Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Wasting Time

by AJ

As I compare my Spanish self-study efforts with the English learning activities we do in my EFL class, I come to an uncomfortable realization: we are wasting a lot of time in English class.

In other words, when I study Spanish I get a lot more learning per minute than do my English students. Typically, I sit in a coffee shop, pop in the earplugs, and listen to lots of Spanish content. When working on something new, I read it, review the new words/phrases, and then listen listen and listen some more. When strolling around town, I listen to the same Spanish content.

I also do a good job of regulating my attention. When I feel my concentration fading, I take off the earplugs or switch to music for about 10 minutes. After a short break, Im usually ready for more Spanish. In one or two hours, I feel I get a lot of comprehensible input and learn a good number of new words/phrases.

My gut tells me that my self-study efforts are probably much more efficient than what takes place in my English class. Why?

Well, there are a number of factors:

1. We spend a lot of time in English class discussing "Why" questions. From a language acquisition standpoint, "why" questions are absolutely pointless and counterproductive. "Why do you say 'take' a shower, not 'do' a shower?", "Why can you say 'I'm leaving tonight' when you are talking about the future", etc., etc.

While these questions may (or may not) be interesting from an academic linguistic standpoint, they are absolutely useless from a practical language acquisition standpoint. Its like me asking, "Why is 'silla' (chair) feminine in Spanish?" Perhaps there is a logical answer rooted in Spanish (or Latin) linguistic history... but so what. When learning Spanish, you just accept that this is the way the language works and that is that.

So, all that time we spend in class discussing the ins & outs of linguistic "why's" is a complete waste of time (in terms of actually acquiring more English).

2. Taking turns is another problem. Whether its pairwork, groupwork, or doing something as a class... a good amount of the students' time is spent listening to fellow students mangle the language. Oftentimes, when doing pair or group work, the students just chit chat about small talk. The problem with this is that they aren't in any way challenging themselves... they arent learning anything new (this is an advanced class).

3. Its impossible to please everyone. Every student is different. Some are quite motivated and serious. Some come to class but really don't care much about making an effort on their own. Some demand grammar, textbooks, and more grammar. Others hate textbooks. This means that its difficult to sustain an activity consistently... and its particularly difficult to build in lots of repetition. I find that while a few students may respond well to this, others soon complain, tune out, or drop out.

4. Poor Pacing: In a class with several students, pacing is always a problem. The fastest students must continuously wait for the slower ones, thereby wasting lots of time. Or the slower students are pushed ahead too fast and fail to get enough repetition and comprehensible input, again wasting their time.

In truth, the traditional classroom setup is very inefficient.

A better model might be a self-learning center, staffed by coach/tutors. The tutor would help each student develop a study plan, provide encouragement and the occasional kick in the butt, answer questions, and provide occasional opportunities for everyone to communicate in small groups.

Otherwise, the students would be on their own... maximizing their time by reading and listening to content of their own choosing.

San Francisco, CA