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Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Critique of AUA's Automatic Language Growth Program

A critique of AUA’s Automatic Language Growth program
by AJ Hoge & Kristin Dodds

The Thai language program at the AUA Language School is unique in the world. This program attempts to follow Krashen’s theories to their obvious conclusion. The program utilizes a long silent period of approximately 800 hours, during which students do not speak Thai. Rather, all emphasis is on comprehensible input. AUA uses a technique called the “talk show” in order to give students input in Thai. Two teachers teach each class. The lead teacher usually tells a story, gives a class on a particular cultural topic or plays a game. The supporting teacher asks questions, clarifies instructions, draws, gestures, and acts out what the lead teacher is saying-- in order to help students understand what is going on.

The good news is that AUA is getting excellent long term results from those who complete the entire program. The most promising result is that many students end up with excellent, even native, Thai accents. All of the students at AUA are adults, so this is particularly impressive--- it is, in fact, a direct refutation of the “critical period hypothesis” (which claims that adults cannot learn a foreign language as effectively as children). AUA’s Thai program gets results--- it produces fluent speakers with very good Thai pronunciation.

The bad news is that most students do not complete the program. AUA has a big retention problem. Most students who start at AUA do not complete the 800 hours necessary to reach the speaking threshold set by the department. While I am a big proponent of their approach, I am beginning to understand why they have such high turnover.

I’m now at “level 3” (out of 10) in AUA’s Thai program and have hit the comprehension wall. In general, the AUA program does not simplify their language enough..... At levels 1 and 2 the teachers do use a lot of gestures, drawings, actions, and games to aid comprehension. This is generally effective although the language complexity is still much too high in my opinion. My rough guess is that they could cut the required 400 hours (to reach level 3) in half by utilizing Asher’s TPR and Garcia’s TPR-Storytelling at the first two levels. These two methods are compatible with a silent period-- and they are a superior means of providing language that is very simple, meaningful, and highly interactive.

At level three things get much worse at AUA. Other students had warned me about the “level 3 shock” but I was still surprised by it. For some inexplicable reason, the teachers/administrators have decided that level 3+ students no longer need aids to comprehension. The teachers use few drawings, few actions, few gestures. Some classes consist of two teachers sitting at the table talking non-stop in rapid Thai-- without any visual aids to comprehension at all. I don’t blame the teachers.... they are overworked and stuck in a rut. It’s much easier to come in and just blab away. But this is not a good teaching method and definitely not what Krashen, Asher, Terrell, and others advocate-- a natural approach is much more than talking non-stop to students in the target language. To be effective, the students must understand the language being used.

TPR and TPR-Storytelling proponents, for example, recommend 85-100% comprehension for any particular lesson. TPRS ensures this level of comprehension by 1) using actions to demonstrate all stories, 2) Re-telling each story or situation at least three times, 3) Building complexity gradually-- teachers start with very short “mini-situations” and slowly build to longer stories, 4) Using drawings, illustrations, and props with all stories.

My rough guess is that the Level 3 input at AUA is only 35-50% comprehensible (to me and most new arrivals). Sometimes the comprehension level is much lower-- and I have no clue what’s going on. Input that is not comprehensible is wasted... and so I’d say that 50-70% of my time at AUA is wasted. This accounts, in my opinion, for the extremely large number of hours required by AUA to reach the speaking threshold (800). I also think it accounts for most of their retention problem. Quite simply, students become very frustrated. I’m a true believer in the method-- yet I too am losing patience and getting frustrated.

AUA’s administrators consider the retention problem to be a fact of nature, but I think it could easily be improved. If I’m at all correct--- and 50+% of their instruction is wasted..... that means they could in fact reduce the required silent period by 50% by using methods that assured 90%+ comprehension-- methods such as TPR, TPRS, Focal Skills, and the like. What’s more, I believe such improvements would reduce students’ frustrations. By adopting these new methods, I predict AUA’s retention rate would rise considerably and thus their overall enrollment numbers would climb quickly as well. Furthermore, adopting these methods would reduce the amount of classes taught with the “talk show” technique... one teacher can easily teach a TPR class (for example). Thus, by adopting these changes AUA would also reduce it’s payroll expenses-- and could shorten the teacher’s long office hours (often 10-12 hrs per day).

Finally, I should note that though there are definitely flaws in the execution of the method, I believe that the underlying theory and approach used at AUA is excellent. Their emphasis on input (and not speech), and their focus on understandable happenings, is right on track. They have made some fantastic innovations in the field of language teaching--- especially their use of a very long silent period coupled with the “talk show” method of team teaching. These methods effectively reduce student anxiety to zero. Studying at AUA is a relaxing and pleasant process for the most part (with the above exceptions). With some refinements, they could dramatically boost the effectiveness of this program..... while increasing student retention, reducing the necessary number of study hours, increasing overall enrollment, and reducing payroll time and expenses.

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