Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lessons Learned in the French Classroom

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

It’s not that I have never studied another language before. As a Canadian, I was forced to spend years conjugating French verbs that I never used outside class. I have also had the pleasure of living abroad, both in Russia, where learning the language was a completely organic experience based on the need to communicate, and in Korea, where I traded English for Korean lessons, but could not really speak beyond ordering in a restaurant. But, after 12 years of teaching ESL and EFL in a variety of contexts, I recently moved with my husband to Belgium. In addition to teaching English here, I also immediately signed up for elementary-level French classes. After years of being on one side of the desk, I am now on the other, and I am continuously surprised at my own reaction to violations of what I have long held to be teaching “truths.”

Lesson 1: English Only?

Interestingly for me and frustratingly for my besieged French teacher, the target-language-only rule that dominates my English classes loses clout the minute I switch roles and enter my French class. Sometimes, if I don’t understand a grammar point the teacher is describing, or if I don’t remember a certain word, rather than laboriously try to negotiate meaning In French with the English speaker sitting next to me, I simply ask in English, “Does she mean …?” When students have done this in my classes in the past, I have reminded them to speak in English, but now I can see the benefit to quick, quiet explanatory conversations in the first language. My French teacher even speaks in English (insert gasps and shrieks of horror) sometimes to explain a particularly tricky grammar point. Although this would have certainly garnered my disapproval as a teacher-mentor six months ago, now, as a student, I am less horrified and more relieved at finally being able to understand what the teacher is trying to explain. Sometimes, when possible, I believe that a grammar explanation is better delivered in the students’ native language rather than in the target language, even beyond pre-beginning and beginning level classes. It is simply the easiest way to move from the French subjunctive to the next activity.

Lesson 2: Letting Go of English

As a teacher I know that grammar does not necessarily directly translate. I encourage my students to “think in English” as much as possible and let go of their native language grammar rules. Like following my own rules regarding the use of target-language-only, I have also found this theory easier to swallow on the “teaching” side of the table. I am surprised at how often I have to remind myself that there won’t always be an exact English equivalent to the French lesson on the agenda. For example, just the other day, we were learning how to speak about time. In English, we would use since with a point in time and for with a length of time. I am comfortable with this. However, I had the hardest time getting my head around the fact that the French time word, depuis, is much more flexible than our since. Even though I am consciously aware that it is important to avoid trying to translate grammar concepts, I have to repeatedly remind myself to let go.

Lesson 3: Writing First … Sometimes!

As an ESL and EFL teacher, most of the activities I plan for my students tend to focus on oral production. We spent class time learning new concepts and practicing them in conversation or with communicative Grammar games. Writing seemed to take too much time and was better done alone and at home. In addition, I argued that since real life does not allow for much preparation time, why should students have preparation time before speaking? So, you might imagine my surprise when I found myself looking forward to the times when my French teacher instructs us write our dialogues out in pairs before delivering them. My vocabulary is so much richer, even without heavy reliance on my dictionary, and my grammar is markedly more accurate when I am given more time to plan, though in retrospect this seems obvious to me. More interestingly, though, I was surprised by how much I truly enjoyed having time to think, and how much more I actually retained from the activity. As a teacher, I would have worried that this activity was too boring. In addition, as inundated as we have been with notions of communicative competence, I would have worried that this kind of quiet work would have actually hampered my students’ efforts to communicate. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I now believe that a mixture of activities that prompt spontaneous output and activities that allow for a more thoughtful approach to the target structure is wise.

Again and again, I have had experiences as a French student that call into question several long-held beliefs about teaching and language acquisition. I can only hope that, as I develop as a French speaker, I will also continue to grow as an English teacher.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Does Method Matter?

By Lida Baker
Los Angeles, California, USA

A wise colleague of mine once said, "It doesn't matter what method you use to teach a language. The only thing that matters is whether your students like you or not." I don't think he was advocating the total absence of any method, but my own experience partly supports the importance of having a teacher you trust and respect.

I learned Hebrew as a child in Israel. My family lived on a kibbutz and there was not another English speaker in sight. I was 8 years old and within two months I was speaking Hebrew fluently. Back in the U.S., I started learning Spanish in 7th grade. I had good--and a few great--teachers all the way through college. In middle school the teaching method was pure audio-lingual. By high school and college it verged into the direct method. In the advanced college classes we read literature and talked about it (in Spanish). I learned successfully using all these methods.

In college, besides Spanish, I studied French, Italian, and Arabic using the direct method. I was successful with French (great teachers at UCLA, small classes, well trained teachers), unsuccessful with Italian (evening course, 40 students, unskilled teacher who spent the whole class talking “at” us, no pair- or group work), successful with Arabic (fabulous, enthusiastic, skilled teacher who had us talking within weeks). Then after grad school, wanting to continue Arabic, I enrolled in a night class. A disaster! The teacher blatantly favored students who could speak a little and left the rest of us in the dust. It was so insulting I dropped the class and that was the end of my Arabic.

Then I took Dutch. It's my parents' native language and I was super-motivated to learn so I could speak to my cousins in Holland. But the teacher was dreadful. His method was a mix of Grammar Translation and telling us about his personal problems--in English. He made every female in the class squirm. I dropped that class as well and never studied Dutch again.

So, what does this rambling account prove? Method does matter, but so do other factors. Of the seven languages I've studied, I dropped three of them because the teachers were unskilled, inappropriate, or failed to motivate me. I think I can learn using any method, but the teacher had better be good!


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Resolutions or Real Promises?

By Ela Newman
University of Texas at Brownsville

I’ve never created a list of my New Year resolutions, but I have made mental notes of a few of those New Year’s Day promises. I once promised to eat no bad chocolate. I got months into the year with that one. Another time, I swore to exercise more, or more or less- I’ve forgotten which it was now.

It seems to me that many of us, regardless of whether we actually produce lists of New Year resolutions (and when we are not joking around about bad chocolate) make promises about things that are acutely relevant, or inspirational, or rewarding, in our private as well as our professional lives.

This year, this “teaching year,” I am resolving to be a good observer.

But how could being a good observer benefit my students? And how could observation itself be seen as effective use of my time? Well, let me see...

Can observation bring relevance to the L2 teaching-learning process? Apart from helping the teacher decide on the pace of teaching, the type of material to be studied, and the techniques that can be used, its fruits can suggest the order in which we may want to arrange the material.

Typically, we assign a level of difficulty as well as a “place in line” to a given grammar structure. For example, many of us will introduce the Simple Present before we expose students to “the workings” of the Simple Past. By tradition, the Present is taught earlier because it is structurally easier, and perhaps also psychologically more basic, at least for young children, but it seems rarely to be more experientially relevant than the Past, particularly for older children and adults.

An L2 learner myself, I remember feeling a bit impatient when, in my first English class, it took a couple of months before I was exposed to ways of talking about the past. To my mind, the past tense seemed more pertinent than the present. I had the impression that my classmates and I would speak about the events of yesterday, last week, or last year more frequently than we would talk about what we do regularly or habitually, so we were eager to do the same in English.

Maybe, if I’m a good observer of my students this year, I will notice where their grammar interests, as well as their grammar needs, lie. I realize that teaching should not be guided excessively by such student impressions, but I feel that this impression is worth a second thought and it may help me make my lessons more relevant without making them measurably more difficult in terms of the ordering of grammatical structures.

Can observation bring inspiration? (Well, the two words rhyme anyway!) We know that watching students become genuinely involved in an activity we’ve prepared can “give us wings” and encourage us to continue creating tasks of a similar sort. But it can also motivate us to try something new or unusual.

I am a fan of discovery-based tasks, and although I realize that they can’t be used daily (they tend to be time-consuming) and that not all students feel comfortable with them- some students simply want the teacher to explain all the grammar rules- these tasks do have a place in many classrooms and the results of observation can help us decide if and when such unusual activities might be used.

Also, if we allow students themselves to become observers, they too can draw motivation, even inspiration, from the experience. Discovery-based activities, which involve language learners in close examination of usage material, encourage students to discover language patterns outside the classroom as well; these students usually realize they can become more independent learners.

Another way that students can become inspired by observation involves reflection on their mother tongue. I’ve noticed that students enjoy describing structures of their native language. (Ask me a question about noun cases of Polish and I’ll feel Goosebumps.) Tasks featuring native language descriptions give grammar discussions a special, personal touch. Students “observe” native language usage, and as a result often find studying grammar more naturally interesting.

Can observation be rewarding? I think so. It can show us which of our ideas work and which were “good tries.” And I believe that such news is gratifying since it points at what activities we should definitely keep in our folders and which ones need to be rethought (or, if I dare say, “tossed”).

I’ve heard that we are more likely to fulfill our New Year resolutions as “real promises” if they are realistic, valuable, and acted upon immediately. I believe that with effort I can become a good observer this year, and I’m confident that there are material benefits to doing so. Now, all I have to do is act (and soon, I guess!).

How about you? Are you planning any big or small instructional changes this year?

Happy New Year, everyone!