Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Shh... I'm learning!

Shh... I'm learning! Credit: inubleachanimefan
As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent the summer teaching English to foreign children aged between 13 and 18. One of the key methods employed in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is speaking and listening. What better way to learn a language than to be chucked in the deep end and forced to converse with others, listening to what they're saying and replying back?

Initially, while I didn't particularly struggle, I did have to adapt my teaching style to include much more speaking and listening than I was used to. I didn't think too much about it at the time, but looking back I'm really glad that I changed the way I teach because it soon became apparent that Talk for Learning (TFL) is an incredibly useful, and apparently oft-overlooked, learning tool not just in TEFL but in native-language schools too.

At the very basic level, talking is where all learning begins. As Vygotsky mentions, 

'Real concepts are impossible without words, and thinking in concepts does not exist beyond verbal thinking'

but I wanted to talk about the use of TFL at later developmental stages. Namely, the use of discussions over more traditional methods of learning like reading and writing.

As I used more and more activities to enable my students to talk to each other, I became aware of how little I used the process in schools. Every teacher uses small examples like talk partners, but it's not often I see or use open discussions with children with little to no recording, which is a shame. I think the best lessons I've had have had children talking through what's going on and not having to worry about formal recording, but until I stopped to think about it I didn't realise that was the case. My favourite example is a maths lesson I taught on measurement - the children talked through the learning process of using the scales to measure correct quantities with each other in groups, converting from 'parts' to 'ml' mentally and undertaking a practical task that actively encouraged communication. In the end they hadn't recorded anything but the recipe for their new concoction, though they had recorded an awful mess on the tables.

The children really engaged with the lesson because they didn't have to worry about filling in results tables, writing methods or explanations or doing the 'boring work' of having to work out the sums - they picked up what they needed to learn and applied their knowledge of addition and ratio in a way that made them feel like they weren't even doing maths.

The one problem I came across when I was thinking about this was the assessment of TFL, mainly the fact that with written work there is hard evidence of the children's ability to write, whereas assessing talk is somewhat less formal. I would argue however, that with classroom technologies that enable children to record sound or even video to save and edit negates the 'no record' argument entirely. In fact, technology opens a whole new world of TFL - It's easier to talk to someone on the other side of the world and learn about their culture and traditions via Skype than via email or letter, so why not encourage its use more?

I decided to ask some of my former students what their thoughts were on how much I'd made them talk and if they preferred reading or writing instead. Selma, from Germany, made a balanced argument, saying

"Both is important, because if I just listen or just talk I can't improve my writing skills..and the other way around's the same! But reading/writing is sometimes really boring so I think I also prefer talking!

I quite liked this answer, diplomatic as it may be, because it not only highlights the fact that not all students prefer talking but also makes the connection between all three facets of language - they are all mutually dependent. Jasmin, another one of my German students, has this to say-

"If you cannot spontaneously think and speak about a problem in class, you may not be able to do it when you have an exam text either and need to think about it"

This continues the theme of what Selma was saying - the processes of reading, writing and speaking and listening are inherently linked. Jasmin makes a connection to Vygotsky's point about not being able to think without language, so the development of speech is incredibly imporant. Jone, one of my Spanish students, had a slightly briefer though quite fascinating point -

"Talking. Talking is more natural than writing."

This links really well to what Vygotsky said - Vocalising thoughts comes a lot more naturally than writing or reading and I think that children should be encouraged to use the method that makes them feel most comfortable. That isn't to say that I will forgo reading or writing by a long shot, but I think that Talk for Learning needs a much more prominent role in the classroom if we are to develop more confident children. I feel I am not going to have a quiet classroom and I'm proud to say it.

VYGOTSKIĬ, L. S., & COLE, M. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

And thanks to Jone, Jasmin and Selma for answering my questions!

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