Does too much noun-orientated foreign language teaching hinder our students’ learning?

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When one observes language lessons, browses through textbook vocab lists, schemes of work, published worksheets / Powerpoints and specialised websites, with very few exceptions, one cannot help but notice that nouns make up the overwhelming majority of the target vocabulary. Look at the vocabulary website most widely subscribed to by British schools in the UK and around the world, www.linguascope.com, for instance; it teaches hardly any verb (as in: their meaning), adjectives, adverbs or function words. When it does, it is as part of formulaic units, set phrases such as ‘regarder la télé’, ‘je me couche’ or ‘je joue au foot’.

The emphasis on nouns is acceptable at the early stages of foreign language instruction, when the students are not familiar with verb conjugations, tenses and aspect, may not master modal verbs like ‘vouloir’,’pouvoir’ and ‘devoir’ and have poor control over word-order and syntax in general. However, as language learners progress along the proficiency continuum and acquire more knowledge and control over the mechanics of the language, learning verbs becomes imperative. The reader should note that I am not arguing in favour of teaching masses of verb conjugations (although I personally think it is important) ; what I mean here, is learning the meaning of verbs, i.e. that ‘manger’ means ‘to eat’, ‘courir’ to run, ‘nettoyer’ to clean, etc.

The benefits for language learners of possessing a wide repertoire of verbs (even when one does not master conjugations perfectly) are self-evident in terms of enhanced receptive and expressive power and, consequently, more effective autonomous competence. There are also other benefits for learning which may explain how the practice of not emphasizing the learning of verbs may be correlated with lower levels of proficiency.

One benefit relates to adverbs, one word-class which is, in my experience, underrepresented in the oral and written output of foreign language learners. The learning of many adverbs goes hand in hand with exposure to / use of verbs, as adverbs are mostly used with verbs. Hence, the more frequent the exposure to / use of verbs, the greater will be the chances of learner uptake.

Another benefit relates, at least with German, French, Spanish and Italian learning, to the acquisition of another word-class: prepositions. Very often A-level students find it hard to select the correct preposition to use before infinitives. Prepositions not being semantically salient features, they require, in order to be effectively learnt, much more emphasis than teachers usually give them. I believe that, if verbs were given more emphasis the prepositions they usually collocate with, will be acquired more effectively and effortlessly (sparing the students the hassle of having to look them up incessantly in dictionaries).

A greater benefit of emphasizing a more verb-based instructional input refers to the greater power to access more complex texts. Currently, most GCSE level reading and listening materials tend to be relatively poor in terms of variety of verbs – certainly poorer than authentic target language materials. Thus, course-book /materials writers are sometimes forced to ‘doctor’ authentic texts to simplify them or to create noun-ridden texts with very few unfamiliar verbs (often translated on margin) in order to facilitate comprehension. A wider repertoire of verbs may allow foreign language students not only to produce more complex output, but also to access genuinely authentic material in the target language with positive wash-back effect on learning.

The greatest benefit of learning more verbs, however, relates to another aspect of verb acquisition: the mastery of conjugations and tenses. Giving more emphasis to the learning of the meaning of verbs may also result in the learners electing to use them more often in their output, thereby increasing the chances of receiving positive/negative feedback on their correct use (i.e. verb ending is wrong); the greater exposure to such feedback may increase their focus on verb endings and their declarative knowledge of verb inflections. Moreover – to go back to the point made in the previous paragraph – being able to access more complex texts will also mean greater exposure to more complex use of verbs, tenses and moods; this may bring about improvements in their own mastery of verbs, tenses and moods, especially if teachers exploit the texts effectively in the pre-reading/-listening phases.

The Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board seems to have acknowledged the need for more verb-based instruction in their new IGCSE syllabus. In order to obtain full score in one of the essay-writing assessment traits, the candidate now needs to produce 18 different verb forms correctly (out of 140 words). This means that only the first instance of a given verb is counted each time; e.g. if the learner writes ‘je fais’ three times, will only score one tick , whereas until last year, it would have scored three. A sign that CIE acknowledges the importance of verbs as determinant of higher proficiency? I think so.

And what about adjectives? I think adjectives get more emphasis than verbs, although not as much as they deserve. Mainly because physical and character description is a topic which receives a lot of emphasis since the very beginning of level of language instruction, in England. Moreover, the National Curriculum made it compulsory to deploy adjectives in order to attain the old Level 4. However, in the realm of adjectives, too, one cannot help notice the narrowness of scope of the adjective pool taught in British course-books. The most highly downloaded of the worksheets I have uploaded on the TES connect website (https://www.tes.co.uk/member/gianfrancoconti1966 ) and the most visited pages on my website (www.language-gym.com , the ‘work-outs’ section) are the ones dealing with adjectives, a sign that teachers do feel straight-jacketed by the textbook in use.

What is the way forward? The implications for teaching and learning are obvious:

  • Course-books and teacher should place much more emphasis than they currently do on verbs in terms of the comprehensible input they provide and of the output they intend to elicit from students.
  • Verbs (as in: their meaning) should be explicitly taught and practised extensively across all topics, as often as possible, not necessarily in their full conjugations (although it would desirable). The remark made by some colleagues that it is difficult to find visual stimuli to associate to all verbs when presenting them is not necessarily true. The verb trainer section of language-gym.com demonstrates that this is not the case.
  • Listening and reading comprehension activities should be based on texts containing as wide a range of verbs as possible. The use of parallel texts of the likes found on http://www.frenchteacher.net can be very helpful in this, respect, too. Many of the activities on www.textivate.com provide great practice, too.
  • Verbs should not be taught as discrete units only; their use should be modelled through as wide as possible a range of contexts. This does not mean simply teaching them as part of unanalyzed lexical chunks; learners need to learn how to use the verbs flexibly across contexts.
  • When the students are developmentally ready, students should receive practice in conjugating verbs through a mix of activities involving online self-marking online conjugators (e.g. language-gym.com/verb-trainer or www.conjuguemos.com ) ; gap-activities / translations (scores of these can be found on www.tes.co.uk or on the excellent www.frenchteacher.net )
  • Adjectives and function words (e.g. prepositions and adverbs) should receive more emphasis and be extensively recycled, too.

In conclusion, nouns seem to dominate a lot of foreign language learning. Mainly I suspect, because they play a crucial role in the comprehension of input and in communication. But verbs are equally important; exactly as it happens in first language acquisition, a rich and accurate deployment of verbs is a marker of higher proficiency and allows learners to engage with more complex texts and to produce higher level language. The recommendations I put forward above are based on common sense and on my experience as a teacher and do benefit learners, especially in the long –term. After all, much of the post-GCSE gaps that teachers have to bridge at A-level does relate to a great extent to the curriculum deficits highlighted in this article.

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