Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Monday, March 20, 2006

TESOL Reality TV

by AJ

Ive got an idea for a reality TV show: Take 10 EFL students. Put each one in a home with a middle-American family. Enroll them in an American school. Put them in a town with absolutely NO foreign language speakers.

Give their American family, teachers, and classmates the following "rules"-- do nothing unless the contestant directly asks for it. In other words, no food unless they ask for food. You get the idea.

Meanwhile, 10 other EFL students are enrolled in a traditional language class. They study with a textbook. They do communication drills. They take lots of standardized tests.

At the end of the show, we throw all 20 students into various real-life communication challenges and see who performs best (ie. job interviews, meeting people in a bar, academic discussions, etc..).

The first situation, roughly, is the situation small children find themselves in. Small kids,... even babies.. have no choice. They MUST communicate. They may do so by crying. Or with hand signals. Or with broken English. But communicate they do.

Its an ideal language lab. Kids dont need to memorize vocabulary or study grammar. Their total focus is on communicating in order to get what they want. They dont think about language... they think about desires and USE language to satisfy them.

We train EFL students in exactly the opposite way. We condition them to focus solely on language... while communicating and satisfying needs remains a far-off mirage.. something to be done once the language is completely mastered. Not surprisingly, most students never reach that point. Most foreign language students never use the language for authentic communication..... they leave school... and gradually forget anything they learned. Its a lot like advanced algebra, unless you use it for your job, you forget it.

Clearly, we've got it ass-backwards. Intricate grammar distinctions are for highly advanced speakers only (some NATIVE speakers have no need for such language). COMMUNICATION is key. And not just any kind of communication. The most powerful, the kind that most powerfully catalyzes acquisition, is problem solving communication. In other words, communicating to get what you need/want/desire.

In Thailand, I quickly learned "taxi Thai". Why? Because I needed it. I needed to get around the city. I needed to get home quickly and easily. I picked up the necessary language rapidly.

I didnt learn conversational Thai... despite some study and classes. Why? Because I didnt need it to get what I wanted. I had plenty of English speaking friends. Bangkok was also full of English speakers. Conversational Thai was an academic goal of mine, but I found it easy to get what I wanted without it. And so, those classes never really stuck.

Passivity and inauthentic language are perhaps the two worst problems with language education...

Increasingly Im convinced-- we must find a way to restructure language education. Part of that restructuring will involve moving beyond the classroom... to put students into situations in which they must use the target language to satisfy their desires. Within the class, we also need to develop more skillful simulations.... simulations that use puzzles, problems, challenges, etc, that can only be solved by understanding target language messages.. and responding appropriately to them.

To do this, we must abandon our idiotic academic metaphors. Academia is a piss-poor model for language education. Sports offer a far better model. For sports, like language, are most concerned with the USE of acquired ability.. in high-stakes situations.

Good coaches have one overriding goal: prepare their players for games. When they design practices, they aim, as much as possible, to recreate game conditions. Coaches dont give players a standardized test to evaluate them. They watch them. They scrimmage them. They test them in game-like conditions. Once players have advanced beyond a certain level, the coach may increase the "reality" of practice sessions... adding crowd noise, ticking clocks, and other stress inducers... all designed to help the players handle pressure calmly.

For a coach, the ultimate "test" is game performance-- how the player performs in a real game.

This should be our ultimate measure. How about this for a "final exam": Each student must go to a bar, strike up a conversation with a native speaker, and keep that conversation going for an hour. An evaluater tags along, perhaps with a microphone, to observe.

Obviously, thats a high-stakes, high-stress "test". Its therefore up to the teacher to prepare the student-- not only at a linguistic level... but also emotionally... to build their confidence and their performance under pressure. Its also up to the teacher to build a supportive "team"-- so that students help each other prepare, grow more confident, and perform at a higher level.

And just imagine if teachers were held to the brutally tough standards that coaches are. Coaches are routinely fired if their players fail to perform well in games. Shouldnt teachers be subjected to the same standard? Are "high standards" something we impose on students only.. and measure solely with standardized tests?

Id like to see teachers treated more like coaches. A few "losing seasons" and you're out. If your students routinely fail to thrive in authentic situations-- you get the axe.

And the same goes for administrators... and other staff. All evaluated according to the real-life performance of their students.

San Francisco, CA