Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Friday, August 25, 2006

Rapid Progress

by AJ

Listen To This Podcast

Have you ever wondered how to make rapid improvement with your speaking ability? If you are a teacher, have you ever wondered how to coach your students to make such a breakthrough?

At the moment I have a semi-intensive private student. Her name is Eriko and she is from Japan. She just came to the United States two weeks ago and this is her first time to visit an English speaking country.

Like most Japanese students, she struggles with certain sounds, such as "l" and "r". She also struggles with natural English intonation and rhythm.

When we first met, Eriko told me that conversation was her number one goal. She has studied English for many, many years in Japan, but is very frustrated with her ability to speak. She told me that she has studied lots of grammar, lots of writing and reading, but has not been able to make much of an improvement with her speaking.

Of course, Eriko is like many students. So many students who study in traditional programs have the same problem. They study for a year, or two, or six... or even ten! Yet, they still can't communicate effectively with a fluent speaker.

I understand how frustrating this is. When we begin a new language, most of us are very hopeful and excited. We look forward to communicating with native speakers. Perhaps we look forward to using the language when we travel, in our job, or to make new friends.

But then we suffer the trauma of traditional education. We waste YEARS memorizing extremely complex grammar "rules". We study long lists of vocabulary words. We learn about the "passive voice" , "intransitive verbs", the "past perfect progressive tense", "countable and uncountable nouns", etc. We spend hours studying for tests. We work hard for grades or certificates.

And after all this work, all this boredom, all this confusion and suffering... we still can't USE the language!

Thus, when Eriko told me that conversation and REAL communication were her goals-- I understood.

And so, I developed a plan. I told her directly and clearly that I expected her to follow it- and that if she did so, she would certainly make a breakthrough within six months. With Eriko, I decided to be much stronger and more direct than I usually am with my classroom students. I decide to be her guide and coach, as well as her tutor. I decided to outline a clear method, that she could follow on her own, to reach her goal.

I expected her to follow the plan. I expected her to make progress.

What I didn't expect was for her to progress so fast. In just two weeks, she has significantly improved her pronunciation and general speech. She's happy and excited. I'm happy and excited. In fact, I think I might be more excited than she is! For me, there is no greater reward than seeing a learner make rapid progress towards their goal. Its a wonderful feeling to be part of that (even though you know they are doing all the work ;)

For intermediate and above students, who are already in the speaking stage, I recommend following the same plan that Eriko is using. Essentially, it is a version of the approach described by Steve at the Linguist, Dr. Stephen Krashen, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, Dr. J. Marvin Brown, etc.:

1. First Read
Every day, Eriko and I read several pages of Steve's book. I teach her vocabulary words and phrases that she doesn't understand, and we discuss the main ideas of each passage.

I also help her with pronunciation. We usually read each section twice or more. First I read it out loud, so she can hear my pronunciation. After she learns all the new words, I ask her to read the passage again, and I help her pronounce any words that she struggles with.

2. Listen
At the end of "class", I record myself reading the day's passage. This recording serves as Eriko's homework-- I ask her to listen (and read) two or more hours every day. Eriko keeps track of her listening time, and so do I. At the beginning of each class I ask her how much she listened the day before, and I write it down. Her goal is to accumulate 60 hours of attentive, repeated listening in one month.

Eriko's listening has three stages:

A. Listen For Understanding
First, she listens and focuses solely on the meaning of the passage. She listens to the same passage repeatedly, over and over again. She also reviews previous passages, conversations I have recorded (with my friends), snippets of movies I've recorded, etc.

Her goal is to listen repeatedly until she quickly and effortlessly understands ALL of the passage, read by me at a normal, native rate of speech. This may require 5, 50, or 500 repetitions.

B Listen For Pronunciation
Once she thoroughly understands a passage, she shifts her focus to the sounds, phrasing, ups & downs, stresses, and rhythm of the native speaker. Her goal is to clearly hear when my voice rises, and when it falls. She also tries to hear which words are clumped together in phrases (pronounced almost as one word), and where the pauses naturally occur. Of course, she also listens for individual sounds that she has trouble pronouncing, such as "r" & "l"

C. Listen & Imitate
Once Eriko can HEAR the sounds, tone shifts, phrasing, and rhythm, she tries to imitate them. I tell her to imagine that she is an actress, preparing for a part. Her job is to copy, EXACTLY, the speech of the person on the tape. I even encourage her to use hand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions in order to "get in character".

At the moment, I'm encouraging her to pay particular attention to English phrasing-- as many Japanese speakers struggle with this.

3. Review
The final piece of the plan is review. Every day, Eriko reviews the articles (reads them) and reviews the notes she took about the new vocabulary and phrases. This is done in a relaxed way, with no striving to memorize. Rather, she merely reads over her notes... each and every day.

As a result of following this plan, Eriko is making rapid progress-- far more rapid progress than I expected. Of course, she not only has a good plan, she is working intensely at it and is spending a lot of time each day doing it. She is motivated. She is enthusiastic. She has taken responsibility for her learning.

Eriko has identified her goal, she has a plan to reach it, and she's working that plan every day.

Thus, she is improving faster than any student I've ever taught.

San Francisco, CA