Influencing Second Language Learning – Personality Factors

This is a repost of a previous blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge (see here).

I thought it would be good to get a discussion going on the following topic and so here it is again:

A fellow teacher told me about two learners in his class – one, he says, is a better learner than the other. Which one do you think that might be?

 

Liliana is a university student from Argentina. She is shy and insecure about her English ability. She feels stupid when she speaks English, and is afraid of making mistakes. She loves travelling and meeting people from all over the world but prefers speaking English to ‘native speakers’ from Britain or America because they speak ‘correct’ English. For Liliana, the ultimate compliment would be if someone asked her if she were English.

 

Jochan is a manager of an important department in a multinational company based in Germany. He is talkative and confident, and used to being in control. A good team player, he enjoys participating in group activities. He has had a few bad experiences with some of the Americans and Brits, and so have his friends in Germany, and Jochan has decided that he does not like the American or British culture.

So, who do you think is the better learner?

(a)   Liliana – Her love and respect for the British/English culture and native speakers would propel her to learn the target language and she would seek out opportunities to speak English to ‘native speakers’, whereas Jochan’s status in his company might mean a lesser ability to relinquish power and therefore be more resistant to correction and being adventurous with language. In addition, Jochan’s distaste for the American and British culture is bound to affect his motivation levels as well.

(b)  Jochan – He’s confident and therefore would not be averse to taking risks. This should mean that he would be adventurous with language and not be afraid of making mistakes. His talkative nature also means that he would get lots of speaking practice. He’d be motivated because he can see how useful English is at his workplace. Liliana, on the other hand, is shy and this would lead to her not wanting to practise speaking and using the language.

(c)   This is just silly. I can’t decide based on the above descriptions. Doing so would be stereotyping and putting people in boxes. People’s personalities and behaviours change and evolve depending on the situations they are in. After all, Jochan’s confidence in his job does not mean confidence in language learning, and Liliana might just be shy in the classroom but not when she’s with her friends.

If you picked Jochan (b) as your answer, you perhaps believe that the personality of a learner has a large part to play in one’s success in language learning, and that these innate characteristics are biologically determined, and therefore some people make better language learners than others. It’s all in the genes.

If you picked Liliana (a) as your answer, you might think that one’s culture and experience of life moulds the way we learn to see the world, and that our view of the target culture of the language we are learning can largely affect our motivation, and therefore, our success rate. Loosely categorised as social structuralist or constructivist in outlook, you see external influences, such as social variables, as shaping the language learning process.

If you picked (c) as your answer, you probably are balking at this blogpost right now and wondering how anyone could make sweeping statements about issues as complex as Second Language Learning abilities and learner identity. Taking a more post-structuralist stance, you know that we play different roles and display different personality characteristics depending on the situation and community we are in, and the people we are talking to. And you are angry that some teachers blame the learners’ personality for failure in language learning.

Theories about how different factors could lead to success in the second language learning process have been a core part of studies into second language acquisition for decades. This is a series of blogposts attempting to categorise and summarise research that have been done in these different areas, and we start today with more biologically deterministic approaches, with a look at the different characteristics of a learner’s personality that are said to influence learning.

Individual differences among learners, such as personality variation, have long been seen as the cause of different learning abilities, and researchers like Gardner and Lambert (1972) have focused principally on the individual’s internal influences on Second Language Learning. There have been disagreements over the categorisation of affective variables, and although some might admit that personality variables are abstract concepts that are difficult to define, and that the validity of psychological tests that attempt to measure them are often challenged and criticised, their categorisation is still necessary to understanding the Second Language Learning process.

Self-esteem 

An important variable included in much SLA research, high self-esteem, or self-confidence, is believed to be an important construct for success in Second Language Learning. Often taken to be relatively stable in adults and resistant to change, a person is seen to either have high self-esteem or low self-esteem, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

However, Malinowski (1923) provides a different view of ‘self esteem’ seeing it as the reflection and acceptance of oneself in interactions with others, which presumably vary depending on the different interlocutors and social networks.  Self-esteem was thus divided into three types: global, situational/specific, and task (Brown, 1994).

Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that global self-esteem is an intrinsic personality trait that improves proficiency, and not much focus was given to situational- or task-based self-confidence.

Inhibition

Learners with low self-esteem are believed to display more inhibition, leading to the building of defences and alienation from the target culture, as they are less able to tolerate threats to their existence.

The process of Second Language Learning could pose internal threats, such as learners judging themselves harshly for their mistakes, and external threats, where learners perceive others as judging them.  However, the emphasis on what learners ‘perceives’ seems to suggest that threat was not necessarily real, thus making learners wholly responsible for their learning.

Thin ego boundaries are believed to allow learners to be open and tolerant of ambiguity, and therefore more creative when learning a second language, and it is commonly believed that by lowering inhibition in the language classroom, we can promote freer communication and a willingness to learn from trial and error.

However, this call for learners to simply ‘remove their defences’ suggests that inhibition is purely intrinsic and does not take into consideration the social factors that perhaps contribute to a learner being inhibited.

Moreover, learners of far-eastern backgrounds might value the judgements of others highly, and might be brought up to believe that mistakes are detrimental to learning. Such cultural factors are often neglected when considering individual affective variables.

Risk-taking

A fear of ramifications of mistakes made could deter one from taking risks with the language. Although some assume that good learners are high risk-takers (Ely, 1986), Beebe (1983) finds that highly-motivated learners are often moderate risk-takers, preferring to make intelligent guesses. It is widely assumed that learners with high global self-esteem take more risks, that fossilization is due to unwillingness to take risks, and that teachers should encourage risk-taking behaviour (Brown, 1994).

However, such overgeneralisations do not take into account that the willingness to take risks, especially outside the classroom, depends largely on what the individual stands to lose from being perceived negatively by his interlocutors and the costs of making mistakes.

Anxiety, Extroversion and Empathy

Anxiety, or the tendency to worry, can be seen as either a personality trait or a state due to a prevailing situation or event. Anxiety caused by a competitive environment can be facilitative or debilitative to success in Second Language Learning, but it is unclear why different effects are produced or what the optimal level of anxiety is in promoting Second Language Acquisition.

As abstract as the concept of anxiety is that of extroversion. Debunking the myth that extrovert learners are good learners, Brown (ibid) states that extroverts need their self-esteem reaffirmed by others and tend to have thick ego boundaries and less empathy.

Empathy is the ability to make accurate assumptions about state of the people one is talking to, thus leading to effective cross-cultural communication. This, again, makes the learner accountable for understanding the culture of the target language and interpreting non- and para-linguistic cues, on top of having to cope with interacting in an unfamiliar language.

Krashen (1981) mentions these personality factors as affecting learners’ affective filters, stating that a confident, secure and outgoing person who lacks anxiety would have low affective filters, thereby allowing comprehensible input to reach the language acquisition device, resulting in acquisition. However, there has been much disagreement about Krashen’s understanding of how these variables interact with social contexts (Norton, 2000).

Ultimately, the learner should not be made solely responsible for his or her learning.  Putting the onus on the learner to be motivated and to find opportunities to increase their exposure to the target language can be just as extreme and as unhelpful as blaming their failure entirely on the people around them.

Bibliography

Beebe, L. (1983) ‘Risk-taking and the language learner’. In H. Seliger and M. Long. Classroom-oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp: 39-166.

Brown, D. (1994) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Ely, C. (1986) ‘An analysis of discomfort, risktaking, sociability and motivation in the L2 classroom’. Language Learning, 36, pp: 1-25.

Gardner, R. and W. Lambert. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Malinowski, B. (1923) ‘The problem of meaning in primitive languages’. In C. Ogden and I. Richards. (eds.) The Meaning of Meaning. London: Kegan Paul, pp: 296-336.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex: Pearson Education.

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Thank you for your support!

Thank you note

First of all, thank you for nominating my post ‘Things students say that break my heart‘ for the Most Influential Post for the Eddies 2012 and making it one of the finalist entries.

Special thanks to Brad Patterson, Aysun Günes, and several other wonderful PLNers for nominating me for Best Individual Blog and Best Teacher Blog.

TESOL France 2012 Closing Plenary
TESOL France 2012 Closing Plenary

Also, thank you for being there for my closing plenary both at the English UK conference, and TESOL France 2012.

Some of you have been so kind as to write a summary of my plenary talk.

Here are the links to some of them (if I haven’t included yours, please feel free to contact me and let me know):

Chia Suan Chong on Principled Eclecticism – by Hancock McDonald.

The Principles of Principled Eclecticism according to Chia Suan Chong – by Leo Selivan

My TESOL France Review – by Sue Annan

Thanks for playing along with me during my plenary talk!
Thanks for playing along with me during my plenary talk!

Most of all, thanks for voting…(mwa hahahaha)

And if you haven’t, here’s the link!

http://edublogawards.com/vote-here/

Select the category ‘Most Influential Post’ and vote everyday! ; )

Hope you’re having a great December!

Once again, thank you everyone!

Things students say that break my heart Part 3

This was first published on the ELT Knowledge website.

In the last two blogposts, I looked at some of the statements that I have heard students say, and the reasons and beliefs about language learning that lie behind these statements.

In the process of writing up these posts, I started to ask the questions, “How much time do we devote to exploring learner attitudes towards language learning in the classroom?” How much do we know about their beliefs? Do we know enough about the language acquisition process ourselves to help our learners become better learners?

I was then reminded of these heartbreakers:

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What students say: They say I have an accent. They say I need to get rid of my accent.

What’s really happening: The ‘they’ in the above statements could be previous teachers, native speakers that they have encountered, or even fellow non-native speakers who speak English better than the student does.

‘Accent-less English’ does not exist. Everyone has an accent. What ‘they’ mean is ‘You have an accent that is not like that of the standard native speaker’.  But this opens up a new can of worms. Who is the standard native speaker? Even BBC newscasters can be seen speaking in a variety of accents, ranging from Scottish to Mancunian to Estuary English from the South East parts of England.

‘But what about RP?’ I hear you say. RP, or Received Pronunciation, characterised the BBC’s programmes in the 1970s, and was considered by actors and broadcasters as the most ‘colourless’ and ‘stripped of regional influences’, and therefore the most ‘standard’ of all British accents. But search for any BBC clip from the 1970s and listen to the presenter speaking RP, and I am sure you would agree with me that it is hardly ‘colourless’.

So, is there such a thing as a neutral accent? I’m afraid not. What ‘they’ really mean is ‘You have an accent that is not the norm to me,’

An accent often denotes one’s geographical and family background, and even one’s social class, and is inextricably tied to one’s identity.

Telling someone to get rid of their accent is as prejudiced as telling someone to change their skin colour, yet it is still considered acceptable when under the guise of helping someone improve their language skills.

A focus on being intelligible, however, can help our students become more communicatively competent. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’ highlights the pronunciation features that teachers can help students to work on in order to improve mutual intelligibility in a world where English is now a global language.

 

What students say: I feel afraid that people would laugh at me when I make mistakes.

What’s really happening: Speaking in a foreign language often leaves one feeling like a child again, defenceless and susceptible to criticism. For those who are used to being secure in their own language or those who are intolerant of ambiguity, being plunged into an environment where one is stripped of control of the ability to express oneself can be confusing and frightening, leaving one feeling vulnerable.

The teacher has the capability of making the classroom a safe and friendly environment where everyone in the learning process feels comfortable making mistakes and therefore less likely to judge each other’s language errors.

I often tell my students this:

Mistakes are good. Mistakes are important. Mistakes help you learn.

But most importantly, if you don’t make mistakes, I don’t have a job.

 

What students say: How long does it take to learn English?

What’s really happening: The student is seeing the process of language learning like that of learning to drive a car: where there is a definite end point – the moment where you say ‘I can drive’. And in order to arrive at this end point, the learner must master different skills e.g. learning to use the clutch and coordinate that with the use of the accelerator, learning to brake, learning to reverse park, etc. An accumulation of these separate skills collectively results in the ability to drive.

So it seems that many students (and some teachers) think that if they are able to master each grammar point and learn all the words, it would collectively result in the ability to ‘know’ English.

Although the use of language does include the automatic motor skills that are similar to those of driving a car or playing a piano, it doesn’t stop there. The acts of listening, understanding, formulating responses, and taking part in the fluid and dynamic process of conversation involve social and intellectual skills that go beyond the repetition of mindless formulae, and can vary from interaction to interaction.

A similar question I sometimes get from students is ‘How many words are there in English?’ When I tell them that it depends on how we define a ‘word’, and how if we included phrases and collocations, we would then have quite a large number, the student sighs and says, ‘How can I ever learn them all?

So I tell my students that learning a language is not like learning to drive a car, and that one never stops learning. I remind them that there are many words in their language that they don’t know, and probably do not need to know. I emphasize the fact that language is a tool for communication, and they will need the language to effectively communicate in the situations they will encounter.

Most importantly, I remind them that learning a language is not like running a race. There is no goal of reaching a fixed finish line, as such. Just the goal of becoming better communicators with every single day.

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The first day of my courses have always focused on conducting a detailed needs analysis and a negotiation of the course syllabus. On my recent courses, included in the needs analysis is now a chance to discover the learners’ beliefs about second language acquisition through discussions about their learning preferences and an exploration of how languages are best learnt.

For learner training and the promotion of learner autonomy is as much about giving learners the tools that can facilitate better language learning, as it is about providing them with a better framework through which they can better understand their learning process.

Their beliefs and attitudes is what will affect their intrinsic motivations, and after all, motivation is crucial to successful language learning.

TESOL Greece Blog Challenge : Playing the Devil’s Advocate

TESOL Greece Blog Challenge

As a celebration of the launch of the TESOL Greece blog, a blog challenge was launched.

We were asked to answer the following question:

‘During an economic crisis, resources (books, budgets, infrastructure) are limited, but high standards and qualifications are required so that learners can survive on the job market. Can the use of technology help learners and teachers overcome this problem? If so, how?’

 

This ‘technology versus anti-technology’ debate has taken place on multiple platforms repeatedly over the last few years, and will again be had at the TESOL France conference this November. Reading the excellent posts written by the bloggers that have responded to TESOL Greece’s blog challenge, I’ve come to realise that it is far easier to think of the advantages that technology can bring to the classroom and to the students’ learning process than to bask in negativitiy.

And I’m sure the very fact that we are bloggers, and therefore eager users of online tools, has nothing to do with it at all.

But seriously, what’s there not to like? One only needs to take a look at the multiple posts on Twitter and in the blogosphere about M-Learning, the Flipped Classroom, Digital Storytelling, and the use of social media, wikis, class blogs, computer games, online corpuses, Youtube videos, etc that could provide the practitioner with hundreds, if not thousands, of new lesson ideas.

To debate against the use of technology in education would be debating against learner autonomy and learner choice.

To debate against the use of technology in education would be debating against having a wide range of free, but well-thought-out and professionally-presented resources.

To debate against the use of technology in education would be debating against ways of helping our learners increase their exposure to the target language and getting involved in communities of practice outside the realm of the classroom.

In short, to argue against technology online would be courting death in the online TEFL arena.

But surely someone needs to play the Devil’s Advocate in this?

Here are some counter arguments against English teachers being expected to use technology in the classroom:

  1. Some teachers feel that they don’t want to have yet another new thing to learn.

    They have spent years learning about the language and dealing with the different designer approaches and fads in ELT. And now, they are being told that all the knowledge and experience they have accrued from teaching English is not enough if they are unable to get to grips with the latest device or online software.

    They feel that the ability to use technology has got nothing to do with learning English per se, and if such high standard and qualification are needed for learners to survive in the job market, then these learners should be taking classes in IT, and not be relying on their English teacher to provide them with such training.
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  2. Teachers are not paid enough to spend all their free time learning to use new digital tools and implementing them.

    It takes hours to moderate a wiki or Moodle account, to respond to comments on a blog, to find appropriate games and video clips, to maintain the students’ interest in class chats on Twitter or Facebook, and to read other teachers’ blogs for more ideas and development.

    And most schools do not pay teachers to do this.

    I constantly get told, ‘You must not have a life outside TEFL. I treasure my private life and I am certainly not sacrificing it to do more work’.

    I don’t blame them for thinking that at all.
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  3. Not all students want to participate in the use of online tools.

    There could be several reasons for this. Some of my teenage learners equate the use of social media and blogging with something that is done with their friends, and not something that is done with their teachers as part of the curriculum. Making them use the same tools for learning might just turn something fun into something repellent. Just like the use of text speak. It’s just no longer cool among teenagers.

    Some learners from less-privileged backgrounds might feel left out and inferior. They might not be as familiar with certain online platforms and styles of games because they do not have easy access to a computer or a game console at home. They might not have a smart phone and have to share a classmate’s.

    Some learners simply don’t have the time to participate outside of classroom hours. This is especially true when teaching Business English or doing cultural training. These clients not only have a busy work schedule, but might not see the teacher any more than once a week, or even once a month. Class participation is extremely hard to maintain under such circumstances.

    So we know that we can’t force students to use or participate in the use of these digital tools. But how then can we cater for those students who choose to opt out?
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  4. Some schools cannot afford to invest in the latest technology.

    The bigger schools and the more profitable chains are keen to invest in this move towards an E-Learning and M-Learning environment by purchasing the latest computers, Interactive White Boards, newest programmes, subscriptions to the fancy online tools, and iPads for every student enrolled. They advertise this fact and this helps their marketing efforts.

    Meanwhile, the smaller schools that offer perfectly student-centred classes that cannot afford such luxuries are seen as not keeping up with the times.

    What are these times we live in? Times where the bigger co-operations drive out the smaller ones?
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  5. Many educators who talk about the use of technology in a classroom often assume easy and available internet access.

    Those who are involved in ‘in-company’ training would identify with the fact that wifi access is often blocked and the use of firewalls is not uncommon so as to protect company secrets.

    Essentially, this means that you can’t bring up a picture on Google images to explain a word away easily. It means that you can’t connect to Youtube or any video streaming sites for your listening activities (unless you download them illegally…and you don’t want to do that). It means that you can’t use social media, chat rooms, or any backchannelling software.

    Of course, there are digital tools that do not require an access to the internet, but your hands are pretty much tied if you are providing training in such a context.
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As many have mentioned (Christina and James, among others), it is not about being anti-technology. It is simply about being judicious in its use and not letting technology dictate what happens in the classroom. And perhaps an awareness of the issues that face teachers who are wary of the exponential increase of technological tools might help us be less evangelical in helping them utilise technology in the best way for their learners and their teaching context.

At the end of the day, perhaps the issue is not whether to use technology in the classroom or not.

That would be like adamantly saying, ‘I’m not going to learn to use the photocopying machine coz it’s just too much hassle.’

Neither is it about whether to help our students use technological tools as part of their learning process.

That would be like stubbornly saying, ‘I’m not going to teach my students how to write emails because I don’t use the internet.’

As modern technology and the internet becomes more and more part of our everyday lives, we ought to move pass the ‘technology versus no-technology’ debate.

For what really matters is the way we use it, the context that we use it in, and the learners who we use it for.

Things students say that break my heart Part 2

This is a post I wrote for ELT Knowledge a month ago.

Click here for Part 3 of the series.

Photo from ELTpics by @vale360
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics

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The learners who come to our classroom are most likely to have been students before at some point in their lives, and therefore have observed and evaluated other teaching professionals in action, formulating their own views of how learning should take place. After all, the average student would have spent around 13,000 hours in direct contact with their classroom teachers by the time they finish high school (Lortie, 1975).

Such a phenomenon, known as ‘The Apprenticeship of Observation’, suggests that most students watch their teachers ‘frontstage and centre’, like an audience watching a play, and are not privy to the thought processes and the justifications for the classroom decisions that the teacher makes (ibid).

Although, the Apprenticeship of Observation is often a term used in teacher training to describe teachers who teach the way they have been taught, I believe that it also clearly demonstrates why students often have fixed views about the language learning process and the reasons behind their expectations of themselves and their teachers.

The learner’s views on learning and teaching would without doubt also be influenced by cultural conventions and expectations as education systems round the world differ. Some might place more focus on information transmission and memorisation, while others might place focus on the importance of analysis and exploration. Education cultures and conventions aside, the 13,000 hours of contact with teachers of course also include the observation of how subjects other than languages are taught. A lack of understanding of the processes of language acquisition might lead them to think that learning a language is like learning Mathematics or Chemistry, and therefore, end up judging their own abilities and their progress too harshly.

In my last blogpost, I wrote about four things that students say that break my heart, and looked into the probable reasons behind these statements, in an attempt to better understand and help students be aware of language learning processes.

In this blogpost, I hope to look at a few more heartbreakers, and explore the things we can say to help students understand the reasons for the classroom decisions that their teachers make.

 

Photo from ELTpics by @JosetteLB
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics

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What they say: I can’t produce the language my teacher has taught me even after we’ve practised it in class.

What’s really happening: The learner is thinking of language acquisition as a linear process, not unlike the way we’d practise the use of a mathematical equation until we can solve mathematical problems with ease. The typical PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) lesson shape seen in many coursebooks and classrooms seems to cement the idea that language can be broken down into pieces which are then presented, learnt, practised and incorporated in the brain, ready to be produced.

We did the first conditional today. Now, you’ll practise it, and go forth and use it. Because tomorrow we’re doing the second conditional.  So you’d better be ready.’

Is that what learners think their teachers are thinking?

Perhaps the last ‘P’ (Produce), by nature of its label, has had a lot of bad press.

Perhaps we don’t really expect learners to master and produce the language point by the end of the lesson.

Then why is the final section of every chapter in Face-to-Face called ‘Get ready…Get it right’?

It is no wonder that the student thinks that they are expected to readily assimilate and use a language point covered in class that day, even though most language acquisition theories would tell you that that just isn’t how the brain works.

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What they say: Everyone in the class is better than me.

What’s happening: In a communicative classroom, not only the teacher is in a ‘frontstage and centre’ position. Some students, especially the more outgoing and chatty ones, often get to be under the spotlight, and spoken fluency is often the quality that gets held up as being most celebrated, and therefore most desirable. From the point of view of the shy or less extroverted students, this might seem an impossible goal to try and achieve.

But spoken fluency is not the be all and end all. Students need to be made aware that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some strengths are simply get more ‘air time’ in a communicative classroom than others.

While some students might not be good at speaking confidently and fluently in open class, their language abilities in other areas such as their communicative competence in smaller groups or pairs, their lexico-grammatical range and/or accuracy, their written fluency or their cultural sensitivity, might prove to be better.

 

In pairs, discuss…

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What they say: Why do I want to talk in pairs/groups? I don’t want to learn my partner’s mistakes. I want to talk to the teacher/a native speaker.

What’s really happening: The student here is focused only on the end product (the bits of language he/she might acquire from talking to their partner) and the cognitive functions that will have been developed (e.g. a brain that can think in English, or use certain lexico-grammatical items with ease).

Yet, it is a focus on the process (and not the end product) that would aid language acquisition.

Pair/group work provides conditions that are conducive to the language learning process, and it is through the dynamic interactions and collaborations with other students that one activates the skills of meaning negotiation (paraphrasing, meaning clarification, and drawing upon all the lexico-grammatical resources that are available to communicate effectively).

There is plenty of theory to back this up. While Long (1996) was the one who articulated the Interaction Hypothesis, saying that interaction and communication are key to language acquisition, Krashen (1985) stated that the comprehensible input could be more effective when meaning negotiation is being practised. But it is probably Vygotsky (1978) who first suggested, in his theories of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), that such organised learning could speed up cognitive development through interaction and socialization, and help provide the scaffolding that facilitates language acquisition.

So, to these learners, I say:
Lots of scientific (soft science, nevertheless) research has proven that you can still improve in your English, whether you are practising your English with your partner or your teacher.

When you are trying to explain what you mean to your partner, language learning is happening.

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What they say: I wrote my email by looking at a writing sample and copying the phrases. I think I am cheating.

What’s happening: The natural instinct of a learner is to go ‘bottom-up’ and attempt to understand individual words strung together to form phrases and sentences, both when reading and listening. We spend time ‘activating their schema’ by doing lead-ins and prediction tasks, we get them to notice collocations, we provide opportunities for skimming and scanning before any reading for detailed understanding…and we do all this in hope that they will process texts in a top-down fashion. But how much of this do we apply to productive activities like writing?

Evidently, the terms ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing are often applied to receptive skills like listening or reading, but using each and every word as individual building blocks to form sentences in production can also be taken to be a ‘bottom-up’ strategy. The Lexical Approach (1993) gives legitimacy to a grammaticalised lexis where phrases, both fixed and semi-fixed, and language chunks are seen as not only valid, but an effective way of producing language.

Perhaps what’s most important for the teacher is to let students in on how decisions are made in the classroom, inviting them to see what happens ‘backstage’. What’s important is not just the setting up the classroom activities themselves, but showing learners how these are judicious decisions based on sound reasoning, rather than going about in a mysterious ‘teacher-knows-best’ kind of way.

Perhaps then, students, as the Apprentices of Observation, would be better able to understand the approaches they can take to learn more effectively.

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Bibliography

Krashen, S.D. (1985), The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, New York: Longman

Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach.

Long, M. (1996) “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In Ritchie, William; Bhatia, Tej. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 413–468.

Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. London: University of Chicago Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Not Ready to Make Nice

Bullying is seen across all cultures;

Bullying is omnipresent;

Bullying is prevalent in all walks of life and is not limited to school settings.

While some are targets of physical violence or threatening words, others are face the possibility of being ex-communicated from social groups.

Bullying is a topic that is familiar to people of all nationalities and can be a springboard to many a meaningful discussion in the language classroom.

The American country band Dixie Chicks made a comment at a concert in London in 2003, and quickly became the target of bullies in their home country. The bullies started acting as a mob, as they often do, and soon, Dixie Chicks were receiving death threats in the mail and were banned from country music radio stations.

Picture taken from dixiechicks.com

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In response to the bullying, the band started to write an album. However, when it was suggested to Natalie Maines, the lead singer, that perhaps the songs should be about how everyone ought to just get along, she found herself unwilling to back down and instead produced the hit single Not Ready to Make Nice.

The song went on to win 3 Grammy Awards, and the album Taking the Long Way ended up winning 5 Grammys, perhaps all a sign of support for the girls who have been the target of bullying.

Being a song very close to my heart, I have felt it appropriate to create a lesson around it. However, unlike most receptive skills procedures seen in more recent approaches, this lesson takes a more bottom-up approach to listening, allowing students to use their linguistic knowledge to piece together the lyrics of the song.

In what way do you think a bottom-up approach to this lesson could make a difference to the usual top-down approaches?

(Notes for teachers are in brackets.)

Lead-in:

Picture taken from http://www.safenetwork.org
Click on picture to read more about bullying.

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(Elicit lexis: Bullying, a bully.)

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Discussion questions:

  1. Why do people bully others?
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    (Possible Answers: insecurity, jealousy, prejudice, etc.)
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  2. Where can bullying occur?
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    (Possible Answers: at school, at the office, online, etc.)

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  3. What kind of things might a bully do?
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  4. What can we do if we are being bullied?
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Pre-listening

(Hand-out)

Fill in the gaps with the appropriate word. Use your knowledge of language and rhyming words to help you.

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I c_____

They say time heals e_______

But I’m still waiting

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I’m through with doubt

There’s nothing left for me to figure o___

I’ve paid a price

And I’ll keep paying

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Chorus:

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back d____

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it r_____

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I s_____

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I know you said

Can’t you just get o____ it

It turned my whole world a______

And I kind of like it

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Bridge:

I made my bed and I sleep like a b____

With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

daughter that she ought to hate a perfect st________

And how in the w______ can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the e_____

That they’d write me a l______

Sayin’ that I’d better shut u__ and sing

Or my life will be o____

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Chorus (x2):

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back d____

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it r____

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I s_____

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I c_____

They say time heals e_______

But I’m still waiting

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Listening for specific information

Listen to the song and check your answers.

(Note: the teacher might use the feedback stage to clarify some of the more useful or crucial lexical items)

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

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I’m through with doubt

There’s nothing left for me to figure out

I’ve paid a price

And I’ll keep paying

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Chorus:

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it right

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

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I know you said

Can’t you just get over it

It turned my whole world around

And I kind of like it

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Bridge:

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby

With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger

And how in the world can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the edge

That they’d write me a letter

Sayin’ that I better shut up and sing

Or my life will be over

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Chorus (2x):

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it right

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

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Reading for Detailed Understanding

Read the lyrics again, and answer the following questions

(Note: There are no right and wrong answers here. Every question offers a chance for the student’s own interpretation to come through.)

  1. How does the singer feel about being bullied?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: Angry, ‘mad as hell’, and not ready to forget. But she feels that her conscience is clear and she knows she has not done anything wrong because she says ‘she sleeps like a baby’.)
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  2. What kind of things do you think the bullies did?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: They wrote her a letter to tell her to ‘shut up and sing’ or they’d kill her.)
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  3. Why do you think the bullies did that?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: She said something the bullies didn’t like. ‘And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge’)
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  4. Does she blame the bullies?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: No, she blames society. ‘It’s a sad sad world when a mother would teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger’)
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  5. What is she going to do?
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    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: She is not going to blame herself but she is not going to give up fighting against the bullies. ‘I’m through with doubt. There’s nothing left for me to figure out’; ‘I’m not ready to back down’)
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  6. What do you think the mood of this song is?
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    (Possible Answers: Angry? Sad?)

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Follow-up Productive Task

(This follow-up task requires students to have access to the internet. They could either make use of their mobile devices, i.e. smartphones or tablets, or this could be conducted in the Self-Access Centre, where students have at least one computer per group)

In groups of 3, use of the internet to find out more about this song and the band, Dixie Chicks.

Answer the following questions.

Report your findings back to the rest of the class.

(Note: the answers can be found on Wikipedia pages on ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and the lead singer ‘Natalie Maines’)

  1. Is this song based on a true story?
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    (Answer: Yes)
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  2. Why were the band targeted by bullies in the 2003?
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    (Answer: The vocalist made a comment at a concert in London, UK, on the eve of the Iraq invasion that they were ashamed that their President George Bush was from Texas, where they are from. This angered a lot of Americans.)
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  3. Why did the band write the song?
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    (Answer: They wanted to write their reaction to the bullying mob.)
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  4. What kind of things did the American public do to the band?
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    (Answer: They were banned from many country music radio stations and received death threats in the mail.)
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  5. How did the lead singer Natalie feel after writing this song and the album?
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    (Answer: She felt that the album was like therapy and helped her to find peace with everything and move on.)

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When presented with a reading or listening text, students can either utilize a bottom-up processing approach and use their knowledge of words and grammar to build up an understanding of the text, or attempt a top-down approach where they make use of their knowledge of the genre, the situational and cultural context, and the background knowledge about the topic as clues to comprehension (Thornbury, 2006).

Many argue that the tendency for students when reading in a foreign language is to cling on to the individual words of the text and try to decipher its meaning, and therefore it is the responsibility of the teacher to encourage top-down processes through the use of activities that activate content schema, such as prediction and gist reading tasks.

Upon examining the current approaches to teaching reading and listening in ELT, from CELTAs to the design of activities in coursebooks, there is perhaps enough evidence to show that the focus is largely on using top-down approaches, before integrating bottom-up approaches for detailed understanding.
Have a look at the following ‘receptive skills procedure’ that is often seen on CELTA courses and in coursebooks.

  1. Lead-in and/or Prediction Activity (Activating the Schema)
  2. Skimming (Gist) and/or Scanning Tasks (Extensive Reading)
  3. Reading for Detailed Understanding (Intensive Reading)
  4. Follow-up Productive Task

It becomes apparent that the Extensive-to-Intensive, Big-Picture-to-Detailed-Information, Top-Down-to-Bottom-Up approach to reading and listening has not only gained a strong foothold in ELT, but has also been taken for granted by some in our field as the best way of integrating the top-down ‘higher level’ skills with the bottom-up ‘lower level’ skills to form an integrated approach.

But is this necessarily always the best way of integrating the two?

While the use of top-down processing approaches is certainly a valid and useful way of integrating the two, it is also perhaps important to occasionally offer practice of bottom-up processes where learners are able to practise making use of their existing linguistic knowledge to try and make sense of a text.

In this sample lesson, I took the song, Not Ready to Make Nice, and get students to use their linguistic knowledge (bottom-up data-driven text-based processing) to fill in the gaps in the lyrics, after a short lead-in to contextualize the general topic.

Through piecing together the lyrics (and learning some new collocations and phrases along the way), they start to gain a detailed understanding. This understanding would hopefully generate interest in getting more information about the interesting background story to the song.

In a song like this one, the focus on bottom-up processing could create suspense and perhaps be more interesting for students when the story reveals itself as they re-construct the text.

Are there any other times you would choose to use such a bottom-up approach to reading or listening?

References

Thornbury, S. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Further Reading:
Nuttall, C. (2005) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Macmillan.

Silbersteing, S. (1994) Techniques and Resources in Teaching Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Things students say that break my heart

This is a post that I wrote for the ELT Knowledge website a  month ago.

Click here for part two of this post.

 

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Learning a language is hard work and requires copious amounts of patience and determination. Its process is a complex one that, despite prevailing research into SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and Psycholinguistics, most still struggle to fully understand.

Yet many have fixed ideas about the language learning process and judge themselves harshly when it comes to their language experiences and expectations.

Undoubtedly, learning to speak a foreign language is an emotional experience that at times can be daunting and make one feel like a child, void of control over the simplest forms of communication.

And such emotions can be overwhelming at times.

I have heard different learners say similar things prompted by such emotions, and I feel for them each and every time. And perhaps the best thing is to understand why they are saying these things, and to make them better aware of the processes involved.

Here are some of the heart-breakers:

What they say: I feel stupid when I have to think and hesitate when I answer a question.

What’s really happening: When asked questions like ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, students are less likely to hesitate when answering. That’s only because they have been asked these questions a million times and no longer need to think before they answer. This also means that there is no thinking or complicated mental process needed to formulate these answers. The needed language has already been learnt and no more language learning is taking place.

When students have to think and hesitate, this indicates that they are finding ways to construct the sentence by drawing on all the lexicogrammatical and discoursal resources they have, paraphrasing, looking for synonyms and antonyms, making use of cohesive devices and trying anything to get their meaning across. Complex mental processes are activated while meaning negotiation and accuracy and fluency practice are being carried out.

I love it when students hum and haw. That’s language acquisition happening right before your eyes!

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What they say: I feel embarrassed and insecure when I have to speak English in front of native speakers.

What’s really happening: Native speakers are often seen as target role models that students would like to emulate, and this no doubt comes from the fact that people traditionally learnt foreign languages in order to speak to native speakers and to get to know the target culture.

But in an era where English is now the lingua franca, and more and more are learning the language to further their career prospects and to travel, the target interlocutors and target culture are no longer simply those from the UK and the US.

Furthermore, the fact that one is biologically a native speaker is no guarantee of their abilities to speak eloquently or write clearly, and definitely no indication of adeptness at effective communication with other non-native speakers. In fact, it is not uncommon to find UK businesses employing trainers to give their British employees English workshops so as to enable them to successfully communicate in a global environment.

Alternatively, students might say the above because they have had a bad encounter with a rude or impatient native speaker. If this was the case, I just tell them this: They can’t sympathise with your position because you speak two languages (or more), and they probably speak one. You should feel sorry for them.

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What they say: My last teacher said ‘I need more grammar’.

What’s really happening: There is a traditional belief, rooted in the tradition of the way Latin and Greek were taught, whereby learning a language was equated to the learning of grammar. One could even go so far as to argue that with most European languages, morphology and verb inflections make up the foundations on which the languages are based. While vocabulary acquisition has always been thought to be a simplistic matter of memorization, the ability to string the lexis into a syntactically correct and coherent sentence is a mental process that few understand.

So, telling a student ‘You need more grammar’ is more like saying ‘You need to know more about the English language’.

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What they say: I felt like I was improving at first, but now I feel like I am deteriorating.

What’s really happening: For students on an intensive course, what might be happening is that they started out feeling motivated and were taking on all the learning opportunities offered to them, and therefore felt like they were improving.

However, this also means that they have started to notice the gaps in their knowledge and become more aware of their mistakes and the things they can’t do. Unlike before the course, the student is now paying extra attention to his/her language use and feeling self-conscious about it. This naturally leads to a feeling that they are deteriorating.

In actual fact, they are improving.

Because awareness is the mother of all progress.

For students on a long-term programme, this issue might simply be a lack of motivation and a feeling that they would never arrive at their destination.

The novelty of learning a new language has worn off and ‘Mid-Int-initis’ has set in. Their improvement curve seems to have stagnated. And there is still so much more they don’t know.

If this is the case, perhaps it is time to review their goals. Set specific performance-related mini-goals that could be met in shorter time frames and flag up the fact that no one knows everything and every word in a language. It is being able to do the things one wants to do with the language that counts.
Besides, we know that embracing the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. And we as teachers are at liberty to make that journey all the more enjoyable.

Perhaps hearing students say these things might break my heart, but if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?