In response to “Observations of an elementary language user”

As many of you know, I’ve been back in the “Elementary Language Learner” shoes since late September, which was when I moved to Palermo. Since then, Chia Suan  (who blogs for ET Professional) has written a couple of posts which deconstruct the teaching and learning mantras that many subscribe to, which I have read with great interest. You can find part one here and part two here. (Both well worth a read!)

I’ve also blogged about my experiences of language learning, including the difficulties I had with the language lessons I was lucky enough to attend for free, but subsequently gave up due to excess time commitments, and thoughts in relation to reading extensively. I found that being a language learner again has made me see what I do (teaching) in a whole new light. In view of this, Chia’s posts have made very timely reading matter! Having read the second one this morning and it being the end of the year (hurrah for holidays!), it seemed like a good time for some reflection on learning and teaching, in response to Chia’s posts.

Firstly, I would like to say thank you to Chia for deconstructing “eliciting is good”! I can remember all too clearly sitting in the class and wondering when the teacher would stop trying to extract language that we just didn’t have or wishing we knew what it was that was wanted. Getting blood out of a stone would surely have been easier. And it got worse when we’d be asked to repeat something that the teacher had elicited, so we thought ok, it must be correct, cool. *Then*, having repeated it, we’d finally learn that it was in fact wrong and be back to elicitation square one again. Reading Chia’s post made me breathe a sigh of relief – it’s not just me!

The other point in Chia’s post that jumped out at me is the final mantra she deconstructed: “Learners should commit themselves wholeheartedly to their language learning process and take responsibility for their learning. They should come to class everyday on time, do their homework, and seek out opportunities to actively use the language everyday.”  As Chia says, just because we teach language for a living, doesn’t mean our learners learn language for a living. Something I feel to be very important is to avoid trying to force anything on learners. Not only because learners are not just learners but people with lots of things vying for attention in their every day lives, but also because language learning is SO personal: one man’s meat really is another man’s poison. Rather than forcing anything on learners, we should be helping them discover what works for them. And sometimes that may be putting language learning on the back-burner for a spell as other things in life take over.

My school is closed for two weeks over Christmas now. I haven’t given my (adult) learners any homework, but in the last lesson I gave them some time to discuss with each other what they could do over Christmas to try and keep using English. They have some sheets with various activity ideas (that I gave them about a month ago, part of an on-going project) and these were used within the discussion. But even this was optional: the activity wasn’t framed as “You must choose x number of things to do and do them” but, having discussed why it might be a good idea to try and use English during the holiday (end-of-course test is not long after we start back again), “what do you think you’d like to try and do?” They all chose some things. They will all do varying amounts of whatever it is they have chosen to do. Some may not be able to do much of anything at all. And that’s fine. But what about those who don’t do anything? I hear you say. Well, they aren’t stupid. They understand how and why it would be helpful to use English during the break, just as outside of class during term-time. If they’re not able to use English over the Christmas break (family commitments, going away etc.) then that’s how it is – in Chia’s words, “that’s ok”. I think the majority of them will do something, some will do more than others, and every little will help. And for those that don’t, I don’t think forcing something on them would be helpful anyway.

Meanwhile, this elementary learner is in England for two weeks and needs (wants) to keep up her Italian. I haven’t got a course book with me. I’ve finished the first course book I was using, and plan to start another one in the new year, but for now I’m on holiday. So my Italian maintenance will mostly take the shape of reading extensively in Italian, blogging in Italian (I have a little private blog that so far has a grand total of 3 entries – only started it recently) occasionally, speaking a bit of Italian with my sister (she speaks a bit) and probably that will be about it. My main goal for these next two weeks is to relax. It’s my first holiday since August 2012! If were still attending classes and my teacher had loaded me with holiday homework and said I had to do it, I think I’d ignore it until the day before the lesson and then spend a few minutes rattling out as much as I could half-heartedly. I don’t think it would help much!

Long live being critical of teaching mantras, I say! I don’t know if there will be a part 3 to Chia’s ‘observations of an elementary language user‘ series of posts but I hope so! It’s so important for teachers to be able to empathise with what their learners are going through and put ourselves in learners’ shoes but so easy to forget and ask learners to do things or do things with learners that we, ourselves, would hate if we were them! E.g. bad elicitation. Or forcing them to learn in ways that just don’t work for them. Or teaching them useless vocabulary. As teachers, we (hopefully) know something about different ways of teaching and learning that may (or may not) work, but we shouldn’t assume we know best or that learners who don’t learn the way we think they should are deficient. I think there’s no such thing as an ideal language learner. It might be easy to say “the ideal language learner does x, y and z” but x, y and z may be hopeless for some learners, who may be much better off doing a, b and c. In which case, forcing x, y and z would be rather like square pegs and round holes… Rather than ideal, or less ideal, there are just differences. Many differences. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, as the human race is not a bunch of clones!

Vive la difference! 🙂

square peg

Square pegs and round holes? (Taken from google search “licensed for commercial reuse with modification”)

3 thoughts on “In response to “Observations of an elementary language user”

  1. Thanks for sharing those reflections on Chia’s post Lizzie. The paragraph you highlighted from Chia’s post is a thought I’ve had for a while, and why I no longer get annoyed with my students if they don’t do homework. When I first started teaching, I thought they didn’t care enough about their classes. Now I realise that while that may be true for the occasional student, most of them really don’t have time, or feel that their time might be better spent relaxing or being with their families. And there’s always the argument that if they don’t do homework, they’ll have more classes in the long run, keeping us in paid employment for longer 😉 I’m looking forward to the stage where I can pick out words in Cyrillic fast enough to do any independent reading. My Christmas homework is to do all the homework I haven’t had time to do over the last month!
    Enjoy your holiday – you deserve it!

  2. Thanks for responding!
    I think that as well as there being no such thing as an ideal learner, there’s also no such thing as an ideal learning situation. Wherever and whenever you are learning a language, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum and there are multiple other pressures to cope with. In the target language environment you may be dealing with starting a new job (or course, if studying) or have relocated in stressful circumstances, or you may have been sent to summer school by parents who don’t have time to have you at home in the holidays and have the money to ship you abroad… the EFL environment, you are likely to be doing it on top of many other things too – if young, regular school piles you up with homework already, if older, maybe you have family commitments, heavy work schedules etc. I think the best thing we can do as teachers is help learners find things that can help *them* learn outside of the classroom and motivate them enough to want do those things despite all these other pressures. And if that’s ten minutes of reading/listening to the radio/going on lyrics training/whatever their “meat” is every so often, great, well that’s much better than nothing and more constructive than force-feeding them (their) “poison” just because we think that’s best. And I think it’s important not to categorise what learners do and how they learn as inadequate/deficient/non-autonomous just because it doesn’t match up to this imaginary “ideal learner” picture that has been designed over the years. We teach human beings not robots/theoretical constructs. We should work with them rather than trying to push them through holes that are the wrong shape. And this is why I love Smith (2003)’s “strong” version of learner autonomy so much. Interestingly, there’s an article in ELTJ Jan 2014 issue about learner autonomy in a Vietnamese context and the author argues that Smith’s strong version of learner autonomy is more suited to a Vietnamese context than weak approaches – but I’d say it’s relevant wherever you are: when is it going to be better not to work with and build on what the learners already have/are/bring to the table?
    Anyway, apologies for this lengthy response – I have a lot of LA thoughts in my head and strong feelings about it all – I’ll get it all out of my system properly in/from about feb 2014 though (my webinar on the subject 😉 ) I’ve held off blogging about it too much so that I haven’t said it all repeatedly and extensively before I actually speak :-p Post Feb 2014, though, all bets are off!
    I hope you enjoy your holiday too. Mine, so far, is bliss. And I don’t have to go to work tomorrow so it’s an actual holiday not just a 3 day weekend! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Blogging highlights of 2013: me versus WordPress Monkeys! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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