Archive for August, 2011

How can you avoid being misunderstood?

August 25, 2011

After completing my book ‘Teaching Language Learners’ I have been asking people to review it. Expecting everyone to rave about it, and maybe a few people to point out some errors – no matter how careful I am, there always seem to be errors — I was somewhat surprised to receive my most recent reviews.

Before I comment I should add that most reviews of the book have been very helpful and positive – e.g. from an experienced teacher of EFL, English as a Foreign Language’:

‘I think the book’s USP [ultimate selling point] is your reflection on your personal experience of being a language learner and how this has influenced the methodology you employ in the book. I don’t know of any other teacher training manual where this has been the approach. The focus on the experiential aspects of language learning is valuable, and something we should more actively bear in mind when preparing lessons and teaching.

I found the sections on developing listening, spoken communication, reading and writing interesting and useful. I like the way in which the teacher is constantly asked to reflect and develop ideas, but support and feedback can be found usually on the next page – no need to turn to the back of the book. Also, the book is very well supplied with teaching resources …’

this reviewer understood my ideas. However, not everyone saw the value of the book in this way. My response to my recent reviewers:

I am grateful for your comments and for those of your friend who is Head of Modern Languages at a public school in the UK. Having other people respond to my material is really helpful. One can never assume that everyone will understand the messages intended or be of the same mind when teaching or learning a language. I am not sure if you and your professional friend want me to respond or not, but just in case you are interested in having a dialogue, I shall respond to the comments.

The book was written as a book of ideas for teachers and learners of languages. It was not designed as a book to read from cover to cover. Other than the first few chapters, it was more of a book to dip into when looking for ideas or of applying different approaches to teaching/learning a language. Thus is may well have been difficult to ‘read’.

‘Tasks’ and ‘Answers’ were not placed together immediately, because the whole teaching and learning technique it presented was based on the reader/learner/teacher ‘noticing’ or at least thinking about the topic first before being given solutions. In the classroom, I found that it was always worth the time and effort getting students to focus on the target language in ways that directly related to them so that the language became memorable and was thus more effectively retained.

I loved your comments about the quotations which were put in as light relief, diversions to lighten the load of concentrated learning.

The pictures and accompanying exercises were added, as you say, to suggest how students can be encouraged to remember vocabulary. There is a particularly effective way of remembering vocabulary which involves imagining interactive pictures related to the target language. I have also found using pictures as prompts for remembering previously acquired language can extend students’ short term memories very effectively.

I was interested to note that learning French by the Direct Method was successful for you. I had the same experience in secondary school which sparked my initial interest in language learning, although I find learning languages difficult.

As to your professional friend’s comments, I do not know whether you want to pass on my responses but here goes:

1. He notices I do not define who the ‘language learners’ are. The ‘language learners’ are those who are learning or those you are teaching. Language learners are individuals with unique characteristics, needs, and abilities. All language learners go through the process of language acquisition to acquire new language. Using our understanding of this acquisition process is the basis of the book. The book is a book of ideas to dip into. The teacher or learners adapt the ideas to suit their specific situation.  If a student is a beginner, single syllabled nouns would be more appropriate than teaching collocation, for example. Modern languages and English all have nouns and particular words that collocate well with these nouns.

2. He comments that there is a lack of progressive structure to the book. This is correct. When you have a class of students to teach, invariably a new comer arrives who has no knowledge of previous lesson materials taught. The methods suggested by this book make it possible to engage these students immediately.

3. I find it interesting that he comments that ‘the activities do not (for the most part) follow a structured period of learning. The basic principles of ‘introduction’, ‘practice’ and ‘performance’ which are used in any form of learning/teaching, seem to have been forgotten.’ This is where I have much to learn about other people’s interpretation of my ideas. I believed I was not only advocating these principles, but I was advocating them in a more concentrated and effective form — one that is directly related to how we acquire languages.  The ‘introduction’ is the period of time encouraging students to focus on the target language, to relate it to their own experiences and to retain it by using techniques that suit their individual preferences. Students are not simply ‘introduced’ to new forms; they are fully engaged with the language being taught/learnt.  The tasks that follow offer different ways of encouraging students to practice and perform the acquired forms so that they will be retained more effectively.

He suggests the book be targeted to interested amateurs who have small groups of adult learners wanting to improve their English. He is quite right; there has been a demand for the book from such people.

He also says it would be of little use to professional teaching of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) and certainly of no use at all to teachers of children (7-18) who are learning a Modern foreign language. (!!!) I am amazed at this reaction. Most of the material relates specifically to teaching EFL – the ideas developed from my 20+ years of teaching EFL (including the teaching of children 10 – 18). Again and again I have had to teach the tenses in ways that clarified for the students exactly when and how they should be used.  My experience as a Spanish learner indicates to me that the tenses also have to be taught/learnt when learning Modern Languages. My book offers methods for doing this. Even more fascinating, is the way the professional teacher/ reviewer dismisses the ideas in the book as being of no use at all the teachers of children (7 – 18) who are learning a modern foreign language. I would be interested to know how he improves his students’ grammar. One idea in the book developed from the perennial problem that no matter how carefully I introduced a point of grammar to students of this age range, or corrected written work, the students continued to make the same mistakes. Only after I devised my ‘Editing Guide’ that made the students understand why their errors had occurred, what the correct usage should be, and made them write in their own corrections, did students fully take notice and refrain from repeating their mistakes.

I await with interest any further comments…



Book review ‘Tender is the Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

August 11, 2011

This is an elusive book that has many different levels and many different faces so that one is never really sure one understands the point. The jet set – gatherings  of rich people who seem to know no better than to have a good time indulging themselves — move in and out of focus in the plot that presents a tapestry of society and the high spots of Europe.

The marriage of central character Dick to his patient, Nicole, the gradual decline of their relationship and of him, the superficial interpersonal communications and ‘affairs’ between members of their society never seem to be real – rather carbon copies of stereotyped people moving about their world’s stage as if nothing really mattered.

Before dismissing the artificiality of the book, I was struck with moments of sheer genius when the author caught exactly that elusive quality of a relationship that never fully came to fruition, he caught those fleeting moments that seem insignificant at the time but have tremendous impact on the psyche and are never forgotten.

His quick character descriptions, his colourful descriptions and his slight-of-hand manner that evokes exactly what it was like certainly caught the imagination. The reader is also constantly informed of historical and cultural facts and descriptions that leave one in awe of such an informed author and the tantalizing use of French and of exotic locations and events take the reader into a forgotten affluent world as a relatively uninvolved observer.

This book was a fascinating read, introducing me to a world quite different to any that I have or ever will experience. It was not a book that I could ever say I could relax with. As a reader I had to work hard to follow the characters’ trains of thought, or to appreciate their feelings and actions but while reading it, I was constantly aware that much deeper issues underpinned the writing, ones that matter a great deal and although these were never brought right out into the open, I was aware that it was these issues that made this book worthy of its place in the greatest of literature.