Thursday, May 8, 2014

How teachers can use their "language engineer" skills to help students learn

As teachers we love language, we love the way it's put together, the mechanics of it.

We love to talk about grammar - it's just in our DNA - but research demonstrates, and our own common sense tells us, language learning and fluency requires a different approach.  When teachers learn Maurice Hazan's visual teaching method, earlier called Symtalk, now the most recent and expanded version called QTalk, the teacher is actually teaching grammar by breaking the language down into parts, but doing so in a way that accelerates learning. The students understand, speak and interact - and they acquire language skills - comprehension and oral production -  through those activities. Later these skills form the foundation for reading and writing, using the same sequence as that by which students acquired their first language.

Lucas rides a skateboard.
Lucas rides a skateboard.
This natural learning requires a deliberate process that actually uses the "language engineer" skills of the teacher, making immersion activities much easier to do successfully. Instead of simply asking any questions at all, or asking students to speak without any structure to the request, why not give them some structure that will deliver the language's mechanics in an intuitive way? Why not limit vocabulary to the most frequently used, and most useful and most usable for your students' specific age and interests?  Pointing to an image and letting the student associate sound and meaning without the "clutter" of a written vocabulary list (and being able to practice with computer-generated versions of this - as with the QTalk Online Games and with Maurice Hazan's new iPad app (his Kickstarter project). And why not then stop explaining, but instead respond to our students with positive encouragement and praise when they make attempts to speak  - we want them to speak in the target language so we must try to remain in the target language ourselves during all activities.

When it is time to describe a scene, the student can pick out the parts of it that they find the most interesting, or if you ask a question they can answer it, because the vocabulary was made comprehensible through visual scaffolding, and has been learned in the context of a meaningful sentence. There were no lists of written vocabulary words to memorize and then try to figure out how to assemble into sentences.

Lucas rides a skateboard.
Lucas rides a skateboard.

Some teachers designate a particular time of class - maybe five minutes - where they might switch to the students' first language to make brief clarifications or answer questions. This might at times be necessary in a Level 2 or 3 class, in case students do not understand instructions or are not interpreting the communicative input easily.

Regrettably, it may also be necessary if the school district where you teach, insists on assessment that is based on the ability to translate from the target language to the first language and/or being able to name grammar structures in the students' first language (being able to name them in the target language is actually pretty cool, but not the first conversational topic you'd want them to be prepared for.)

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