need be. I find it a matter of course that the teacher make a script of a useful recording, or try to collaborate with the students ad hoc if necessary to script it, for the benefit of those needing the written word.
Languages with internationally published media are at an advantage anyway, but we can here mention the use of newspapers form the country of the target language as well. Grammatical structures, certain vocabulary areas as well as, naturally, cultural areas and news of interest can be covered by articles from foreign press, and then used for tests of all kinds according to what the teacher considers important. Here, what I consider most important is that the topic should be the carrier of real meaning, which will carry, often undetected by the learners, all the learning that can be. For the sake of the tactile, articles can even initially be cut to pieces for un-jumbling, or matching with photos, by enthusiastic groups of detectives. The meaning will carry the coverable language along.
There’s a lot of talk going on, not without good reasons, about the need to enjoy your learning. This translates itself for teachers as a need to make students enjoy their learning at class. To my mind, that’s all very well in kindergarten or lower primary school, where students behave themselves like quicksilver and are allowed to switch moods and activities like the wind, and, besides, there’s less stress on academic progress.
Whether for better or for worse, with students advancement of age, another trend seems to also be general, and that is that students have to sit down to tests at earlier ages and have to be boxed for future studies, school-types and career as soon as possible. Comprehensive schools and lyceums (in the Netherlands) seem to counteract this trend, but it is still in practice getting more ground at the same time as there is still a lot of talk about enjoyment.
I can’t really assess how much joy can or has to be generated at a physics, or history class, for example, around the world, but if a teacher of languages must generate fun, then he/she is against a host of other sources of fun out there, against electronic gadgets, game consoles, internet games, partying, vandalizing the neighbourhood or simply listening to the mesmerizing rhythm of rap, just to name a few. What can the teacher realistically expect from him/herself and what can society realistically expect of him/her?
Let me remind ourselves here, before we forget, of the role that education has to fulfill in society, and that is to prepare its young members en masse for later taking part in the workings of its everyday strive for development for the sake of the later new generations. Preparing to work for the future for the sake of more work for the future, I could say, but that’s how it works. Where does it say anything about enjoyment? Has anyone promised joy in this life when we emerged into it?
But of course, this is far too grim a picture of reality. The reality should be somewhere between the grim and the joy of it. The difficulty lies with finding the ever-shifting balance between them.
Before trying to break down the implications of this, I’d like to point to one more factor. I’ve already talked about the importance of our relationship to the learning material as a source of learning, which is mostly expressed through our emotional attitude to it. I’d like to add something a bit, or radically, different. Let me tell you about my most shocking experience ever.
When I went to teach to China, I had already learned a bit of the language from a book with a cassette. Yet, on arrival, I was made to feel like a toddler who can’t understand anything, can’t read, hear, talk, but stands forlorn in the middle of the largest population in the world. No wonder that I tried my best during my tenure to learn as much as possible at the school. Without going into details about my ways and methods, enough to say that though I wrote down (in pinyin, the Latinized transcription) almost everything that came in my way into my copy-book, but nothing stayed in my brain for many months.
Then came the winter holidays. I had invited my 16-year-old son to stay with me for two weeks when I was still confident in my progress with the language. But there I was on the morning of his arrival and I still didn’t remember the ways to ask for a bus ticket, or to understand the possible answers. I had to take a bus to the airport to welcome him, so I packed all my study material and embarked on my trip to the airport.
On the three-hour ride to Shanghai, I learned everything important that had escaped my abilities to retain for more than half a year. I got a taxi to the airport all by myself and later we enjoyed ourselves immensely everywhere on our criss-crossing of half the frozen country in safety.
My point is that there’s hardly any greater boost to learning than real need. Not the need to sit down sometimes and relax, not the need for a new iPhone, or a better car, but the kind on which not only our own safety and life, but also the safety and life of our loved ones depend. Then, as second best, as my American colleague in China put it, is to live with someone whose mother tongue is our target language. So go ahead, bring your children to the end of the world, or marry a Dutch if you want to learn Dutch, or relocate to England or Hungary if you are intent on learning excellent English or Hungarian.
For most people, let alone students, it is very difficult to create such circumstances and, to be honest, it is also not necessary, of course. But teachers and students should be aware that then no such great and swift results can be expected either.
Some more down-to-earth ideas are to follow.
It’s going to take a while to write my next posts. Until then, I give you a link I’ve found with an interesting collection of sources for those wishing to study Dutch on-line. I hope somebody will find some of the links among these useful: http://polyglotmae.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/update-dutch-learning-resources/
by P.S. and Z.J.S.