Monday, April 23, 2012

We were speaking with a teacher who evaluated the QTalk method of language instruction last year, but the school decided to purchase a more traditional language textbook instead of purchasing the QTalk classroom suite

Now the teacher is looking at the QTalk Classroom Suite to use as a supplement, because the traditional textbook is "nothing but a bunch of vocabulary lists." That's probably an exaggeration, and no doubt every textbook has something of value in it, but it helps to illustrate why the QTalk method uses such a relatively small vocabulary set, compared to other methods.

The cognitive "mesh" that is formed in the language acquisition process, is strongest when it is used often and repeatedly. But just as you can get carpal tunnel syndrome or similar repetitive stress inflammation (RSI) when you repeat a physical motion over and over without any variation or rest, so the "drill, drill, drill" approach to language instruction results in parroting rather than truly thinking and speaking in the target language. The vocabulary list memorized before this week's quiz is long forgotten in six weeks or six months, while the sentence pattern used to express one's actual likes and dislikes, will be retained for years, especially if "I like cookies," was accompanied by the taste of an actual cookie!

Question and answer patterns, storytelling, and word substitution are all great ways to keep students talking and thinking. Next class, try using a question game for the first five minutes of class. A multiple choice answer makes it very easy when the vocabulary is new. Once the vocabulary is mastered, don't provide a prompt, just wait for the answer. Let the student work around to express the idea, if they cannot recall the exact correct word, or cannot recall the correct sentence pattern for what they want to say. Just trying their best, and using only the target language, relaxes the brain and builds confidence.

With the QTalk method we comment on every student response (in the target language), "Good!" and then if correction is needed, we repeat the answer with the correction included but never emphasized, so that a student will know they made a mistake, but they won't feel embarrassed or reluctant to speak for fear of making another mistake.

Do you believe that traditional vocabulary lists, grammar rules and charts, etc. have a role to play in language acquisition? In our view there is some value, especially for adult learners whose minds work in a way that makes those resources meaningful. There is no single approach to language instruction that will fit every student in every situation, so we would suggest that a multi-modal, blended approach is the best way to ensure success for every one of your students.

Friday, March 30, 2012

After school language programs fill the gap in Florida

We are hearing about many after-school and extracurricular language programs for elementary schools. The LEE program provides elementary school children with Spanish language instruction as an after-school activity in St. John's County in Florida. Created by two teachers, the LEE program is focused on differentiated learning and letting each child acquire language in their own way. The variety of activities and the rigorous preparation of the teachers, is probably the key to their success. Here's a recent article about the program: Bilinguals in the Making | Eco Latino

What can all parents and teachers take away from this? We think these two points should help teachers  improve their own lanaguage teaching skills:
1. Each student is a unique individual, and the teacher cannot provide a "one size fits all" instructional approach. The teacher needs to have an endless bag of tricks - multiple ways of introducing and practicing language. Each of us has our own favorite activities, but it's important to keep adding, expanding and adapting the toolkit to keep the engagement level high. That is why QTalk provides classroom games in card-based format, in Smartboard lessons (our DLS products) and then the same material in Student Books and in Online Games. We love the idea of music and singing in the classroom! The brain is soothed by music, and the patterns of rhyme and meter in the lyrics create connections that are much stronger, than those created by spoken words.

2. Language instruction increasingly takes place outside of the traditional classroom setting. This does not make the class any less valuable, nor does it allow for ill-prepared or ill-equipped teachers. We note that the children quoted in the article were proud of their ability to interact with native speakers when their families traveled on vacation to Spanish-speaking countries. The children also enjoyed learning about different countries. Language instruction is about so much more than just how to say the words - it is a window into another way to think and see and be in the world, literally promoting an expanded world view in these fortunate young children.

Bravo to the LEE team for their accomplishment. We hope they will serve as inspiration to other communities.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A few teachers have commented on the difficulty of reaching today's media-Internet-commercial inundated students. They believe the children's imaginations have been weakened in some way by the relentless exposure to more and more content - from YouTube to FaceBook to video games and smartphone apps. Is this really true? 

Regarding imagination, we would agree that there is truly a dangerous level of passive consumption of "junk" media content, commercialized food products and toys, and in some families an overall erosion of those social niceties (such as a family dinner each evening) that would traditionally support face-to-face conversation and expression of ideas (read: parents sitting at the dinner table texting, talking on their cell phones or browsing the Internet - but who among us has not been multi-tasking and caught ourselves doing this!) When children do not have the ability to interact effectively, and to think and speak creatively in their first language, it's truly challenging to teach them a new language. Worse, many students rely on Google Translate or gadgets to perform what they believe to be the purpose of language acquisition - simply mechanical translation to overcome the inconvenience of something being written in the "other" language. Add to that the fear many children have of "sounding stupid" if they mispronounce a word or say something that "sounds funny" to their peers - and what you end up with is a very, very difficult set of students to teach language to.

So if that's a problem you are facing, we hear you. You are not alone, and it's okay to teach a little differently if your students are so "hooked" on digital content that they appear unable to join in the game of language-learning as a fun, creative group activity.

Two suggestions, that approach the problem from two different directions:

First, unplug everything in the classroom. No Smartboard, no computer, no Internet, no iPads, nothing electronic. No DVD, no audio CD, no cassette tapes, no 8-Tracks, no vinyl 33RPM LP records (remember those?), not even reel-to-reel audio tapes. No Internet. No phones. If necessary, turn off the electric lights.

Next, take away all the books, worksheets, grammar cards, cheat sheets, and any other "learning aid" posted around the classroom. Take away all the pens and papers and pencils and art supplies. Hide the dictionaries. It's okay to leave the maps and any posters with photographs or visual images on them.

Now what? Now let's talk. The teacher asks questions, the students answer. The students ask eachother questions and take turns answering. We work together as a single classroom group, then we divide into teams and play a dialogue game. Any of the QTalk Dialogue Game card-based products would support this, and there is no end to the types of dialogue games you can create on your own, or invent with the help of the students.

Of course when we talk, we need to listen. And instead of correction, "No, you don't say it that way, you say it THIS way, " we just keep saying (in the target language) "Excellent. That's good. Yes," and if necessary we repeat the sentence with the correction included, and believe us, the students will pick up after a few repeats, without being embarrassed or stifled as they would have been if the correction had been offered directly.

So, that's one approach.

The second approach comes from the other direction - the digital content. Whatever they are doing - listening to music, watching movies, chatting with Facebook friends, etc. -- now they must do it in the target language. Without depending on Google Translate - you can show them a few hilarious mistranslations to illustrate the weakness of even the best "computer translator" tool. So now you incorporate these experiences into the talking. I like music. Yes? What kind? Well, if they have been listening to music in the target language, they'll be building up vocabulary to tell you the name of the band or the genre of music. Help them figure out how to pick out the words in context so that they can express their likes and dislikes, or tell a story about something they experienced.

Have fun teaching, and soon your students won't be able to help having fun learning their new language. Without their gadgets, and with their gadgets, and at some point they'll need to find for themselves a way to balance all this digital content for themselves, so that they will be able to stay on track not only in language class, but in life.