Monday, July 26, 2010

Move Over Learning Curve! Bring on the Learning Square!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

In the middle of a lesson about the second conditional, I was calling on students to check a routine grammar exercise from the text that they had just completed in pairs. One student, Guy, shared the correct answer and I praised him, “Well done!” At this, he assumed a slightly philosophical air and said, “Well, yes, it is correct. But this is difficult when it is not in the book.” In other words, Guy was making the complaint I have heard many time from students; filling in the gaps is (sometimes) easy, but remembering grammar rules when one is in the middle of a spontaneous conversation is an entirely different matter. Guy and all the other students who have similarly grumbled are absolutely right. This is usually the point in the semester when I dust off my handy Learning Square.

The Learning Square?

I learned about this depiction of the learning process from Linda Grant (2008) in her talk about how to teach pronunciation. However, she said the chart was not her own invention. Rather, it came from somewhere completely unrelated to English Language Teaching, and is applicable to mastering any new skill in general. Once I get up on my little Learning Square soapbox, I remind students that if they are learning any new skill, it takes time. For instance, if they decided to take up fencing out of the blue, they would go through a similar learning process as they are with learning another language.

The Goal: Unconscious Competence!

The Learning Square looks like this:

Stage Consciousness Competence
4 +
3 + +
2 +

My explanation (which I must caution might be a distortion of what Linda Grant said two years ago) goes like this:

  • When a student is just beginning to learn new target language (for instance the second conditional), he/she doesn’t know the rules and can’t correctly use the target language. This is stage 1.
  • After a while, the student learns the rules, but still has trouble using the target language accurately in either written exercises and/or conversations (stage 2). This is the stage Guy is at, in my opinion. He knows how to form the second conditional (if + simple past + , + would + base), but he still has questions when he does his homework and he has trouble remembering the form in the less controlled conversation activities I assign in class. (For example, If your house was on fire, what one item would you save?)
  • The third stage is reached when the student is consistently accurate whenever he/she is thinking consciously about the grammar rule.
  • The fourth, final and most coveted stage is when the student uses the target language correctly without thinking about it, or unconscious competence.

Quality Input

Progressing up the ranks from level 1 to level 4 depends on continuous quality input. In terms of language learning, this could mean continuing to take ESL classes or it could mean listening to the radio or making English-speaking friends. Of course, this square does not describe the learning process of ALL students. Moreover, a student might be at a level 3 when it comes to the present progressive, but a 1 when it comes to the passive voice. Also, a progression up the chart is never assured. Even when they receive quality English input, we have all seen fossilized students who never progress past the second level; and there is no “schedule” by which the Learning Square operates. One student may jump from 1 to 4 quickly, while another student might be stuck at a 2 for years. However, the Learning Square helps students to see that even if they can’t master a skill completely within 2 or 3 lessons, there is still hope for them. If they continue to receive quality input, at some point, they may find themselves unconsciously competently using the second conditional.

Grant, L. (2008) Teaching Pronunciation: Meeting Individual Needs, paper presented at TESOL 2008, New York.


Comment from Julie Feferman
July 26, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I agree, nice chart. It is helpful also if you (the teacher) has also learned a second language, and can share with students some observations about your own process of learning. I speak English and learned Spanish. It took me about 6 years in a semi-immersion process to become conversationally fluent. However,my speaking and grammar and vocabulary continued to improve year by year since. I tell students this and they are surprised. It is also helpful to remind them that native speakers are also still acquiring new bits of our own language as needed.

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 27, 2010 at 2:35 am

Absolutely! I also think telling them HOW you manage to keep improving your Spanish after taking language classes is helpful.

Comment from Michelle Batista-Jarosch
July 27, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Loved it! Nice and clear and easy to understand. I will share this with my students and other teachers. Thnaks.

Comment from Nick Jaworski
July 31, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I would also argue that the gap fills are a complete waste of classroom time to begin with. The problem is that students are focusing on rules and simply filling in blanks when that doesn’t help them in real language use, as your student pointed out.

I feel there is very little correlation to gap fill drill work and acquisition as they are often disconnected from live language use. Many students can ace gap-fill grammar tests and not be able to speak a word, which simply points to their lack of efficacy.

It’s really impossible to apply rules across the board anyway, especially if their isn’t an equivalent in the L1. I can tell you that we often use present subjunctive for suggestions or desires, but can most teachers give me examples of it? No. So why we do expect students to find it useful?

The key here is input, providing students with learning opportunities, and supporting output.

To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I used a gap-fill and I rarely explicitly teach grammar rules, yet my students achieve high degrees of language competency fairly quickly.

I think the learning square needs to be reversed. First students learn what language to use in a given situation, they then start to take that apart, finally they apply it in wider contexts and use it when appropriate.

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 3, 2010 at 4:10 am

I would have probably agreed with your opposition to gap fills a few years ago, until I sat on the other side of the desk. As a French student, I like gap fills because the “drill work” you refer to actually helps me remember the grammar to use in a conversation. I have developed a new appreciation of controlled practice (in moderation) as a stepping stone to that much coveted balance between fluency and accuracy. I say “in moderation” because I, too, have seen students who can fill in blanks until the end of time but can’t carry on a conversation. In my opinion, I like to see a balance of both.

I would be very interested in some specific examples of what you mean by “input, providing students with learning opportunities, and supporting output.”

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