Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Immediate Feedback For Teachers

by AJ

One huge problem for foreign language teachers is gauging the proper level to use with students. We have an intuitive understanding of Krashen’s i+1 metaphor (just a little bit above the student’s level)..... we understand that the students should comprehend 80-90% of the input. And probably, we think this is regularly happening in our classrooms.

But its not. As a native or fluent speaker... it is almost impossible to put yourself in the students’ shoes. There is a natural tendency to raise the complexity too fast. Parents rarely do this with children, because no one expects an infant to understand complicated language or to become fluent in a year. But we do unconsciously expect this of adults. We fear we will bore them. We assume they are acquiring all of our lessons. Or maybe we admit that we don’t really know. We try to guage the effect of our lessons based on the student’s interactions, their body language, and their participation. These are good cues, of course, but not enough.

For example, many Japanese students will present a blank expression and reluctance to interact-- whether they are completely lost or comprehending 100%. Another phenomenon is that students pretend to understand when in fact they don’t. I do this all the time in Thai class... I nod my head and smile and lean forward- but I have no clue what the teacher’s are talking about. Its an unconscious habit-- but common in most students. And of course, asking students directly doesn’t usually work either. Most students are reluctant to directly criticize a teacher or admit that they don’t understand.

To address this problem, I’ve developed a micro-survey that I use during the last five minutes of every lesson. One a large index card I print the following heading (in the student’s native language & in English):

“The language in today’s lesson was:”

I then have three columns. Column 1 is titled: “Too easy/Too slow”. Column 2 is titled “Just right, I understood 80%+”. Column 3 is titled “Too Hard/Too Difficult”. Five minutes before class ends, I hand the card to a student and instruct them to pass it around-- each person puts a check mark in the appropriate column. When the last student gets the card, they turn it over on their desk and leave it there. They do not give it to me and I do not pick it up until every student has left the class.

This is not a precise or detailed survey, obviously... but it gives me an instant snapshot of how the class fared during that hour. I know right away if most students were lost..... or bored. Because I do this for every class, I can make rapid adjustments. Instead of waiting for the results of an end of the term evaluation... I get feedback every day. Students don’t have to suffer for weeks until I catch on. I can usually zone in on a good level of input in about a week.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The Focal Skills Movie Technique

The Focal Skills Movie Technique
copyright by Ashley Hastings

The FOCAL SKILLS Movie Technique uses authentic movies to bring an immense variety of meaning into the classroom. By narrating and paraphrasing at the appropriate level of complexity, the teacher can create a rich stream of comprehensible input that is directly related to what the students are seeing and hearing. This input is supported and reinforced by the coherence of the plot, the appeal of the characters, and the affective impact of the scenes.

For example, a Listening Module teacher may use 2 or possibly even 3 feature-length movies each week. Most Listening teachers use movies for 2 hours every day, with other types of listening activities filling the third and fourth hour. However, I have sometimes used this movie technique for 3 hours straight. The average movie takes 5 or 6 hours of class time to finish, so it is normal to start a new movie every 2 or 3 days.This entails the following steps.

First, prospective movies must be previewed.Usable movies must be selected, taking the personality of the teacher, the make-up of the class, and perhaps local cultural constraints into account.Each movie that has been chosen must be viewed carefully, until the teacher knows the movie well enough to recall the names of the characters, anticipate what is coming from scene to scene, and explain the plot, the motives of the characters, and other vital elements in clear, simple language.

The illustrative potential of scenes must be evaluated, and plans made for the use of freeze-frame, rewind and review, slow motion, silent replay, and similar techniques that might be used to accompany narration, paraphrases, and simple questions.

First, the teacher narrates the scenes in deliberate, clear, simple English, describing and commenting on the objects, characters, places, and actions that are on the screen at that very moment. This enables the students to associate what they hear with what they see, making the spoken input more comprehensible than it would be without the images. Narration makes it possible for students to apperceive (5) and comprehend language that they have not yet acquired, thus setting the mechanism of acquisition into motion.

Second, the teacher paraphrases some of the dialogue, especially when it is of particular interest or importance in following the story. These paraphrases make the input more comprehensible than the original sound track by replacing less common words with more common ones, by simplifying structures, and by furnishing deliberate, clear pronunciation. Since there is often little in the way of visible referents to assist students in understanding such paraphrases, the goal is to use language that poses as few new challenges as possible.

Use of the movie in class requires energetic delivery, smooth transitions, attention to detail, awareness of student response, and the ability to improvise on one's feet.

Example of the Focal Skills Movie Technique
copyright by Ashley Hastings

Here's how I would do the first minute or so of Princess Bride, using the Focal Skills Movie Technique. All of this is done with an air of rapt attention and enjoyment. Its important to be visibly having fun when using this technique.

First, I play the scene without pause or comment from the title until Grandfather hands the boy his present.

Then I REWIND (or backscan, if DVD) to the title, PLAY a few seconds (dark screen, sound of coughing), PAUSE, SAY "What do you hear? Someone is coughing." I demonstrate coughing.

PLAY a few seconds, PAUSE, SAY "This is a computer game. It's baseball."

PLAY until the boy is visible, PAUSE, SAY "This boy is playing a computer game. He's sitting in bed" (POINT TO BED) "He's a cute little boy. How old do you think he is? Maybe about 10? How does he look? I think he doesn't feel well. He looks a little sick. Do you remember the coughing? Maybe he has a cold."

PLAY a few seconds until the door opens and his mother comes in. PAUSE, SAY "The door opens and a woman comes in. Who do you think she is? She must be his mother."

PLAY a few seconds. Mother kisses the boy on the forehead. PAUSE, SAY "She kisses her son on his forehead." (PANTOMIME KISSING, POINT TO FOREHEAD)

PLAY a few seconds. Mother feels his forehead with her hand and asks if he feels better. He says he feels a little better. PAUSE, SAY "She's touching his forehead. (PANTOMINE TOUCHING FOREHEAD) Why? Maybe she wants to find out if he's too hot. When we are sick, we get hot. She asks him, 'Do you feel better?' He answers, 'A little better.'"

PLAY a few seconds. When mother opens curtains, PAUSE, SAY "The boy's mother says 'Your grandfather's here.' Who is a grandfather? Maybe it's the mother's father, or maybe it's the boy's father's father. What do you think? ...... She opens the curtains." (PANTOMIME OPENING CURTAINS)

PLAY until mother says "Maybe he won't." PAUSE, SAY "The boy says 'Tell him I'm sick.' Maybe he doesn't want to see his grandfather. Mother says 'He knows you're sick. That's why he's here.' The boy says 'He'll pinch my cheek.'" DEMONSTRATE PINCHING YOUR OWN CHEEK. "Mother says, 'Maybe he won't.'"

PLAY until grandfather pinches cheek and boy rolls eyes toward mother, PAUSE, SAY Grandfather comes in and pinches the boys cheek. The boy looks at his mother. Does he like having his cheek pinched? No, he doesn't like it.
PLAY until grandfather hands the present to the boy. PAUSE, SAY Mother is leaving the room. Grandfather is giving the boy a present. What do you think it is? Let's find out.

And so on. It probably takes about 3 minutes of clock time to do this one minute of movie time. In this way, the average feature film gives you 5 or 6 hours of class time. But the point is not really to stretch out the material. I found that this technique provides the pacing, repetition, and focus that students at the level you have really need in order to get clear comprehensible input. Their attention is directed toward only one input at a time, rather than trying to listen to the teacher and take in new movie scenes simultaneously.

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.

Narrative is Vital

by AJ Hoge & Kristin Dodds

If comprehension is King when it comes to language acquisition.... narrative form is certainly another powerful issue. Another quote from “The Tipping Point”:

“Narrative form, psychologists now believe, is absolutely central [to learning]. It’s the only way [children] have of organizing the world, of organizing experience. They are not able to bring theories that organize in terms of cause and effect and relationships, so they turn things into stories.... If they don’t catch something in a narrative structure, it doesn’t get remembered very well, and it doesn’t seem to be accessible for further kinds of mulling over.”

I’d argue that the power of narrative extends to adults as well... for while we can theorize, adults still organize most experiences into stories. When working as a counsellor to abused children (back in my social work days), I often used a form of counselling called “narrative therapy” (do a google search on Michael White)....a means of helping clients restructure the stories they tell themselves about their lives. It is very powerful and effective-- and not just with children.

Its not that we avoid abstract thought... its that we learn and remember abstract concepts best when they are nested within a narrative structure. One student is taught the past tense through rules and memorization. Another learns it through stories (drama, movies, TPR Storytelling, etc..) told about the past. Is it really a surprise that the storytelling students do much better? And even if they didn’t... even if both methods were equally effective: obviously it is MORE FUN to listen to stories than to memorize grammar rules! Of course, stories are not told randomly. The vocabulary and structures should be geared to the level of the students. Its not that you don't teach grammar-- its that you teach it intuitively through storytelling.

One of the research-proven advantages of TPR & TPRS & Focal Skills (and other similar methods) is that they dramatically improve program retention. In other words, students like those classes more; they stick around and continue to study the language longer than students in traditional programs. Again... no shock. Which would you prefer-- to sit for an hour memorizing abstract, incomplete, obtuse rules & translations.... or to sit for an hour participating in an entertaining storytelling session?

Furthermore, the storytelling approach is more authentic. Listen to your friend’s conversations.... a good chunk of everyday conversation is storytelling: gossip, description of events, explanations. Even arguments are story-laden... each person pressing their narrative version of the event or idea in question. The human mind is wired for storytelling.....

And so TPR Storytelling...the Focal Skills Movie Technique... and other narrative approaches are fully in accord with the “wu-wei” school of language teaching: effortless action in harmony with the essential nature of the human mind. Storytelling is a powerful tool for the language teachers toolkit.


by AJ Hoge & Kristin Dodds

More good stuff from the Tipping Point... this time in relation to Suggestopedia:

“When it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of the situation and context. “

This is the central tenant of Suggestopedia... that by altering context (the learning environment) huge changes in learning effectiveness take place. I’m not an expert on Suggestopedia... and don’t particularly care for the actual language delivery technique they use (reading dialogues/scripts).... but the core of the method is environmental manipulation.

Suggestopedia adherents argue for a transforming sensory environment-- colorful artwork, mood lighting, relaxing &/or invigorating background music, relaxation techniques, costumes, elaborate props,.... what they are doing is profoundly affecting the context in which the student learns.

This is a widely accepted idea in social work, but strangely “radical” in language teaching circles. The basic tenant of social work is that an individual & his problems are part of an environmental web that includes the person’s family, social connections, neighborhood, socio-economic class, race, religion, geographic origins, physical space, etc.... “No man is an island” .... indeed. People’s abilities are profoundly affected by these factors....

A simple example. Its a well known maxim in Drug Rehab that the most important factor in relapse is environment. Addicts are urged to change their friends, neighborhood, hangouts.... their entire life context. Those who go back to the same apartment, the same friends, the same bars & street corners... invariably use again. Those who radically change their context: by moving elsewhere, finding new (non-drug using) social circles, etc... have a MUCH higher success rate. Even re-arranging their apartments can have a positive effect.

The details are not trivial.... they may be small... but can have big effects. Think of a European Catholic Church... or a Tibetan temple. Those environments immediately cause a dramatic shift in consciousness. The stunning colors, the candle light, the stained glass, the glittering brass & gold, the chanting, the inscence..... a powerful sensual feast.

By contrast, think of the typical classroom: plastic chairs, white/tan tile, white walls, grey-white acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lighting, pressboard desks,... white/tan blinds on the windows. Chairs/desks arranged in rows. Maybe a few posters on the wall... but otherwise a sterile sensory deprivation tank: butt ugly. That’s a description of every classroom I’ve had since leaving kindergarten (the older I got, the uglier the rooms got). I hate to pick on AUA again, but that’s also a description of their rooms.

What sort of context does this environment imply? Industrial. Office-like. Sombre. Boring. Uncreative. Regimented. Bland. De-humanizing. Rigid. And those are exactly the sorts of behaviors such an environment produces-- Rigid, uncreative, bland, somber, bored students. We, as teachers, can labor mightily to mitigate these effects (somewhat).... but it’s an uphill fight.

We should make our classrooms transformative, inspiring, creative works of art: temples & cathedrals of learning..... sensory feasts. Paint the walls. Drape rich tapestries. Fill the room with beautiful works of art. Create theatre sets. Turn off the fluorescent lights- mood light with incandescents, colored bulbs, and Christmas lights. Play classical music quietly in the background. Burn inscence or essential oils. Provide soft, luxurious seats... or cushions. Scour flea-markets for (cheap) textured tables, shelves, and other furniture. Create the kind of room that instantly alters the attitude & consciousness of the students.