05 April 2014

Answer in sentences: death to meaning!

After my injury-induced half-year out of the classroom, I made myself a promise: I wasn't going to torture myself by wanting to undo all the mistakes of teaching orthodoxy in one go. It's not something I'm capable of doing, and in wanting to, I have ended up hampering my ability to get on with the task as requested by the people writing my paycheque. After all, while the orthodoxy may be far from perfect, it's at least tried and tested, and people have learned from it.

I have tried my best to stick to this philosophy since the start of my new employment, with a few particular exceptions where suitable materials weren't available in time and I had to improvise. You can hardly be expected to improvise in a style that isn't yours, after all.

The real danger in doing something someone else's way is that you might start to believe in it. I was never a fan of "answer in sentences" as it always seemed unnatural, but it's something I've come to rely on in class, and I was starting to view it uncritically, until I came face-to-face with the downside...

I was teaching a class of primary-age kids, and I was integrating times with the past tense of to be. The worksheet presented a clock representing the time, and a little picture of a location, to prompt sentences of the form "at five o'clock, he was in the kitchen," following a model example at the top of the first page. Some of the kids latched on to the point fairly quickly, but most needed repeated explanation and demonstration. (This is because I'm trying to stick to the orthodoxy of "the English only classroom" even though these kids don't speak English yet -- but that's a rant for another time.)

One in particular was having difficulties, as he's afraid of making mistakes: you can only fail if you try, so he's naturally afraid of trying. I led him through several questions directly, breaking the task into two parts: the time and the location. The problem was, when I pointed at the time, he would say "it's five o'clock", as per his answer-in-sentences training; and when I pointed at the location, he would say "he's in the kitchen". These kids have been trained (by myself and by other teachers) to never say any noun or adjective on its own, so that little contracted form it's has taken on a life that is divorced from its meaning, and appears in the language of many of the learners as little more than a particle that precedes certain words.

Basically, it has reawakened a long-held belief of mine that the frequent repetition of words doesn't truly aid in their memorisation, as the students simply aren't required to consider the context, and the language forms are devoided of all meaning.

But language is meaning.

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