The ‘student-K’ paradox- How ineffective classroom learning can enhance language proficiency and implications for MFL instruction

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Recently, I have been undertaking lots of research into vocabulary acquisition in order to enhance the learning potential of my website (www.language-gym.com) at a time when it is undergoing massive restructuring and expansion. But as always with ‘paper’-based research, I felt something important was missing: the student’s views on how learning occurs; not in its dry, ‘scientific’ representation by scholars and researchers, but as articulated by the learners’ themselves.

Hence, I turned to my students and, as I usually do every term, I carried out a few semi-structured interviews with my most effective and least effective students. As always, the findings were fascinating. Today, one student in particular, ‘K’, yielded the most interesting data ever, as they referred to an apparently paradoxical phenomenon that I had never heard of or read about before; what I will refer to, from now on, in my personal jargon, as the ‘student-K paradox’. But who is ‘Student K’? And what is this ‘student-K paradox?’

‘K’ is the dream language student every effective language teacher would love to teach and every less effective teacher would fear to have in their classes: the hyper-talented, driven, inquisitive and risk-taking student who, however meaty your lesson content is, however ambitious your learning intentions are, will always ask you for more – more words, more grammar, more resources, more challenge.

Despite never showing real interest for French or Spanish before the age of 11 – two years ago – and coasting through 2 years of French at Primary, K. has managed to attain at 13 a level of proficiency in both languages that I had never witnessed before in any individual of her age. Her spoken and written output is not only rich, varied, complex and accurate but seems to be produced effortlessly. Whilst interacting with her in spontaneous speech, one never detects any anxiety. What is particularly striking about her, is her vocabulary repertoire, which transcends by far the boundaries of an excellent GCSE student – and she is only Year 9!

But how did she get there? This is the most interesting bit; the answer is: because she felt that in year 5 and 6 she was not learning much in class. She felt that her teacher’s approach just wasn’t working for her. She gave too many worksheets, teaching too much grammar causing an information and cognitive overload not supported by effective recycling that K just could not handle. In addition, she felt the approach was overly prescriptive and ‘narrow’ in terms of learning scope; she felt she was not progressing and grew increasingly worried about it.

So, K decided to address the issue by taking on French grammar on her own, at home. She started googling the grammar points she felt her teacher did not teach her properly; study independently; taking notes; doing online activities; reading and translating independently, etc. until she ‘nailed’ the verbs and tenses she had not managed to learn in class. In other words, the anxiety she felt in class for not being able to learn from her teacher’s input paradoxically enhanced her learning as she self-initiated activities which widened her lexical repertoire and improved her knowledge of the target grammar. She would then try out the lexical and grammar items learnt through this process in class so as to obtain teacher feedback (vocabulary and grammar activation). It would be interesting to know whether K would have learnt more than she did autonomously had the teacher taught her more effectively. Probably not…

Another crucial acquisition factor she mentioned was the new teacher she had in Year 7 who allegedly inspired her to go beyond the vocabulary set by the book and the schemes of work. She found the lessons with the new teacher more fun – although in the interview she could not articulate why. The teacher would encourage her to be creative and risk-taking with the language and gave her additional vocabulary lists she would eagerly learn independently at home. Studying these vocabulary lists – in the most traditional way ever, i.e. rote learning – became almost an obsession for her.

Another strategy that she began using was to read the multilingual instructions that came with whatever product (e.g. electrical appliances, gadgets, computers) her or her parents bought, so as to learn new vocabulary. She also said that whenever she said or thought of a ‘cool’ phrase or sentence in English she would try to translate it into French using dictionaries or by asking the teacher for help with it.

Student K’s case is impressive in many respects and, if it were true of other talented linguists of similar caliber it would have important implications for learning. First and foremost, K’s story clearly illustrates how powerful facilitative anxiety can be in enhancing learning; facilitative anxiety, as conceptualized by Macintyre and Gardner (1989) refers to the state of arousal caused by mild levels of anxiety which may push a student to do better at something (e.g. my current approach is not working; I need to do something about it!). Obviously, this does not entail that teacher should deliberate be ineffective in class in order to foster effective autonomous learning. However, it does indicate that autonomous work by a student as young as K can yield amazing results; hence, teachers may have to find strategies to motivate students to learn vocabulary autonomously at home – easier these days due to the availability of mobile digital technology. Although equipping the students with effective vocabulary learning strategies may be important, K’s case shows that inspiring them, make them want to learn vocabulary independently may be more crucial.

K’s learning behaviour also seems to confirm Gu and Johnson’s (1996) finding that self-initiation and activation can play a huge role in vocabulary acquisition. K requested extra vocabulary lists and worked on them alone at home (self-initiation); she would then deliberately use the new words learnt from those lists in class to try them out in context to see if the use she made of them was accurate (activation). The implication is that teaching should concern itself much more than it currently does with modelling these two independent learning behaviours. I can identify with this, especially in my learning of English, Spanish, French and German; less so, with my Swedish and Malay – is this why I speak them much less fluently?

K’s use of vocabulary lists to learn new lexis is also interesting as it goes against what I have always said to my trainees. K does not use fancy mnemonic devices or engaging online vocabulary-building games. Yet, her vocabulary repertoire is vast and varied. This goes to show that motivation and the focal awareness it places on the target linguistic items can seriously impact vocabulary learning. To brush aside the old-fashioned way of using word pairs based on the argument that it is boring or obsolete may be wrong, after all. And K’s preference for word lists is echoed by a number of recent studies that show the superiority of this approach to vocabulary learning to the keyword technique.

Another important implication relates to G and T (gifted and talented) provision in schools. Teachers are often recommended to teach G & T students through higher order thinking tasks. On the other hand, K’s case defies this notion; learning L1/L2 word pairs from a vocabulary list does hardly involve higher order thinking skill. The implications for learning are that to best cater for our learners’ needs we may need to ask them what their preferred learning tools and strategies are rather than using our presumptions as to what best suits their higher cognitive and linguistic capabilities.

K’s learning strategy involving using multilingual translations, kind of echoes my point in a previous post on how parallel texts can foster vocabulary acquisition. It is an easy way to notice and learn the differences between the L1 and the L2 as well learn new words effortlessly.

Last, but not least, the impact of the inspiring teacher on K’s learning. K did self-initiate autonomous learning in order to compensate for the lack of progress in lessons; however, it was the inspiring teacher who brought her learning to another level by being less prescriptive than her predecessor and by letting K go beyond the learning intentions boundaries set in each lesson.

In conclusion, my interview with student K was a real ‘eye-opener’ as it defied many of my pre-conceptions about effective learning. Teachers ought to set aside some time every so often to interview students as a means to understand them better and sync their teaching to their needs – it can be one of the best professional development practices they may ever get. K’s account of how she learns vocabulary made me understand so much more about her and about students like her. These learners may not necessarily need to be involved in higher order thinking skills; they may simply need to be inspired and encouraged to learn autonomously in ways that best suit them.

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