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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 14, 2010

1) The Post-method era: When ‘bad’ methodologies are good and 2) Adventures are for Infants

Two smaller entries for today...

1. The Post-method era- when ‘bad’ methodologies are good

Having listened to vocab guru Paul Nation discuss vocabulary acquisition recently in Fukuoka, I was once again reminded that we are now wholly in the ELT Post-Method era (and here you were thinking this was the Post-Modern Era or the Digital Age!). Why? Because almost every luminary in our humble field whom I’ve heard talk in the past five years has advocated an eclectic mix of methods as being the most productive for teaching. So, what did Paul Nation say? He actually said- hold your breath here- that Grammar-Translation is a wonderful method of instruction, that it makes perfect sense to utilize one’s first language as a tool in second language acquisition.

Paul- how ‘pedagogically incorrect’ of you! But also... how very true!

Actually, I’ve heard Willis, Widdowson, Candlin, and Nunan et al peddle the virtues of unfashionable drills, card study, dictation, discrete item grammar study- name-your-old-fashioned-methodology-here. Of course none of these big names argue that these are the only methodologies one should use or that they should even be considered primary methods of instruction. But, given that many teachers who like to think of themselves as progressive have completely discarded these tools in the name of pedagogical hipness, this might come as a welcome reminder.

On one hand, the fact that drudge methods can play a productive role in SLA should hardly come as a surprise for those among us who are in a lifelong Japanese learning mode. Surely you dear reader, like myself, have used these methods in your self-study. So, we might well expect that independent learners and hobbyists of any new language will practice more formal drills and translation methods as a part of self-study- as any serious student should. But, also as a result, we can reasonably predict that when such independent learners actually meet with an NS teacher they will want to do something active with their English knowledge- not drills or mundane item-by-item translation. Fair enough.

But this is whereJapanese university settings come in in a very significant way. Universities in Japan are full of required English courses in which the students’ main concern is often not the acquisition of English, and thus there is little chance that most will carry out this type of drill/drudge study on their own. Therefore, it is precisely university students who can/should benefit most from a teacher employing these methods in a university classroom (again not as a primary method but as a useful supplementary tool) . They need to have occasional directed, focused study mandated from 'above' precisely because they are less likely to do it by themselves. Not only that, but being familiar with these simple methods means that university students often feel very comfortable with them. There is little fuss and bother regarding formats or complicated interactions. They are on familiar territory. There is a place for this stuff- a small place but a place nonetheless.

As long as we don’t allow the pendulum to fall too much in one direction or another we can take solace knowing that ‘obsolete’ methods, our occasional guilty practices, are supported by many of the big names in the profession.

Any thoughts on using 'drudge' methods?

2. Adventures are for infants

I know very little formal theory regarding how infants acquire languages (first or second) but I’m a two-time father so, hey, I suppose I’m as qualified as anyone to talk about what I see before my own eyes. And what I see is this:

My nearly-two year old daughter is enrolled at a nursery school so she picks up Japanese faster than English. So, other than myself, her main exposure to English comes through English picture books. Now, there seems to be two main types of books out there for infants- those which tell a simple story and those that are trying to teach, or at least introduce, English words. The former often contain rather difficult constructions and words that don’t appear on your standard “Most essential 500 words” lists: “So that’s why they hadn't talked to her!”. Or, “The mongoose curled up into a ball”.

The second type of kids’ books contain mostly repetitions of common phrases: “Good morning Danny Duck!” “Hello Mr. Sun!” or lists of basic words- ‘banana, dog, juice, boy, running, hot’- usually accompanied by a matching illustration. These books are obviously less linear, focusing more on conscious association between individual pictures and words.

So, which type do you think accelerates my daughter’s English the most? (Not to mention my son- now in JHS- when he was the same age). The difference in both cases is/was palpable. There is no contest. The simple narratives and adventures- the actual stories- are internalized and lead to reproduction of words, patterns, and phrases much more quickly and deeply than the books which are trying to teach specific words or are full of stand-alone set phrases.

I suspect that this is connected to the pedagogical fact that discrete items are often internalized more deeply and holistically when cognition is engaged, when the focus is upon communicating meaning. Trying to get children to retain items that are being explicitly ‘taught’ is like trying to catch water in your hands by squeezing it. Your hand may still be wet but there’s not enough left to swallow.

If this holds true for most infants I think it holds significance for publishers of English learning materials for very young children. But first, I’d like to know- Is there research support for what I see as a father? And, second, is the same true for your children?

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To the extent that the "drudge" methods are actually a drudge, they're toxic motivation killers.
I think you answer yourself in the next post about what--no contest--engaged your kids in language learning: real stories, not "trying to teach" contrived ones.
In our language learning, we all want to banish the drudge and keep it real, don't we?

My daughter's too young to be producing much language of any sort, but I do have quite a lot of experience of teaching very young learners. My experience/ feeling is that it doesn't have to be story (though it often is), but just involvement. For example, I've got an ABC book where they can just about guess what the object representing the next letter will be from clues at the side of the page, and they definitely learn more from that than any other A B C books I've tried. It's not a story, but there's something there to really grab them. Same with well designed pop up books, and even mixing up the order of books like Brown Bear Brown Bear so the scariest animal comes last.

I've just been involved in a huge (if polite) online row for criticising Potato Pals for having none of these things, and therefore being not nearly as good for learning as Spot the Dog, despite the workbook, thoroughly designed syllabus, being specifically for EFL learners, etc:

Wow, thanks for the above, Alex. It's helped me think more clearly. Involvement, I see now, is what allows learning. I'd like to expand my earlier comment to say, to the extent that "drudge" methods involve the learner (which I think means they're not experienced as a drudge, but the very opposite), then bring 'em on.

Alex' last observation about preferring involving material even though the less-involving material has the EFL bells and whistles is interesting. We EFLers artfully fillet living language and deliver it so it's more easily learnable. But if our efforts don't engage learners, the state-of-the-art materials and/or methodology are for nothing.

My daughter's about to turn 6 and is similar to what Mike describes - I remember her suddenly spouting lines from "Bananas in Pyjamas" about 2 years after she first watched it. Similarly, she's never shown much interest in the Picture Dictionaries we have lying around the house. (She does like the chants though)

At the same time, I teach kids from 3 years and up, and have experimented with different approaches.
At the minute the book "Is that you, Sanata" is proving very popular. The book features rebus pictures to allow the kids to join in the telling of the story by 'reading' the pictures (come to think of it, my daughter has a similar thing in her Noddy Annual that she loves)

The key seems to be the willingness of the child to accept the different language. My daughter naturally accepts the surrounding 'noise' when I'm reading stories to her as it's something she's had every night since she was a baby. Some of my kids students will happily sit and listen to a story, while others loudly protest in Japanese that they don't know what I'm saying.

While old-fashioned drudge methods can be huge de-motivators, as Julian suggested, I think that the judicious and timely use of such methods can still be useful. As I said in the essay, students are at least familiar and comfortable with these approaches. The key however is to not make such an approach the dominant methodology.

Ironically, I think that drudge methods are best undertaken by skillful and experienced teachers who know how to make the most of them and apply them to the learners' holistic L2 systems. In beginner's hands (and new teachers often choose to use them precisely because because they initially seem 'easy' or 'sensible') the delicate balance and precise applications to 'real English' required to maximize these methods might well be ignored and serve as a pedagogical time bomb.

I think what happens with drudge methods is that whenever a new pedagogical fad comes along (now communicative LT being the current fashion) everyone just assumes that the old (drudge) methods should be discounted and ignored. This doesn't necessarily have to be the case. You can have a communicative approach while mixing in some grammar translation, drills, or listen and repeats. In fact I would argue that it is necessary to first check that the students undertand the language involved in a communicative activity (through grammar translation), practice using the language (listen and repeat/drills), and then set off to do their information gap activity, role play, or whatever kind of communicative activity you are doing. The old drudge methods have some merits and should be utilized in CLT classrooms.

Nice entry Mike. I am also the proud father of a 2 year old. She has always had a keen interest in story books and we've found that this has particularly grown in the last 6 months. Like your 2 year old, she seems to be really drawn to stories which contain adventures, a beginning, middle and finally some kind of outcome.

Maybe another point with these kinds of stories is that because of the adventures, she seems to want to have those stories read over and over again, which also clearly aids acquisition and retention.

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