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Reading & Writing

Miguel Witte - article, written 2014:
A new direction for the Communicative approach

Is it possible to improve any aspects of the communicative approach? Can we as teachers improve the learning of our students by modifying some facets of modern teaching methods? I believe it is a healthy exercise to think against the norm and to examine some widespread assumptions and techniques commonly held within the teacher community. The results are as follows.

1) Many teachers and textbooks share, to a greater or lesser degree, the idea that their adult students acquire a foreign language in the same way that a child acquires his mother tongue.

Of course learners can benefit from native speaker or native speaker like input but it is unlikely that the actual learning process in the brain of adult learners follows the same path. Based on my own experiences of years as a native speaking teacher I can state, to the best of my knowledge, that most students achieve their language command through tough studying rather than casually picking it up as native speaker children do.

2) Students are encouraged to act creatively and spontaneously when it comes to performing oral and writing tasks in class. A certain degree of improvisation is allowed and even required.

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has pointed out in his landmark book "Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention" that it is false to think that creativity works in opposition to knowledge. Rather the opposite is true in that creativity is based on and requires expertise in most fields in order to have the power to generate new ideas. Csikszentmihalyi points out: "A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system within his or her mind. In other words, the person must learn the rules and the content of the domain" and "To be creative a person must first understand the domain."(1) Whereas in language teaching, students are often asked to perform creatively while their actual expertise is often low, insecure and still evolving.

As a consequence, the writings and the oral production of foreign language learners frequently show lots of errors. At this point there is one theoretical concept of the communicative approach that comes into play: the interlanguage which according to Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada is "...a learner´s developing second language knowledge." The interlanguage "may have characteristics of the learner´s first language, characteristics of the second language, [...] Interlanguages are systematic, but they are also dynamic. They change as learners receive more input and revise their hypothesis about the second language." (2)(Patsy M. Lightbown, Nina Spada: How Languages are learned. Oxford, 2011; p. 201). I am not sure whether most learners really revise their hypothesis productively. I have the impression that students believe they are expected to put the foreign language "somehow" into practice. Teachers often have a high error tolerance and tend not to intervene or apply any kind of direct error correction which conveys the impression to students that their language production is more or less acceptable. Both teachers and students frequently believe that language production will improve on it´s own, over time, similar to children acquiring their mother tongue. But that is often simply not the case because the EFL learner needs direct feedback and correction.

The following model inspired by the value square model scheme of German communication psychologist Friedeman Schulz von Thun (3) shows the complementary positive positions above and the related shortcomings and the respective developmental directions below.

A very correct language production expresses everything within the limits of correct grammar and syntax and thus furthers understanding and communication, whereas a very creative language production puts the emphasis on expressing as much as possible and experiments with language for that very purpose, even at the risk of not being fully understood. Both positions present complementary opposing poles and the very centre between them represents the ideal way to go. The virtue of a very correct language production could, at it´s worst, turn into the shortcoming of a limited and fearful drying out of conversational productivity. Whereas, a very creative communicative style could turn into an incorrect outspokenness. Both positions are diametrically opposed. Every vice should follow towards the complementary virtue in order to overcome their respective shortcomings.

In my view it would be necessary, especially at beginner levels, to focus on correct interventions requiring a lower degree of creativity in order to improve grammatical correctness. A high degree of creativity should only be demanded at advanced levels because a higher degree of grammar command is supposed to have been achieved.

Direct corrections could be applied to help students and to give them direct feedback. As four-star general Colin Powell put it in his book "It worked for me"(4): ... make on the spot corrections. Tolerance of little mistakes and oversights creates an environment that will tolerate bigger and ultimately catastrophic mistakes. ...I have found that corrections done in a firm and fair manner with an explanation are appreciated, not resented. ... These truths are known to every good classroom teacher."

Of course it is not possible to overcorrect in language teaching in order not to demotivate but addressing the biggest mistakes in a reasonable way is probably common sense. The idea that the teacher should stay away from direct corrections in order to help students to overcome their supposed shyness is probably old-fashioned. Students nowadays are very well aware that they are required to use the language actively and generally behave accordingly in class.

As a general guideline for oral and written performance students should be required to productively limit their oral or written language production to those ideas that they are able to express reasonably and with a certain degree of grammatical correctness. For the same reason students should be told to stay away from expressing ideas when they lack the necessary grammar or vocabulary knowledge, thus limiting their "creative impulse" to their real ability for the better.

3) For the sake of authenticity listening exercises are often very fast and presented with environmental background noise. Listening exercises are often aimed at achieving an overall ability to understand the message, requiring the students to build hypothesis upon what might have been said. Audio-transcripts are rarely used as teaching materials.

For all the above mentioned reasons listening exercises are often overwhelming for foreign language students. They would like to get rid of the background noise to understand better. They would like to have it somewhat slower and would love to understand it almost completely instead of creating a hypothesis and thus perpetuate uncertainty.

The key factor to increasing listening ability in a foreign language, in my view, is vocabulary in order to fully understand what has been said. Therefore audio-transcripts should be used when necessary, explicitly at some point during listening exercises to build up vocabulary and to get used to the syntax of native speaker conversations. The goal should not be to understand "more or less" but to understand almost perfectly. The real listening training comes after the process of understanding, by repeating one listening many times in order to really get used to it. During that process other layers of listening ability can come into play such as getting used to speed and to environmental noise.

4) Vocabulary is key to language learning and proficiency in a foreign language is largely memory driven.

Teachers and textbook designers try to make language learning easier, less boring and less tedious. That is one of the reasons why there are lots of native speaker like games, songs, quizzes, plays and role-play in modern classes. Learning by heart is based on repetition but in language teaching the repetition is outsourced and very softly reintegrated through role-play, games, or listening to songs and the like.

The problem is that not all the vocabulary or content to be learned can be properly delivered and conveyed through entertaining classroom activities like games which are often very time consuming. I think it would be extremely productive to get rid of the false prejudice that memory learning in the area of vocabulary acquisition is outdated. It could add to the class very positively.

I frequently ask my students to try to learn as many words as possible from a bilingual vocabulary page with some 30 words within a seven minute time frame followed by a "collective" oral test. The result is usually that the group as a whole is very capable of remembering lots of the vocabulary and that they perceive the task to be a challenge, even as fun and eventually as a very helpful activity. The important point is that I repeat the collective vocabulary exam at the end of the class again trying to ensure that repetition turns into knowledge. This is not of course the latest in foreign language classroom game design but it isn´t supposed to be either. It can just complement any other entertaining classroom approach. There is no reason to be fearful of memorization, large parts of many professional training relies on that very technique.

On the other hand professional memorization techniques are based on imagery. For my teaching of German I have to overcome the difficulty of making the students learn the right gender, that is whether it is masculine, feminine or neutral. Recently I came across an inspiring method that consists of visualizing nouns and to "dress" the masculine with an armor and the feminine with a skirt when learning vocabulary. Of course it is possible to change the imagery and to ascribe for example a "weapon" to a masculine noun and a "lipstick" to a feminine noun as long as it remains in the memory and very often the more bizarre an image the more efficient the recall. Memorization has a long tradition in history and Memory sport has been established as a discipline since the late 20th century. Teachers and textbook editors should be inspired by them and redesign techniques and materials to improve memory based learning as proposed by Nick Bilbrough "Memory activities for language learning"(5), Cambridge University Press.

5) Modern textbooks should give reading precedence over all areas of language learning.

There is one particular area that in my opinion deserves more attention. I refer to reading, and especially to the reading of non fiction.

Modern textbooks often come with a very light diet of reading which is usually complemented, to some extent, with graded readers. The beneficial effects of reading for the acquisition of grammar and vocabulary has been pointed out by Stephen Krashen in his book "The power of reading" where he shows that reading is definitely a means toward learning new words. From the point of memorization and recall Krashen refers to the research from Ebbinghaus and Bustead who have shown that the best way of mastering content is through distributed practice spaced out over time rather than practiced all at once. Learning new content with a smaller amount of repetition and on a regular basis is more effective than devoting more time to a larger amount of repetition on fewer occasions. In favor of reading, Krashen (6) points out that "Encountering words in natural texts typically provides, of course, distributed exposure to vocabulary."

In my opinion reading implicitly provides access to grammar, syntax and vocabulary, it helps students to get used to it and eventually nurtures all other areas of language learning. It is far more effective than video or audio material in that it does not impose time constraints and the learner can choose the appropriate pace. I think that an increased reading activity over any other area of language learning would improve student results overall.

Language learning is fun and more than just fun.

Attending a language course nowadays is supposed to be lots of fun. While fun is ok it would be more appropriate to complement it with some guidance within the areas of oral and written production in order to avoid too much creativity spoiling grammar and overall correctness. Listening exercises can be approached step by step relying on transcripts, some degree of explicit memory learning is also required as well as an increase in the learners reading activity. Fun and real enjoyment is generated by progressively achieving control of the language and by using it successfully in real world contexts. Moreover, language learning should complement its reputation as `fun´ by presenting a more sporty image of mind training and exercising. Mastering a foreign language could be more than fun, if approached properly it is like mountain climbing and afterwards skydiving.

(1) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi "Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention", New York, 1996; p 47 and p. 340

(2) Patsy M. Lightbown, Nina Spada: "How Languages are learned", Oxford, 2011; p. 201

(3) The value square model was developed by the german communicative psychologist Friedeman Schulz von Thun in his book: "Miteinander reden 2, Stile Werte und Persönlichkeitsentwicklung", p. 38-55, as well as in: "Miteinander reden: Fragen und Antworten"; Hamburg, 2007, p. 49-76; The value square model is designed as an analytical tool that helps to describe the dynamics of human communication and behavior.

(4) Colin Powell with Tony Koltz: "It worked for me: in Life and Leadership"; New York, 2012; p.92

(5) Nick Bilbrough "Memory activities for language learning" Cambridge University Press, 20111

(6) Stephen Krashen: "The Power of Reading", Portsmouth, 2004; p. 48

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