Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Chapter 1 of the Lexical Approach. What's the big idea? What are the big ideas?

It took a small while to get through the first chapter in intermittent readings on the Metro. When I sit down to make notes in a big study session, I fell straight back into the old University routine days, within 30 minutes I'd doodled pictures of dogs captioned with in-joke-quotes from the texts I was reading.
No facebook likes.

So this is what I've gathered. Michael Lewis, the author is AGAINST a lot of things. But it's cool, as he's offering what he's FOR too. He believes that linguistics as a field of study has offered us a lot of insights into how learners LEARN, and that the educational establishment has bowed down to SOME of these developments in some important ways, but change has been somewhat superficial, largely ignoring the more radical, and in his mind, important changes.
         So the first chapter is delineating the old and the new to more clearly position the values and principles of his approach, by creating a set of dichotomies (e.g. learning and acquisition, use and usage) and states why, as teachers, we should be acting on principles that are more in line with the tenets of contemporary linguistics and away from old school and outdated notions that our teaching practices are directly drawn from. I think the most major distinction he makes is between acquisition and learning, and all the other distinctions follow naturally once we understand the wider system of learning we want from students.

Firstly, thank Glob, he immediately attacks the Behaviourist influence in the classroom, no one likes to pander to the mass-rat murderer F. Skinner any more. Firstly, as I mentioned before, mistakes are an inherent part of the learning process, you shouldn't be cutting off student's mistakes and correcting them as they happen (something I believe that has been incorporated into the orthodoxy, you're taught about delayed error correction in the first couple of days on a CELTA). You'll damage their confidence. This leads into the distinctions between learning and acquisition and accuracy and fluency. Which we'll get into now. Bear in mind, Lewis writes in his sagest tone, a symphony is not just a collection of notes, and language is not just a collection of words and sentences.

Learning and Acquisition - Learning is conscious, the teacher explains a rule to you, or lets you work it out yourself, you memorize it. And then forget all about it when you're in the real world. Acquisition is the internalisation of the rules of language. You "pick up" a piece of language and then you instinctively and intuitively use it when you're speaking. The a competent teacher can make you learn something quite well, but have trouble making you acquire something. Case in point, the third person singular -s. Students all know it, beginner text books are full of rules about it, but I have advanced students who regularly omit it. It's annoying, but as Lewis points out, understandable, that it is redundant, the meaning is carried elsewhere in the sentence. If learning and acquisition coincide, mint. But this is difficult.

It's difficult because the PPP methodology and the linear syllabi we follow are geared toward learning, and not acquiring. If language were a Tekken game, and each grammatical structure / functional language area  were a level, and students advanced in a linear fashion level by level by learning, then things would be great. But the orthodox "Tekken-game" model of language learning isn't accurate to reality. To stretch the metaphor further, "learning" a language is like playing Tekken blindfolded on an radically different games console with unfamiliar controls with the teacher shouting out the buttons you need to press. Then the teacher goes home and you have to do it all again on your own. And you can't, and you sit there trying to half remember the secret combo moves and then you get KO'd by Nina.

What we need to be doing is letting students play the game on their own for a week, giving them advice and tips where necessary. It sounds too simple. This translates to the classroom by feeding students a large supply of lexis and comprehensible input.(Lewis heavily references someone here, Kishen? Kashen?) Students should be exposed to a lot of comprehensible listening, notice things in the language, and be encouraged to react to content and speak when they wish with a focus on content rather than language. Learning a language is not a linear process, and if you're trying to focus on a linguistic area, students may be listening and benefiting from the language, but in a totally different way to the one you intended, and each student will also be focusing on and understanding different things. Or they'll be on their smart phone. Anyway, the whole thing is heterogeneous.

The Lexis part of things
But how will they learn how to string things together, they won't be able to do it!!!!
this is where the LEXICAL aspect of the Lexical Approach comes into play. Lewis argues, and I suspect he'll go into great detail about this in the book, that vocabulary is not the building blocks of language, with grammar being the cement. Different lexis is not just random and interchangeable but highly inter-relational. Lexis highly correlates with other lexis, and if you familiarise students with certain lexis including already grammaticalized lexis (such as verbs not in their infinitive form) students will be quite able to piece the pieces of the jigsaw together in the long term. (Short term losses lead to long term gains) When they have enough confidence and familiarity with a wide set of lexis. We're really imitating here natural language acquisition. Starting slow and then building up rapidly after a while once students have got the right skills and are familiar and confident enough.

Receptive skills are hugely important in acquisition, just like in L1 acquisition. But students need to be relaxed, not stressing, just listening a lot and picking things up. The teacher's role is to provide an environment rich with vocab and comprehensible input, and allowing students to produce language when they wish. Only after to selectively pick out common problems, give you some delayed error correction and some advice on form and grammatical structure. (I assume Lewis is really thinking about anything before Intermediate here, once you get to intermediate I think you can get a little bit more fussy with students)

This idea of a input and intake rich environment sounds attractive to me, and I see how coursebooks pay lip service to this idea in the presentation part of the class (or through language from the text). "Hey, here's an article about fish! OK, 3 comprehension questions, (15 minutes)  OK present perfect (40 minutes). This first part, the focus on the lexis and the listening/reading, should take up the majority of the class.

I'm looking forward to presenting some structured ways in which acquisition can be fostered. I guess TTT can easily fit into this framework. I am however skeptical about how applicable this is to all students. Some people are just bad learners, they wish to be spoon fed structures, and are very bad at taking any sort of initiative, and are completely passive, and will never seek to improve their own language in an active way. The PPP model of "learning" a language provides a more clearly defined set of options for these students.

All the other distinctions

Fluency v Accuracy : if "acquirement" is the goal, then we should be fostering fluency over accuracy. (we are focusing on both really) but we should not prioritise accuracy over fluency. Let students speak to their hearts content, being communicatively competent with errors is better than being accurate but unable to understand or interact.

Input and intake : We want a large selection of language exposure (input) for students. How much they actually take in and benefit from (intake) depends on how how motivated, interested, tired students are and also that there is a good level of comprehensible input. Gone are the days of "master-what-you-meet" audiolinguism philosophy where you are presented with very limited amount of language and do activities to master it perfectly before moving on. This isn't necessarily a bad system, I've used it to great benefit with Michel Thomas and the Pimsleur Approach, but it needs to be highly controlled and is very, very repetitive. You don't even need a teacher, just a CD that goes on for hours.

Use and Usage : How accurately you use language (use) and how well an utterance is appropriate within a particular discourse and the wider context (usage) are quite important differences. We really want to students to know, particularly at higher levels, the nuances of register, tone, formality.

Coherence and Cohesion : we're also focusing on ways to enable students to use string together many pieces of information (cohesion) and for these pieces of information to relate to each other appropriately (coherence) so we as teachers can focus on these skills.

Learning and Teaching : Lewis' main beef was that we as teachers are focused on teaching things, and we have a very dim understanding about the way students actually learn. His whole approach is more student centered, about putting yourself in the students shoes. I may have thought one of my lessons was about the present perfect, but I have no idea what the students did!

Some abstract linguistic notions : Lewis is famous for saying that Language is "a personal resource rather than an abstract idealization. This attacks Chomsky's notion that we as native speakers have a natural "competence". We are competent at generating language from a set of principles that our brain creates and follows. It relies on "language" existing on some meta or cerebral level, unobservable, and that our "performance" is what we can actually hear and observe.

Learning a language stems from this model, grammarians dissected the principles they induced and taught them to language students who use them axiomatically to produce language. But language being a "personal resource" sees it that we have a huge bank of lexical currency in our brains that we draw upon in a quite a structured and patterned way. We teach students this lexical currency, and they're sorted.

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