Over the length of my teaching career, I’ve changed in many ways. I think my journey mimics a lot of ELT teachers.
1. I have slowed down my delivery and instruction considerably. I used to just screech and scream through content. Now, I relax and pause a lot. I take time to enjoy the spaces together. I’ve realized students need things “a lot” slower and this leads to much more effective learning in the classroom. See this previous post – In Praise of the Slow Classroom
2. I risk more, I try different things more. Yes, that would seem against the grain of time and tradition. Aren’t old teachers supposed to be “old dogs” without “new tricks”? Not teachers that have really kept developing and learning on the job. I now understand more deeply, how each student needs to learn in their own fashion and way. That’s why I have to deliver content in different ways and modify content much more thoroughly. In my beginning years, the whole class was a “glob” and I taught that “glob” in my one way – my way. Now, I use a multi modal approach and am much more conscious of hitting all the skills and allowing students to reach the objectives in their own way.
3. I repeat content more often. Even explicitly (there is usually a groan!). I’ve realized the value of this and where I used to just assume students had masters something, now I assess and if they haven’t we “re-do” in an alternative fashion.
If there are any “old dogs” out there – I’d like to know if your growth curve has been a long the same lines.
But my development as a teacher isn’t what I’d like to write about today. Rather, it is the shadow cast by my own realization that my development is based upon some sound principles. Throughout my years, I’ve become very interested in special needs and how special educators teach. Mostly because I truly and deeply believe that other than with very young children, we are working with “disabled” students when we teach a language. And we can learn a lot by listening to special needs teachers and the instructional techniques and approaches they use.
One of the epiphanies for me came upon reading Kenneth Dinklage, who as a counselor at Harvard, was stunned how many high performing students were atrocious at learning language. He wondered why these brillant A+ students and “brains”, just squeezed by with Ds in their compulsory foreign language courses. So he set out to get to the root of the problem. It wasn’t anxiety or lack of motivation or even study skills. It was the instruction! The students had a deficit in their L1 which caused problems learning a second language. Once Dinklage applied some of the techniques used by special educators – their language learning blossomed.
Ganschow and Sparks extended Dinklage’s research and identified the Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH) stating “that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one or more of these linguistic codes in the student’s native language system.” Brown has since labeled it the somewhat generic, SLAAP (Second Language Acquisition Associated Phenomena). I’ve written about this in detail with some practice advice HERE.
To me, what it all meant was that I began to see many of the difficulties my students experienced in learning a language as something that could be overcome if I borrowed many of the ideas from special educators. One of the most important ideas is that of repetition.
Repetition is needed to learn a language and it is a basic remedial technique. Language is NOT a knowledge laden subject but is performance based. We have to do things over and over, listen over and over to achieve mastery. Just like driving a car or learning to pack a parachute. As a child, that’s how we learn too. Here’s a photo of the math notebook of the amazing mathematician, Kurt Godel. Look familiar? Even Godel has to master the basics and we should be doing this with our students. [as an aside, I really do hope one day to write about the implications of his incompleteness theorem to language - it is fascinating ] I’m sure you remember lots of this in your younger days, lots of copying and “mastering”.
But I’m not advocating that teachers set up classrooms like this infamous Chinese way…. full of parroting and useless repetition. No. There are better ways to do this and here are a few of my ideas on how you can best make “repetition” part of your instructional toolkit.
On the Lesson Level
1. Chants and Drills. Yes, don’t do them a lot but do them! The key is to make them so the students have some freedom and personal input. Always allow for students to change the words or omit words (Substitution).
2. Controlled Practice. This is a standard lesson component and should allow students to repeat basic grammatical structures yet “push in” new content. Make sure the structure is always on the board for reference and get students used to repeating it (by rewarding them, ringing a bell etc..). Example. “Yesterday, I went to the ………. and ……….. ” – that’s the target language for use with a set of flashcards of places and things.
3. Repeat student’s phrases often in class. We call this echoing. It allows other students to hear the language again but also gives students a chance to process the language and repeat inside their own heads.
Teacher: “What did you do yesterday Mirka?”
Students: “I went to the mall”.
Teacher: “Oh, you went to the mall!”
Even better if the teacher doesn’t repeat but another student does. Recycle the language during the lesson. For example, in the above exchange, the teacher could ask other students – “What did Mirka do?”
Disappearing dialogs are also a great way to repeat language!
4. Review! Every lesson should at least end with the question – “What did we learn today?” Then, list the vocabulary, structures, ideas covered. Even better if you have time to end in a game, quiz. Even better if the students make the review questions! You could also make it standard to review the previous lesson at the beginning of the next.
5. Lesson Sequencing. Students really, really need to know what will happen each class. Make an agenda and stick to it! Meaning, every class, the students know what will happen the first 5 min. / the next 10 min. etc…. You do the same things EVERY class but with different content. I really, truly think there is too much variety and too much “different” coming at students in our English language classrooms. A predictable lesson sequence is vital and students need this kind of “repetition”. An example lesson sequencing might go like this.
0-5 min: Chit – chat, check student attendance, problems…
5-15 min. Review of the previous lesson.
15-25 min. Elicit background knowledge: Song/Story/Listening/Brainstorming
25-40 min. Controlled practice activity: Flashcards
40-60 min. Performance, presentation
On the Curriculum Level.
1. Recycling. Recycling of content is done by textbook writers but it isn’t always done well. Teachers need to be aware of the need to recycle into new units, the grammar, vocabulary and functions previously covered. Students need to encounter them in new situations, in order to master them.
So for example if the previous unit was about “Telling the time”. In the next unit, “Shopping”, the teacher should make sure to use a lot of “time” references and prepare lessons which insert this. Thus, the dialogue from the textbook could be changed to include times about meeting/opening/closing of shops.
I know I’ve just touched on a few of the ways you can “repeat” and get your students learning more effectively. I think it an important thing for every teacher to think about and this summer might just be the time for such reflection. One site I recommend with all my heart and soul is Gary Bishop’s “Tarheel Reader”. It was created for learning disabled students but is perfect for ELLs because most of the books “repeat” and “repeat” and “repeat”. Here’s an example. It is a good starting point for reflecting on this important facet of teaching languages.
Dinklage, Kenneth T. “The Inability to Learn a Foreign Language.” Emotional Problems of the Student . Ed. G. Blaine and C. McArthur. New York: Appleton, 1971.
Ganschow, Lenore, and Richard Sparks. “Profile of the Learning-Disabled Student Who Experiences Foreign Language Learning Difficulties: Curricular Modifications and Alternatives.” (Revised title: “Impact of the Foreign Language Dilemma on College Bound Students with Specific Learning Disabilities.”) MLA Convention. Chicago, 28 Dec. 1985.