Archive for Tag: learning plateaus

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 3: The Constraints of a Limited Vocabulary

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Just recently, I wrote a post about the importance of all students developing a robust vocabulary. In Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) stresses that often one of the barriers between Intermediate and Advanced level students is that Intermediate learners rely heavily on lower-level vocabulary. In order to break into Advanced level language learning, students need to know 5,000 to 6,000 words. To further complicate matters, “knowing” a word goes far beyond being able to fill in a gap on a quiz. Students need to be able to, among other things, pronounce it, know the grammar rules that govern its form, differentiate it from similar words (for instance, ”cup” and “mug” distinguish between words that look the same but have different meanings (such as mean, as in unkind, and mean, as in “what does that word mean?”), discriminate between different levels of formality and attitudinal meanings (as in, “ask” and “demand”).

What Goes with What

In addition to a well-developed vocabulary, students also need to be adept users of collocation patterns. This brings to mind a presentation I attended at IATEFL a few years ago about Advanced learners. The speaker, Ben Goldstein, showed a letter about a trip on the screen and asked the audience to identify the words we thought upper level students would find challenging. In other words, what would we pre-teach if we wanted to use that letter in a class? Then, he pointed out all the words that a student might think he or she knew, but really didn’t. For instance, a learner might think “get” is a pretty low-level word and it is certainly in the 1000 word list. However, when paired with “carried away”, it becomes an Advanced level lexical chunk. I found this revelation fascinating because, even though I am an experienced teacher, I had not thought to pick out those smaller words. How embarrassing! Goldstein’s presentation proved to me that even though a word might seem “easy”, I need to be more aware of how it is being used and how it might trip up my students.

What is a Teacher to Do?

So, clearly, to help students move beyond a plateau at any level, we need to provide opportunities to develop their vocabulary. As I argued in Words, Words, Words, if students don’t know a word, it doesn’t matter how good their grammar or reading skills are; they can’t communicate. Here in Belgium, I am rarely silenced by a lack of grammar; I can usually make myself understood. But, not knowing a word can stop me in my tracks. For example, we had a water leak and it caused the wood floor in my bedroom to buckle. I had to ask my neighbour how to explain “buckle” in French before I could even think of phoning the landlord to report the problem. However, Keith Folse (2004) points out that, though vocabulary is really the end all and be all of language learning, text books often don’t focus on vocabulary building and language programs rarely offer vocabulary classes.

Even though I believe these deficiencies are slowly being rectified (my former university offers several levels of vocabulary classes), it is largely left to us teachers to help students develop their word banks. In my current teaching context, I provide vocabulary work on a regular basis. Especially for my Secondary students, having the perfect past tense won’t help them at all in Science class if they don’t know what an “amoeba” is. I usually follow an abridged version of Folse’s (2013) 9 Steps that I described in the previous post. Specifically, I have students begin a lesson with a card match of target word to definition. They can work on it as a group, as some have more background knowledge than others. Then, they copy the words and the definitions into their books. It’s a bit old-school to have them copy, but I firmly believe that this helps embed the words more firmly in their memories. Then, they have to translate the words. Many of my students won’t be at an English school forever. In fact, some come only for a year or two before they finish Secondary school in their home countries. So, they need to know “amoeba” in English for now and in their L1 for later. Then, in follow up lessons, we do readings and watch videos on the topic, revisiting the words again and again. We also play games, like the memory game (students turn up cards and try to find matches) and board games to help them remember. I often make my flashcards on Quizlet, which also provides games and review activities for each set of cards.

Clearly, knowing a lot of words is an important part of transitioning from Intermediate to Advanced learner. Teachers need to be aware of this and, because it takes a long time and a lot of effort to learn new words, we also need to identify which words are useful for our students to study.

Folse, K. (2004) Vocabulary Myths, University of Michigan Press.
Goldstein, B. (2010) “Countering classroom fatigue in advanced learners”, paper presented at IATEFL 2010 in Harrogate, UK.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 2: The Difference between Fluency and Complexity

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

In his great book, Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Jack Richards (2008) notices that another problem that contributes to the plateau that often plagues Intermediate level students lies in the difference between fluency and complexity. Again, I can really relate to this, as a French learner. For many years, I have been in such a panic to make myself understood and just communicate my thoughts and needs. I am usually okay with the simple past tense; however, if I need to do anything harder than that, I freeze up. My French linguistic system has not yet restructured to accommodate newer tenses, such as the imperfect.

Similarly with our students, they may have the passive voice down in a variety of simple tenses, but when they want to say something more complex, like “the bridge is going to be being built over the summer,” they stumble. In order to put an end to their plateau, learners need to add complexity to their output. Richards (2008) suggests that this can be accomplished in three ways: by addressing the language prior to the activity, addressing the language during the activity and addressing the language after the activity.

The Language Before the Activity

First, by address the language prior to an activity, he means pre-teaching the target language and providing students with a chance for rehearsal. Now, I am sure I am not alone when I say that I rarely begin a lesson without some sort of pre-teaching. If students are going to have a conversation about, for instance, pets, it makes sense that we teach or review pet vocabulary, right? Folse (2006) further divides this language into (1) the language in the task and (2) the language needed to complete the task. So, any animal vocabulary I would teach before my students talk about, for instance, pets would be the language in the task. However, many teachers, me included, often neglect the language needed to complete the task. For example, if the goal of the conversation were to have students rank a list of pets from most popular to least popular worldwide, the speakers would need to be comfortable with the comparative and superlative, as well as the language we use to disagree politely and to express our opinions. Without this, students will have a hard time carrying on the conversations we set for them.

Folse (2006) also backs up Richards’ (2008) claims that we need to give students ample time for rehearsal to they can move from fluency to accuracy and complexity. Folse (2006) claims that “[o]ne way to put all students – the outgoing and the reticent – on equal footing is to allow a planning phase before completing the speaking task.” This means we should give students the opportunity to write conversations before they have them. I’ve often struggled with this, as real life rarely offers conversationalists a chance for practice. However, I am convinced that if we mix opportunities for practice with occasions for spontaneous talk, it will benefit our students. In fact, one of my current students is a brilliant teenager from Korea. His vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing are fabulous. However, he is extremely reluctant to talk. I suppose if he were they chatty type, he might tell me that he is a bit of a perfectionist, and, since he can’t express himself without using simple sentences and making mistakes, he would rather not speak at all. So, I often have him write down what he wants to say and then put the paper aside and tell me. That way, he can express his thoughts more accurately and with more complexity than he would have without a planning phase.

The Language in the Activity

Second, Richards talks about addressing the language in the activity, in other words, how teachers implement the activity. For instance, do we have one student talk while all the others listen? Obviously, this does not facilitate the greatest conversation practice for the students not talking, so experts suggest groups of no more than 4 or, better yet, pairs. Folse (2006) argues that even the task we choose for them impacts their linguistic development. He claims “the “now talk to each other” pseudo-task is not acceptable.” Rather, we need to be setting specific activities rather than handing out a sheet of conversation questions. So, instead of telling my students to “talk about their pets” for 15 minutes, I should ask them to rank the most popular pets and then give them the results as reported by Google or have them compare how people treat their pets in North America with how people in their home countries treat their pets. I am not quite as anti-“talk about” as Folse, however. It seems to me that some practice on carrying on a conversation for the sake of the conversation is useful, both in the real world (I mean, I don’t usually have a task to complete when I get together with my friends for coffee) and in the conversation class. I just try to balance out the times I hand out a list of questions and give students time to talk with the times they are working together to reach a common goal.

The Language After the Activity

Third, Richards mentions addressing language use after the activity. I was a bit mystified by this. I mean, after the activity, isn’t the lesson finished? But, before the students go home, Richards suggests focusing on grammatical appropriateness via activities like having students publicly share what they discussed I their groups, as Richards (2008) contends “there is an increased capacity for self-monitoring during public performances.” Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about this suggestion. I hate, hate, hate the kind of activity where each group has to share with the class a summary of their conversation. When each group is more or less repeating what the other groups have said, students simply stop listening and tune out until it is their group’s turn to talk. No one cares about what other groups had to say on a conversation topic. However, if each group is focusing on a slightly different aspect of an issue, that makes the “sharing” part at the end more interesting.

Or, better yet, if the conversation is centered on a task, like Folse describes, it can be very interesting to hear the results each group reached. For instance, there are several great conversation tasks in Rooks’ (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook that always prompt lively discussion, and we all want to hear what each group decided at the end. For instance, in “Starting a New Civilization,” the students are told that a nuclear war has broken out and only a small island will be spared. There is a group of people waiting at an Australian airport and they can take a small plane to this island, but there are 10 people at the airport and only 6 can fit on the plane. The students have to decide which 6 will survive and continue the human race. Of course, each of the candidates has both something to offer and something that people may object to. For instance, there is a man of religion, a young female singer, a policeman with a gun, an alcoholic agricultural scientist, and so on. The conversation this activity prompts is always intense, and when groups can finally reach a consensus, they are eager to share their results and hear what other groups have decided.

In addition to a public “performance”, Richards also suggests having students listen to more advanced learners or even native speakers completing the same conversational task. The point, of course, is to have the students go beyond simply passively watching. Rather, the teacher would have to set some kind of a noticing task which would prompt the students to focus on the linguistic and communicative choices the speakers make. I think this is an interesting idea, and might work if teachers could somehow make recordings in advance of lessons. For example, when I taught pragmatic functions, like favor asking or ending a conversation, I filmed native speakers doing these things and used the conversations as an awareness raising activity in my lessons.

However, I could also have shown them at the end. Obviously, this kind of post-activity task has a number of drawbacks. First, who has the time to hunt down willing native speakers in order to record them ranking pets? Second, I am not sure students wouldn’t feel a bit depressed having to compare themselves with native speakers. Even though, logically, they know they aren’t as fluent or accurate as native speakers, I would worry that subconsciously, this activity might be a bit frustrating.

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Richards, J. (2008) Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning, Cambridge University Press.
Rooks, G. (1988) The Non-Stop Discussion Workbook, Heinle & Heinle Publishers.