The force of focus . . . and the terror of tests!

Last week my university – University of Westminster in Regent Street, in the centre of London – had its inaugural session for what we hope will become a series of teacher development talks by various TEFL celebs. Jeremy Harmer came down from Cambridge and did a session called The Myth of Multi-Tasking and the Force of Focus. Knowing – and liking – Jeremy from the conference circuit, I was both amused and intrigued to see he’d chosen such a title, as one of my abiding images of him is as a man singularly unable to focus firmly on a talk, preferring instead to tweet, retweet and so on throughout, a trend which seems to blight almost every talk I ever go to these days. Whatever happened to the good old days, you hear me asking, when none of this used to happen, and we all just whispered bitchy comments into the ears of whoever had the misfortune to be sat next to us?!

Anyway, after a fairly rambling first half-hour (or ‘discursive’, if you’d rather), the talk really got going and Jeremy started connecting his theme to the language classroom. He did something which I found very interesting: showed three teachers from different backgrounds and working in different contexts either teaching or talking and teaching and posed some key questions about one.

I’ll come to these questions in a moment, but first the three teachers: there was a young Irish guy working with (presumably – and, let’s face it, hopefully (!!)) an Elementary class of multilingual students. He got the students up and stood them in front of the class, and then gave each one a piece of paper with a word on it, a word the class could see but they could not. The words were Marianne’s / was / wedding / Yesterday / anniversary. The class has to shout out instructions to move the five students around until they stood in such a way that the sentence was complete. First they went for Marianne’s wedding anniversary was Yesterday – but then the teacher pointed out that Yesterday had a capital letter. After a lot more faffing around, they finally got into the correct positions and the sentence read Yesterday was Marianne’s wedding anniversary.

Next up was a very bouncy young Mexican teacher who talked about a web quest she’d been doing with her class. She asked the class to imagine they were going on holiday to Europe for a week and asked them to use the web to research where they wanted to go, and what they wanted to see and do while they were there. They had to find out where they’d stay, how they’d get about, and schedule each day’s sightseeing and activities. They also had to try and sort everything out on a very tight budget. They did all this at home and then next class, had a big discussion based on what they’d found out.

Finally, there was a German teacher who simply said that every week she gave her students four pages of vocabulary to learn and then every Thursday there was a test. The test might involve writing examples or definitions, giving synonyms or antonyms, or even giving translations.

The first thing Jeremy asked for was a show of hands for who really liked each idea, who quite liked and who didn’t like it. The first exercise got a fair few really likes and likes, and I was in the minority for not liking it. The second one proved the most popular, and I was very much in the minority for not really liking it very much. The third and final one was the part that stunned me though. Jeremy asked who like it and – in a room of over one hundred people – I was literally the only person who raised their hand!

We’ll come to the train of thought that this weird moment set in motion in a few minutes, but what was most interesting for me was the next question Jeremy asked: Now think about focus. Which of the lessons do you think was most FOCUSED. Tell a partner.

Now clearly, the first lesson had some kind of focus – syntax and possible options for word order in simple sentences. Watching it was fairly painful though, and brought back bad memories of the way one-month CELTA courses taught me to come up with long-winded and slightly infantilising ways of doing basically pretty simple things, all in the desperate name of FUN (in big screamy neon capital letters!) The second had a communicative goal, sure, but in terms of focus ON LANGUAGE, there was nothing transparent in anything the teacher had said to suggest this occurred. The third one, however, was surely by far and away the most focused in terms of language and goals and outcomes. Students were given a clear target, fixed times by which they were expected to have learned this by and a regular routine to provide a sense of progress. Now, I mean quibble about the exact nature of the tests used, especially with what sounded like an over-emphasis on single words / word lists and on the use of synonyms, etc. but as a general principle, it’s one I like and am down with.

What followed was a fascinating, but ultimately fairly depressing, exchange of thoughts around the audience. What seemed to emerge was two things: (1) a general belief that ‘fun’ is motivating and that tests, by definition, could never be and (2) a sense that progress in a language was better measured by simply being able to DO things, being able to achieve some kind of communicative task (no matter how badly!) than by acquiring new items. In fact, several comments seemed to almost suggest that learning for tests was a bad thing. “just because you can reproduce something in a test,” went one response, “it doesn’t mean you can use it in practice.” now obviously this is true, but as I pointed out, it also doesn’t mean you definitely CAN’T. And I’d bet the student that remembers the language for a test is more likely to later to be able to use that language than the student that fails to remember and reproduce it under test conditions.

I was reminded of a not-uncommon response I had to a talk I did last year called Activating memory in the language classroom (or, in the soft sense of the word, testing!) Anyway, I was talking about a technique I’ve been doing for years, where I get students in pairs to re-tell texts we did in previous classes and then elicit the texts from the whole class. Usually students remember content but forget language and what I try to do is interrupt this process of forgetting by forcing them face to face again with the actual language the meaning came wrapped in. I told a story about an amazing Chinese student I once had who became known as The Memory Queen in my class as she had a remarkable ability to remember texts almost word for word.

When I told this tale, there were always folk in the audience who saw this not as something to be admired, but somehow dangerous. “Just because she could parrot learn” they opined, “it doesn’t mean anything.”

Well, except of course that it does!

It means she’s not afraid of – and actually embraces even – the one hardest, truest and most unpalatable fact of learning a foreign language: progress is achieved word by word, collocation by collocation, chunk by chunk . . . and given this, surely one of the teacher’s main responsibilities is to make students aware of this harsh reality and to (first TEACH them and then) test them (in both a soft and a harder way) day after day after day to ensure progress is attained.

Over the ritual post-talk pint  I had a lengthy and sometimes quite heated discussion about all of this with an old friend of mine, Simon Kent, whose coursebooks (Market Leader and Language Leader) both feature double-page spreads which are loosely task-based and in which the communicative goal takes precedence over a focus on specific linguistic items in every unit. Simon seemed appalled – and shocked – that I was advocating testing, and seemed to somehow see such notions as authoritarian, controlling, anti-student even.

I was left wondering where we have gone so wrong – and when and how did testing (and the structured continual acquisition of discrete pieces of knowledge it implies) become so despised.

This seems plenty long enough for a first real post, so I’ll leave it here for now. In coming posts, I’ll write more about how I think the current state of affairs came into being – and about signs of a slow sea change that I think are appearing. I’ll also post about ways in which I try to activate / test memory in my day-to-day teaching as well.

In the meantime, I’d really like to read your thoughts on anything I’ve written here.

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21 responses

  1. I had a discussion with a Brazilian teacher (forgotten his name) at IATEFL who gave a talk about creating lexical notebooks. After the talk we spoke about how the efl world seems to have forgotten its primary purpose – to teach the English language. There’s a lot of focus on critical thinking and fun (which are both great) but surely we should be giving students the English vocabulary and grammar above all else. As far as testing is concerned, of course we need to test students! Not testing them is lazy and is seriously hampering their learning.

    1. I couldn’t agree more Sean. My all-time favourite quote about what it is we do – or at least about what it is we are SUPPOSED to do – is an old Michael Swan thing: Language teachers teach language. IN a perfect world, all classrooms would have this written on the wall above the whiteboard to remind practitioners what they’re there for!

  2. Hugh, you are well on the way to becoming my FAVE go-to-guy in ELT. 🙂 I enjoy your facebook page, enjoy your talks (whether live or via your fb page…), AND now a blog? I’m currently almost through Delta Module 2, and it has made me reflect on the things you are saying here. Students come to us for many reasons, sure, but the MAIN one is to learn English…there has to be some way to show they are making progress.

    1. That’s very kind of you to say Jo! Hope the DELTA is going well. It’s a lot of work, I know, but I’m sure it’ll all be worth it in the end. Glad you enjoy the talks . . . and the facebook page . . . and now this! Makes it all worth the effort to know folk out there are engaging with it all and getting something from it.

  3. Hi Hugh,

    really pleased to see there was food for thought after the rambling (you are right about that, by the way). I’ll be really interested to see what other people think about the three teachers (who you describe very accurately I think)

    I’ll be following along to see what people say.

    Jeremy

    1. Thanks Jeremy. And thanks for providing the initial spark that led to the post in the first place. I thought it was ingenious the way you never really made any explicit points yourself about the three video clips, but just left the questions hanging. Leaves plenty of space for the rest of us out here to debate and discuss their implications.

  4. i don’t know how i would have been able to respond to such varying examples such as the three you talk about. was there any more info about the examples given?

    also were the teacher’s in the example asked the question about focus?

    regarding testing i’m all for it if it can be done quickly and effectively! 🙂
    mura

    1. Interesting questions . . . the teachers in the video clips weren’t asked about focus at all, no. Not sure what the initial questions to them were, but for the second and third it must’ve been something to do with a classroom activity they do and feel is useful. With the first, it was just an extract from a film of his lesson. Wasn’t really any extra info given about each one either.

      In a sense, though, maybe that’s part of the point. Perhaps the message is that all teaching should always, to some degree, be about the level to which what we’re doing is focused, regardless of whether or not we ourselves have consciously thought about this beforehand. Maybe students sense the focus – or lack of it – as part of what it it is they enjoy (or don’t) about classes?

      Or maybe it’s simply that it’s something we should all be asking ourselves more? What IS my focus here? What will I be focusing on? And what will my students be focusing on? And is that enough – or could it be better focused?

  5. I like the general idea but I am going to hide behind the fact that it really depends on the context you teach in. I think one of the marks of a good teacher is being able to read what is going on with the class and responding to that which makes them move on in their learning. Most of my current classes involve Spanish FCE (ish) level students who are being beasted with Bachillerato exams as the year goes on. I really want them to pass the FCE this year but the last thing they need is the pressure of more exams. So, I break it down and keep it manageable. A piece of the exam here and another there and all provided with immediate feedback. This keep it relevant and gives me concrete information as to where they need to go.

    I always try to remember that any kind of evaluation gives information to all concerned. It could even be argued that it is more informative to the teacher.

    Bottom line, you have brought up a very relevant point to think about. I’ve worked in Primary and ELT and I think testing is probably the most valuable yet potentially harmful thing we do in the classroom. Get it right and good things happen…..get it wrong and even worse…..

    1. Hi MIke –
      Thanks for posting. I maybe haven’t made clear enough yet that what I’m talking about when I talk about testing doesn’t simply mean past paper practice or formal testing, but covers a whole range of soft tests. I’ll blog about this in a few days’ time.

      I share your concerns, of course, about the fact that over-testing can kill passion like nobody’s business. And I certainly don’t want anyone to feel that’s where I’m saying we should be going.

      I think we can both agree that testing CAN be a good and valuable thing done well, and thus the challenge lies i doing away with the bad and emphasizing the good.

      Hope future posts shed more light on what this might involve in real practical terms.

  6. I am going to try and assume that you are simply playing devil’s advocate here in order to provoke a conversation?

    Nonetheless, you have asked:

    I was left wondering where we have gone so wrong – and when and how did testing (and the structured continual acquisition of discrete pieces of knowledge it implies) become so despised.

    And I will attempt to reply, based on both my experience as a teacher (17 years) and my experience as a language learner (Spanish-Advanced in Ecuador/ German-Intermeidate in Germany / Arabic-Beginner, in the UK).

    Activity 3, quite rightly, though I have not seen the video myself, obviously, did not find any friends to support itself

    1. because this type of “learning” is a total waste of time

    2. because tests don’t teach

    3. because language is not an endless collection of words or even collocations to be memorized and then magically stored within a “computer-like” brain, to which somewhat further magically exists, lying dormant, in folders, to be magically automatically accessed at some random later point, in an alternative environment, and then magically produced.

    i.e. learning a list of words as described in activity three, whether focused or not focused, is to repeat my first point, a total waste of a learner’s cognitive resources and thus, time in the classroom.

    For words to be learned, retained and transferred, they require relevant context and varying amounts of repetition, in other relevant contexts. Activity Two was clearly the most useful exercise because whether three words were learned or ten words, those words, collocations or strings of sentences provided in significant realistic dialogue, now have “meaning.”

    The lesson, in my opinion, is extremely focused, as it is focused not on the language but on the function/purpose of the language, and also, most importantly due to its realistic fulfilling of a real need – i.e. getting to do what you want to do on a budget, is ‘housed’ within the learners schemata (prior experience of needing this language in a foreign environment), and also the task taps into the emotionally elements of achieving a dream and surviving it…

    English is not math, nor is it, under any circumstances, a series of formulae to be spouted out at will. English is an interplay of environment, the people contained within that environment and the communicative demand of situations.

    There is simply no – zero – empirical justification for the idea that language learned for a “test” (do hear my despise of this money-making, for corporations, activity which sold as being communicatively useful is not) .

    What percentage of its language can later be reproduced? Millions of language learners could answer you on this point, well if they could, except that they can’t, because unfortunately they learned how to pass a vocabulary test, not learn to speak English so… they have to continue on in classes, where hopefully, some kind teacher will give them a “fun” exercise to do until it becomes real, or maybe they’ll just talk to them…

    1. Thanks for leaving such a detailed and thought-provoking post. It’s always good to have the people who clearly disagree – as it pushes the debate forwards.

      Anyway, there certainly wasn’t any Devil’s advocate playing on my part. Everything I posted was very much from the heart.

      There are obviously a fair few points from your post I’d like to address> Let’s begin with these:
      – the idea that learning for tests is a total waste of time
      – the claim that tests don’t teach
      – the belief that language is not a collection of words / collocations that can be automatically accessed at some random later point

      The first claim is part of the fear / terror of testing I was alluding to in my post. Jeremy was telling me that the last time he did this talk, he asked people to stand up if they believed tests were anti-educational and around half the room stood up, which I find quite disturbing. In any other area of life, where you’re learning what is essentially a practical skill, you get tested all the time, and cannot be said to be progressing if you don’t at least bluster your way through. If I was teaching you to play the guitar, I’d expect you to be able to come back the next lesson and play a song I’d shown you better than you were able to last time I saw you; I’d want to see that you’d spent time mastering the chords and notes and remembering how they all fitted together. It’s hard to imagine what other definition of getting better on an instrument there might be. I honestly can’t see how language is that different.

      The claim that tests don’t teach is obviously kind of true. They don’t teach, they test! BUT they can – and should – test what has been taught. If all the third teacher was doing was testing, it would obviously be mad, but this was only one part of her classes. Presumably much of the rest of the time, she was actually teaching – and the students were using the language in a variety of practice contexts. Testing, whether it be soft or hard versions, is one of our responsibilities as teachers. It’s how we see how well the students are taking on board what it is we think we’re giving them. Without any testing, we’re essentially lacing ourselves beyond accountability.

      Also, life is a constant test, surely? Every time students need to process language they hear, it’s a kind of test; every time they need to get things done, it’s a kind of test. The students who do best at any kind of test, whether that test is passing a job interview, trying to pick up a girl in a bar, complaining about the service in a hotel or getting 6.5 in an IELTS exam, all do well because they know more language and can use that language more effectively than others.

      Finally, while I can see that there might be other claims for what language might be apart from SIMPLY being a collection of items that can be accessed later on, surely it is ALSO this. One of the key ideas to have emerged from corpora analysis over recent years is the relatively fixed and formulaic nature of much of our everyday communication. It would seem that we cannot function in real-time communication without recourse to a huge store of pre-fabricated chunks and expressions. The students who do not have these stores struggle to function in the foreign language. Indeed, I would actually argue that it is ONLY once the words and collocations and chunks and expressions HAVE become stored on some deep level and automatised that future communication of any increased sophistication becomes possible.

      The idea that students can somehow learn to speak English without having to do this kind of groundwork first strikes me as idealistic at best.

      That said, I do totally agree that for words to be learned “they require relevant context and varying amounts of repetition in other relevant contexts”. I just cannot see why you don’t feel that testing can facilitate this. It obviously can, if the tests are done in the right way. I’m not talking about corporate Cambridge-driven testing here, but simply the kind of testing that good teachers do all the time as part of their day to day teaching, just to be clear on that (thought I don’t personally have any major beef with the Cambridge exams, and generally think they are good indicators / testers of proficiency).

      It also definitely doesn’t mean – as I hope you’ll see when I get round to posting the ways in which I think I soft test in my daily practice – not talking to students.

      I do believe, though, that JUST talking to students is obviously no guarantee of any kind of language development whatsoever.

      Also, I don’t buy the idea that language taught explicitly via exercises or tested via tests is automatically meaningless. In the same way as dates learned in history classes may initially seem abstract and removed from one’s own world, but can come to be full of pertinence as you piece the world together more, so too words can move from remote and learned to please teachers to meaningful and pertinent with just a little bit of work on the part of the teacher.

      Finally (you may be relieved to hear!!) my main beef with the second activity is simply that it seemed ONLY focused on task at the exclusion of any language whatsoever. As such, any language learning that occurs as a result is purely accidental.

      I may be doing the teacher a grave disservice, of course, and perhaps they have some extra section where a strong language focus is introduced, but as it was presented I saw task, I saw homework and self-study, which may or may not have been done using English-language websites, of course) and I saw chat. What I couldn’t see was the one thing our job description insists we engage in – the teaching of language by a language teacher.

  7. First, you described the session with Jeremy very vividly and it makes me feel like sitting there as one of the participants, watch the video and join the discussion.

    Second, it makes me reflect on what i’ve been doing so far as a teacher. I always try to highlight the FUN aspects of my teaching and often ignore the students achievement in terms of learning the language. Yes, I agree with the statements that most of the time students remember the topic that we discuss but may be they don’t remember the language points that the teacher wants them to learn.

    If I were in the discussion, I would surely without any doubt choose the second teacher as my fave. But then after I heard your opinion about the third teacher, I would start to think of the third one really has the teaching focus.

    Thanks for sharing such a mind intriguing article.

    1. Hi there –
      Thanks for posting your thoughts.

      Great to know I’ve given you food for thought.

      Being forced to reflect on our own beliefs and assumptions is always a god thing, even if all that happens is we end up simply more perceptive and articulate about why it is we believe what we believe.

      Your post reminded me of something a trainer said to me years ago: It’s very hard indeed to be a GOOD teacher without making your classes fun and being popular, but it’s easy to be popular and have fun classes without being a good teacher!

      And for what it’s worth, I agree that students often remember CONTENT, but equally often fail to remember the LANGUAGE the content came wrapped up in.

      By the way, one of the things I’ll be arguing in my next post is that there are particular cultural and historical reasons why we’ve emphasized fun over effort and achievement – and that this has had a negative effect on the way we think about teaching.

  8. I wish I could have seen the videos myself. As has been stated by other commenters a great deal depends on context and perhaps even age of the learners. The first option is great for primary school age kids but in a business English class would no doubt be less appreciated. I would also like to drop a few hints (rather than dragging in various FLA research): some of the “best” foreign language learners/programmes are considered to be in such countries as Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands where it is not just the access to television which makes the difference. How many people have actually looked into the classrooms in such countries as these to see how things are done? There are a lot of ‘fun’ things going on, but, due to time constraints (sometimes only two 50″ lessons a week in secondary education) and the fact that English is being learnt often relatively late (i.e. not as simultaneous bilingualism) there are high demands made on the children; they learn chunks; they learn to listen; they are expected to reproduce what they learn and subsequently adapt what they learn to new situations. I think the main point here is that variety is the spice of life: a mix of all three types of lessons from the videos every now and again is a good thing in my opinion!

    1. I think that if you want to see the videos, you’ll have to buy – or blag – a copy of Jeremy’s latest PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING, as I;’m guessing the clips were taken from the accompanying DVD / CD-Rom.

      I can give you a bit more context, if it helps.

      The first class was adults. Not sure of the level – low, I’d hope.
      I’m with you, though, in feeling it’s the kind of thing that is far more appropriate for kids. I know my adults at Westminster would be pretty unimpressed with such ‘fun and games’, just as I’m sure your Business English students would be too!

      Very interested to see you mention the northern European countries, as this is something I’ve often wondered about. I’ve not been to Scandinavia at all, but I now the market in the Netherlands quite well, and the results are incredible, but as you say, the expectation levels are incredibly high and there’s a strong emphasis on learning large amounts of language, whether it be through exposure outside of class, through self-study exercises and homework and so on, or through direct teaching in the classroom itself.

      Not having a wide range of ways of expressing yourself – or not being able to understand near-native-like language is seen as failure.

      I’m all for fun and I’m all for some focus on structural grammar and role-plays and so on, but my main feeling is that all of this HAS TO be done with keen language goals in mind and with the need to input new language and recycle previously taught language constantly informing the way things are run in class.

  9. Wow, what a response to your blog post. I was unable to attend Jeremy’s talk last week which is shame as it sounds like it was a good one.
    Over the years, I have seen some good EFL teaching but that has not meant that it was always good learning from the students’ perspective. We get so wrapped up with our activities, games, approaches and methodologies that sometimes we forget what’s really important – the learner. Perhaps we should think the following more often: How does what I’m doing benefit the learner and how is it relevant to their needs?” Teaching is taking place, but is learning happening at the same time? So tests in this instance would be rather appropriate. We’re so worried about our teaching that we forget the learning part.
    If I had a penny for every time I have students come to see me and tell me that they have not learnt anything in the past week/month I would be a very rich woman by now! I think we need to be constantly evaluating students’ learning and students need to be self-evaluating their progress.
    I spent several years teaching in the FE sector (ESOL) where students set learning targets for themselves (with the help of their teacher) which are discussed every month in a tutorial and if the learner feels that they have achieved their target a new one is set and if they feel they haven’t, they work on it for a bit longer. But how do they know if they have achieved the target – well this is partly done through testing.
    Tests and testing has been receiving a lot of bad press and I think it’s wrong to do this. English is a second language for me and I will never forget the things I was asked to memorise for tests as a child – I think it provided me with a solid base to build upon – or maybe I’m just “that kind of learner”.

    1. I know! I’m amazed by the response as well. I’ve had more traffic in the last 72 hours than I had the whole two years my last blog was up. Seem to have cracked how these things work at last!

      I really enjoyed your post anyway. As you’ll see from my follow-up post – How’d we ever get this way? – I totally agree with you that we’ve got so wrapped up in methodology that we’ve lost sight of language and learning. The curse of the instant recipe craze!
      Very interested to hear that English is actually a second language for you. I’d never have guessed that from your writing above, and the fact that you achieved some of what you achieved so well as a result of having been tested and having had clear targets throughout your learning career goes a good way to proving your point.

      This was my main feeling watching the three videos Jeremy showed: I bet the German teacher’s students LEARNED more!

  10. Hello Hugh. A fine and enaging blog. More power to your elbow. Mmm, re our heated discussion, I think I’d have to come back at you on the type of testing proposed by the German teacher as what I objected to, rather than testing per se. In fact the double page spreads in ML and LL (case studies and scenarios respectively) you mention, although not designed as such, are actually a vey useful ‘testing tool’ , as they enable investigation into language areas a student may lack when trying to do a task. This then allows input work on the relevant areas which can then be retested. I think this is a bit different to a weekly test of 4 pages of who knows what, (and how many) probably contextless and discreet vocabulary items.

    The other point is, I think, one which has already been made, about context and appropriacy for the given students. The German teacher’s particular way of testing
    seemed very ‘schooly’ to me, and while perhaps right in her particular classroom situation, would not be at all appropriate in many other contexts. Please don’t get me started on the infantilisation of TEFL!

    1. Hi Simon –
      Thanks for finding me here and for taking the time to read my post.

      I agree with you that much obviously depends on the kind of test that the German teacher was planning to engage in, but what stunned me was really just the complete revulsion that the basic notion of testing engendered in a chunk of the audience. That, and the claims that ‘just because you’ve learned things for a test doesn’t mean you can use them’ – as though somehow NOT learning them for a test makes you MORE likely to be able to use them!

      As for pages from Market Leader and Language Leader serving a kind of test-like function, I’m obviously prepared to concede that there may well be some truth in this claim, but the kind of Test-Teach-Test procedure that this (and many more TBL-driven activities of a similar ilk) instigate are still of a very different nature, as they’re more holistic and yet also task-specific. What interested me about what the German teacher was suggesting was the total closedness of it, or its narrow focus, if you prefer. It was a test of how much language – presumably based on what had been taught – students could remember, pure and simple. I’m not saying tasks don’t have their place, just that I don’t see them as being as effective a test of specific items as other things can be, simply due to the fact that the onus is always on task completion (and thus ‘fluency’ / communication) rather than on use / knowledge of specific lingusitic items.

      As for this approach being very ‘schooly’ . . . well, we are teachers so what’s the problem?! I actually thought the Mexican teacher with her web quest posed far more of a contextual problem – perhaps especially in my context, of course. I can’t imagine students who’ve set six or nine months of their lives aside to learn enough language to get better jobs or pass IELTS being happy just doing communicative tasks and maybe incidentally acquiring a few odd bits of language on the side.

    2. Hi there,
      I just wanted to chime in on the comment by Simon Kent about the German schoolbook/books that the German teacher was using.
      He accuses German textbooks of containing “probably contextless and discreet vocabulary items.” But he’s wrong!!! If anything, this accusation could more fairly be made of the Headway series, but not of the German schoolbooks I am familiar with!
      As someone who works in Germany and has seen quite a few German textbooks for English teaching in the last ten years, I can tell you that the vocabulary sections are very well-thought-out. (The Headway lot would do well to have a look at them!)
      The ones I am familiar with (Cornelsen) have pages with three columns, containing, from left to right, the German word, the English word and then a third column with example sentences that appeared in the texts in the main body of the textbook. They also often feature little drawings, references to other languages (French and Latin) which contain very similar words, as well as little “warning” signs with reference to potential problems due to interference from German, e.g. that “information” is never plural in English, but can be in German.
      Sadly, both the schoolkids – and sometimes the teachers, too – are in many cases too lazy to write up all three columns, although many teachers do recommend three-column vocabulary notebooks to their students and insist on them copying out all three columns.
      There are other things I might want to quibble about with elements of English teaching in German schools, but the one thing I have been really impressed by is the vocabulary sections in the back of books.
      The Headway series I have used here in Germany, however, has nothing but single words in lists at the back of the book!!! So, Mr Kent, before you go dissing stuff you don’t know about, do your homework first!!!
      With my adult learners, I always insist that they keep a vocabulary notebook and in the meantime recommend that they get the kind recommended for German schoolkids with the three columns. I am using a Headway book with one student and always ask him to look for example sentences for the words he wants to remember. Sadly, the book does not provide these, although, to be fair, the Teacher’s Book does contain some useful tests at the back, which my students have appreciated.
      As for testing in my own experience as a language learner, I often think back fondly to the first German teacher I had at comprehensive school in the UK back in the 1970s and how – although we hated it at the time – she set us a vocab test of ten words every week. Later, though, I thanked her for it!
      Testing is frowned upon because of the current ethos that only “FUN” things are good things, but, at the end of the day, fun doesn’t always cut the mustard. Sometimes – if you are serious about learning something well and thoroughly – you have to buckle down to it and do some hard and boring work. And what better way to motivate people to do that than to set some kind of test?
      It seems so obvious, really, that if you learn a language you need to place your main focus on learning words (I mean, what else is a language made of?!?!) and that a good teacher can only gauge their students’ success at remembering these words by some form of testing. It is bizarre how the concept of testing – in virtually any form – is regarded as so heretical, but I guess this is addressed in Hugh’s next post.

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