Defossilization of our teaching habits

There are many articles about fossilized grammar errors, fossilization of errors, dealing with fossilized errors, overcoming fossilized errors, arresting fossilization, etc. But there aren’t many on the topic of fossilized teaching practices. In L2 learning, fossilization refers to the process in which incorrect language becomes a habit and cannot easily be corrected. Although language fossilization has a rather negative connotation, especially among us English teachers, by now we’ve accepted the inevitable; we know all too well that fossilization is unavoidable to a great extent. Still, we never cease to look for ways to help our learners deal with fossilized language.

One of the ways is prevention. For example, if you teach real beginners, you can focus on accuracy from the very start and nip each problem in the bud. However, you should still keep in mind that students follow a non-linear learning trajectory towards the aquisition of the L2 and sometimes they will keep making the same mistakes regardless of your efforts. So you need to be patient. One way or another, fossilization can only be fixed when attention is drawn to the issue. That is to say, learners need to become aware of the problem to have the capacity to correct it.

The same as fossilized language, fossilized teaching practices are difficult to fix. The main reason is that for the most part, they are invisible to the eye of the performer. Thus they first need to come under the spotlight to be confronted. But if it is us teachers who help our students to see and overcome fossilized errors (because they can’t do so themselves), who will help us to fix our fossilized teaching practices?

I would argue that we, teaching practitioners, also follow a specific, non-linear trajectory when developing professionally. At the beginning of our careers, we know nothing. They did tell us something in methodology courses but the truth is, the reality shock is overwhelming. Later on, throughout our professional lives, we’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over again until somebody points to them or until the circumstances (lessons that simply don’t work) force us to change some of the things we do. It is only then that we spiral up to the next level.

On a more practical note, here are some of the ways of putting ourselves in the limelight: we can record a lesson of ours and watch it, we can ask a colleague to come and observe us in action, or ask for feedback from our students. These methods may be really painful at first. It is indeed agonizing for our egos to hear that what we’ve been doing for years and years simply doesn’t work the way we thought it did. But they say that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional and recognition and acceptance of a problem is the first step towards solving it. Alternatively, to circumvent the pain but still learn and evolve, we can go to ELT conferences and read books and blogs about reflective practices. Or we can blog about our own teaching experience. Putting ourselves out there like this will help us shine a bright light on some of the areas of our teaching practices, which, in result, will become less ossified.

In conclusion, we must constantly question what we do in the classroom. Asking questions and looking for answers is the best way to potentially defossilize our undesirable teaching habits.

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.