Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Brain Friendly

by AJ

"Appeal to as many senses as possible. Even if your lesson exists solely in software, use colors, shapes, and potentially sounds (audio is tricky, and a whole separate topic) to give users a sensation of touching or hearing something (heck, pictures of food may make them smell and taste something). Consider podcasts and video, or even song lyrics or poems. Think about rhythym."

--Kathy Sierra

The main problem with the textbook-centric, grammar "drill & kill" approach is that its totally antagonistic to the brain. We don't learn this way... at least not quickly or effectively.

Our brains are wired in a certain way, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. For the bulk of humanity, memorizing lists of vocab is boring... and very inefficient. Classroom learning in general is brain antagonistic. My and your students look sleepy for a reason... its not that they are bad students.. its that we are using very bad methods.

Our brains are wired to pay attention to certain kinds of stimuli. People and faces, for example, are highly interesting to the brain. Stories and conversations are also naturally interesting.

The brain is also wired to seek novelty and rich sensory input. It likes colors. It likes smells. It likes variety. It likes movement.

The typical classroom is nearly devoid of these stimuli. We teach language with few to no visuals (lame notes on a whiteboard do not typically capture the brain's attention). We have no smells in our classrooms. Most schools employ a subdued color scheme (greys, browns, whites). And there is little to no movement in most classrooms. For adult programs, the sensory deprivation is taken to extremes (presumably adults dont want color, smells, art, touch, or variety).

Compared to the average classroom lesson, movies therefore offer significant advantages. They are rich in visual stimuli. They contain lots of movement. They have a compelling story and interesting people. The sound in a movie typically varies considerably (loud & quiet, etc...). Movies also use music to create mood.

The only problem with movies is that the language used in them is too complex for most students. It is not comprehensible, and therefore its difficult or impossible for them to learn English by watching movies. Unless.....

Unless they use strategies to make the language comprehensible. The movie technique is one such strategy. The teacher uses pauses and paraphrasing to aid comprehension. Ideally, the teacher narrates using language just a bit above the students current level. Ideally, s/he rewinds and shows the same scene multiple times... with paraphrased explanations... so that students can make more sense of the language.

Another comprehension tool-- English subtitles. Subtitles allow the teacher or student to pause the movie, read & understand the words at their own pace, look-up unknown words, and then repeat the scene as often as needed till they understand it.

All the while, they are seeing contextualized people and actions that relate to the language. They are immersed in color, music, context-rich conversation. This, I believe, is what accounts for the excellent results exhibited by Focal Skills programs (which use the movie technique as one of their main components). Students in these programs acquire English, on average, 35% faster than their peers in traditional textbook-centric programs.

But the movie technique is only a start. The more we can bring color, real people, compelling stories, smells, music, art, and contextualized meaning into the classroom... the more powerful will our teaching be... and the faster our students will acquire the language.