No coursebooks, no texts, no “tasks”

no coursebooks

I must be the slowest blogger in the world. Is there somewhere I can get a badge for it?

Anyway, after several months I’ve just finished this post about what is maybe no longer a hot topic.

A lot has been written recently on ELT / EFL blogs mainly attacking, but also defending, general English coursebooks. However, both attackers and defenders seem to share the same underlying conception of how languages are learnt: input in the form of texts, written or aural, leads to spoken output. This transmissive view of learning is not the only one and is not the one I adhere to. (Read more…)


Learning to open a door

learning to open a door

A dog learning to open a door

On the 8th of June I watched Tyson Seburn’s video of his dog learning to open a door to get a toy.

A number of things struck me.

1) at first the dog, Lou, tries to squeeze through the gap but it’s not wide enough
2) however the door does open just a tiny bit more
3) at 0:31 the dog puts its forepaw on the outside of the door but doesn’t really pull the door towards itself. However, the door moves a little
4) then the man watching and encouraging the dog (?Tyson) moves the toy closer to the gap – 1:12
5) this stimulates the dog to greater activity and it puts its head through the gap, grabs the ball and retreats into the other room – 1:22
6) the man continues to call the dog which finally pushes its whole body through the gap – 1:42

How I interpret the dog story

Lou seems to be a young dog – possibly trying to get through a door left ajar for the first time. If it has had experience of other “gaps” they will not have moved in response to its trying to push through. Doors on well-oiled hinges are different – which we know from experience but a young dog doesn’t.

Lou works on the principle of “trial and error”: alternately patting the the wall and the door with its forepaws, jumping up at the wall near the door (in the inside room), pushing its nose under the door and maybe other things we can’t see from our side of the door.

By moving the toy closer the man both makes the dog more eager to get the toy and makes the task a little easier. Lou puts more energy into trying to get the toy than before and moves the door enough to get its head and shoulders through the gap.

Having got the toy, the dog loses interest in it – it drops it inside the room and returns to the door to try to get its whole self through. It does this quickly and easily – I would say, demonstrating a transfer from the first learning experience.

A cat learning to open a door

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Creating mental images of English prepositions

Two Palettes - Jim Dine. The Collection Online. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Why native-speakers can “guess” the meaning

Words such as up, on and over each evoke a specific mental image, or series of related images, which are shared by all native speakers. This does not mean of course that native speakers can necessarily make explicit in words their exact meaning but that when they come across the word in an unfamiliar context they can spontaneously make a guess at the meaning of the total expression with a high degree of success. This is precisely what many learners of English are often unable to do. Each phrasal verb, each colloquial expression containing a preposition is treated as a new item of vocabulary to be memorised – a slow and laborious process that can never be completed because the number of such expressions is potentially infinite. Native speakers create new ones every day. The number of words such as up, on and over on the other hand, is limited and their meanings can be mastered.. For simplicity’s sake, I will call such words “prepositions” here, though most can also function as adverbs, subordinators, etc., because what I want to emphasise is their base meaning, not their grammatical function.

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So-called phrasal verbs

phrasal verbs

A set of exercises on: Phrasal Verbs.

These exercises are intended for intermediate to advanced students of English who feel they have a problem understanding the meaning of what are called Phrasal Verbs, i.e. verb + preposition or adverb combinations such as give up, turn off.

Given that native speakers almost never have problems understanding phrasal verbs, even new combinations which have only recently been invented, I’ve always suspected that students having a problem with them is due to the way they are presented and taught. This has been reinforced by reading recently that the term “phrasal verb” only dates from 1925(1). Native speakers don’t need to look up phrasal verbs in a dictionary because they have other tools to discover the meaning autonomously. Each word of the phrasal verb combination spontaneously evokes an image in their minds which, when applied to the situation in which they hear or see the words used, suggests the new meaning to them. The new meaning does not come from nowhere, it is closely related to the old meanings in each part of the phrasal verb. Non-native speakers can learn to function in the same way.
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A lesson in trust

 

What could be more weird than a language teacher who almost never speaks in class? Maybe a dancing teacher who can’t dance.

That’s what I did many years ago. The lesson was recorded and a kind person transcribed it but I’ve only now translated it into English and put it on line here: A Dance Lesson.  The lesson couldn’t have taken place if my student (and friend) Christiane Rozet hadn’t trusted me and I hadn’t trusted her. It also helped that we both adhered to the same conception of how people learn and what the teacher’s role is.

Most of my professional life was spent quite otherwise: teaching a skill I do master myself. I’m a native-speaker of English who is lucky enough to both speak with a variant of RP and to write Standard English with very few hesitations. I also know quite a lot about the language: grammar, phonology, history, etc. Over the years, I’ve picked up hundreds of pedagogical techniques for “getting across” various aspects of the language. But all that can be a hindrance to being simply present to a particular student and responding to their needs “here and now”. Choosing to “teach” a subject about which I know next to nothing freed me from all that irrelevant baggage. It was scary but also exhilarating.
(Read more…)