July 08, 2007

Using English (grammar) to process meaning

Steve Herder at Japan Action Research in EFL wrote recently about his joy at hitting on an activity that allowed students to use the grammar they have learned to process meaning. I started to leave a comment, but pretty soon found that it was turning into an essay, so....

Here's the essay:
lack of experience actually USING GRAMMAR they’ve learned in order to PROCESS MEANING.

I've been thinking about this since I read it here. I had the reverse experience the other day, when I discovered that a "high level" class (they scored well on the proficiency test at the beginning of the year, they regularly get high scores in the weekly vocab quizzes I give) were quite unable to a) read an understand the comprehension questions (in English) on a short piece of written English. The questions were simply asking them to identify certain key concepts and topics in the text, but many seemed unable to understand what they were supposed to do.

The problem seemed to be the meta language of the instructions; yet the language does not seem particularly difficult to me: Look at the article again. Find these things. Then compare with a partner. 1) an interesting topic of conversation 2) an example of an information question 3) a question to show you're interested in the other person... (The text is Touchstone 2, CUP).

It was then I realized I usually explain textbook tasks in Japanese. That day, I did not. Why do I usually explain in Japanese? Because I sense that they will not be able to suss out the instructions on their own, perhaps?

In some classes, students express a desire to talk to me. In many classes, students seem to expect that this is what the class is for: it will give them an opportunity to interact personally (one-to-one) with me, the "furner". When I first started teaching in Japa, I did this a lot, but not so much recently. It got old: students may (or may not, it varies) actually want to talk to you, but what became clear was that many of them were quite incapable of making themselves understood even in broken English; of those that could, fewer actually had something to say.

"First, you prepare something to say. When you're ready, come back." I did that for a while, but although a few in most classes are ready and willing, most need more practice first, so I slowly abandoned the "conversation class" and spent more time drilling (in fun ways) and generally having students practice using the language.

Perhaps a further couple of reasons I abandoned the "conversation corner", the "fireside chats with the foreigner" (do you get the feeling I'm a little uneasy with this?) are:
  1. my growing awareness of a belief among Japanese students of English that they can somehow learn English ONLY by being in the presence of an English-speaking foreigner - "English by osmosis" - and that practice (alone or with a Japanese partner), drills (both oral and written), learning vocab, are either irrelevant or can somehow be bypassed when you have a real, live, English-speaking (and preferably blond(e) and blue-eyed because we all know that those are the only real foreigners) "gaijin" to yourself, if even for a few minutes;
  2. a growing awareness of a patronising attitude (in some cases, open disdain) on the part of colleagues towards the "conversation" teachers: glancing references like "students are not going to progress much if they're just repeating 'hellomynameis' every day" (so that's what they think we're doing).
But what if students' desire to "talk to the foreigner" was actually (at least in part) a desire to use (English) language to create meaning?
Something I should realize by now that has probably been sadly lacking in their experience of English language education.

2 comments:

Doug Noon said...

Interestingly, the problems with directions that your students seem to have is very similar to the issues I see with elementary-aged students doing the same thing - but in their native language.

All the teachers I know "give" the directions to students orally, even though they may also be written on the copy of the assignment, whatever it is. We do that to avoid answering questions about "what this means," "what we're supposed to do," and the like. The printed directions are there, we all assume, for the parents who want to understand what an assignment was about. Presumably, the kids can't explain what they were doing because (a) they never understood it; (b) they forgot; (c) nobody ever asks them.

Then we come to standardized exam time, and the kids have to process the meaning of the questions on their own. They often find the language used in the questions "foreign" and seem confused about what they are being asked. For the teachers it's frustrating because we know which kids could answer the question - if only they understood what they were being asked. But we can't help them. Hence, we do what is known as "test prep."

I don't know what the solution is. The problem seems to be embedded in the entire interactive structure of formal schooling.

Steve N said...

I can really relate to your feelings here:

my growing awareness of a belief among Japanese students of English that they can somehow learn English ONLY by being in the presence of an English-speaking foreigner - "English by osmosis" - and that practice (alone or with a Japanese partner), drills (both oral and written), learning vocab, are either irrelevant or can somehow be bypassed when you have a real, live, English-speaking (and preferably blond(e) and blue-eyed because we all know that those are the only real foreigners) "gaijin" to yourself, if even for a few minutes;

My recent trip to the Philippines has me raving about the fluency possibilities for all students in Asia. Some of my students have asked why I think the Filipino people have been so successful in adopting English as their second language. I'll leave the historical differences between the two countries alone this time and simply point out that there are two major differences in their approaches to English education:

1) In the Philippines, the government took the bold step of making English their second national language. Effectively, this means that the citizens are receiving a single, unified message: English proficiency is important for this country and each of its citizens, and we will all start using English. In Japan, we see something along the lines of 'English is important for your class ranking and college admissions, but not so important that we adults are going to start using it,' which is the policy equivalent of 'Do as I say, not as I do.'

2) Filipinos speak English with each other. Why would they do such a strange thing? Many reasons, I suppose, but the most important is that knowing both of your country's national languages can only be beneficial. Furthermore, as socio-economic status is closely tied to level of education, English ability is seen as a symbol of status. I'm sure there is an ugly side to this as well, but it drives the younger generations to approach English proficiency as a tool for communication, and one that will open doorways, even in their own society. Nothing even close to this happens in Japan, where English is looked at as a foreign language, to be employed when in foreign lands or in the present of a foreign 'visitor.'

Nice topic.

Best,
Steve