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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

January 16, 2001

The Questioning Approach

by David Paul

A Comparison with Other Approaches

Kids The Questioning Approach is a new approach to learning English which combines the clarity of traditional structured approaches with the empathy of more modern humanistic ones. Here the Questioning Approach is contrasted with the main alternative ways of teaching English to children. For the sake of clarity, approaches are divided into categories, though, of course, many approaches fall into more than one of the categories considered.

Teacher-Centered Approaches
At the core of any teacher-centered approach is the belief that teachers teach and so children learn - the initiative comes from the teacher. The effect of this belief can not only be seen in the traditional classroom but also on methods such as repetition after the teacher or mechanical drilling, and even on individual teachers using the most progressive approaches.

In the Questioning Approach the word "teach" is never used. Teachers do not "teach"; children "learn". Lessons are planned by the teacher and the children are led towards pre-determined targets, so in a sense the teacher does have the initiative. However, the crucial factor is how the children feel about this. There are approaches, particularly some versions of the 'Situation' and 'Communicative' approaches, which on a rational level are very student-centered but which on an emotional level do not feel so to the students. In the Questioning Approach rationally much initiative remains in the hands of the teacher, but the aim is for each child to feel that she is learning for herself.

Structural Approaches
There are a number of approaches which emphasize the necessity of learning a clear sequence of grammatical structures. In some, grammatical rules are analyzed and explained either in English or the learner's language, while in others these rules are learned by induction. The Questioning Approach places emphasis on the learning of grammar by induction in the early stages of learning.

One of the main differences from most Structural Approaches is the emphasis on creating an emotional need for language before it is discovered. Another is that in the Questioning Approach the learning of structures is not valued for its own sake. Instead it is seen as a way of increasing confidence and developing a sense of adventure which makes it possible for children to gradually learn in a less structured way.

A third difference is the degree to which new language is linked with previously learned language. In many structural approaches, it is considered a virtue to teach clear and independent targets in each lesson and then to have review sections of a lesson or whole review lessons for bringing all the targets together. In the Questioning Approach the aim is for old and new language to be constantly linked and practiced together.

Natural Approaches
There is a widespread belief that the English as a foreign language classroom should approximate the conditions under which children learn their native language. Many of the methods to which this belief has led remind teachers of how they learned their own language when they were children, and so have a natural appeal.

The key difference between the Questioning Approach and natural approaches concerns the use of time. Many children who are learning English as a foreign language rather than as their native language or as a second language, have very little time to learn, often only one or two hours a week. Under these circumstances, if they learn 'naturally' they generally make very little progress. In the Questioning Approach emphasis is placed on the efficient use of time. It would be useful to look at some of the main principles which natural approaches have in common and see how the Questioning Approach differs:

Children should discover English for themselves

One principle which is shared by most natural approaches is that children should be allowed to explore and discover for themselves.

This is also a core principle of the Questioning Approach. The difference is the extent to which the children are encouraged to explore in a specific direction. The aim is for the children to feel that they are discovering language for themselves but for the teacher to have a very clear idea of where the course is going. It is the children's feeling that is crucial. As long as the learning process feels real to them, there is no contradiction, and time is used more efficiently.

The input of language is crucial

Another principle, which an increasing number of educationalists support, is that being exposed to English of an appropriate level is more important than being trained to produce language. This theory has been argued very convincingly by a number of writers. However, most of the convincing case studies either concern children learning their native language or a foreign language in a country where the language is spoken all around them.

There is little evidence to suggest that children learning English as a foreign language in their own country and studying for only a short time each week will benefit very much from just being exposed to comprehensible language. There is definitely a need for children to simply enjoy listening to English. However, in the classroom, children seem to respond much more positively and gain much more from learning and using productive skills.

Also, in cultures where children are encouraged to be dependent and passive learners, it is particularly important to establish an independent and active pattern in the early stages. 'Finding Out' has been written in Japan where dependency is often a serious problem, and attempts by teachers to use methods which emphasize the input rather than the output of language often serve to encourage a passive attitude which the children find it difficult to even break out of.

Natural Approaches (cont'd)

A third idea, which derives from the way children learn their native language and which has a large following among teachers, is that children learn best by playing games, singing songs and generally experiencing English with their senses. Controlling the language in these activities is often not considered particularly important.

Children learn best by playing games and singing songs

In the Questioning Approach too, playing games and learning with the senses play the central role in lessons, but controlling the language content of games and songs is considered vital. With native speakers or children learning English as a second language there is much to be said for using less controlled language, but the needs of foreign language learners are different.

If the language in games and songs is directly related to the targets of the course, not only is more efficient use made of the limited time available and the children given a clearer direction, but they are also not exposed to too much language which may be confusing and weaken their positivity and motivation.

When the language content is not a main priority and activities are chosen more for their popularity than for the language being practiced, there are many dangers. It is often the case that games and songs which are popular are repeated over and over again, long after the language for which they were designed has been internalized by the children. This may lead to the language being reproduced rather mechanically and the course losing momentum.

Games and songs which are played for their own sake tend to be used as rewards or as a way of maintaining discipline- "If you study hard, we will play a game afterwards" - and for many children, the learning of English comes to be regarded as 'studying' and the playing of games as 'fun'. Learning itself can be fun, especially if it is successful. Children are naturally curious about the world around them and enjoy exploring it. They enjoy asking questions.

In the Questioning Approach the teacher encourages this inquisitiveness, gives the children the language tools to express their curiosity and makes sure they Find Out the answers with minimum frustration. Discovering language is like playing with a new toy.

Enjoyable games and songs are an essential and integral part of the process, but they are always used to reinforce the language in the course. There is never any differentiation between the 'studying' part of a lesson and the 'fun' part: it is all fun.

Other Humanistic Approaches
In a sense, all approaches to teaching are humanistic or at least contain humanistic elements. However, the approaches which are generally referred to as humanistic are those which place particular emphasis on the personal nature of learning and see the teacher's role as secondary and supportive.

One of the main problems that most existing approaches of this kind face is that they are out of reach of the inexperienced teachers. The untrained teacher would find it very difficult to teach effectively using 'The Silent Why' or an approach based on 'Counsel-Learning Theory' simply by reading a teacher's guide. With the Questioning Approach this can be done. Of course, the approach can be used at various degrees of sophistication, but the key techniques are easy to learn and use.

Proponents of humanistic approaches often feel that more traditional courses are too rigid and insensitive to the deeper learning needs of students. Those teachers who favor traditional approaches often feel that humanistic approaches make inefficient use of time and fail to give the students a clear sense of direction. The Questioning Approach attempts to reconcile these two viewpoints.

In the Questioning Approach, courses and individual lessons are carefully planned in advanced, the targets are pre-determined, maximum use is made of the time available and the students are given a very clear sense of direction. However, learning is regarded as something very personal and emotional, new language is introduced in a way that feels 'real' to the students, and the teacher's role is supportive and peripheral.

The students are able to learn all the language structures which have traditionally been considered important, but they are able to retain a much higher percentage of the language they encounter and produce it more spontaneously because the teacher employs a humanistic approach.

David Paul

David Paul has been actively involved in ELT in Japan for over 10 years. He is the Principal of David English House and the author of Communicate and Finding Out. In 1999 he founded English Teachers in Japan (ETJ), a teacher organization that aims to encourage the general development of ELT in Japan. He is Principal of David English house, and author of Finding Out, Communicate, Songs and Grames for Children, Discover English and Discover the World. He is the East Asian representative for the University of Sheffield Cert/Dip/MA in Japanese Language and Society, and MA in Advanced Japanese Studies.

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