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.