autonomy


Forcing awarenesses about “ago”

Forcing awarenesses about “ago”

What “forcing awarenesses” means in a Silent Way lesson

One objective in writing this article is to describe, step-by-step, a few minutes of a Silent Way class and to make explicit the reasons I, the teacher, had for doing what I did. It is in no way to be taken as a “model” lesson; just one teacher responding with her particular sensitivity and know-how to one individual and his language problems at that moment in his life. Another Silent Way teacher, or even the same one at another time with other students, could propose similar or different activities depending on the needs of those students.

Another objective is to try to make clear that when Silent Way teachers talk of “forcing awaresses” they are referring to practices which respect the autonomy of the learner.

The student

M.C., an adult, lower-intermediate student, was starting his first lesson, one-to-one, after an interruption of four months. G.H., the teacher is me, of course. What follows is only a small part of what M.C. worked on in two four-hour sessions. He spent the time telling me about his family and his job. I helped him to express himself correctly in English.

I suggest you read the account and notice what awarenesses I was trying to force and how I did so. For those who are new to this way of working, there follows an annotated version of this lesson including my comments on what I was doing.

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The beginning

On the way to the classroom, M.C. had told me in French about his hearing loss and said he would tell me about it in English. I knew he did not know the expression in English so I wrote “hearing loss” on the board.

M.C. “There are three weeks I had a sudden hearing loss three weeks ago.”

G.H. in French, “You’re saying the same thing twice.”

M.C. gave a blank look.

G.H. in English, “In this room there are three chairs, a table, a television and some papers.”
In French, “What am I doing?”

M.C. in French, “Describing the room.”

G.H. in French, “In your sentence did you want to describe something or say when something happened?”

M.C. in French, “Say when something happened.”

I made the gesture of taking “there are” from the wall charts and throwing it in the bin. In French, “You said the right word at the end of your sentence.”

M.C. gave a blank look.

I pointed to the general area on the Silent Way wall charts where “ago” is written. In French, “The word you need is here.”

M.C. “Ah! Three weeks ago. I had a hearing loss three weeks ago.”

About 1 hour later – the chalk line

M.C. in French, “I know this is wrong but I don’t know how to make it right.” In English, “There are six months we had a meeting.”

So I drew this on the board:

Ago -time line

and pointed to the vertical line marked 0 and said in French, “What’s this?”

M.C. in English, “Now.”

Then I pointed to the vertical lines marked -1, -2, -3, etc. while ostentatiously counting on my fingers. In French, “What am I doing?”

M.C. in French, “Pointing to the lines backwards.”

G.H. making the gesture of counting even more exaggerated, in French, “Yes, what am I doing?”

M.C. in French, “Counting.”

G. H. in French, “If we call them ‘years’ what can you say?”

M.C. in English, “One year ago, two years ago, three years ago.”

G.H. in French, “I’m going to put this line on the floor.”

I drew a chalk line on the floor. I put a pointer on the floor perpendicular to the chalk line. “This is zero.” I put blue rods parallel to the pointer on one side (the past) and orange ones on the other side (the future). Then I stood with my feet parallel to the pointer, facing to the “future.” I pointed to the vertical lines on the board and said, in French, “Name one of those.”

M.C. in English, “Two years ago.”

I stepped back “two blue rods” and remained there.

G.H. “Name another one.”

M.C. in English, “Three years ago.”

I returned to the pointer and stepped back “three blue rods.” I returned to my chair, sat down and said in French, “Now your turn.”

M.C. stood parallel to the pointer.

G.H. in English, “Two years ago.”

M.C. stepped back “two blue rods.”

G.H. in English, “Three years ago.”

M.C. stepped back another “blue rod” from where he was.

G.H. in English, “No.”

M.C. returned to the pointer (zero) and stepped back “three blue rods.”

G.H. “Two years before that”

MC. hesitated and then stepped back “two blue rods” from where he was.

G.H. “One year after that.” M.C., still hesitant, stepped forward “one blue rod.”

G.H. “In two years.” M.C., with no hesitation, came back to the pointer and stepped forward “two orange rods.”

G.H. “One year after that.”

M.C., with no hesitation, stepped back “one orange rod.”

G.H. repeated, “One year after that.”

M.C. in French, “Ah, of course” and redid his action correctly.

I gave 4 or 5 more instructions – M. C. made no more mistakes but had a few hesitations over “before” and “after”, never between “in” and “ago”. Then he sat down.

G.H., in English, “And your meeting?”

M.C. “We had a meeting six months ago.”

 

Next day

M.C. “My wife went to London at two years.”

G. H. “Problem.”

M.C. “My wife went to London two years ago.”

He used “ago” correctly at least three times during the rest of the four-hour session without hesitation or apparent effort.

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Here’s the same lesson with my comments about why I did what I did

The beginning

On the way to the classroom, M.C. had told me in French about his hearing loss and said he would tell me about it in English. I knew he did not know the expression in English so I wrote “hearing loss” on the board.

I could have given the phrase to him orally but I knew he would have trouble hearing the words and it would lead to work on the sounds of the words and prevent him from telling his story which he obviously wanted to do.

M.C. “There are three weeks I had a sudden hearing loss three weeks ago.”

In French “there is/are” and “ago” are both expressed by “il y a” so French people often put “there is/are” instead of “ago”. Here, however, it is said not instead of but in addition to “ago”.

G.H. in French, “You’re saying the same thing twice.”

I said this to make him realise that if he said “ago”, “there are” wasn’t necessary.

M.C. gave a blank look.

This showed me my first attempt had been unsuccessful because he wasn’t aware that he had used “ago” and “there are”. I had to try something else.

G.H. in English, “In this room there are three chairs, a table, a television and some papers.”

Why a Silent Way teacher speaks

Some people may be surprised at a Silent Way teaching saying a whole sentence in the target language. For M.C. there was nothing new or difficult in the sentence; I wasn’t saying it as a model or to teach him the structure or vocabulary – he’d already mastered them at one level. The problem for him was that as a French speaker the feelings inside that generated the need to express “there areness” and “agoness” did not lead to seeing the necessity to use two different words. In the same way, English speakers learning French do not immediately feel the psychological necessity for having to use two different words (connaître and savoir) to express the English “know”. All words carry a whole collection of meanings but the collection is not always made up of the same items in different languages.

G.H. in French, “What am I doing?”

M.C. in French, “Describing the room.”

G.H. in French, “In your sentence did you want to describe something or say when something happened?”

M.C. in French, “Say when something happened.”

 

Why speak in the native language

This exchange took place in French because I wanted M.C. to pay attention to what we were saying and not on how we were saying it. At his level in English, to have spoken in English would have distracted his attention from the content.

I made the gesture of taking “there are” from the wall charts and throwing it in the bin.

 

The energy impact of images and physical gestures

He had just said that he wanted to express when something happened. My action indicated in a very physical way that “there are” cannot be used for this. The physical gesture has a very different impact on the student than a verbal explanation that intellectually has the “same” content because it creates a visual image in the student’s mind. If I had felt it necessary, I could have made the energy impact even greater by getting the student to make the gesture himself and the muscular energy he would have used would have helped him feel the meaning even more strongly.

G. H. in French, “You said the right word at the end of your sentence.”

M.C. gave a blank look.

 

Language is ephemeral

It was now some minutes since he’d said his original sentence and as usually happens after a period of time he had lost contact with the words of his sentence. Language is ephemeral, and unless we have some special reason to do otherwise, as language teachers or learners, for example, we quickly forget the particular words we have used though we retain the content.

I pointed to the general area on the Silent Way wall charts where “ago” is written.

 

Recognition as a way of knowing

We are all able to recognise many more words than we can produce spontaneously. Recognition is a lower level of mastery than spontaneous production, but it is a level of knowing. By giving the student the opportunity to select the word from a group, the student uses his own energy. Therefore he is using his initiative in a way that will help him retain the word. When a student just reads a sentence because the teacher points to it, there is less personal investment and so less retention occurs.

G. H. in French, “The word you need is here.”

With hindsight, I can see that it probably wasn’t really necessary to say this.

M.C. “Ah! Three weeks ago. I had a hearing loss three weeks ago.”

His “Ah!” indicated that he’d had the awareness that the word he needed was “ago”.

 

About 1 hour later

M.C. in French, “I know this is wrong but I don’t know how to make it right.” In English, “There are six months we had a meeting.”

This shows progress. Though in a sense it is less correct than his sentence about hearing loss, because “ago” does not appear at all, his comment in French shows that he is aware that there is a problem. When he said his first sentence, he was not aware that it was incorrect.

 

Using a timeline on the board to force awareness through an image

So I drew this on the board:

Ago -time line

and pointed to the vertical line marked 0 and said in French, “What’s this?”

M.C. in English, “Now.”

This was probably not the first occasion an English teacher had used this as a model of time. Generally, French people are already familiar with timelines and they need no special presentation or explanation.

Then I pointed to the vertical lines marked -1, -2, -3, etc. while ostentatiously counting on my fingers.

G.H. in French, “What am I doing?”

M.C. in French, “Pointing to the lines backwards.”

G.H. making the gesture of counting even more exaggerated, in French, “Yes, what am I doing?”

M.C. in French, “Counting.”

 

Awareness of the meaning of “ago” – counting backwards

The purpose of this and what follows is to make M.C. aware of the mental processes behind the use of the word “ago” and to attach “ago” to the “counting” feeling, or more precisely to the “counting units backwards in time” feeling.

G. H. in French, “If we call them ‘years’ what can you say?”

M.C. in English, “One year ago, two years ago, three years ago.”

G.H. in French, “I’m going to put this line on the floor.”

 

Using a timeline on the floor to force awareness by physical action

I drew a long chalk arrow on the floor. I put a pointer on the floor perpendicular to the chalk line. “This is zero.” I put blue rods parallel to the pointer on one side (the past) and orange ones on the other side (the future). Then I stood with my feet parallel to the line, next to the pointer, facing to the “future”. I pointed to the vertical lines on the board and said, in French, “Name one of those.”

M.C. in English, “Two years ago.”

G. H. stepped back “two blue rods” and remained there.

G.H. “Name another one.”

M.C. in English, “Three years ago.”

I returned to the pointer and stepped back “three blue rods.”
I returned to my chair, sat down and said in French, “Now your turn.”

 

A disadvantage of the one-to-one situation

If there had been other students in the class, I would have had one of them perform the actions instead of myself. And likewise, in what follows, other students would have given the directions. The teacher being obliged, in a one-to-one situation, to play the role of a virtual fellow student means that many opportunities of learning from mistakes are lost.

M.C. stood parallel to the pointer.

G.H. in English, “Two years ago.”

M.C. stepped back “two blue rods.”

G.H. in English, “Three years ago.”

M.C. stepped back another “blue rod” from where he was.

G.H. in English, “No.”

M.C. returned to the pointer (zero) and stepped back “three blue rods.”

G.H. “Two years before that”

MC. hesitated and then stepped back “two blue rods” from where he was.

G.H. “One year after that.”

M.C., still hesitant, stepped forward “one blue rod.”

G.H. “In two years.” M.C., with no hesitation, came back to the pointer and stepped forward “two orange rods.”

G.H. “One year after that.”

M.C., with no hesitation, stepped back “one orange rod.”

G.H. repeated, “One year after that.”

 

What it means to “know the meaning” of a word

This is an example of a word which had previously appeared to be perfectly acquired (because he could use it without hesitation in sentences such as “April is after May” or “After dinner I watched TV”) demanding renewed attention in a context where the reference was not directly stated but only implied by the word “that”. In a sense, the process of knowing a word is never totally complete, because we cannot foresee the potential new contexts that will create an extra dimension to a familiar word. This is true for native speakers as much as for foreign learners.

M.C. in French, “Ah, of course” and redid his action correctly.

I gave 4 or 5 more instructions – M. C. made no more mistakes but had a few hesitations over “before” and “after”, never between “in” and “ago”. Then he sat down.

 

Making a metaphor physically visible

The point of doing this physically was to make him realise that if he interpreted the words wrongly he actually found himself somewhere different in space than he should be. Time is a very elusive concept and Indo-European languages (probably others, too, but I don’t actually speak any) have often chosen to describe time in terms borrowed from spatial relationships. Recreating in the student’s own body the basis of the metaphor aids understanding and retention.

G.H., in English, “And your meeting?”

M.C. “We had a meeting six months ago.”

Next day

M.C. “My wife went to London at two years.”

G. H. “Problem.”

The desire to express “agoness” was no longer triggering “there are” but the right word was not yet automatic. The word he chose, though wrong, was not arbitrarily so. “At” is also used to fix a point in non-present time, ex: “My wife went to the bank at two o’clock.”

M.C. “My wife went to London two years ago.”

 

Proof of internal criteria

His progress was evident from the fact that he demonstrated that he now had sufficient criteria to monitor his own sentence and correct it. Just saying “Problem” was now enough outside help..

He used “ago” correctly at least three times during the rest of the four-hour session without hesitation or apparent effort.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had another opportunity to work with him since then, so I am unable to say if “ago” has become a permanent acquisition for this person or not.

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As I wrote at the beginning of the article, this should not be read as a recipe for teaching “ago”. I often draw timelines on the board in this context, but I don’t always do so; neither do I always draw attention to the counting aspect. On the other hand, I sometimes draw more attention to this aspect – by getting the students to come and count the marks on the board, by getting them to mime counting on their fingers each time they use the word, etc. I didn’t do all that with M.C. because it didn’t seem to me to be necessary. It is true that I use some techniques over and over again; others I have only used once with one particular student because it felt right for them. Each time I use my judgement, my experience, my intuition and my observation of the students in front of me to guide me as to what is appropriate to force the necessary awareness at that moment.

© Glenys Hanson, 2015. An earlier version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2001.


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“A Silent Way Lesson: forcing awarenesses about “ago”” by Glenys Hanson”is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Here are some of Fanny Passeport‘s students using the same technique of a pointer and rods on the floor to learn time expressions in French: