Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Vocabulary and affective filters

It seems that I've been making a return to previous topics recently, both here and at work, but that's OK: we all need to revisit things from time to time, to re-evaluate and appraise.
I'm returning to a subject that I covered ages ago - namely, is there a linguistic hierarchy of needs?

You've probably heard of Maslow's Hierarchy, and how it relates to things like esteem and self-actualization - here's a diagram:

Anyway, it got me thinking about how some students just never seem to get past the intermediate level, and how some learners seem to resent their learning - that they have a high affective filter.
Now, some of this is understandable from the simple fact that English has a relatively small common core vocabulary, meaning that it's possible to reach a B1 level of use quite quickly. However, progressing beyond this, in particular with stepping beyond the confines of using our basic lemmas (e.g. changing use into useful, useless, usability, or swim to swam, swum, swimming etc) is tougher. However, there is also the fact that some learners simply find it hard to progress because, for them, there is a seeming limitation on them as people caused by the lack of language ability. In particular, I'm thinking of ESOL learners, who have to live, function and work within an English-speaking environment.
Here are three questions to ask your learners: Do you feel 'different' when you speak English? Do you sometimes feel like a child, or disabled? Why?
I think part of the issue is the kind of vocabulary we use to express ourselves. If we were to map the 100 most common English verbs on to Maslow's hierarchy, where would they go? Clearly, verbs such as 'eat', 'drink' and 'sleep' would be in the Physiological category. What about modals? Where would we put those? What about verbs of perception, feeling, and opinion? What happens when we map the entire Common Core against this hierarchy?
It strikes me that as a part of course design, we should consider the psychological effects of teaching certain lexical items and chunks. Put simply, if we can elicit words and phrases that we associate with the 'esteem' and 'self-actualisation' categories, we may well find that we have more contented, more fulfilled and more confident language learners. 
Having said that, we all know that the key to learning any language is a)using it and b) practising it. If a learner is unwilling to do this, he or she will never make much headway. But if a learner is not practising/using simply because he/she believes that they'll never get it, then focusing on the kind of language that makes them feel as if they can talk about anything surely will get them to have greater confidence in their abilities.
We should also, of course, consider what kind of topics students need to be able to discuss - for an adult ESOL learner, for example, he/she may need to handle things such as work and employment (possibly with a specialised vocabulary for their field of work), dealing with their children's schools and so on, so delivering content that allows them to deal confidently with these issues is crucial to making them feel better about language learning.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Demonstrating tenses and aspect

Blimey, it's been while since I posted. Have been kept busy with a) a British Council Inspection, followed very closely by b) an OFSTED inspection, both of which officially deemed EFL and ESOL to 'Kick Arse', of course.
I was reading a blog post yesterday, via Twitter, of one teacher's attempt at explaining tenses and the relationship of tense forms to notions of reality and unreality. Unfortunately, I forgot to bookmark the site, and I've forgotten who wrote it! (UPDATE: Found it! It was Sandy Millin, over here - thanks, David!)
She mentioned how much Michael Lewis, in The English Verb (1986) influenced her teaching, and I'd certainly agree - it's an informative, useful and thoroughly readable book, and one that formed part of the background reading for my 2007 conference presentation on Tense and the concept of Distance.
One part that was particularly useful was Lewis' timelines, explaining the relationship between simple, perfect and going to, but one day while using these timelines in class, I realised he'd missed a simple, but beautifully efficient trick for teaching aspect to learners.
Here it is.
Start by drawing a street corner on the whiteboard. put a stick man on the corner. Ask the learners where the man is, then ask them what tense they are using (He IS on the corner). Next, draw some traffic going past. Ask the students what the traffic is doing (it is passing the man, for e.g.), then ask them what tense that is. Draw a shop to the right: Tell them the man is going to the shop and ask what he's going to buy (e.g. he is going to buy a banana). Now draw a house to the left: Tell the learners that this is the man's home and ask them where he has come from (e.g. he has come from home) and again, elicit the name of the tense. You should end up with a board that looks like this:

Now we have the street corner, point out the directions the man has to look to 'see' the tenses. After that, take away the extraneous details and draw this:
This looks much more like Lewis' timelines, except with a crucial distinction. In The English Verb, Lewis makes the vertical line represent the simple tense: in mine, the vertical represents the point around which the continuous occurs, with the intersection of the lines (the 'street corner') actually representing the time. That is, the directions moving away from the intersection demonstrate the fact that English tenses are, in reality, aspectual (with the exception of the present and past simple tenses).
Having done this and drilled the tenses, move the action back to yesterday and ask the students where the man was. They should, fairly naturally, then come up with the other tenses. Repeat for the future, then draw this:
And there we have it. I've used this for several years now, and it helps the learners understand that there is a spatial element to the tense system in English. Of course, you will have noticed that the perfect continuous forms are not included on this: I've done that for the sake of visual simplicity, but they can be added - preferably during a different lesson :) 
Feel free to use these pictures, but I would appreciate an acknowledgement, please!
What do you think? Ideas for improvement and criticism gratefully received!


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