ESL TeachingTraining

Learning by List

With the onset of online teaching, social media pages which purport to teach English ‘quickly’, ‘easily’, ‘effortlessly’, we have also seen a significant rise in the publication of what I shall call: learning taxonomies, lists of items which are supposed to make learning easier in some way.

Despite this plethora of, for example: ‘how to learn irregular verbs’ websites and pages, I remain entirely unconvinced that these activities are of any real use for language acquisition.

ELT has long searched for and created categories of language items to bunch together so that course book authors and teachers can deal with them as a unit and learners can apparently access them with ease. And we have done that despite the fact that L1 learners do not need to manage these arbitrary groups as such but, instead deal with them as their individual components arise naturally.

I am not suggesting that L1 and L2 processes are identical but I do think that one of the similarities between L1 and L2 learning is that in both procedures we are better able to handle / acquire language features and items which are meaningful because they are needed and not well equipped as language learners to handle and use (use being the key here) multiple items from randomly assembled groups.

You may argue that, for example, irregular verbs are not random but clearly belong together since they are all of the same category and yet, the category they belong to is, as far as language learning is concerned, a specious category created by grammarians and of no practical value at all to language users. Learning the declensions of a number of irregular verbs, more or less by rote is an activity which some learners and teachers may find rewarding since it can be done – by ‘done’ I mean learners may well be able to recite those verbs in a week or two, or after a much longer period, just as they did when they had first managed to memorise them. So I have no argument with that initial premise. The problems and questions arise when we examine how they later convert those lists into actual use!

Consider the many children (and perhaps adults too) who, having learned their ‘times table’ are then unable to extract one item from the table but must run through it from the beginning to reach the point they need. Or reciting the alphabet (not a useful activity) which one learned as a unit – what’s the 3rd letter after O? To answer that, you probably had to run through the previous 3 or 4 letters to arrive at R. Being able to say what the 3rd letter after O is, may not have any practical application but the process we undertake when we do try to answer is very similar to that used when asked to retrieve any rote-learned information.

I think that knowing how to recite: “go – went – gone” is a hindrance to actually managing those 3 separate items as needed. What I mean is that during the learning process, students will arrive at a point when they need to use the past of ‘go’ but don’t know it yet.

Good! That’s the point when it can be introduced since there’s a need and thus, motivation. This also fits with the Teachability Hypothesis as well as the Zone of Proximal Development neither of which, rather useful notions is considered if we have students shouting out or writing out lists of verbs.

Of course, I am not only talking about verbs here but the many other categories which as teachers we seem to have accepted to be logical and necessary but to learners, assuming they haven’t yet been misguided, are not.

Complex rules of the formation of comparatives and superlatives must be memorised; must they? Different functional uses of ‘can’ must be differentiated and examined; really?

Explanations of the differences between ‘must’, ‘have to’ and ‘have got to’ are given in the hope that students will then be able to use them.

I could go on!

But none of these activities is undertaken by L1 learners because they don’t need to, they ‘get it’ by exposure and use. Again, I’m not supposing that L1 and L2 learning processes are identical but I am suggesting that they are parallel and more similar than dissimilar. I’m arguing that most of the atomistic list generation which publishers and teachers do, is more useful to them than to learners.

I know that some learners like learning lists but I suggest that they use lists as a way to avoid the much more challenging matter of actually using language to communicate.

Similarly, we lump together idioms – to make them more accessible, here we at least match idioms of similar type or content so teachers present idioms which use colour or body parts in the belief that this will assist learners’ tasks of acquiring them. But linking them by such arbitrary categories doesn’t help with meaning or use though it might help with memorisation of the units themselves. So recalling the lexical chunks: ‘it doesn’t cut the mustard’ and ‘he’s a real couch potato’ is eased, it is suggested, by categorising them as similar since they both use food as a central theme but what has that to do with their concepts and how certain are we that students, having memorised them and linked them in their minds through food, can now produce them in an appropriate context?

Teachers produce beautifully coloured flow charts and diagrams to show how the tense and aspect system works and students often love those visuals. But what do they really do? They are categorising grammatical structure so that students can easily reference the several uses, for example, of the present simple and then what? Is that information processed and made available for use and if so, when and how?

Here, I am approaching the other hypothesis relevant to this discussion which is that of the Interface Position.

It runs like this: there are two kinds of information, declarative and procedural. The former is information about the language, things you can declare to describe certain aspects of the language. The latter is information which is available for use, it’s what you actually do with language. And the question the Interface Hypothesis poses is: can the two kinds of information interact, can declarative information become procedural?

Within the Interface Hypothesis, there are 3 major positions along a continuum: zero, weak and strong. Zero means nothing is converted so explanations are like talking to the wall since they don’t go anywhere! Weak means some kinds of information may be converted, sometimes.And strong means most (maybe all) declarative information is converted to procedural use. We are talking really about how the brain manages our language learning activities and while it has suddenly become fashionable to suggest that brain-based approaches to language learning are all anti-scientific and have no relevance to language learning, the brain is still the organ which has a primary role to play so we might as well work with it rather than against it!

A hypothesis exists because there’s a question which has yet to be answered and here the question is quite simple: how does the brain deal with two kinds of information? The answer is we don’t know, but at least, as teachers, we can be aware that some information may not be going where we would like it to go and then we can adjust what we do accordingly while carefully monitoring our students’ real progress. By ‘real’ I mean what they are genuinely doing as opposed to what we would like them to be doing!

My message is: abandon the lists and the quasi categorisation of random items in favour of a more natural way of working. Given a more holistic approach, in which language develops as it is required, using a bottom-up, collaborative and student-centred approach guided by a teacher who responds to students’ needs will, I hold, produce more natural language users, faster and more effectively.

This way of working is not easy since neither teachers nor students can use lists as a way of monitoring their progress, instead they must take delight in watching real language develop in a way which is closer to the way we naturally manage our language acquisition.

August 2014

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