Things I thought were true… that aren’t

IMG_8774I met an American teacher when we were working together in Riga – she’d just done the intensive Delta over the summer.  I was curious to know about her experience and especially about the observations.  She told me, “You can basically teach any way you want, as long as you can justify it.”

To a certain extent, I guess that’s all any of us can hope to do: have a sound rationale for our teaching.  But during my Trinity Dip TESOL course, I’ve already uncovered that some of the rationale I previously believed doesn’t really exist.  Like the picture of the Florentine riverside here, my teaching was an inaccurate reflection of current thinking.  Here are a few of the myths I held about learning English, and what I now believe to be true following my reading.

  1. MYTH: Class time is crucial

TRUTH: Sure, but it’s what they do outside class that’s going to have a long term impact on language learning.  For example, extensive reading, and all those independent experiences of communicating meaningfully.  Hunt and Beglar say, “Most words in both first and second language are probably learned incidentally through extensive reading and listening.”  (Current Research and Practice in Teaching Vocabulary, Alan Hunt and David Beglar, in Methodology in Language Teaching ed by Jack Richards and Willy Renandya, CUP 2002, p259).  As teachers we can’t be everywhere, which justifies plenty of class time giving students the strategies and motivation need for success without us.

2. MYTH: Students need lots of practice with new grammar

TRUTH: How often do we practise some grammar structure carefully, only for learners to ignore it when it comes to fluency based tasks later in the same class?  Rod Ellis argues that we’re pitching too high.  New grammar structures aren’t really for use in communication; we’re better off aiming for consciousness raising activities resulting in explicit knowledge.  (Grammar Teaching: Practice or Consciousness-Raising, Rod Ellis, in Methodology in Language Teaching ed by Jack Richards and Willy Renandya, CUP 2002).

3. MYTH: It’s good for students to read a little beyond their productive level

TRUTH:  It might be good for them in some ways (eg developing lexis, as a tool for noticing new grammar structures) but to read fluently (that is, quickly and with ease – and – dare we say it, pleasure), Laufer says you need to understand 95% of the words for minimal comprehension.

4. Beginners definitely need lessons. Advanced learners? Not so much.

Long (1983) looked at lots of research on the effects of instruction on learners and found a number of studies which showed that instruction benefited advanced learners even when they were in environments that provided them with plenty of comprehensible input. (see McLaughlin, Second Language Learning, Routledge p 45)

5. MYTH: As teachers we should try to lower the affective filter in our learners in order to help them acquire language.

TRUTH: There’s no doubt that affective variables (like motivation and personality) affect how someone learns a language. But as for an “affective filter” ….a phrase beloved of my CELTA course and most schools I’ve worked in….? This is one of many of Krashen’s controversial terms, and it’s pretty vague at best.  According to McLaughlin “there’s no coherent explanation for the development of the affective filter and no basis for relating the affective filter to individual differences in language learning. Nor does the hypothesis bear detailed linguistic scrutiny.” (McLaughlin, Second Language Learning, Routledge p55)

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