Archive for Tag: teaching methods

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Misused Apostrophes: A Seeing-Thinking-Teaching-Learning Project

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

While driving home from a workshop on integrative learning the other week, I was mulling over the three topics discussed that afternoon — aspects of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the Learning Pyramid, typical learning styles of millennials — when my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a bright yellow banner flapping by the side of the road. It was informing everyone that the local flea market was now open on “Sunday’s Only.”

Instead of cringing and wondering for too long about how much less unedited signs might cost, I paused, and then asked myself, “Can anything from that workshop relate to this, if I may, apostrophe disaster?” The answer sparked an idea: I could create a project which both focused on misused apostrophes and utilized the three key topics addressed at the workshop.

After all …

  • Evaluating and creating require high-level thinking skills, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

    In the taxonomy, which grades instructional activities by difficulty, evaluating and creating are actually ranked as those which involve the highest-level thinking skills. Tasks which involve interpreting, judging, ranking, scoring, composing, reconstructing, or revising represent activities which typically fall into one of those two categories.

  •  Teaching others is an activity assigned to the top end of the (memory oriented) Learning Pyramid.

    A study done by National Training Laboratories revealed that the retention rate of information is highest (90%) if learners either teach the concept to others or put it to immediate use. In contrast, when learners read from books or other materials, or listen to lectures, that rate drops dramatically to 10% for reading and 5% for listening.

  • And millennials frequently use the internet to study.

    Millennials, those of Generation Y, or simply, people born between 1977 and 1998 are more technologically literate than any generation before them, and they tend to expect learning environments to incorporate the internet.

So here’s . . .  

The Project  

  • Stage 1. Having compiled a set of examples of publicly displayed misused apostrophes, including a number of examples from internet sources as well as the “Sunday’s Only” sign example, I shared the set with students, and asked them to evaluate and to revise them. One of my sources was the website “Apostrophe Catastrophes,” a gold mine of photographs showing real life examples of such mistakes. Also, a quiz incorporating photos of authentic signs, banners, TV images, T-shirts, etc., most of which need editing work, available at http://www.writing-kit.com/ApConsol/index.html, turned out to be very engaging.  

  • Stage 2. (Un)fortunately, campus reader boards, fliers, and even cafeteria menus can be other sources of specimens. So I asked my students to go on an “apostrophe scavenger hunt” around campus and note examples of problematic apostrophe usage. I gave them the option of working in small teams, and I encouraged them to contact the “authors” and, tactfully, to offer to edit the phrase or sentence and to inform the authors of the rule which was broken (to instruct them).

    One of my students veered off campus and found two apostrophe mistakes on the sign in front of his uncle’s body shop. The student offered to make a new sign for the shop, which pleased his uncle. The student then offered a short explanation for the change, which met with less enthusiasm. 

The students had a great time, and they were perhaps most excited when correcting and teaching native speakers of English a little thing or two about those little marks we call apostrophes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Program Director’s Dilemma: Too Much Grammar? Part 1

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I’ve been contacted by an IEP program director outside the U.S. with an all-too-familiar dilemma: how to change entrenched ideas about the role of grammar in the curriculum. She is looking for guidance on how to help her faculty members find the right balance of direct grammar instruction and experiential teaching to meet students’ needs. She writes:

Dear Ms. Azar,

I am currently the Director of an IEP program, but I was an ESL instructor for many years. I have a dilemma and request guidance.

Our IEP is located outside the United States; therefore, most of the students are exposed to English within the classroom and not in the community. All of the students in our program have had English grammar in the public government or private schools. On the initial placement exam prior to admission and in the diagnostics test administered the first week of class, the students fare better in the grammar skills test than in writing, reading, or listening skills tests, substantially better. For example, a typical grammar skills test score for the lowest level course on placement is 65% and in the diagnostic test is 68-70%. On the writing skills test, the students will score 48% on the placement test and 25% on the diagnostic tests. The students have the same placement and diagnostic results in reading and listening as in the writing. The results of the testing appear to indicate the students are aware of grammar rules and patterns but cannot apply the rules and patterns to their productions in writing.

Students attend 20 hours a week, four hours a day, of classroom instruction in reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar. Additionally, the students are required to attend one hour of lab daily. The lab is equipped with interactive online grammar program and vocabulary builder software. The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.

All of the faculty have at minimum a masters in TESOL or a related discipline. I attended the 2008 TESOL convention in New York and I attended the panel discussion with Azar, Swan, and Folse. I shared the panel’s comments on grammar teaching in relation to communicative teaching and grammar teaching in general (the communicative approach is only one of several methodologies used in our classrooms). Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language. While I recognize the need for grammar instruction to enhance student learning of English through the use of structure and patterns, I have not been able to convince some of the faculty that 300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices does not result in student learning how to apply the grammar to speaking or writing. What I have been unable to instill in the instructors is the need to prioritize the grammar skills needed within their classroom for their student population and disregard exercises that are not essential. I have not been able to persuade some of the instructors that grammar terminology is not an outcome of the course; therefore, terminology is not a tested skill.

As the director, I can mandate what is to be covered or not covered in the classroom but I do not want to micromanage the classroom instruction nor control the curriculum delivered by the instructor who is better able to judge the needs of the students within their classroom. I do need the students to meet the learning outcomes of the course and the program. Grammar terminology is not an outcome but a working ability of standard American English in essays and presentations is. Many of our students do not meet the learning outcomes in speaking, reading, and writing because of the amount of grammar taught. We use another version of the placement exam as the exit exam, and find once again the grammar skills benchmarks increase more than reading, speaking, or writing. What are your suggestions?

Thank you in advance for your attention.

Margaret Combs
Director, Intensive English Program
American University of Kuwait


I’ve consulted with a friend and longtime colleague whose areas of expertise are well suited to addressing Margaret’s quandary. I’ll post her response next week. In the meantime, I’d like to hear your thoughts. How would you advise Margaret?

Please leave a comment or email me at betty@azargrammar.com if you’d like to publish your response as a blog article.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Students in the Land of Grammar: The Use of Discovery Techniques

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

“No, no, definitely no comma here,” insisted my student Tania, who immediately followed her confident statement with an enthusiastic, “We do need that information to know which tourists we’re talking about!” Her group mates nodded in wholehearted agreement. “Yes, Yes! It’s not extra information. It’s necessary information,” added Claudia, who, out of sheer excitement, almost sprang out of her chair.

Who would have thought that working on rules governing the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses could generate such excitement in nineteen-year-olds? All right so we’re not talking El Dorado, but such rules can be quite valuable discoveries to most students.

For me, allowing students to become “grammar explorers” brings several benefits:

1. Because of their “mystery-solving” quality, discovery-based activities can capture and hold students’ attention as effectively as most interactive presentations can, and they demonstrate to students that working with grammar does not have to be dull;

2. Because of students’ personal involvement in exploratory tasks, discovery techniques help them remember rules more easily;

3. Because of their analytical character,these techniques actually show students ways to approach other, unfamiliar grammatical structures;

4. And, perhaps most importantly, because of the independent work requirements integral to discovery tasks, these activities prove to students that they can recognize a rule by themselves, and that they can be active “explorers” of the language even outside the classroom.

I recently came across a very informative article by Pavel V. Sosoyev entitled Integrative L2 Grammar Teaching: Exploration, Explanation and Expression in which he not only discusses the benefits of discovery techniques, but also shares a sample lesson as well as a questionnaire which he created to explore his students’ views on inductive learning.

And here are four of my own discovery-based lessons:

It seems to me that discovery techniques have various merits, but they are rather time-consuming and I ordinarily manage to use them only intermittently in a course.

Which grammar structures or concepts do you think might be taught naturally by way of discovery techniques? Do you use exploratory techniques in your classroom? If so, have you found them to be effective usually?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? (http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/33/e5/f1.pdf )

Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

Going Beyond Tense Pairs

Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

Five Tenses: Sample Activity

One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
A: It rose dramatically.
Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
Q: What is happening this year?
A: It is continuing to fall.
Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Don’t Dread Drills

By Ela Newman

Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL

University of Texas at Brownsville


newjgea@aol.com

Repetition drills, substitution drills, transformation drills. Are they mechanical and unexciting or practical and indispensable in language learning?

The notion of drilling often sparks animated discussion, but surely some students, some of the time, can benefit from having to repeat new structures. The frequency of use itself can help turn that newly-learned phrase into a more reflexive phrase. Drills also allow students to practice controlled and “graspable” pieces of language. Still, we may reasonably wonder if they are stimulating enough, and if they have anything to do with real communication.



Can we use drills in real and meaningful contexts? Is there a way to avoid rote repetition?


I recently took an online course designed by Diane Larson-Freeman, in which it was suggested that role plays involving creative automatization can be very effective. In these, students repeat the same sentence a few times, but they do so in contexts which would require that repetition in real life. In other words, the repetition is “psychologically authentic — the situations call for “natural repetition.”



At one point, students are practicing the structure
something needs V-ing, and they have to repeat the sentence My washing machine needs fixing a few times during a call to an appliance store because the call keeps getting transferred to different departments of the store. I guess that’s something like an instance of “the run around.”


I found the idea quite interesting and have created a few role-play situations that generate a need for “natural” repetition. Here are a couple of scenarios I came up with which can be transformed into role-plays incorporating psychologically authentic repetition. Both focus on the causative have.

Activity 1: This Room Looks Different



The student has had his or her apartment redecorated and is having a party. Guests are pouring in and they notice the changes. One guest says, “This room looks different,” and the student may respond, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Another guest arrives and says, “Wow, this room looks great!” to which the student may again say, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Knock… knock… Who’s there? Another guest? Great! (The more guests the better for the student learning the new structure!)



Activity 2: You Look Different



The student has changed something about his or her appearance and goes to work the next day. One co-worker comments, “You look different today,” and the student may respond, “I had my hair cut yesterday.” Another employee notices a change in the student’s hair color and says, “Your hair seems darker,” to which the student may reply, “Yes, I had my hair dyed chocolate brown yesterday.” Of course, if the student has had a complete make-over, this could go on for some time!

In these activities, the new structure is repeated out of necessity in a “psychologically authentic” context. It feels natural. There is a “legitimate” reason for a student to repeat the same sentence a few times. It appears to be a good way to practice structures which are genuinely new to students, and could precede activities which allow for greater variation in responses.


I’d love to hear from those of you who have used this method and those who’d be interested in sharing role-plays aimed at giving students chances to repeat new structures in contexts which require repetition naturally. Anyone ever practiced past tense forms using role-plays that involve meaningful repetition?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Teaching Grammar with Songs

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

What better way to liven up a grammar class than with a little music?

Instructors new to the idea of using songs as a teaching tool may be reluctant, as I once was, because they worry that some of their older, more “serious” students (usually found in an IEP or college program) will perceive songs as trivial, a waste of time and money. But we can successfully use songs with these adult students as long as we have specific lesson objectives and convey that songs are simply another source of authentic language input.

There may also be evidence, which will delight even the dour rocket scientist in your class, that language learned in songs is more readily retained and memorable. (Think about how we sing our ABC’s.) Finally, I’ve found a great way to ease into songs with my adult students is to inform the students that the song is a grammar lesson disguised as a break. (“You’ve been working really hard this week, so listen, enjoy…..and learn.”)

While there are many ways to use songs in language learning in general, many grammar instructors use song lyrics as sources of authentic language models of specific grammar points. Searching for lyrics that utilize the structure being taught is a time-consuming process, but luckily there are already some linked grammar/song sources available.

There are seven different songs lessons for low level grammar structures, nine intermediate lessons, and ten more advanced structure lessons right here on the Azar Grammar site in the collection of classroom materials. These lessons involve completing cloze exercises, sequencing, completing charts, analyzing and discussing grammar usage alternatives and meaning, listening for specific words and structures, using lyrics as a model for spoken and written production, and other activities.

Lyrics can be found at any one of many sites, like SongLyrics.com, but be sure to check the lyrics with the version of the song you are using because of slight variations in live vs. studio recordings and errors in lyrics transcribing. I frequently use YouTube as a free source of many songs, and the video is sometimes a stimulating source of discussion as well.

As you listen to the radio or when you pop in a cd at home, listen to songs with an ear for grammar and you’ll likely stumble across a song that you can use for a future lesson — just don’t forget to jot it down! If you are “always” searching, you’ll save a lot of time, as opposed to pouring over song lyrics searching for a specific structure the day before you plan on teaching it! The songs on this website provide an excellent jump start to your own collection as well as offering some activity ideas that can be reused on any song you come across. Have fun!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Using Student-Created Material

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Don’t tell them what they can tell you.

This advice was pinned to a cork board in a classroom where I was taking one of my EFL Teaching Methodology courses. At that time the suggestion sounded intriguing, but somewhat unrealistic. Now, fifteen years later, I know it is far from impractical.

Still, I have discovered recently that there is another dimension to that teaching suggestion:

Don’t prepare materials which students can prepare themselves.

I know. It may sound as if I’m trying to avoid one of the teacher’s basic chores: lesson preparation. Well, not this time. In fact, following that motto, I must admit, has added minutes to my lesson planning time, but it has been worth the effort.

I engage students in creating lesson material in two ways, for two reasons.

  1. I use student-created material as a springboard for introducing and practicing new grammatical structures.

    Whenever possible, before introducing a new grammar point, I ask students to create material incorporating an already familiar structure, one that we can build on. I find that students are regularly motivated by tangible evidence of their progress. Clear, objective, and immediate proof of their progress is provided when they can compare their original work to a “new-and-more-advanced” version. It is very concrete, and as such, it brings them a feeling of perceptible accomplishment.

  2. When the original material is in its more advanced version, I use it as a basis for allowing students the opportunity to become expert peer reviewers.

    As we know, teaching a new concept can be very self-instructive. (How many of us really understand the intricacies of some grammar point mostly because we have had to teach it – and appear confident while doing so?) I have noticed a wonderful tendency: as peer-reviewers, students want to provide accurate and thorough feedback. At times, that feeling of responsibility sends them back to their notes, prompts them to discuss the issue with a partner, and encourages them to give that new grammar structure some extra attention. And because that drive is psychologically authentic, it puts students’ learning in a meaningful, and therefore, productive context.

Let me add here that most student-created work is used anonymously in class. It is also submitted electronically, which allows me to create worksheets more easily. I’d like to share with you an activity I have used which incorporates students’ ideas: Lesson on Reduced Adverb Clauses

I always look for new ways of using student-created material in my lesson planning. Do you know of any? How do you incorporate students’ ideas into the teaching of grammar?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Drilling for Language

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

The first time I studied a foreign language was in 5th grade, when my family lived in Geneva, Switzerland. My brother and I attended a private school where we essentially learned French all day, except when we were pulled out for sewing and needlework (girls) or shop (boys) or sports (everyone).

Fresh off the plane, my brother and I began at the beginning: the alphabet, simple greetings, numbers, colors, then verb conjugations.

We completed one lesson in the textbook each day, and the next day were called individually to the blackboard to take a quiz, either oral or written on the board. We were graded instantly, in front of the class.

Classwork consisted mainly of copying out verb conjugations a number of times, completing written exercises, memorizing vocabulary lists, and answering surprise drill questions fired out by the teacher when we least expected it.

Life in the ‘Language Lab’

Every now and then we went off to a dark little room—I guess some precursor to the “language lab”—where we’d watch filmstrips that advanced one frame at a time. A slide would come up, we’d listen to the French, repeat it in chorus, and *beep*! The next slide would come.

Years later, when I was in graduate school, it seemed fashionable to mock the audio-lingual method, rote memorization, drills, choral repetitions, and the teacher-centered classroom. Certainly a lot of what people were saying about a student-centered, communicative classroom did sound more appealing. A gentler, more human approach. Empowering. And yet… and yet… I did learn French, fluently. You could argue that some of that could have been due to my being 11 and living in a French-speaking environment for five months. But to this day I remember those film strips down to the word—and that was 34 years ago (oh, go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind).

  • Où est-ce que vous habitez, Jacques? (*beep*!)
  • J’habite rue de la Poste (*beep*!)
  • En face du cinéma. (*beep*!)

And yes, I have the accent and intonation down too. A frequent criticism of the audio-lingual method is that students can’t substitute freely and correctly with the patterns to make original sentences; yet that certainly wasn’t true for me or my brother.

More Fun, Less Learning

Japanese was my second foreign language. I studied for one semester at a college in Oregon. Our teacher had us memorize a dialogue every day, practice repeatedly with a partner, and recite it in class the next day for a grade. Later, in Japan, I took classes that were much more communicative. And while they were more fun, I never seemed to make any actual progress with learning the language. Even after living there for five years, the vocabulary and patterns I know best are those I learned in the US from constant drilling and memorization.

I later watched my husband struggle with his Japanese class. “What do you want to learn?” asked the teacher. My husband asked for a lesson on food because he was in charge of the grocery shopping. The teacher obligingly handed out a list of what must have been every vegetable ever eaten in Japan, as well as many that have never crossed its shores, and then asked the class (in Japanese), “What are your favorite dishes?” Of course no one could answer, since no one knew the words “favorite” or “dishes, ” let alone how to describe them using only a list of ingredients. The class continued with more “discussion questions” about food, and my husband came home very frustrated.

The Payoff Is Worth the Price

I asked him what he would have preferred. He said (yes, my husband Mr. Visual Learner and General Touchy-Feely Guy) that he would have liked a few short dialogues to memorize and then to have recited them for the entire lesson, doing just simple substitutions, until he had the material memorized cold. He conceded that it would have been dull—but said the payoff of learning the material would have been more than worth it.

Now, I’m not advocating a boring classroom, or saying there’s no place for open-ended discussion or even “free conversation.” But I do think that when communicative language teaching came into fashion, the baby might have been thrown out with the bathwater. If our students want to learn English, then really, what is going to please them most is actually learning English—even if that means some drills, repetitions, and memorization, or even the teacher leading the class sometimes (imagine!). I don’t underestimate the part a relaxed and enjoyable classroom atmosphere can play in a student’s mood and motivation. However, it’s OK to trade some momentary fun in class today for students really knowing some language at the end of the course.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Language of Language Learning

By Tamara Jones
EFL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

The holidays can be a lonely time to be away from one’s family, so for our first Christmas in Belgium, my husband and I were delighted to host a small dinner party. The guests included a TESOL professional and friend on vacation from the USA, my French instructor, Sandy, and her English partner, Paul. As we finished up the ham, Paul initiated an interesting conversation about the language of language learning.

Voice? Tense? Adverb Phrase? Huh?

Paul had recently started studying in one of Sandy’s classes, and he said that he found her use of grammatical terms intimidating. In a previous blog, I mentioned that Sandy occasionally resorts to English to give precise definitions of vocabulary and for descriptions of complex grammatical concepts. However, for Paul, Sandy’s use of terms like infinitive, passive, and the past progressive actually clouds the issue more than it clarifies it.

I was surprised to learn that, in spite of all I had believed about the traditional nature of the British education system, Paul had never learned to diagram a sentence. In fact, as we went around the table, only Sandy, who had been educated in France, and my husband, a product of the public school system in South Dakota, USA, had ever been exposed in a meaningful way to the nitty gritty of English grammar.

Where IS my verb?

After our conversation, though, I wondered how many of my fellow French students felt the same way as Paul. More importantly, I wondered how many of my EFL students were mystified by my use of grammar terms. When I ask them, Where is your verb? do they wonder what I am talking about? Have we made things much more complicated for our students by forcing them to learn a separate set of vocabulary useful only when dissecting sentences?

Several language teachers believe that, indeed, we should avoid confusing metalanguage. On Debra Garcia’s blog, Teaching ESL to Adults, she cautions us against using metalanguage, suggesting that we “go directly to the target language.” (Garcia, 2008). In an intriguing strand on Dave Sperling’s forum for teachers, several language teachers agree that they prefer to steer clear of grammar terminology so as not to “burden [students] with unnecessary vocabulary and bamboozle them.” Furthermore, at a recent Maryland TESOL conference, a speaker referred to grammar metalanguage as “bombastic and misleading.” (Nelson, J. , Making Grammar a Tool, not a Topic, Presented at the Maryland TESOL Conference, 2007)

Use What Works

However, in my experience teaching both ESL and EFL, most students actually seem to appreciate a quick, metalanguage-heavy explanation to a longer, roundabout one. My students from Asia, South America, and Europe seem to have a much better background in grammar terminology than the average North American or Brit, so why not use what works for them? In fact, recently when working with an Italian couple during their private lesson, I kept referring to the -ing form. The students were totally confused until the wife said, “Oh, you mean the present participle!”

My conclusion, based on nothing more scientific than personal observation, is that most international students are much better equipped to deal with grammar terms than native English speakers. I will continue to do what appears to work best for my students and fling grammar metalangauge about in the classroom. Although I need to pay careful attention for the “deer-caught-in-headlights” stares of students who just aren’t getting it, I don’t want to underestimate my students either.

Having said all of that, I hardly consider myself an expert on this topic. I would be very interested to hear what others’ opinions are. Post a comment to agree, disagree or share your experience.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Just Do It!

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

As the saying of disputed origin goes, we remember only 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, and 90% of what we do and say.

I don’t know how accurate that really is. Nonetheless, every version of this adage shows that retention peaks with the modalities that involve our greatest participation- movement and speech.

Can we learn a language as passive observers? I remember a discussion in a teacher training class about Krashen and the Input Hypothesis. We wondered if a person could learn a second language if that person never spoke a single word of the language, never wrote, never produced any output at all, but got rich input at just the right i + 1 level. Would it be possible to acquire a second language?

Or do we have to be active participants? Do we have to involve movement and speech for efficient language learning? My personal second language learning experiences reflect the saying at the beginning of this post. What has stuck with me over time is the language that I did and said – not the language that I read in a book as I tried to self-study, nor the language I heard a teacher say in class.

Years ago, I took a Spanish class where the instructor basically lectured to us in English and smattered in some Spanish words. We followed along in the text book and listened. It was normal to pass an entire hour without the chance to utter a word in Spanish. Not only was I bored to tears, but even in the immediate weeks after, I had ZERO retention of anything from that class.

My French class, on the other hand, became my model of good language teaching and proved to me the power of doing. The instructor loaded the class with cultural activities that we learned about and participated in while speaking French. I learned how to play roulette on a mini-roulette wheel in the classroom- in French. Along the way, I learned some colors, numbers, and a rich vocabulary like “No more bets!” I participated in fencing classes- in French. I learned body parts and movements (in addition to vocabulary for blade types and protective gear!) We went to French restaurants and prepared French food. We discussed pictures in French fashion magazines and tasted wine, as we learned adjectives from “ridiculous” (some fashion) to “smooth” (some wine). (It was night school…. it was the 80s……at least we didn’t mix the alcohol with the gambling!)

Back then, I had no urgent need to learn French. Yet, twenty years later, I remember the vast majority of what I learned in that class. In contrast, a few years after the French class, I had a lot of motivation and a real need to learn Spanish. From that class, I remember nada. Almost.

Thankfully, it is the memory of that happy, Gallic experience that guides my classroom teaching and prompts me to infuse all my classes with doing. We might not be playing 21 and sipping Manhattans, but doing is also standing up and shaking hands in a lively role play, or asking a student to lead a class activity from the front of the room. Doing is when a student teaches others origami or leads the class in a jumping, stomping Lebanese dance.

Engaged, focused students who no longer watch the clock. What more could a teacher want? The proof is in the doing.