28 May 2014

An observation on the order of teaching (from English)

As I recently said, I've been experimenting with Michel Thomas-like techniques in the classroom of late.

One of the crucial elements of Michel Thomas's teaching, seemingly forgotten by the teachers after him, is to address student errors in complicated sentences by reverting to simpler, related sentences and then rebuilding the complexity. The effectiveness of this technique is that it builds and reinforces the underlying structural concepts in his students' minds, as opposed to just giving answers that don't train any linkage between structures.

But it turns out that doing this mindfully also presents the teacher with a hell of a lot of information about what is difficult and easy for students, and hence what order things should be taught in.

With my current MT-style student, my first divergence from standard teaching order was to focus on auxiliary verb-based tenses before the simple past and present, and this did seem effective.

Yesterday, I was trying to revise and solidify the whole pattern of positive declarative vs negative declarative vs interrogative. Now in English, there is only one main pattern, which has three variations: "to be" vs simple aspect vs auxiliaries.

I was eliciting each form from her to build up a table like this:
To beSimple aspectauxiliary tenses
I'm here.I like it.I'll do it.
I'm not there.I don't like it.I won't do it.
Are you there?Do you like it?Will you do it?
I was here.I liked it.I can do it.
I wasn't there.I didn't like it.I can't do it.
Were you here?Did you like it?Can you do it?

Nothing spectacular. I've always taught "two verbs in the negative and the question, unless the verb is 'be'," and that's what I was trying to show. What was different was my student's errors: she tried to say "I can to do it" -- a mistake I thought I'd wiped out ages ago. At that point, I instinctively moved on to the negative, because subconsciously I remembered that she didn't make the mistake in the negative, because she knew the difference between "I don't like to"/"I don't want to" and "I can't"/"I won't".

What I realised (and scribbled down in about three places) was that even despite constantly revisiting these structures, the original emphasis on the present had created an erroneous link between the two structures, as they look very, very similar, but as that similarity doesn't carry through to the negative form, the negative unlinks the two.

The result is that in future I intend to start by teaching negatives and interrogatives before introducing the positive forms, in order to force the students' brains to store the auxiliary verbs and verbs like "want" and "like" as different things.

Let me anticipate the first criticism: "students will end up overusing do/did in the positive." I don't think so. Yes, they will initially want to use an auxiliary, but I'll teach them not to -- that's my job after all, isn't it? Besides, the standard order of teaching leads to plenty of predictable, oft-repeated errors: do you can...? I can to do... I want do.... Even if I introduce one error, I'll be eliminating several more.

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