22 May 2014

Answer in sentences II: Death to abstraction!

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how the standard practice of forcing beginners to answer "in sentences" seemed to devoid the grammar of meaning.

It was inspired by trying to teach past continuous (he was running etc) and revise times (target: at five o'clock, he was running in the park, at half past eight, he was eating dinner in the dining room etc). Unfortunately, the weaker students would look at a time and say "it's five o'clock", and they would look at the action and say "he's running", and they would look at the location and say "he's in the park". The he's, it's etc structure was drummed so heavily into their heads that they didn't dare diverge from it.

This week, I observed a related problem, as I was giving an exam to some secondary school pupils.

They're preparing for a Trinity GESE exam (spoken English), and one of the features of the level they're at is that they're expected to answer to prompts that aren't actually questions. "Tell me about a time when you..." etc. This is considered a more advanced function because it requires abstraction.

But isn't it true that when we teach students to "answer in sentences", we do so by training them to recycle the words of the question...? Well, guess what. My students were regurgitating my words. I wrote Write about a past holiday, and many of the answers started In my past holiday... Obviously this is not natural English.

Is it the student's fault? Is the student incapable of abstraction? Certainly not! Instead, it seems to me that we as teachers actually train abstraction out of our students as soon as we start this "answer in sentences" thing, because it's a skill they have already learned in their first language, and we actively militate against them using it in the new language.

On the occasions where we do answer in sentences, natural language often uses non-symmetrical forms, such as answering What is your name? with I'm Niall.

Our second-language instruction, then, seems to teach language in a way that is quite contrary to nature....

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