Is English a subject?

The notion that learning a foreign language is not the same as learning other subjects in a school curriculum is exhilarating as well as frightening. On the one hand, I feel like it gives us English teachers a lot of freedom. On the other hand, freedom comes with a lot of responsibility. While our colleagues usually teach their subjects by presenting and drilling facts, and then they check the students’ knowledge of those facts by asking display questions, on tests or otherwise, we ELTs have long suspected that such an approach will not help our students to become truly proficient in the target language.

What I mean is that our biology colleagues, for instance, can explicitly teach about their subject and so they can easily get away with a lecture, even in the primary education context. In other words, they can speak for 45 minutes nonstop while the pupils are just listening and taking notes. However, we English teachers can’t possibly adopt such an approach without feeling a bit guilty. Well, obviously, there are situations in which it is useful for your students to merely absorb L2 input. Some examples would be: reading a story, listening to a podcast, watching a movie in English, etc. But this is not what we typically do in the classroom anyway. This is what students do outside of the classroom and honestly, it has proved to be a very effective strategy for improving their language proficiency. So, throughout the lesson, it is our primary responsibility as teachers to make sure that our students get plenty of opportunities to use and do things in the target language. This is the part I’m 100% convinced of and comfortable with.

I’m still not sure how much time should be allocated for drills in an L2 classroom, though. As we all know, drilling refers to a type of audio-lingual technique based on students repeating a model provided by the teacher and the focus is on accuracy rather than fluency. For that reason, drills do come across as inauthentic. However, research shows that they are important to learning new vocabulary, for example (e.g. Alali and Schmitt 2012). As far as display questions are concerned, I plead guilty. I do use them too, especially with lower-level classes. I understand that the problem with display questions (also called known-information questions) is that they are a type of question for which the answer is already clear and teachers ask just to see if the learners know the answer. Again, this makes them appear somewhat phoney. Thus, even with young students, I try to include referential and open-ended questions as much as I can.

It’s also worth mentioning that unlike in other subjects, such as history, L2 learners follow their own non-linear trajectory towards communicative competence. So as a history teacher, you can boldly ask your class to memorize certain dates and historical events related to those dates. Some students will learn the facts easily while others will struggle a bit but at the end of the day, you can expect all of them to answer your questions correctly on a test. We English teachers, on the other hand, have wondered too many times before why on earth Student X still does not know when and how to use the present perfect tense even though we have ‚taught‘ it on so many occasions. Well, this is how it works. Some crops ripen later than others, which doesn’t make them worse or deficient in any way. You just have to be patient. It will happen in the end; you just don’t know when exactly.

So, have I or have I not answered the question in the title of this post? And is this a display or referential question? Well, yes and no. And it can be both, I think. 😉

Alali, F. and Schmitt, N. (2012). Teaching formulaic sequences: The same or different from teaching single words? TESOL Journal 3, 2: 153-180.

Dictation – yes/no/why/how?

0The other day I read Scott Thornbury’s post D is for Dictation. Following the example set by the author, I decided to ponder the value of this popular classroom activity.

There must be something magical about dictation because it was one of the most frequent activities we did in Czech lessons during my formal education, and it still holds true nowadays. The thing is that my mother tongue is a very complicated language and it takes Czech kids ages to learn the rules of its written form. The only advantage is that unlike English, Czech is written as it is heard (with some exceptions, such as words with final voiced consonants, which are sometimes uttered voicelessly). Czech pupils start writing short dictations as soon as they start using a pen – around the age of 6-7 – and judging by the unflagging popularity of this classroom activity, it must be regarded one of the best ways of learning the language.

I’m not sure whether I use dictation for the same reasons why primary teachers over here use it to teach Czech, but I’m convinced that there is a place for dictation in an L2 classroom and that incorporating it into classes is beneficial in terms of language acquisition.

As my primary goal is to teach my students to communicate in English, I find it important to turn dictation into a communicative activity. Can I achieve this? What is a communicative activity at all? This is a question I already considered here and here. Anyway, I mainly use dictation to recycle written texts or audio recordings. My favourite activity is Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play a recording my students are already familiar with, and at some point I stop the audio – usually where there is a full stop or after longer chunks of language. As the title of the activity implies, students write the last word they heard.

I believe that this procedure turns the dictation into a meaningful listening task; students are exposed to whole chunks/sentences, and they need to pay attention to the context, otherwise they won’t be able to pinpoint the last word. What’s more, while listening, they are forced to ‘replay’ bits and pieces of the text in the heads and they make quick, little choices before they finally zoom in on the word they are looking for. If possible, I deliberately select words that need to be practised – either because they were encountered in the previous lesson for the first time or because of their tricky spelling.

My students like this type of activity because it’s not too challenging – they don’t have to write long stretches of text, which is something they’re used to doing in Czech lessons. Nevertheless, you can obviously ask them to write more than just the last word. You can either ask them to write the first word, which will encourage them to hold each chunk in their memory for a while, or they can write as much as they manage within the time limit between the pauses. Alternatively, to give your learners more freedom, you can allow them to choose words they want to jot down. Later on, you can elaborate on this activity; your students can reconstruct the whole recording/text by completing the bits they’ve recorded. This resembles dictogloss – a classroom activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down the key words.

I believe that dictation plays a specific role in an L2 classroom, but it shouldn’t be overused – students need to be exposed to other forms of language practice after all. First of all, the teacher needs to get it clear why s/he wants to use it – is it to practise spelling, vocabulary, listening or something else? Is there a better, a more effective and a more communicative way of practising these language areas/skills or is dictation the right option? These are the decisions that must be made during the planning stage.