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Automatic English For The People

Friday, November 05, 2004

Comprehension is King

by AJ Hoge & Kristin Dodds

Just finished reading “The Tipping Point”, a very interesting book with plenty of thought-seeds for teaching and managing a language program. Here’s a quote citing pioneering children’s television research of the 1960s and 1970’s:

“Children don’t just sit and stare [when watching TV]. They could divide their attention between a couple of different activities. And they weren’t being random they were predictable influences on what made them look back at the screen, and these were not trivial things, not just flash and dash. If they couldn’t make sense of what they were looking at, they weren’t going to look at it.

When you take [the studies] together... you reach quite a radical conclusion about children and television. Kids don’t watch when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused. If you are in the business of educational television, this is a critical difference. “

Now that is exactly the sort of thing Asher, Krashen, Hastings, etc. are saying about language teaching. Students acquire language when they understand it. They pay attention when they understand.

And this is EXACTLY my experience at AUA. Through levels 1 and 2 I was laser focused in class. I was not understanding everything...maybe 70-80%... but usually the major points of what was going on. The lessons were nowhere near as comprehensible as, say, a TPR lesson... but I understood enough to remain engaged and thus learn.

But when I hit level three my superb concentration and focus vanished. Suddenly I was drifting off in class... daydreaming.... looking at the cute girls in class... thinking about what to do when class was over. I became bored. Not that I didn’t try. I made heroic efforts to keep focused, but could not sustain them. I just reached level 4-- I understand more but am still often confused. My motivation has plummeted. I’m skipping class constantly.

At first I attributed this to burnout.... just getting tired of Thai. I talked to David, the Director, and he assured me my dilemma was normal.... all students go through this at levels 3 and 4. His pep talk helped for a few weeks, but now I’m back to skipping class. The problem is that AUA requires 200 hours per level. So apparently, they expect me to struggle through confusion and boredom for 400 hours before things start to click again (they assure me I’ll make a breakthrough at that time and I’m sure they are right... if I can make it). This phenomenon is probably the reason that at levels 3 and above, very few regular students are studying exclusively at AUA. Most have tutors or are also going to another (traditional grammar-translation) school.

So what happened... what changed? AUA’s classes were never 90%+ comprehensible, but I did OK in the first two levels. Why? Because in levels 1 and 2 the teachers were encouraged to use a wealth of drawings and props and charades and games-- in other words-- aids to comprehension.

At levels 3 and up, the teachers/managers inexplicably decided that comprehension aids were no longer desirable. No more games. No more drawings. No more charades. Suddenly I was confronted by two teachers sitting at a table: talking non-stop. When they did write on the board they merely wrote words in Thai script.... and since AUA does not teach reading until a student reaches level 5... I could not read what they wrote. In fact, every time a teacher wrote a word on the board I became extremely frustrated and angry, thinking, “that doesn’t help,... its just a bunch of squiggly lines to me”.

Faced with two stationary talking heads, my understanding plummeted. And, as in the TV experiments, so did my attention. Occasionally I’d get drawn back if I heard something I understood... but quickly tuned out again once confused.

These points.... comprehensibility... believability.....understanding... are relentlessly hammered home by Asher, Krashen, Hastings & Co. for very good reason. This is A BIG FACTOR in natural language acquisition.

Which became even clearer last week when Kristin and I changed tactics. We hired Wat to tutor us using TPR. We teach him the technique, he uses it to teach Thai to us. The results... the difference from AUA.. is remarkable.

I easily understand 95% of the TPR lessons. And by that I don’t just mean the general drift of things... I mean 95% of the total meaning and the vocabulary. This despite the fact that Wat has never taught (any subject) before, is extremely nervous about teaching, and is totally unfamiliar with TPR.

Despite all of this, Kristin and I are learning much faster.... an hour of TPR with Wat easily equals 4 or more hours at AUA. It’s also more fun. We look forward to our Thai lessons again. WE understand everything and that is very motivating. And because we understand we are thoroughly attentive for the entire lesson.

Another positive effect of the TPR approach is empowerment. I feel more in charge of my own learning... at AUA I’m a passive listener... with TPR I’m engaged in a dialogue/dance with the teacher. If I don’t understand something at AUA... tough luck... the teachers just keep on going and I’m lost. If I don’t understand a TPR command-- instantly Wat adjusts. He models the correct action... points to the desired object... or backtracks and does a thorough review. I have no fear of being lost because TPR has an infallible feedback system built-in.

Unfortunately, due to the demands of the TESOL Masters program, we have had to suspend the Thai TPR lessons. We don't know much Thai, but we did learn a lot about language teaching and the importance (and joy!) of comprehension.

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