The ugly truth about school-based Modern Language teaching

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(with Steve Smith)

I was recently criticised by some of Stephen Krashen’s fans for something that to me and many other teachers is a sad given : MFL teachers operating in secondary schools have simply no time to teach languages the way they should ideally be taught. Time and syllabus constraints force teachers to extremely tight schedules which do not allow for the extensive listening and reading practice that it is evident from much research that every language learner benefits from before engaging in real-life-like speaking.

If I had five hours contact time a week I would teach entirely differently from the way I teach now.  This would be my recipe: lots of daily receptive exposure to compelling aural and written input ; plenty of oral interaction through fun and challenging communicative activities (even more than the 30 minutes per lesson I do now);  engaging multimedia project-based learning ;  drama and art activities ; cultural awareness-raising through videos and realia ; exciting enquiry-based grammar learning.

The problem is, for teachers working in England to effectively prepare their students for GCSE and A-Level examinations, all of the very desirable above simply cannot be done as often as one would like. We all know that. Hence, effective teaching in our context is not merely about applying what we know best benefits language acquisition ; but it is first and foremost how to make the most of the time we have available to build our students’ linguistic competence, self-confidence and motivation adapting what we know about human language acquisition to the context we operate in.

The American army knew this all too well when they had to prepare their troops linguistically for the Normandy invasion in 1945. Surely they could not afford to put their soldiers through hours and hours of receptive learning through engaging stories in the belief that languages are best learnt subconsciously through exposure to comprehensible input (as many Americans in Dr Krashen’s camp – my critics – believe). Hence they devised an approach which was drill-based ; lots of repetition through controlled tasks aimed at practising phrase after phrase to death until they were so embedded in their soldiers’ memory that they became spontaneous. In this approach, grammar was taught through robotic repetition and manipulation of small parts of sentences, e.g. I play tennis, my mother plays tennis, my father doesn’t play tennis, we play tennis.

Although ideologically I do not agree with this method at all, and it is not the way I learnt the seven languages I am fluent in and the other seven I speak less well, I see the merit of aspects of this approach in the beginning phase of every learning, the parroting stage of classroom-based acquisition. Lots of drilling does help embed the core vocabulary and grammar structures, it is undeniable. And it can be made fun, too, with a bit of imagination – e.g. my receptive drills in the game room at http://www.language-gym.com/#/game-room  or my oral communicative drills. And if the phrases and words we embed in the drills consists of lexical items and sentences which can be very useful in the real world and are taught and practised within typical real-life communicative contexts, all the better still !

The truth is that every method language researchers and educationsts have come up with in the last fifty – sixty decades or so is effective in its own way, each of them addressing one different stage or facet of the complex process that language acquisition is. To say my method is better than yours is preposterous. Yet proponents of each method do, sometimes inspired by a genuine passion for and belief in the validity of their approach, more than often driven by a business or political agenda.

We, as school-based teachers, have been historically the victims of this state of affairs, decade after decade. Subjected to fads which were not a faithful reflection of each new method,but rather the botched-up adaptation of often-sound theories and methodologies by governments and their consultants, which reshaped them to fit the target cultural, political and socio-economic context, mindful less of our needs or our students’ than of their own agendas.

The result is a teaching profession whose pedagogic beliefs – whether we are aware of it or not- are often a hybrid of all the methodological approaches it has been exposed to in the last forty years or so  – whether through word of mouth, readings, CPD, government policies, etc. So many of us are advocates of the Communicative approach whilst teaching grammar like the Romans or the Greeks used to 2,000 years ago ; believe that reading extensively for pleasure will subconsciously result in learning whilst we train our students to teach towards reading comprehension tests that teach little ; advocate the importance of oral interaction and listening but most lessons are about reading and writing – or  embrace enquiry-based learning tasks where students barely ever speak; say one should tolerate error and that mistakes are ‘good’ (as CLT preaches) but then make a huge fuss about them by excessively focusing students on correction (through D.I.R.T., stamps and time-consuming dialogic practices).

Eclecticism or pedagogic hypocrisy ? Neither, in my opinion. The ugly truth is that a lot of us are confused and disoriented ; overloaded with government and school policy requirements which change way  too often and quickly ; overflooded with information coming from different camps ; misinformed by CPDs which squeeze years of researching and theorizing in one or two Powerpoint slides ; galvanized by keynote speakers who excite us with great ideas which are difficult to translate into our classroom practice.

Hence, as I always ‘preach’ in my posts, the need for (a) having a clear understanding of modern language pedagogy so as to be able to understand the state of the art of educational pedagogy beyond the different factions and fads’ political agendas ; (b) having a basic reference framework based on that understanding that will enable us to approach lesson and curriculum planning, assessment and feedback in a no-nonsense, practical and principled way.

Having such an understanding and such a framework  – which in my case is MARS + EAR ( see my blogposts on this) – has made my everyday lesson planning much easier and hassle-free and when questioned by my superiors it has allowed me to provide them with a clear rationale for my pedagogic strategies and choices rooted in Skill-Theory and neuroscience. Maybe not perfect, but working well for me. Incidentally, it was interesting to see how Rachel Hawkes and others – who had never publicly advocated Skill theory principles before – have recently published a paper which reflects all of the views I have expressed in my blog in the last year or so. It means that after all, some English MFL ‘influencers’ have finally decided to embrace neuroscience…

The path to becoming a better teacher does come through reflectivity, as most of todays’ CPD gurus preach. But understanding the basic neuroscience facts about language acquisition and developing your own framework fuels and structures that reflectivity and significantly reduces the occurrence of the cognitive block that many teachers who contact me through social media tell me they often experience when they plan lessons. It also reduces the likelihood that your planning is driven by the activities/resources you find rather than the much healthier opposite scenario, i.e.: you choosing the activities/resources to best serve your planning.

Steve Smith and I wrote our book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkitto provide our colleagues with such an understanding of Modern Language pedagogy  and with such a principled teaching framework. Interestingly, we came to it from totally different camps, Steve being a believer in the importance of comprehensible input, whilst I am a Skill-theory fan ; still we could come to an agreement of what constitutes a useful, pragmatic, ‘fadless’ and hassle-free approach to language teaching. Other bloggers, such as Sara Cottrel of www.musicuentos.com  and Justin Slocum Bailey of Indwelling languages have also been pursuing the same noble intent.

No, I am not merely trying to plug our book. My point is that once you have a clear understanding of the basic processes that regulate  human learning, are aware of the core research facts and regularly reflect on your classroom experience in the light of that understanding and that awareness, you will have a powerful pedagogic compass to orientate yourself through the jungle of bastardised pedagogic messages – like the ones I discussed in my previous post – which make our daily professional life so much more challenging and confusing.

In conclusion, the ugly truth that Modern Languages teachers have to contend to, day in day out is that time, logistics, syllabus constraints and government policies prevent them from teaching the way one ideally should. Educationists and researchers rarely recognize that, detached as they are from our world and more concerned with plugging their fads than with the often harsh reality of bog standard state schools. Curriculum designers, teacher trainers, examination boards and textbook authors do attempt to incorporate the new methodologies and fads in their work but they often do so superficially or clumsily at the detriment of sound pedagogy, giving rise to belief systems and practices which teachers often have to adhere to uncritically and which often clash with one another and with common sense. The result is the current state of affairs : an overloaded and overworked teaching profession that is often confused as to what constitutes best pedagogic practice disorientated as it is by mixed messages coming from multiple directions. This may affects teachers’ efficacy thereby eroding their self-confidence, motivation and, ultimately, their well-being.

The solution : getting a better understanding of pedagogy so that you can make an informed choice as to which method to apply where, when and with who ; so that you build instructional sequences based on a method rather than a hunch ; so that you do not let tasks and games you know or have found guide your teaching instead of your know-how; so that you can tell SLT why they got it all wrong.

The Language Teacher Toolkit is available here, on http://www.amazon.co.uk

7 thoughts on “The ugly truth about school-based Modern Language teaching

  1. Dear Franco, very deep article; but let me propose you other question: Is a classroom with 30 students the best environment to learn a foreign language? For me it’s like to teach swimming in the bathroom. Can you imagine teaching swimming to 30 students in the bathroom of your house? What results can we get doing that? Very poor. And that’s the reason the arguments on methodologies, reasearches are ENDLESS. Before being a teacher I have been a father and very soon I resalised that a classroom of 30 students is not the place to learn any foreign language. But the business is the business, the policies are the policies, the authorities have their own plans very far away from the parents’ and students’ goals. But I understand that I’m an outsider (as a father and also as a teacher), don’t follow the herd. Some times I think that the current approach to teach foreign languages is quite similar to the approach to cure AIDS. There is a vested interest to keep the “illness controlled”, but not cured. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Jose
    http://www.spanish-immersion.es

  2. I learned my second and third language much in the way you have described here. I learned after lots and lots of input and lots of grammar drills. I love the idea of CI. I know that if the bites are small enough, students can internalize them and learn to speak. But the even more important factor in the equation you have so eloquently laid out is that of student interest and motivation. The reality is that most students in secondary schools are not sincerely interested in learning a language, and have little desire to make it a part of who they are. If the student is motivated by a real desire to make the language part of him/herself is more likely to succeed regardless of the method. If a person sees no meaningful use for a certain language in their life, the language won’t be learned. If the culture of a country or a school doesn’t instill the importance of multilingualism, we get the situation we have now.

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