Learning software in need of a theory of learning

I have a new project that I enjoy and I think my students will enjoy, but I have trouble fitting into any known theory of language learning.

I call it the Random English Grammar Generator, and it started off as a way to challenge myself to relearn Java before slowly metamorphosing over time into a semi-professional Javascript/JQuery/XML hobby.  I say semi-professional because I tell my students about it and encourage them to use it but never give points or even extra credit for it owing to the fact that I don’t know of any theory of language learning that could justify spending time on it.  See, it’s fun for me to tinker with as a former CS major, but as a teacher I have trouble explaining its utility, as it’s certainly not meaning-focused, interactive, or communicative.  It’s not even very useful as input because the software-generated examples are decontextualized and sometimes have very odd collocations (which will be improved in the next update, but will never be completely natural).  In short, it is to English students what one of those Rube Goldberg-looking cat gymnasiums (gymnasia?) is to a typical housecat.

A few things make me feel like this is something other than a pure hobby.  I know some kinds of students, mostly my former students in Japan who loved manipulation of abstract systems and perfunctory tokens, who will enjoy playing with it, and this provides me some comfort.  Many ESL departments at universities and community colleges in California also seem to spend money on software packages which are similarly grammar-McNugget-oriented and only slightly less contrived in their examples, and they may show an interest in something like this if I can make it a bit more tailored to the grammar books I know they use (for instance, by putting all the passives in one place and the hypotheticals right after the basic if clauses).  For the moment though, it is a showy jalopy that I spend a lot of time working on but can barely get me to the supermarket.

Chinese-to-English Whispers

There is a children’s game called Telephone in which a long line of people whisper a preselected message down the line, comparing how it came out in the end to what it was when it started, often with hilarious results. This game is called Chinese Whispers in the UK, possibly because the name Sneaky Orientals was already taken.  I have adapted this game into a few short written activites for English classes, one of which is what I consider a defensible use of grammar-translation in the classroom.

I presented the version of this activity with pictures at Shizuoka JALT this April in a My Share event as a form-focused activity with a clear communicative purpose. Both are for classes of 3 or more people.  The translation version is best for high school and above; the pictures version for elementary and up.

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Guidelines for educationally responsible grammar-translation

Grammar-translation in the ELT community is a bit like Republicanism in the San Francisco Bay Area.  It’s practiced widely outside our community by what we imagine are people who generally don’t know any better or whose priorities are twisted against the interests of their socio-economic group, but espousing its values among we who (think we) are more enlightened is like opening up a bag of Doritos at the ballet.

For those in need of explanation of what exactly I’m condescending about,

Yakudoku [grammar-translation in Japan] is defined as a technique or a mental process for reading a foreign language in which the target language sentence is first translated word-by-word, and the resulting translation reordered to match Japanese word order as part of the process of reading comprehension.

(The article that this quote comes from is a good one to read if you wonder why people keep saying Japanese students are good at reading in spite of the entire culture seeming to regard printed English like a dog regards catnip.)

Grammar-translation, back and forth into and from the TL, seems to be the default method in state schooling worldwide.  It is unpopular among trained ELT professionals for a few good reasons. As a top-to-bottom lesson plan or curriculum, grammar-translation clearly fails, and there is no justifying its nonetheless overwhelmingly widespread practice (claims of its necessity for standardized tests, even when true, just increase the scale of the problem).  It surrenders all responsibility for language learning to the most mentally taxing tasks – memorizing connections between abstract tokens, applying rules of transformation in ways that place a heavy burden on short-term memory rather than automatization, knowing long lists of exceptions that invalidate most of the rules you just learned.  I have a hunch that part of the reason for its continued practice in public schools worldwide is precisely because it turns language learning from an activity that most of humanity has engaged in successfully for most of the history of our species into a bell-curve producing all-purpose test of general intelligence and dedication to the ritualized study process.  What it doesn’t do is produce functional language users, hence its unpopularity among ELT specialists and incredulity that it could be so common.

Grammar-translation also has a role in the ongoing cartelization of skills of native speaker and non-native speaker teachers in Japan.  Demanding as it does fluency in Japanese as well as long familiarity with the conventions that constitute “correct” translations, grammar-translation is seen as the exclusive domain of Japanese (NNS) teachers.  Whether NS teachers can ever become competent practitioners of it is beside the point; they are never asked to.

There is reason though to believe that grammar-translation can still have a place in a responsible and modern curriculum.  Since the 1990s, grammatical teaching, i.e. teaching the rules explicitly, has made something of a comeback among the ELT elite, albeit usually reactively and among lots of input and interaction.  Approaches seen as forward-thinking in recent years, including Task-based Language Teaching and Dogme, recommend explicit negative feedback and focus on form, i.e. some time to look at the abstract rules that govern grammaticality and what is correct or incorrect according to them.  The latest incarnation of the need for explicit as well as implicit knowledge and teaching seems to be the volume reviewed here, which I hope to read when the price drops. Grammar-translation can be a very helpful type of reactive grammar-focused activity and has strengths that other such activities don’t.  In this post I plan to introduce a few rules of thumb for grammar-translation as part of a modern language class.

First step: Throw away this textbook.

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Things (the game)

Here’s a class activity that like my last two is basically a frame for communicative use of selected grammar and vocabulary.  This one is based on a party game that I was introduced to on a trip back to the US called Things.  It has the advantage, in addition to its flexibility, of requiring very little in terms of materials or preparation.  For groups of 3-6, ages 9 and up.

The rules of the game are simple:

  1. Everyone writes a sentence or idea on a predetermined theme (e.g. “Things you put on a sandwich”) on their own small slip of paper.
  2. A player designated the reader collects the slips (in smaller classes, the teacher is usually the reader).
  3. The reader reads all of them anonymously, including his/her own.
  4. Players except the reader take turns guessing who wrote what.  Obviously, they can’t guess their own.  If they are right (other players have to be honest about whether theirs has bee guessed), that answer is eliminated and the player who wrote it is eliminated too.  The reader can read the remaining answers aloud again as requested.
  5. After all the answers are guessed or after a set number of go-rounds, the player who guesses the most correctly is the winner.

Read on for detailed steps, benefits for language learners, and 工夫 (customizations).

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Memory, customized

I figure I’d better put my class activities up on this blog before I forget all of them.  This will probably be the last such entry to feature pictures since almost all our class materials are in garbage bags at this point.  Today’s activity is another take on an old favorite.

Memory, the game of trying to find matching cards which are lying face down, is a classroom staple in Japan (and amusingly called 神経衰弱 しんけいすいじゃく shinkeisuijaku “neurasthenia”), and along with karuta is one you can expect all your learners from preschool up to be able to play without needing to learn the rules, which with younger learners sometimes is an activity in and of itself.

Our version of this game, like our version of Apples 2 Apples, is flexible enough to be used with almost any type of card you have on hand – months, occupations, TOEIC vocabulary, past tense verbs, or whatever you and your students make.  The game is for small groups of 3-6, aged 7 and up.  I suppose you could use it with bigger groups too if you don’t mind copying and cutting a lot of cards for them.

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