Tuesday, May 20, 2014
The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 5: Fossilization
By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
I love the visual that the word fossilization prompts, even though I hate the idea that students might be making the same mistakes in 10 years that they are making now. It’s almost as though these mistakes are frozen in time; the speaker keeps making them even though other aspects of his/her English have improved. According to Jack Richards, in his fantastic book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, fossilization refers to “errors that appear to be entrenched and difficult to eradicate, despite the teacher’s [and I would argue the student’s] best efforts.” (Richards, 2008) He further points out that a great deal of the research regarding fossilization put a large part of the blame on the communicative classroom in which fluency is valued over accuracy. In other words, students are encouraged to make meaning when they speak and write rather than focusing on being grammatically correct.
Irregular Verbs or Respiration Vocabulary?
In fact, reading this made me feel a bit worried. In my teaching context, I deal with students whose goal is to get out of EAL and into their mainstream Secondary classes as soon as possible. They matriculate gradually, as their English develops, but clearly, for me and them, the focus is on academic vocabulary at the expense of grammatical accuracy. To my great shame, I have long argued that students in Year 8 Science need to be able to talk about the Respiratory System in order to pass their classes rather than waste time memorizing irregular past participles. I think I even wrote it in an earlier post in this very series! After all, no one ever failed a Science test because they wrote “breaked” instead or “broke.”
According to the experts, however, it is exactly this attitude toward language learning that causes fossilization. The problem is that “often fossilized errors tend not to affect our understanding of the speaker, although they might be irritations and may also be stigmatized.” (Richards, 2008) In other words, the kinds of mistakes that usually end up on the fossilized list are things like omitting the final –s, which rarely causes a breakdown of understanding in a conversation. However, when students persistently leave off the final –s, they are communicating their lack of proficiency in English, which can potentially cause teachers and employers to underestimate them. Yikes! Clearly, somehow, instead of an unrelenting drive toward fluency in academic English, I need to also spend some time working on grammatical accuracy with my EAL Immersion students.
How to Un-Fossilize Language
As all teachers know, this is easier said than done. According to Richards (2008) students first need to become aware that they are making these errors; they need to become “active monitors of their own language production” (Richards, 2008). I do this in two ways: “What you Said, What you Meant” and “Record, Transcribe and Correct.” In “What you Said, What you Meant,” while students are carrying on conversations in small groups, I circulate with my note pad or laptop. I note down the errors I hear (that I feel the students have sufficient English to be able to correct) and examples of good English. Then I write or project both the good and bad on the board and we both correct the errors and read the good examples together as a class. Some teachers worry that when students see their errors, they will be reinforced; however, this has not been my experience.
“Record, Transcribe and Correct” is exactly what it sounds like. Students record themselves either doing a 1-2 minute monologue or having a short conversation with another student. I’ve done this high-tech on iPads and low-tech using tape recorders. Then, they listen to what they have said and transcribe it word for word. I only ask them to write what they have said, not what their partner has said, if it is a conversation. Then, they use a different color to correct all the errors they can find. I read the transcription and circle additional errors. If I am grading the activity, all students start with 100% and they lose 5% for each error they missed that I think they could have corrected (based on their level, of course), 5% for each error they corrected incorrectly, and 5% for each time they misidentified language as an error. I’ll be honest; students generally don’t love this activity, but they tend to agree that it is useful.
Richards (2008) also advocates adopting a more explicit approach to teaching grammar in the class. I think so often we worry that a grammar lecture followed by traditional grammar activities might be boring for students. In fact, it’s true that I rarely have students cheer when I say that we are going to work on the passive voice, but I also believe that not only is traditional grammar work useful for helping students overcome fossilization, some students truly do enjoy it. It’s often rules-based and makes sense to them. Also, this kind of explicit instruction and these kinds of grammar exercises often jive very well with what many students are used to in terms of English lessons. In my current teaching context, I can have students of all levels at any given hour, so I think next September, I am going to give them a grammar pre-test and then assign chapters from the appropriate Azar book for them to work on at their own pace. That way, they can actively combat fossilization and break out of any plateaus they happen to be stuck on.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.