Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I seem to have launched a personal crusade in my methods class this afternoon. I held forth for some time on why content-based foreign language learning is better than fracturing it all into "skills." I've talked about this before, but it obviously bears repeating. The idea that you can adequately teach a foreign language to people by individually teaching them "speaking/listening," "reading/writing," and "grammar," each in a different class is, well, stupid. Language is not that easily divisible. It is a whole and complete system, with each skill adding to and building off of others. If we fracture the skills this way, students will never learn to use all of their language abilities in tandem, as they are meant to in a communicative framework. Excuse me if I missed something, but isn't this the point of learning a language, communication? I don't know why this seems an unusual idea to many ESL teachers, but even my professor tonight seemed to think it an interesting perspective. As it keeps coming up, I figured I should write something about it.

A few weeks ago, I had another TESOL student come and observe my class, and then he emailed me to ask for my "philosophy of teaching writing." Here was my response:

Mostly, I try to emphasize that English should be used for communication. As much as they can, I encourage the students to try to *think* in English when they are writing, because this will increase the fluency of their writing. Eventually, it will also help their speaking fluency. All English language skills are tied together, so even when I am teaching writing, I am also teaching speaking, listening, and reading.

I also don't want the students to concentrate too much on making their grammar perfect, or on finding a new word in their dictionary. I discourage them from using their dictionaries in class, though I can't forbid them from using the dictionary at home. If they become too reliant on their dictionaries, it often leads to them choosing the wrong word because they don't really understand it, breaking the flow of their writing, and keeps them from having confidence in their speaking ability, because they think they don't know any of the right words. I tell them again and again that being able to make themselves understood with the words they do have (to talk around what they don't know) is more important than using big words they don't really understand, and what's more, their audience doesn't understand.

Especially at the lower levels, students need to have some feeling of confidence that they can make themselves understood. I want them to write about things that are important to them, that interest them. If they can't use English to say anything personally interesting, they will stop practicing English, and all my work will be for nothing. They only need to pay attention to their grammar if it makes their writing unintelligible. Small mistakes will become smaller and less frequent as they practice writing over and over.

This semester, I have assigned the students to update their blogs on a regular basis. Since this is on the internet, and not connected to MSU, my hope is that they will continue to use their blog after they leave, to practice writing.

This afternoon, we were presenting our ideas about how we would structure a hypothetical high school program to integrate 75 Japanese high school students into an American high school due to their parents being sent to the US for business. All groups had content-based classes for these students. But after we were done presenting, one of the TESOL students in class asked how this would help students pass the TOEFL. I think this cuts to the heart of the problem, in that English teaching has become so regimented and obsessed with passing standardized tests, it has stagnated in many countries. Other foreign languages can be taught in a much more varied way because teachers still feel there is room for innovation. I posited that test-taking skills can be taught just as well in a content class as they can in a specific grammar class. I mean, that's what all AP classes in US high school do; we practice for the AP tests with the current content of the class, which teaches us the skill in a way that can be generalized to any content matter posed on an essay test.

After class, I talked some more to the professor. She said she had never taken a content-based foreign language class, which makes me wonder if foreign language instruction in the US has changed that much, and which also leads to the question of why foreign languages and ESL (which is really just a foreign language that happens to be taught to foreign people in its native context) are treated so differently. I also pointed out that the best foreign language textbook I ever used, Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese, had a unifying storyline, even though it was covering all those basic grammar and vocab exercises that all foreign language textbooks must cover at the very beginning. Oddly enough, it's the same theory they used when setting up Sesame Street originally, that of having a unifying storyline broken up by short tutorial segments.

So why is this idea so radical in ESL? Why do I have to feel like I'm on a crusade to change the very foundations of the field? To paraphrase Sesame Street with regards to ESL and other foreign languages, "One of these things is like the other."

*cough, cough*
Should you find yourself possessed of a sudden urge to buy me books, who am I to stop you? (Alternatively, you could just be curious to see what books I want to read.)

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