A Matter of Confidence: Repetition – again.

This summer, I’ve teacher-trained and I’ve taught B2 students preparing exams – all ‘unplugged’ – although ‘unplugged’ is, in this day and age, a bit of a misleading term. The things I’ve learned myself regarding using this approach are:

Going that bit further than you originally thought you could.  Image by Victoria Boobyer at eltpics

Going that bit further than you originally thought you could. Image by Victoria Boobyer at eltpics

  • Students learn. They engage, and as a consequence they learnt more ‘intensely’. The approach appeals, challenges, takes them into account as individuals and pushes them out of their comfort zone – it helps them develop personally, linguistically, professionally or all of the above, depending on the person and context. It starts where they themselves are at the beginning of the course (not where a book or other ‘programme’ has decided is their point of departure) and pushes them as far as they’re happy to go – encouraging them to make that point of arrival a point slightly (or even way..) beyond the one they had envisaged when they set out.
  • Students / trainees become aware of the extent to which they are themselves responsible for their learning/development – aware of the fact that it’s in their hands. They see how much effort, energy and presence goes into classes from their teacher’s / trainers’ side of things (it’s a walk-the-talk thing), they are made aware of their own weaker areas, what they could or need to do and how to do it, and of just how motivating and confidence-building (tangible) learning or development can actually be – and the rest is up to them. This helps autonomy and risk-taking. It helps reflection.
  • It also seems to be highly motivating when they are in a group – others make the effort visibly to work for the team, so they do too. Setting up classes as a team affair, really working on gelling that team and making the team responsible for the initial stages of planning (in a non-strict sense) ie for deciding on the loose shape of what goes into the lessons and therefore roughly what the output and outcomes might be, really teaches trainees/learners a lot. They are, again, more responsible and motivated. They also feel supported by the team and are willing to take risks (linguistic, professional or personal, depending on the individual).

    Flying high as part of a team, each individual's true colours still clear.  Image by Jeffrey Doonan at eltpics

    Flying high as part of a team, each individual’s true colours still clear. Image by Jeffrey Doonan at eltpics

  • When you take the care to tailor the lessons to the students’ needs, to work with what emerges, but you do it in a ‘diligent’, coherent, caring way, their investment in the course increases exponentially.

And a bunch of other things I’ll develop in more blog posts after this series of posts on confidence is finished. But another thing I have become aware of while teaching the B2 candidates is that (lack of) repetition in cahoots with dependency on the coursebook can shape and define some of the most frequent errors. Think about this:

I taught well over 100 B2 students this last academic year. I taught around 15 B2 this summer. I realized that all but about 3 used ‘this, these, that, those’ indistinctly (if they used ‘those’ at all). This was true in both their written and spoken English. The four words were as interchangeable as perhaps and maybe. These were students who were grappling successfully with a range of tenses and modals, but they couldn’t use this, these or that correctly – or those at all. Then, of course, in exams and tests they were marked down for having “A1 errors”. But why did they make these (or is it this? or that?) errors? Look through coursebooks and you’ll see why. On the whole, it’s a language point that is taught in A1 / Beginner / False Beginner books and not again. It’s been DONE. While tenses are repeated in the same order year after year, possibly being built on to contrast them with another tense, this little family of four has been DONE.

Infallible, life-saving, omniscient..... yeah, right.  Image by Teresa Gomes de Carvalho at eltpics

Infallible, life-saving, omniscient….. yeah, right. Image by Teresa Gomes de Carvalho at eltpics

And by B2, the tangle has become a nice tight knot. The two culprits, as far as I can see? Coursebooks and lack of repetition-accompanied-by-noticing (see the previous post). Which really means only one culprit: the teacher. The teacher who sticks to the coursebook like an infallible, life-saving, omniscient SatNav device is doing the students a disservice and is fossilizing or, even worse, creating these errors. (Is there such as thing as an infallible, life-saving, omniscient SatNav? Try finding your way around Jerez or the back roads of Devon with one….). An A1 student is like a child learning its L1 – there’s a massive amount of new information. Some of it is repeated course after course (present tenses, past tenses, position of adjectives, can, auxiliaries in questions…. You know the routine), some of it is not. It’s like having a new class of 35 students. You learn all the names the first day, then forget the names of those who skip the rest of the classes or disappear around Halloween. The associations you made in the first class fall into disuse. If you bump into one of those absentees a year later and call him/her Lindsay/Lindsey when he/she’s really Leslie/Lesley but no-one reminds you………. How far is your memory failure aka error your fault? Especially if someone’s being paid to remind you of Lesley/Leslie’s name.

It only took one lesson to sort out the this, these, that, those muddle – maybe 10 – 15 minutes of looking at it and pointing at things and discussing and working with examples and students making exercises in groups for other groups to do. They never muddle ‘here’ with ‘there’ or ‘now’ with ‘then’, so those became the hangers for the ‘time and place’ concepts of the demon (strative) quartet. Easy. Honest. Something similar had happened with the position of ‘only’ and ‘even’ in relation to auxiliaries. Learning by osmosis had been the apparent approach to-date, so we ‘hung’ them on ‘already’ and ‘just’ and are zooming in on them when they crop up. Of course, it’ll take repetition and they’re writing repetitive (but fun) raps and sketches for homework incorporating various things, but it’s like learning a musical instrument – you repeat the scales again and again, you bash out the same tunes (preferably the ones you like and have chosen yourself, or it really is death to motivation) once, twice, thirty times (I asked a musician/music teacher how many times he reckoned it took to get a song “right” – thirty was his number: thanks Freddy!) and THEN you’re ready to jam.
Go play.

Smoke on the water......

Smoke on the water……

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A Matter of Confidence: Repetition

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing..

This is the fifth post in a series of six on the-chicken-and-the-egg relationship between confidence and learning, and on building your students’ confidence by supporting (ie increasing) their learning through personalizing, emotional engagement, repetition and complete body involvement. The first posts were an introduction on the importance of confidence itself, two on personalising and one on emotional response, so, hey, guess what this one is on. No prizes, sorry. If you haven’t read it, though, please have a quick dip into the first of the posts for some context before reading on.

Repetition is repetitive? You can say that again!

Better with filling.  Image by Phil Bird at eltpics

Better with filling. Image by Phil Bird at eltpics

Repetition undoubtedly helps learning BUT as with ‘personalisation’ as a term, my take on repetition in this post is not, perhaps, the standard. Or at least I take it to mean two distinct things, one has nothing to do with language drills, but with integrated skills, and the other is ‘drilling with filling’: what the Cornish pasty is to pastry, this type of repetition is to the language drill.

Obviously, meaningless drilling – drilling language that is of no true consequence to learners, that produces no emotional response and has no bearing on students’ lives – will not result in long-term learning (how long did you take to learn your Latin declensions?), but that’s pretty much true of any ‘indifference-inducing’ approach used in class, not just of drills. But even when the content of the drill has personal relevance, there’s more to the actual drilling than is first apparent or than may be taken into account in the classroom. How do you memorise telephone numbers? You personally. And songs (lyrics and modulation)? People’s names? Just saying them over and over and over and over and….., or is there more to it?
Have a go at these ‘tasks’:

Here’s a phone number. Read it once, memorise it, then scroll down as far as the questions below the photo of a horse, and answer the questions.
00441334467892

Now for a song. Click on the song link, and listen as far as 1:28 (or 0:55 if you’re pushed for time) twice. Then come back here and answer these questions:

Norah Jones  Image from Wikipedia

Norah Jones Image from Wikipedia

Song questions
Can you write down the lyrics without checking them anywhere?
Can you now sing the verse – lyrics and tune, with all (or at least most of) its modulations?
How did you memorise the lyrics?
How did you memorise the modulations in the tune?(or the tune)

Final task – when you meet a class of new students, how do you learn their names? How efficient is your system? What percentage of the names do you still remember on the second day?

For generations of teachers (and students), repetition has meant drilling, listen and repeat and repeat and repeat and repeal and appeal and appall…… Is that truly efficient without another layer of brain activity or ‘hand activity’? How long do you repeat a phone number to yourself? Surely ‘until I find a piece of paper to write it down on’ is one of the answers to that? Can mindless, droning repetition help learning? Personally I very much doubt it. (Now you can horse-jump down to just after Now scroll back up.)

Well, can you?  Image by Phil Bird at eltpics

Well, can you? Image by Phil Bird at eltpics

Phone number questions:
What was the number? Write it down but don’t check it yet.
How did you recall it? Note how you did it.
Now scroll back up.

*******************************************

My answers to the tasks I set above would be as follows; how do they compare to yours?

Call me, on the line, call me....   Image by Hana Tichá at eltpics

Call me, on the line, call me…. Image by Hana Tichá at eltpics

Phone numbers – I create my own associations (see third post), such as years of my life or in history when something happened or the age I was when they happened, songs (n-n-n-n-Nineteen), sequences or other associations, and combine them. I have a friend whose old phone number was easy – James Bond’s number + ‘the number of the beast’. Sometimes it’s just the sound of a number, so, in effect, I sing it – our phone number when I was a child was 29209, and I still remember it 35 years on. What do you do?

Songs – I visualize the scene the lyrics describe, or a combination of images, mental images, a video in the mind, and any rhymes or alliteration and so on (ah, la sémiotique…) can help. As for the tune, I use my hand for the tricky bits, a flattened hand testing the air at different heights as if inserting my hand into letterboxes in a block of flats, or a finger tracing the rises and falls as my hand reinforces my voice (see the sixth post in this series – still to come).

Names – I learn 90% of my students’ names in the first 5 or 10 minutes of day one. I ask them their name, and then, out loud I drill myself (verbally!), but obviously with the students sitting in front of me, there are visual stimuli – faces, colours, glasses and facial hair, the geography of where they’re sitting, the clothes they’re wearing, who looks like who, who has the name of a monarch, a saint or other religious figure (I’m in Spain), names I like, names I don’t like…. all these clues help. It’s rather like doing an Invisible Drill (or Disappearing Drill). How about you?

Whatever your answers to the questions, I doubt that straight, repetitive drilling with no imaging or similar helped your memorising and certainly not in the long term, and this must be true in the classroom too. Methodology has moved on from dull old ‘repeat repeat repeat (change one element) repeat repeat repeat’, but it hasn’t always gone far. Look at pronunciation: listen and repeat. What good is that? In a class of 35 students, how can you tell if they’re all improving their pronunciation, who knows how efficient each one is, and just how motivating is it anyway?

No, as we know that repetition does help learning, we have to find ways to support the process, to make it meaningful (in a personalized way) and to make it motivating (indifference is learning’s worst enemy – see the fourth post in this series).

Sometimes you just need a drill  Image by Hana Tichá at eltpics

Sometimes you just need a drill Image by Hana Tichá at eltpics

Ideas
Imaging and associations – encourage them to make associations, but rather than the ‘where would you put it on an elephant?’ sort of things, ask them to create associations in their own way, then put them in groups to discuss the associations – this helps gelling, and of course forces them to repeat exposure to the language item probably more than once, saying it and hearing it.

I’ve seen Scott (Thornbury) getting teachers to do a drill whereby they only repeat the sentence if it’s true for them, or adding true information (like drilling with a gapfill). I imagine this works for smallish language chunks. Does it ‘fix’ the language beyond the short- or medium-term? I don’t know.

Drawings – I remember students telling me they wanted to learn Life by Des’ree (young teens) to sing at the school concert. Just singing it over and over would have been the death of it, especially with that age-group, so I played it and asked them to ‘catch’ words ie pick out any words they understood. We then put the words on the board (ghost, toast, dark, park, rabbit, foot, walk, beautiful balloon etc) and grouped them according to whether they were in the same bit of song or not. The students then drew A4-sized pictures and listened again to see if they could add any words to the board, and consequently any elements to the pictures. Then they read the lyrics and improved on their pictures in groups, redoing them on card, three people and three pictures per group – team-drawing, I guess. When they were happy, they stood holding their pictures and we played the song. They put themselves in order, depending on where their picture came in the song. Then they read the lyrics again, but only the bit before their drawing, the bit after and their own bit, and then we sang as a group, and each kid raised their picture as they sang. Theoretically it was a sort of round, but they actually tried to sing along to most of the song, and the chorus is – well, repetitive ;) It was a laugh, they all got involved and learnt something and it took as long as any ‘song’ class – the tallest girl in the class (a so-called problem student) organized a dance routine (which, of course, they did again and again while singing again and again), and in the end, they performed the song at the end of year show, complete with dance in the chorus and pictures illustrating the rest. Essentially, they heard and sang the song again and again, but they also created associations (images) and added a physical aspect to it too. (I’ve noticed that students learn songs if they can dance or jiggle along, so using youtube is great, as it draws the attention of classmates to the screen and not to the student having a jiggle.)

You wanna fly around the world in a beautiful balloon.  Image by Victoria Boobyer at eltpics

You wanna fly around the world in a beautiful balloon. Image by Victoria Boobyer at eltpics

TPR and drama – TPR seems to work, as do drama activities. The involvement of a physical element reinforces what the mouth and mind (and ear) are doing, deeper associations are created, and the body’s memory kicks in. In the book Dictation by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri (Cambridge University Press, 1989), there was a wonderful activity about ‘Stand in front of the coke machine. Put your hand in your back pocket….’, whereby TPR was used to prep the writing stage. There was no ‘listen and write’ stage – the students listened and did, then listened, did and said, then said and did, and finally wrote it down and checked with a partner. Vocabulary was learnt and whole chunk language dominated over individual items.
As for drama, I use a lot of drama techniques in class (revealing a frustrated ambition, perhaps) – and will give an example in the next post – but for now, have a look at this video a teacher trainee drew my attention to (thank you, Jelena Mihajlov :) ), and consider how you could use it to drill language chunks in class. Great fun, hey? And, as my trainee, Jelena (and many others, particularly where style and elegance, or unplugged teaching are concerned – and this is, after all, an unplugged teachers’ blog ;)) said, ‘less is more’.

Integrated skills

Repetition in its most useful sense really works best through “Integrated Skills”, where students are likely to be exposed to language via the four skills, so its sound-shape, written shape, how to say it and how to write it in a context are all combined. Theoretically, this is what contemporary coursebooks do, but if the language comes from the students (‘emerges’ – why do buzzwords irk me so much?), it’s more memorable. This summer, I was asked how to say bales of hay (the students had seen some), so I extended the conversation to take in Make hay while the sun shines, and from there to Strike while the iron’s hot, which, it turned out, has a direct translation in

Make hay....  Image by Ian James for eltpics

Make hay…. Image by Ian James for eltpics

Belarusian (and Ukrainian and I think Polish). I asked my students to teach me to say it in their language, so when I said it in Belarusian, they had to tell others what I was trying to say! We wrote down the two phrases, so there was reading and writing as well as listening and speaking, and they got to laugh at my attempts.

I’ll be writing on Integrated Skills another time, and it’ll be central to the next post, so I’ll leave it for now… but the link to repetition is obvious.

Other drilly ideas

Choose phrases or words from the previous class, or from the week before to be ‘Phrases/words of the day’, and award points to students who manage to incorporate them into the class, either in questions or in debate or….whenever they can. Mix easier with harder ones like, say, Make hay while the sun shines. This can cause amusement and works rather like the Whoopi Goldberg video above.

When getting students to drill pronunciation, I think there are a certain number of activities that produce spontaneous self-drilling (like when you go to the supermarket and scan shelves “lentils, lentils, let me see, where the heck are the lentils….. aha, lentils – oh, reduced salt, oh well, they’re lentils. Now, where’s the basil…basil……..hmmm”). Pelmanism (the memory game involving turning cards over to make pairs) is an old chestnut, as it works rather like the hunt for lentils, but here’s another (which is good for learning students’ names on the second or third day, if you still can’t remember them):

Divide the class into three or four groups, depending on the size of the class. Ask them to try to remember and take notes on everything they’ve learnt so far about the others in the class ie NOT the people in their group – they are going to tell you everything they know about each other. As they speak, move around with a small notebook, noting down words you hear related to students in the room but that contain the particular sound, minimal pair etc. that you want to work on. In my context (Spain), I usually focus on the /iː/ and /ɪ/ sounds – here’s a page from my notebook from last month.

Learner-generated language for work on the long and short 'i' sounds.

Learner-generated language for work on the long and short ‘i’ sounds.

When they’ve finished, groups tell me what they know (and usually have a laugh when they get things wrong – “Mar wants to study Business Admin – right, Mar?” “Um, I want to study Civil Engineering…” “Oh, sorry. And she’s got two cats.” “I have a dog and a boyfriend.” etc.) and while I’m listening, I note more words or phrases down. This first stage really helps gel the new class as a group and is a nice, safe, early speaking task where language isn’t too challenging, it’s probably reviewing items they did in the last class, so they can focus on the actual speaking to each other. I feed in vocab as they need while I monitor, and listen and note. After the groups have all reported back, I write the language on the board and point out that each word or phrase contains an /iː/, an /ɪ/ or both; I usually underline the syllables where the sounds occur. We do some work on how to pronounce each sound, where it’s produced, what the lips do (especially the corners of the mouth in this case) when you say them (smile, no smile – teaching is a smiley profession, whereas working as a civil servant isn’t etc.). Students then work with a partner to say the words and decide if it’s the long or short sound, and we feedback. THEN, and this is where the repetition comes in, the self-drilling meaningfully, pairs or fours have to decide which student is referred to by each word: “Who was the engineer?” “I think Javi’s an engineer…” “No, Javi’s a P.E. teacher, Carmen’s an engineer. So’s Ruth.” “Ah yes. OK, that’s two engineers” and so on. (NB my summer classes had a mix of ages from 15 to 50+ – this works with any age).
You can do this kind of thing with complete sentences at the end of a class or week, ‘Who said the following things?’ after correcting, say, the present perfect or whatever language point you want to do – vocab., pron and grammar all lend themselves to it. It involves talking about each other, instead of about themselves (which can be touchy, Twilight Zone stuff), helps glue the group, provides repetition of language, is communicative, allows for associations to be made and a slew of and so on and so forths.

So. A few ideas from me. What about from you?

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The SM Debate

Wow, this Hole-in-the-Wall lark is DULL!!  Image from ELTpics, but currently anonymous.

Wow, this Hole-in-the-Wall lark is DULL!! Image from ELTpics, but currently anonymous.

Since Sugata Mitra’s rumble-n-thunder-inspiring plenary at last week’s IATEFL 2014 conference in Harrogate, there has been a considerable amount of online debate about his stance on learning, on teachers et al. I have to say I think that he was an odd choice of speaker for a language teaching conference (despite the positive connotations of provoking such a passionate reaction from various corners) – the previous two years saw wordsmiths take to the lectern, which made sense – as, as teachers, I feel we should be encouraging our charges to increase the amount of face-to-face, quality human communication they indulge in, not reduce it via yet more screen-mediated transmission (whilst children do not have the same amount of XBox / whatsapp exposure in New Delhi as they do in, say, Paris, they certainly do in Mitra’s current hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne). If you look at ‘world internet access geography’, our planet is loosely divided into ‘little internet coverage plus minimal access to any kind of technology or even (reliable) electricity’ versus ‘overexposure to all things screen, and not enough personal, face-to-face, human voice interaction’. In parts of the world, the whatsapp text-based chat has replaced the (stretched-out-curly-cable) phone conversations of (some of) our youth, facebook is taking over from chats over coffee or hanging out in the town square and online, headphones-&-mic Play Station is replacing inviting pals over for the afternoon / evening; as LANGUAGE teachers in these areas, I feel we should be supporting the learning of a basic life skill – genuine, human interaction, y’know, that stuff called communication (written and spoken, and regardless of what language it’s in). In the other areas, replacing teachers with computers is a bit daft anyway in practical, electrical, electronic terms, let’s face it, and is simply exposing yet another part of the topography to banal advertising (for it will surely come…), as has happened to any other ‘free access’ resource online (check out the cr** adorning your FB page or the bottom of your blog, on occasion), and reducing even more young people’s human connections. As LANGUAGE teachers in these areas, I feel we should be supporting the learning of a basic life skill etc etc etc.

All that said, I wrote about Sugata Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall experiments back in 2011, giving my take on what we language imparters CAN take away and use from them and there are a few things. The article is here on Henrick Oprea’s great blog, and I also expressed (and techno-drew) my take on the need to up the amount of human interaction in classrooms and down the amount of technology here in macappella. If you’re interested. And if you’re not, well, I hope to be back n blogging ‘properly’ in the next few days. Bring it on.

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A teenage kicks diversion

Image courtesy of Chiew Pang aka @aClilToClimb at #eltpics

Image courtesy of Chiew Pang aka @aClilToClimb at #eltpics

Just as a brief hiatus in the midst of this Confidence flow, I’d like to post a couple of links to ‘stuff’ I’ve done recently – hope you don’t mind. Hopefully, you’ll find the things interesting.

In November 2012 (or maybe it was October?), I gave a webinar for the British Council, having been invited by Paul Braddock. The topic – or rather title was Teenage kicks (for grown-ups) and it was a kind of on-line workshop on how to make your coursebook more learner-centred ( or at least how to TRY to…). If you’re at all interested, the webinar is to be found here.

There were some interesting questions in the chatbox, but, if you’ve ever done a webinar, you’ll know that, at least at novice stage as I was, it’s quite hard to keep an eye on your slides, a smile on your face, address your invisible audience somehow directly and watch out for questions all at the same time. SO Paul and I decided that we’d pull the questions out of the box, after finishing the webinar, and I’d answer them as a blog post for the British Council’s TeachingEnglish web. And then the holidays got in the way.

So finally, we uploaded the answers to the ‘questions from the floor’ today. If you’d like to have a look, they’re here and comments would be more than welcome, as I’ve decided to start blogging on the topic as soon as I’ve finished the ‘Confidence Suite’, the next post of which is due tomorrow some time. The questions I answered (my opinions, obviously, not oracle-like empirical answers) were as follows, if you fancy having a ponder yourself:

1. Do you encourage the use of colloquialism and idioms etc. with teens?

2. Any tips for teaching online?

3. Do you take the coursebook as the basis for your lesson or do you use other materials?

4. How do you feel about using online corpora to help sts with language?

Back very soon with the remaining Confidence posts, and on to pastures new…. Oh, and a Happy New Year to you!

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A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues…

Light and growth

I said in the first of these posts that learning and confidence are like chicken and egg, though perhaps they’re more like light and growth, the one not happening without the other, though whether confidence or learning is the sunlight is impossible to say. In order to boost confidence we have to boost learning and vice versa. Factors such as environment, integration within the group, rapport on the part of the teacher, self-confidence and self-image all contribute to confidence, of course – and I optimistically hope to be able to blog on them at some point in the future – but for now, and for this series of posts, the aides-memoires I’m looking at, if you’ll pardon the slight distortion of the term, are personalising, emotional response, repetition and ‘Complete learning’. For my rationale, take a look at the introductory post to the series.

Emotional response: or “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you”.

Life is not all about loving or hating annoying Brazilian ditties (see earlier post), catchy earworms which get stuck on our mind’s turntable, repeating themselves over and over as we have subconsciously absorbed every tooth-sensitising note. And although psychologists say that emotional response heightens learning, we don’t need to have read their work to know that that’s true. We all have our own personal examples of learning ‘via’ emotion, language or otherwise.

Here are some of my moments, but as you read, you may like to reach into your own memory-bag and rummage around for some of your own, based on the same emotions mentioned and marked in bold.

Of course, in true ELT teacher-awareness workshop fashion, you could then track down a partner and compare your experiences, but see a couple of posts ago for the risks of ‘personalisation’

Identifying naffness… Image by Diarmuid Fogarty at #ELTpics

1 When I was young(er), there was a song in the charts that I loathed. It was called D.I.S.C.O. As a ‘rather cool kid’ (yeah, right) I thought this song was utter guff and somehow vaguely insulting, as if the ‘she’ in question was a sports team, her redeeming features being spelt out à la Gimme a D “D”, Gimme an I “I”…., or as in the Mickey Mouse Club song. (One of Madonna’s recent hits has just popped into my mind… they never grow tired of the cheerleader thing, do they?) I hated the singers’ clothes, the girl’s ‘flying saucer’ hairdo, seeing them on Top of the Pops was just too embarrassing… this was 1979! Post Punk, the era of XTC, the Damned, Blondie, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John… Anyway. I can still remember each adjective, every syllable of the excruciating chorus and it haunts me whenever I try to remember who sang ‘Goin’ back to my roots‘.. (the groups have names which my memory has unwisely decided to store in the same place).

2 When I was a first year student at university, there was a song I used to listen to before going out ‘on the toon’ (Newcastle). I didn’t love or hate it, but it made me feel happy, put me in the mood, got me ready for dancin‘. It was All night long by Lionel Ritchie, and I still remember every word.

3 There’s a song that reminds me of my dearest friend (for whatever reason..), and so gives me a warm ‘mmm’ feeling. I can remember every nuance of every note, as well as the words, because I associate the song with him. It’s a song by Norah Jones.

Poignant                                                              Image by @sandymillin at #ELTpics

4 Around the time my mother passed away, there was an ‘annoying’ little song that I had heard a million times without paying much attention. But then suddenly, every word, every syllable stuck almost overnight, as I associated it with my – and my family’s – loss. I still well up if it comes on the radio, and sing it in my mind occasionally, when I’m remembering… “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful it’s true…. and I don’t know what to do, ’cause I’ll never be with you”. Repetition alone was not enough, it was just another of those 20 or so songs played all day long on commercial radio, but then emotion – sadness and loss – came along. As did new meaning.

From music – an easy example of us learning words – to language-learning.

5 My favourite words in Catalan are mandonguilles and saltimbanqui. I love the way they sound and feel in my mouth. They were instantly memorable to me, and I still love them. They mean meatballs and acrobat…..

6 I used to embarrass myself by confusing cojín, cajón, and cojón in Spanish (cushion, drawer and – erm – testicle respectively). I once told my (ex)mother-in-law that she’d find the kitchen scissors in the top bollock. And thus ended my confusion…instantly. And probably any chance of us ever becoming close.

7 Again in Catalan, I learned that the word for bed in Spanish means something different in Catalan, when, on being introduced by my boyfriend of the time to a friend of his, my jaw nearly hit the floor with surprise/shock – and then with hilarity. The conversation went something like this.

Juan: Jaume, this is my new girlfriend, Fiona.

Jaume: Hi Fiona. So, Juan, how’s ‘la cama’?

(Me, thinking in Spanish, aghast at such a direct question in front of other people… ).

Juan: Oh, not bad. Getting better.

(Me even more aghast… ‘not bad’??!!) Jaume departs. I turn to Juan:

Me: What on earth…? Why…? How could you….?

Juan (puzzled): What’s up?

Me: He just asked how our sex life is going!

Juan: Ey?

Me: ¿Qué tal la cama?

Juan: Ahhhhhhhhhh. Cama means leg in Catalan. When I broke my leg, he was in the next bed to me in hospital. Qué tal la cama? It means How’s your leg

Me: Ah……

So cama means legin Catalan. I’ll never forget it. Believe me.

How is it going? ……                   Images by @hartle and @Senicko at #ELTpics

Dislike, happiness, warmth and affection, nostalgia, pain and sadness, liking and pleasure, embarrassment, hilarity…. All emotional responses that help us learn. Sometimes quite fast. The way songs enter our memory-bag (I’ll always remember Since you’ve been gone by Rainbow more easily than Adele’s Someone like you…emotion is what it is…) is similar to the way language does, as we memorise items, chunks or whole texts. I could never learn quotes for school exams but could always learn lines for plays, as the adrenalin and emotion of acting, the fear in fact, was far ‘superior’ to that of an English literature exam. How do you learn your students’ names on the first day – surely the names of the students you ‘react to’ in some way are more easily recalled? I still remember David-would-you-please-get-off-the-table’s name, but have forgotten his cute little cousin’s (they were 3 years old, not adults..).

Given the amount of information we encounter in a lifetime, it makes utter sense that we are simply not going to remember totally random items or moments (and there’s another path through nostalgia you could take – the most memorable moments in your life – probably not the first time you bought a bag of frozen peas, but it could be the first time you ate snails or tripe … disgust or pleasure), but we make space for those things that have some emotional, and of course intensely personal value attached – emotional value, not just practical value. I have little need for Catalan acrobats and their legs and meatballs in my day-to-day, but the words are still there.

I’m having lunch with an acrobat….                                                 Image by @seburnt for #ELTpics

SO. If you’ve got this far, what does this emotional response awareness mean for your classroom? Make your students hate English? No, perhaps not. But there are implications. Always there are implications.

‘Make your classes fun’ is the obvious answer, but entertainment alone is not enough to get students engaging with language – a class can be fun ‘despite’ the language work, as well as because of it, which is something to bear in mind. The students might then remember the framework the language was met in, but not the language itself. And it’s the language they need to engage with.

Dislike, happiness, warmth and affection, nostalgia, pain and sadness, liking and pleasure, embarrassment, hilarity- these were the words I used above, and can be used as the basis of topics to deal with with students. Teen students, remember. Ask them what words they don’t like in their own language (think about it in yours – there are bound to be some: moist, thigh, flesh, regurgitate, muffler, sprats, bollard…Leo Selivan’s toes curl at the word washroom), get them to think about and discuss them in small groups, then allow them to find the translation in English and discuss if the words are equally as horrendous, worse, better, squishier, cuddlier… Ask them what it is about the sounds they don’t like in their language and discuss words with similar sounds in English. They can then write a simple poem using, say, six words they really like and six they hate the sound of. I have used Spike Milligan’s version of Twinkle twinkle little star with students to discuss how we react to certain sounds, the semiotics of poetry… Teens are NOT too young for that. If you show an interest, so will they. They may start slowly, but they’ll warm up. The language that comes out will be very ‘emergent’, to overuse a word, but it will be real to them, words they can associate with something and then use – in their poem or rap. Or life.

Visualisation is also a great way of reaching emotions via sensory stimuli. I’ve already blogged about the power of the voice and visualisation, but every time I do this in class, I am… oh, I can’t think of a ‘cool’ word, but ‘enchanted’ comes close to the feeling – enchanted by what my students come out with. They relax, they feel, and the language ‘happens’. It happens in L1 first, usually, but when they’ve found the translation and spoken about what they saw and felt, then written about it, the language is gelling, and the whole visualisation exercise is intensely memorable.

In all classes, we sometimes keep our mouths clamped shut (clamped – there’s a word I dislike) and try to avoid choking on our laughter when some errors slip out, but it could actually be worth compiling a list of them and, at some future date, perhaps as an end of term thing, producing the list and working on ‘why these things were funny’. You know the sort of error – ‘He came all over me’ rather than ‘He came over to me’, or ‘he got off with his car’ rather than ‘he went off in his car’. There’s no need to embarrass the student at the time, but you can have a laugh later on.

Your place or mine?                                                                           Image by @cgoodey at #ELTpics

My students at the moment are actually in their early 20s and I’ve noticed that ‘Questions for chatting someone up at a party’ are far more successfully learned than ‘Safe questions for a first class’, so I get students to write down questions they’d like to ask someone they’ve just met (in any context), we work on how to say them, we work on sentence stress, and off they go, role-playing: “Do you fancy a last drink back at my place?” is as valid an intro to the Present Simple as Do you like swimming? or whatever. It sticks better too, as they have to make more of an effort to say it, and overcoming frustration is a useful emotional challenge.

The role-play is memorable too….

The bottom line, of course, is this: indifference is the greatest enemy of learning. So weep, wail, blush, laugh, groan, struggle, gasp or smile, but prod your students’ emotional responses one way or another. And hopefully they’ll return the favour by learning.

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A Matter of Confidence: a brief example of ‘personalising’.

I’ve just been answering comments made on A Matter of Confidence: Personalising, and an example came to mind (thanks, Dina and Shahram). The distinction I make between personalisation and personalising is my own, not coined by someone wiser than me, it’s personal and non-scientific, but an example involving adults like yourselves would be as follows.

Imagine you’re learning a foreign language, and you’ve just been focusing on the equivalents of this lexis: salary, wage, tax, debt, bonus, earn, win, owe, spend, waste, invest, lose, buy, sell, borrow, lend, pay, pay for, cash, loan, overdraft, mortgage, rent, bills, credit card…..

Apparently, it makes the world go round…..  Image by Chiew Pang for eltpics

Got that? Now choose one of these activities to do with a partner or three:

A (Personalisation) Take it in turns to find out how much your partner earns and how they spend their money. What is the most expensive thing they have been able to buy themselves recently? Report back to the class about your partner.

B (Personalising) Look at the words above and choose five to comment on. What do those five words make you think of? Are they happy associations or not? Think for a few minutes and take notes if you wish. When you are ready, discuss your associations with your (three) partner(s). Write a summary of your discussion.

Which one would you choose? I’m talking about you in a class as a learner with, say, 24 other learners (or 34 or…), not all of whom are your best friends…  What do you think? Which are you more comfortable with? Do you think you’d learn the lexis more effectively? Why (not)?

More soon.

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A Matter of Confidence: Personalising

GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE

Personalising. I’m avoiding the word ‘personalisation’ as, for me at least, it has connotations of activities of the “Now tell your partner about your last holiday / Describe your house / Write five sentences about your brother‘ type and that is not what I think personalising language input for learning means – at least not for teens. Let me explain (sudden memory of Basil Fawlty sticking his finger in Manuel’s eye…).

Describe your house....... Image by Sandy Millin at eltpics

In the intro post above (or rather ‘below’, this being a blog), I gave the example of the ‘Ay se eu te pego’ (or earworms in general) effect and how many non-Portuguese speaking people have picked up this dotty ditty. Part of the reason, and initially the most obvious one, is that it’s everywhere, it’s part of life in early 2012. You hear it in the supermarket, on TV, on the car radio, people spontaneously start singing it (in my role as basketball mom, I was hugely relieved to be supporting a team whose mothers were not joyfully shrieking it at their sporting offspring last weekend..). Because it’s unavoidable, it has relevance in your (one’s) life. Later on down the line, many of us will be able to recall the year in which it came out, as it will have coincided with some event or stage in our life, it will become embedded in our mental soundtrack and serve as a labeller. I heard the song ‘I promised myself’ (Nick Kamen) on the radio this morning. I was instantly transported back to a particular place and time, so, without Googling it, I’d say 1990 or 1991. I’m fairly sure I know most of the words too, but have never attempted to learn them and would rather not express an opinion on that particular number. We memorise things simply by ‘attaching’ them to our life. This can happen accidentally, as with these songs, but it can also be ‘helped’. Of course, if information or language has a direct use or relevance in our life (eg Spanish basketball terminology in mine), we also learn it. And to me, this is the meaning of ‘personalising': finding a place, a relevance, a context in our lives for language; a place, relevance or context that we have chosen. We form our associations following the twists and turns of our life-route – Michel Telo at a basketball match in Plasencia, Nick Kamen with a group of friends in a bar in Granada – voluntarily and personally. We also decide what’s relevant, what we need in order to express our lives (flowering plants, car parts, first aid techniques…), and what isn’t. In an ESL context, this aspect is marginally easier, but most teenage English language learners in the world are in an EFL classroom, where relevance is in shorter supply.

Never to burst. Image by Sandy Millin at eltpics

In the teen classroom, this type of personalising is wildly different from what passes for ‘personalisation‘. “What do teens talk about? They talk about themselves” has long been the justification for a lot of what goes on in the EFL classroom, but to what extent is it true? Listen to teenagers talking to each other. Or slip back in time in your own recalled life to when you were 13, 14, 15. On the whole, teens talk about what they want (‘need’), what they’re going to do, school, sports, what they feel confident about or proud of. They function as a tribe (apart from a few exceptions, obviously), they’re competitive in terrain where they feel they can compete and they talk about each other. Want. Like. Need. Going to. Last weekend. He was pathetic. It was awesome. You nerd! She’s a … Hopes, dreams, whims, aims, feelings for each other, rivalries. The world as one big oyster, an ironclad bubble that will never be burst. But what they are willing to talk about is only the flip side of what they are not willing to talk about, a smoke screen for the poppable part of that bubble. When would a teenager describe his/her house to friends? They may describe a new house – if it’s ‘amazing’, to the whole tribe; if it’s a dive compared to the previous one, to parents (criticism) or intimate friends (confidential complaint) – but do they ever sit around, describing where they’ve always lived? Do they even think about it? Is it even a place they want to think about? Is home-life all sweetness and light when you’re 14? And what about ‘Tell your partner about your brother/sister’? “I hate him; he steals my socks, reads my text messages and leaves old food in our room.” Then there’s Complete the sentence so it’s true for you: At the moment, my father is…. missing / in prison / with his other family‘. My own sons hate talking about aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins…. as they’re all so far away and most of them have never visited, don’t even send a birthday card, making my kids ‘really different from the tribe’.

This whole area is the area I call The Twilight Zone. Activities that require students to think about what they have – ‘Compare your mobile phone with a partner’, ‘Find out how much pocket money your partner gets and what he/she spends it on‘ are ‘personalisation’ exercises I’ve seen in coursebooks. Are these examples of personalising or are they invitations to consider how others may be better (or worse) off? Do they rub salt into carefully concealed wounds? Then there’s the Describe your last holiday / birthday party / weekend sort. Some of my students go on holiday with their parents to New York, Disneyland… they spend a month in Dublin learning English; others go to their grandmother’s house maybe 15km down the road. Rather than helping learning or boosting confidence which, in turn, then helps learning, these activities can crush self-esteem, cause stigmata to seep, start resentment brewing, breed envy, cause divide rather than create community. Students may close down rather than open up. So. Beware the Twilight Zone.

Confidence leads to learning, learning comes from experimenting with language, using it, observing reactions to using it, using it again, feeling it, attaching it to your own life, like a sticky, silky earworm. Confidence comes from doing all that effectively, but also from being in an environment which is personally unthreatening and is supportive. So students should be allowed to make their own connections between their life and new language. Confidence and experimenting intertwined.

Behold the Twilight Zone.... Image by Chiew Pang for eltpics

In a dogme lesson, this happens naturally, as the content leads to the language, but most classrooms are more traditional and work the other way round. The language drives the syllabus and is decided before the lesson let alone before the content. In this context, allowing students to be creative rather than making them feel they have to be honest and therefore vulnerable is important. Allow them to use language to tell or weave stories, to talk about dreams and about what they’re going to do/have etc. Rather than Describe your house, try What house are you going to have when you’re older? or Describe your dream house (in my experience going to for boys, dream house for girls, though not always). Instead of describing a sibling that bugs the heck out of them, ask them to choose a famous person they’d like to have as a sibling and then describe that person and explain why they’ve chosen them. Or get them to describe their own qualities as a good sibling and a less good sibling (whether they have brothers and sisters or not). They do like thinking about themselves, and focusing on ‘good and less good’, rather than ‘bad’, is an exercise in self-esteem support/generation. And besides, they are very much the centre of their own universe and, in their eyes, let’s face it, of their siblings’ universe too.

The guided visualisation activity in Place of Greater Safety (see link above) is ‘safe’ personalising – you are creating students’ own images to describe, feeding in the vocabulary they need for those images, and building the activity stage by stage. It doesn’t ask students to describe an experience they haven’t had or didn’t enjoy, or a place they haven’t visited or don’t like.

You can also personalise the language from, say, a story or other reading text before reading the story (text), as the typical Do you know what these words mean? (vocab box) Now find them in the story and check your answers thing doesn’t attach that language to anything relevant to the student, the student never connects with it, so unless the story is amazing, disgusting etc (‘Emotional Response’ is still to come… soon), those words will then quietly lose themselves, possibly forever. The story may be remembered, but the language…. unlikely. If, of course, that language then reappears in a test, as it may, wham-o, confidence will be thoroughly bashed as the teacher growls to him/herself ‘but we did this...’. Did you indeed? But to do is not to learn. It is our job to not only provide language input but to motivate and to build confidence and learning – so why do so few teachers do it? You can encourage language associations, personalising, cause language to engrave a pathway in memories in various ways. Here’s one, but there will be more in the final Question of Confidence post. If all goes well.

Make a word cloud using your story or text.

What's the story....?

As a class, invite students to guess what the story is about, and to suggest some ideas using the words from the cloud. They’ll inevitably ask you the meaning of unfamiliar words, so you’ll start building their comprehension and reduce puzzlement later on. You can then put them in smaller groups to come up with more ideas – then share them as a class. Write some of the ideas on the board, if you wish, then ask students to work individually to write down what THEY think happens in the story – they can confer with a partner. This way you are supporting their language practice, helping them attach their own contexts or meanings to the language, the activity is dynamic and productive, prior to a more passive, internal reading session, they work as a class, group, pair and individually, and when they come to actually reading the story, they’ll have fewer fuzzy areas, zero puzzlement is more achievable and they have more motivation to read than that offered by a selection of comprehension questions afterwards. It takes more time, obviously, but one reading well-done beats scratching the surface of three texts.

If you’d like to read the story that goes with the wordcloud above, click here. (And thanks to Alan Tait and others for making this activity a fun experience in Bilbao).

2 Emotional Response or ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ (coming soon…)

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A Matter of Confidence

"Don't think you can do it, know you can do it." Morpheus, The Matrix.

Time for a ponderous post, I feel. I’m pinging around Spain this year giving workshops on the importance (of the utter sort) of confidence in the teen classroom and, although I don’t usually do this, I’ve decided to write the theoretical part down (up?), as teachers’ reactions to the sessions and the ensuing discussions suggest to me that this is an area well worth taking a contemplative stroll through.

Teen motivation has been My Thing for years now – in some ways probably ever since I was a demotivated teen and certainly since I realised that that experience could be put to good use in my own classroom – but this more recent focus on confidence and self-belief has given me food for thought. It’s the Obama Approach – ‘We can‘ and therefore ‘We do‘. It’s the 2010 World Cup Technique. Spain’s performance in the 2010 World Cup was backed up by a ‘Podemos‘ campaign, the nation and its TV jingles singing ‘We can‘ at their heroes, who then went on to prove that indeed we could. Of course, it’s not simply a case of believing you can – effort and a guiding hand (a discreet but totally efficient coach) also have their place. And if your students still aren’t convinced, send them home to watch Invictus – or Kung Fu Panda.

Confidence certainly crosses over into the same realms as my teen motivation pyramid, but it also deserves a spotlight of its own. The time has come.

The Chicken and the Egg

Images from eltpics by Victoria Boobyer and Scott Thornbury.

Where does a learner’s confidence come from? The role of (pre-conceived) expectations and how they subconsciously affect the way we teach is well-known and I’m not going to go into that area here, but there’s more to it than that anyway. Teens are incredibly vulnerable creatures and self-esteem is up there with eggshells on the fragility scale, but even assuming total social integration, high teacher expectations and a safe environment, if learners don’t learn, they don’t feel confident. (If footballers don’t win matches…..) But of course, they also need to feel confident to learn.

So. Where can we find clues to help with how they learn ‘easily’? I found the answer to that in an odd place, perhaps, reading an article on songs that get stuck on the brain (“earworms”). As I read, two words jumped out at me – personal and emotional. And then that Brazilian song I can’t stand popped into my head and that was it.

Do you know that song? Every time I’ve done the workshop recently, I’ve asked if anyone in the room is familiar with Ay se eu te pego, and invariably some of the audience start to sing it and one or two do the gestures. I then ask if anyone speaks Portuguese, and the answer so far has been No. But they can all sing it. Other songs come to mind. Obladi-oblada. Ging gang goolie. The wonderful Minnie the Moocher. My sons singing along to Je veux qu’on danse. These songs and their unfamiliar lyrics are learnt without attaching meaning to them, for the most part, but as a starting point for thinking about confident language production in terms of ‘sound-shape’, earworms seemed like a good base to build on.

Common sense, singing, experience as a language learner and reflection tell me that these extended language chunks are not only internalised thanks to personalising and emotional response: repetition and ‘complete learning’ (my term; I’ll explain it in detail below) are also key. Obviously. How many times have you heard Ay se eu te pego (or an equivalent)? How many times has it clanged around inside your head as you wash the dishes? Or any song that gets stuck. Or that you sing in the shower? Consider which songs you learn, deliberately or inadvertently, and why.

What will follow is a series of four short posts, maybe five, on these factors in learning and implications for teen classrooms and then hopefully some sort of ‘ideas’ post to draw it all together. The initial posts will be headed Personalising, Emotional Response, Repetition, and Complete Learning. And I’ll try to avoid annoying tunes. Try. No promises, though.

1 Personalising or ‘Got to get you into my life’. (coming soon…..)

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What it’s all about….

What it's all about....

Here’s the word game. Click on the word cloud and see how many sentences and phrases you can make that apply to your teaching. You’ll need to add in grammar words, but you may not add any lexical words. (This, by the way, is an activity I do a lot with students – not using my blog as the text source, of course. I often copy some of their written pieces into wordle – so they are the text source. See below.)

Wordles and dogme elt

You often hear (read) the questions levelled at dogme eltYes, but how do you review the language? How do you ensure it gets recycled?”; word clouds can go a long way towards providing answers. Typically the teacher in a dogme lesson takes copious notes (on paper or as an audio recording), and the board may be covered in vocabulary items by the end. What’s more, for a dogme class to stand solid, the final stage of the lesson should see some kind of written consolidation: students writing their own summarising notes outlining the salient language points that have emerged, or (far more effective, especially with teens) actually writing a summary of the conversation, incorporating the new language they have used. This summary writing reworks language, but also gives more introverted or passive students – the type who listen but don’t speak much – time to use the language. You can also ask students to add their own opinions to their summary, as they may not have expressed them in front of their peers. Particularly with teens, opinions are often part of The Twilight Zone.

Taking the language on the board (use a camera – much quicker than copying it all down), your own notes and students’ summaries, you have plenty of text to feed into wordle (the summaries are particularly useful as student-generated texts are highly motivating as a source for language activities – it somehow says ‘your work is as valid as the stuff in coursebooks’). You can then use the resulting word cloud at the start of the next class, putting students in pairs or threes (or working individually – you know your class) and asking them to come up with as many sentences as possible using words from the cloud, much as you did above. (You didn’t? Well go on then! What are you waiting for? ;) ). They may add ‘grammar words’ but no lexical items. Discussion will often develop at the feedback stage – go with it :).

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The ‘m’ word.

M is for..... Image by @gemmateaches at eltpics

Multi-tasking. As a word, we either love it or hate it.

In response to a blog post on Jeremy Harmer’s blog, back in November, I wrote a long response, which I revisited yesterday. Having waded through my own words (dismayingly opaque, but too quickly written – always a good excuse) I decided to add blog to the top of my To Do list – a list which theoretically keeps me from multi-tasking too much and maintains my focus (haha, does it ‘eck).

Essentially Jeremy’s post (and some of the comments) suggests that we can’t multitask efficiently, and that maybe this has implications for the classroom. He had written his post after finding himself “listening to Shaun Wilden talking at the IHWO online conference at the same time as … trying to create a handwritten sample for a new book…. The news was on too, and (he) was also tweeting about the conference and other things. (He) was MULTI-TASKING! … The thing is, (he) wasn’t doing any of it very well or very efficiently…
The question Jeremy then posed, quoting Rodney Batstone was: “do tasks which require simultaneous processing of form and meaning ‘overload the learners’ system, leading to less intake rather than more’? (‘Key concepts’ section of ELT Journal 50/3, 1996)” and he went on to wonder “Perhaps if … language learning is focused, uni-directional and uncluttered, then it will be more successful. Perhaps by restricting the input we would give (kids) a better start, a better chance – and perhaps many of the more exciting and excitable activities that we all love so much may actually get in the way. … MAYBE …..maybe we should simplify things down? Back to substitution dialogues? Restrict rather than amplify? Get kids on-task, one task at a time. Only one.

Cut to the chase.
Having read Jeremy’s post, my initial reaction screamed at me “Too simplified!”, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. It took an hour or so of cooking while washing dishes, answering sons’ questions, listening to a running commentary on a basketball match (also from sons), and humming along to the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack all at the same time to provide me with some perspective on the matter. Some perspective and three key issues: automaticity, control, and similarity of tasks (ie that require a similar type of processing).

Automaticity
By this, I mean familiarity with a task.

On the road to automaticity?... Image by @klizbarker at eltpics

When you learn something new, like reversing a car, playing a musical instument, salsa dancing, or (in my case) spinning (trying to listen to instructions, copy what others are doing, work out how the bike works and do everything in time to music), none of the tasks involved are familiar, so the intense feeling of pressure and the chances of making a mess of things are high. But with time and practice, it all becomes automatic and – well, like riding a bike (a perfect case of multi-tasking).

An example of seemingly impossible multi-tasking activities becoming doable is simultaneous translation. Interpreting. At first, it is nigh-on impossible to do, but with training and practice, it’s a doddle. Almost. It is, of course, tiring, and one thing you can’t do while interpreting is think your own thoughts, but the rest becomes automatic. When I studied interpreting, British sports presenter Desmond Lynam was the example we were given of someone who could efficiently concentrate on four or five things (auto-cue, earphone, in-coming results on the teleprinter, self,..) at a time and still be ‘in control’.
The bottom line is we can’t do several new things at the same time efficiently, as none of them are ‘automatic’ yet and all need ‘full’ focus and processing. You can listen to the news while making an omelette, can’t you? And maybe even tweet as you beat. But if you listen to the news and a conference talk at the same time, both imply newness, new and totally unrelated information; concentrating on both at the same time is virtually impossible and would require that intense, stress/mess-inducing effort.

Focusing on form and meaning in language, on the other hand, is something we do at least since birth, and probably before as far as suprasegmental pron features are concerned. It’s second nature, particularly for children, who are closer to that Total Learning stage, or where the alphabet used is familiar. (Adult or post-writing learners from a culture with a different writing system will need to separate form at some stage.) Also, in language learning, newness of  form and meaning can be interrelated, you can use the one to support the other via mnemonics or similar. In some languages, separating form and meaning is a meaningless task anyway; where much of the grammar is carried by morphemes, you have to process form and meaning simultaneously.

Ultimately, for children to have meaning and form separated, or to meet form and meaning independently of any other activity is to underload, not the opposite. Learning language while busy with something else is just part of life, whether discovering the world around them (eg we all learn the term primary colours while learning what they are and how we can mix them – imagine teaching a child the ‘sound shape’ first, drilling it, THEN letting them discover what it means?) or later, through video games, superhero names, buzzwords, or, say, experiments like Sugata Mitra’s (imagine how that would’ve gone if he’d attempted to focus on language forms, then meaning, then let the kids loose with the computers). Adults might feel they need the language first (though I’ve only ever once had a student state that she ‘needed all the words‘ before she could speak) but that is related to self-esteem, image of inner selves issues etc, not because of any other type of limitation. When learning a language, at least through choice, first comes the desire to speak, surely, then the words fall in naturally. With children (tho not teens) first comes the desire to speak whether learning a language or not. Communicating experience. Making sense of the world.
(This is why I struggle with pre-teaching vocab, sometimes – it’s disembodied blah until the students have encountered the context. It seems to assume they can’t focus on forms while focusing on meaning, that they need to go from the little picture to the big, not vice versa. But that’s a different thread. Back to multi-tasking.)

Look, listen, play, read music....and hopefully all at the same time! Image by @CliveSir on eltpics

Control
I can ponder blog posts, rehearse talks, sing, listen to the radio or hold entire conversations in my head while driving, but it’s statistically proven that we’re not good at arguing behind the wheel.  When I’m holding my internal conversations, I can tell myself to shut up when I need to increase concentration in heavy traffic, bad weather conditions etc. but in an argument, you have no control over the other speaker and it takes sang froid to be able to suddenly blank it all out and just drive. When listening to a conference speaker and a newsreader, you can’t ask either of them to be quiet a mo so you can focus fully on the other. Control over information intake and processing affects our capacity for multi-tasking. The Woah, sssh, lemme think a minute factor. Think of those activities which require students to listen to a CD and do something else at the same time; they can get lost in the comprehension activity, and consequently lost re the (non-stopping) recording – it’s worth thinking hard about the execution of listening tasks and how much control students would need to multi-task efficiently.
In processing language, if given enough ‘time-space’, we can focus on the aspect (form or meaning) we feel we need to focus on, we can note the form first then the meaning or vice versa; it’s in our own mind, so we control the focus. I guess what happens isn’t strictly multi-tasking, as we probably do shift focus, but those shifts may take micro-seconds, and from the teacher’s point of view – and the learner’s – it’s as good as doing the two things simultaneously. But we do need that ‘time-space’, to be allowed to process at our own pace, to find our own meaning from context. To attach our own ‘story’ to the piece of language so that it finds its own retrievable place in our mind. Of course, if you’re in a class and your teacher is determined to get to the end of his/her plan by the end of the lesson and rushes you…. Well, that’s another story. That’s not teaching, that’s following a plan with blinkers on. So control is another key factor and interrelated to the time available to achieve the tasks in hand. And both are vital to carrying out multi-processing tasks in the language classroom. The arguments for why this multi-processing needn’t be in isolation from other activities are the same as above. We can process while playing a game or learning our part for a play or… any number of things.

Similarity of task
Obviously, although I can think about blog posts while I drive/cook, I can’t write them down. Both tasks require the use of both hands. You can sing in the shower, but can you clean the bathroom window while you soap yourself? It’s like that trick of patting your head while rotating your other hand over your paunch / abs. And see if your average teen can watch TV, do homework and listen to a parent all at the same time (efficiently or not….). Of course they can’t.

Ever sent an sms to the wrong person? Image by @sandymillin at eltpics

Ever sent an email/text message to the wrong person because you were thinking about them while writing to someone else? If we multi-task, trying to use the same part of the brain for each task isn’t going to work, whether it’s the part that operates our hands, the part that we use to process aural input, the one that thinks of people’s names, the one for oral output or visual input,… can we react to two completely different danger signals at once? No, we tend to prioritise. I once cracked my spine trying not to smash a pile of plates belonging to my ex-mother-in-law….

Listening to and processing the news and a talk obviously both use the same parts of the brain, they’re both about making sense of aural input. Focusing on form and meaning at the same time is a different case: the processing may seem similar, but form is (obviously) ‘shape’ either sound or sight, whilst meaning is conceptual, they’re stored in different places in your brain (recall slips and stroke sufferers’ language recall difficulties show this), though if your teacher decided to teach you a word in Japanese and a totally different word in Thai at the same time, you’d probably not be at your most efficient when trying to learn them. Too much going on.

Some of those listening activities that involve filling in text boxes while you listen to a recording are examples of potentially inefficient multi-tasking activities for language learners, as students have to process meaning, and focus on both ‘shape’ forms at the same time. The argument is that they replicate taking notes in, say, a university class – but I studied in two ‘foreign’ countries, and took notes phonetically when words were unfamiliar, as I could process them or look them up later. Not the case in your average language learning class – and misspelt words are not acceptable…. However, if you take the time to think about what you expect your kids (or adults) to do, no problems. Songs with familiar gestures and TPR with younger kids, using images, picture dictations, drama, projects especially designing something or reading then going from information input to output (eg in CLIL classes), writing journals (I hate all this ‘follow a template’ writing stuff that abounds in coursebooks, nowadays, where students are required to memorise some fixed text structure as well as the language, so the check list in the wretched exam is far too long – as an ‘as well as’, maybe, and for older teens, but not an instead of), blogs, unplugged classes, no complex use of faffy games etc.
So. Much longer response than the original post! I reckon we all multi-task sometimes, and efficiency has to do with the tasks and what they require of us as individuals; paring your classes down to substitution drills and the likes is not efficiency – it’s not THAT simple.

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