As a language teacher I often deal with problems other subject teachers can easily ignore. Some of these problems are easy to handle, others are quite persistent. One of my greatest concerns at the moment is the difficulty a group of my students is having in making a transition from the intermediate to the upper-intermediate level of proficiency. I strongly believe these students have a cognitive capacity to reach a higher level, so I wonder why they feel they’re stuck. The fact that I have attended workshops and webinars to be better able to deal with the problem hasn’t helped a lot. Having read papers and articles related to this issue has been highly beneficial for me as a teacher, but it doesn’t prevent my students from struggling. The trouble is that my knowing about the problem is not the only prerequisite for finding a solution to it. It must be the students who realize that this struggle is an inevitable part of the learning process and that they need to persist in learning, even though they feel they’re not making the same leaps in progress that they used to make in the earlier stages of learning the language.
- While learners’ receptive competence continues to develop, their productive competence remains relatively static.
- Language items that learners recognize and understand in the input they hear do not pass into their productive competence.
- Learners’ language may be both relatively fluent and accurate but shows little evidence of appropriate grammatical development.
- Complexity of learners’ language does not match their proficiency level.
- Learners’ vocabulary development is still at the 3,000-word level.
- Learners lack knowledge of collocational patterns.
- Learners’ spoken English may be accurate and fluent but not always sound natural.
- Learners’ spoken English lacks appropriate use of chunks and formulaic utterances.
- Errors of both grammar and pronunciation have become permanent features of learners’ speech.
- Errors persist despite advances in learners’ communicative skills.
|The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults. This figure shows the 2011 results, but our position hasn’t changed a lot since. As I see it, the whole country is stuck on the intermediate plateau, i.e. moderate proficiency.|
To cut it short, my colleague finally acknowledged the fact that it was acceptable to use each otherin the sense we’d talked about. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. What is really important is that we both learned something valuable from this short exchange of opinions. My colleague reminded me of a rule I was once familiar with (now I’ll be able to explain to my students if they ask), and she realized that language evolves and rules come to existence to be ultimately violated by its users.
A similar discussion we’ve had was about the possibility of using but at the beginning of a sentence. I remember my colleague was about to underline this as a mistake in a pre-intermediate student’s essay because she was convinced that it was not correct to start a sentence with But. Before she did though, she stopped and checked with me first. I could swear that I’d seen it used this way a million times in written work of native and non-native users of English producing language high above the pre-intermediate level of proficiency. So I checked here:
|P.A.R.K language school in Brno.
Gareth Davies giving a plenary speech
about the importance of technology
Although most of my professional development takes place in the on-line environment, I’m a big fan of face-to-face PD events too.
I should probably warn the reader in advance that this is the schizophrenic type of post I occasionally come up with here on my blog. The thing is that I feel that the effort I put into pretending that my students and I are in the classroom in order to learn about our interests, hobbies, dreams and desires puts me under unbearable pressure. Not that this never happens – we do share our experience and I truly believe that we are interested in one another’s opinions – but it’s hard to deny that it’s not why we are primarily there.
In the past I strongly believed that in order to help our learners learn an L2 effectively, the instruction should replicate the way L1s are learned. I haven’t dismissed this belief completely; I’m still convinced that L2 learning should resemble L1 acquisition as much as possible (for example, the focus should be on collocations and chunks, not grammar). However, I can no longer ignore the fact that while small kids acquire their L1s through genuine communication, in an L2 classroom, learners only pretend to do so.
This notion makes me feel pretty frustrated at times. I guess it must be due to the deception omnipresent in an L2 classroom. On the one hand, I try to be the facilitator who listens patiently and attentively to what the students have to say. On the other hand, although I do listen closely, I’m ready to strike treacherously by giving a student a poor grade whenever I spot a certain number of mistakes. Thus what I actually do is punishing my students for their genuine attempts to express their personal views.
I don’t think other subject teachers share my concerns. In maths lessons the kids know that they are there to learn to solve equations. In history classes the students are supposed to learn facts about the past. Normally, the teacher is the intermediary – she possesses the knowledge and passes the facts on to her students. In a way the matter is outside the student and the teacher – it’s out there to be tampered with. I don’t know how to put it accurately but I feel that we English teachers tamper with students’ psyche rather than the matter because the things we need to teach them can only be taught vicariously – through extracting experience and feelings from our students’ minds. Yes, this is what I feel communicative teaching does.
Now I’m not saying that it’s inherently bad. My point is that we CLT teachers sometimes treat our students as best friends. The truth is, however, that we can change into the worst enemy any minute. We behave as though we were friends because we want to encourage an open and honest communication environment. In other words, we need to make our students speak and write in English to make sure they are learning the words and grammar someone else invented and used before. Thus we imperceptibly creep into their inner worlds. Then, all of a sudden, we abuse their trust by judging and assessing their performance. For example, we subtract points for Michael’s incorrect choices of vocabulary and grammar while he is trying hard to express how he feels about gambling, which is the message we explicitly asked him to share with us when we were pretending to be his friends.
Although we can’t change the schooling system and its ways of assessment in a day, we can change our approach to teaching English. I wonder if we ever include the following type of objective into our lesson plan: By the end of the lesson the teacher will have learned about the students’ most favourite clothes items. More often we state something along these lines: By the end of the lesson the students will have practised the second conditional and wish clauses. We form language-related objectives before the class but later on, for some inexplicable reason, we pretend that we are primarily interested in the content of the messages we hear or read.
That said I believe that each minute of the lesson our students should be aware of the fact that they are there to learn the language and we are there to help them achieve this goal. Let’s stop deceiving the people we truly care about. We are not friends chatting at a café. In an English lesson, the content of a statement is equally important as the language a student chooses to use to communicate the message – I dare say the latter is even more important than the former. Thus it should not cause embarrassment when, for example, I occasionally stop two students in the middle of a dialogue. They should know that I do so in an attempt to draw their attention to a persistent error which makes the message impossible to decode. For me as a teacher it’s important to make sure the learners learn to express their view intelligibly and correctly. This is the ultimate goal of my teaching and this should be obvious.
I’m writing this post because I noticed the other day how amazingly liberating it felt when allowed myself to say this to my students without a shadow of guilt: “Look, I suspect this may not be the topic everybody is crazy about but you know, we’ve spend some time discussing it in order to learn some useful, high-frequency vocabulary.” I was excited to see that my students, those challenging teens, acknowledged my somewhat apologetic words with an understanding smile. Perhaps I’ve finally managed to make them interested in the language itself, so now they don’t actually care about the topics a great deal. I’m pleased to see whenever the progress my students are making is more important to them than some amazingly engaging topic of a conversation class. I’m not implying that I don’t consider suitability and relevance of an issue I choose to introduce, but it helps a lot if we all know why we are there in the first place – to learn the language.
The other day in one of my classes (young learners) we discussed the solar system. The text which the kids were supposed to read was part of the English across the curriculum section of the book, and apart from the fact that it was included in the coursebook in order to reinforce the knowledge of comparatives and superlatives, to me it seemed totally out of place. It was 1) uninteresting 2) I didn’t know how to handle the topic, and 3) I had no idea what to do with the text afterwards; I couln’t come up with an engaging way to recycle the material.
Nevertheless, it took me only a few seconds to find this song on YouTube, and suddenly millions of ideas came to mind. I found this material 1) engaging and more appropriate relative to the age and interests of the kids 2) amazing in relation to potential linguistic benefits 3) easy to elaborate on in a meaningful way (see another link below and the whole lyric is included right under the jump break). Apart from the fact that certain words and structures are repeated throughout the song, which is perfectly convenient for language acquisition, it’s dense with various structures and vocabulary items:
- It includes examples of contracted as well as uncontracted forms of verbs (I am, I’m).
- It includes useful collocations (the same size as, the other way, very big indeed).
- It includes basic grammatical structures (I am, I have, I spin, there is …) as well as an example of the passive form (are made of).
- It is full of useful prepositional phrases (on Earth, depends on, closest to, a ball of, in our solar system, from the Sun).
- There are examples of the ‘only one negative in a sentence’ rule (I have no water, I have no moons) – something Czech learners struggle with.
- There’s an example of relative clause (The place where we all live).
- There are examples of countable and uncountable nouns and their quantifiers (lots of land, many storms).
- The text can be useful for practising articles (a moon/the Earth/Mars) and comparatives/superlatives of adjectives and adverbs (farthest, more slowly).
- There are various linking devices (so, but, and).
- Although I’m not in favour of presenting vocabulary items in lexical sets, I’d say it’s useful to know certain lexical sets by heart, such as days of the week, months, seasons, planets of the solar system, etc. These are lexical sets even native speakers of the target language are expected to be familiar with. Learning these sets in songs or rhymes is an ideal way of making the experience less tedious.
The next step I made with my learners was introducing them to lyricstraining.com, where the song is available for spelling practice. The kids chose the game mode they felt up to (beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert) and started completing the gaps while listening to the song.