The leisurely pace of language learning

20160429_120829_000The other day I had an informal chat with my boss. We talked about the syllabus, lesson planning, coursebooks, and stuff. At some point, she asked me whether I really thought that doing 5 units from a 10-unit coursebook per an academic year is enough. In other words, she felt that, perhaps, we should challenge our students more and demand higher in terms of quantity.

Before I go on, let me explain how it works at our school. The four-year programme for secondary students encompasses 2 levels of a certain five-level English course for teenagers. We skip the elementary stage completely. In years 1 and 2, we use a pre-intermediate coursebook and in years 3 and 4, we use an intermediate coursebook of the same series. One unit usually consists of 7 sections, i.e. approximately 8 pages of grammar, vocabulary, reading, interaction, etc., plus a couple of extra revision pages. So, in one academic year, we are supposed to cover about 60 pages in total.

I suspect many are gritting their teeth now. What on earth does a number of pages have to do with learning a foreign language? Well, let’s be honest, that’s what it’s still like in the state-controlled sector of education. It’s not just about skills, abilities, and outcomes; it’s primarily about measurable stuff, e.g. scores and quantities.

Obviously, we all know that the amount of pages done over a certain period of time does not necessarily determine the quality of teaching, let alone learning. In other words, the more pages covered does not always equal a higher level of language proficiency. Quite to the contrary, I would say. Based on my experience, the more hurried the instruction is, the more superficial the outcomes are bound to be. So although coursebooks are widely criticized these days, I believe that the coursebook itself is not the problem – it’s the amount of the (coursebook) content artificially squeezed in the syllabus that can, in effect, cause a lot of trouble in the end. 

20160428_105005So, during our chat, I assured my boss that we English teachers in our department are completely satisfied with the leisurely pace and the reasonable amount of the coursebook content we are supposed to cover over an academic year. At the same time, I expressed my hope that no students will be deprived of the learning opportunities they deserve and are ready for. The teacher can always go beyond the scope of the prescribed curriculum if they feel it’s desirable. And that’s exactly what we do with talented classes. Having said that, nobody will be too stressed out just because there’s too much to cover.

I should add that our students usually end up B1-B2 (some even C1) depending on their learning aptitude, autonomy, and motivation. That is to say that they reach different levels of proficiency despite the fact that they all use the same coursebook. So what’s the fuss?

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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8 Responses to The leisurely pace of language learning

  1. Chewie says:

    What’s the fuss? You’re not being rigorous enough! Your standards aren’t high enough! You need more data! No excuses!

    Just kidding.

    I couldn’t resist. Your concerns mirror what’s happening in the United States with English Language Arts instruction. That’s my original field. Everything’s about data and numbers and Doing More. I appreciate you sticking up for your classroom practices and trying to do what’s best for the students.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks, Chewie! I repent but still feel guilty. 🙂 Seriously, that’s what life seems to be in general these days – hasty and, as a result, often superficial. Well, what I did was not just for the sake of the students but also for the sake of my and my colleagues’ sanity. Nobody wants to have stressed teachers around, I guess.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Liam says:

    I work with adults so it’s a little different, but I really like when you say “the more hurried the instruction is, the more superficial the outcomes are bound to be” – I agree with this wholeheartedly. Sometimes we have students who put pressure on us and themselves to go faster through the material, as if turning the pages results in progress automatically. It can be difficult to change that mentality. But as the old story goes, slow and steady wins the race!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Liam,

      I guess the most difficult task for us teachers is to find the balance between being too relaxed and demanding high (a popular term these days, huh?).

      With some classes (those with extra lessons of English), we go a bit faster and introduce an upper-intermediate course. To be honest, it’s usually a disaster. Towards the end of the course, students end up totally confused, and for some reason, they seem to have forgotten some of the basics of grammar, such as the present perfect v. past simple. I think it’s mainly because new, complex (and often superfluous) structures have been constantly thrown at them in a hurried manner and these have finally displaced what they once knew quite well.

      So, I absolutely agree with your point that slow and steady wins the race – especially in L2 learning.

      Thanks for dropping a line!

      Hana

      Like

  3. Spacing learning out through practice is always a difficult task. It always seems like more should be covered and quickly. Of course this is false, but it’s like an innate desire in teachers, admin, and students. Applause for trying to be realistic.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Absolutely, Tyson. Also, I feel that the CEFR labelling is not perfect. Or maybe, publishers should label their coursebooks in a more diversified manner. It’s always a B1-B2 course or a C1 level, but I’d appreciate it if some books focused on lexis more and introduced grammar in a more relaxed way. So why not label a book, for example, B1- grammar/C1 – vocabulary. I’d definitely prefer such a book to an upper-intermediate course which, apart from advanced vocabulary, is full of complex passive structures my students will probably never use. But maybe I’m badly informed and there are coursebooks like that around. Or maybe the coursebook itself is the problem in the end. 🙂

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Chewie says:

    You’re quite welcome, Hana.

    I’ve seen this problem on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Teachers get pushed so hard to do X amount of pages or finish the book. Superficial instruction results and it really all becomes so much memorizing.

    “Covering” X doesn’t usually equate to “teaching” X.

    Liked by 2 people

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