Figure 1. me is a Spanish personal pronoun.
The situation in the picture shown above happened to me (though that's not me in the picture!) many years ago. I had pre-taught some nice functional classroom language phrases in English to my nine-year-olds and during a quiet drawing/writing activity students came up to the front of the class and asked: "Can I have a pencil, please?", "Can I have a rubber, please?". Then suddenly, this little chap approached me and asked for a pencil in Spanish. I reminded him to formulate his question in English. His seemingly honest reply in Spanish, "How do you say me in English?", stumped me. He was genuinely asking me to translate the Spanish pronoun me into English to produce a word-for-word translation, which would have been something like "(To) me give a pencil?". I realised I had to completely ignore his request for a direct translation. I had to forego any type of authenticity in this conversation and just override his earnestness to dialogue with a bland functional expression.
And that is just what I did. I believe I remember we had something like the following conversation:
Me: Repeat - "Can I have a pencil?" (A lot of exaggerated mouth-moving and pointing to his mouth so he got the idea he must repeat).
Him: "Can I have a pencil?" (Not pronounced anything like that! Did he know what he was saying?)
Me: Right. Here's a pencil.
Him: ¿Puedo cogerlo? (Can I take it?).
Me: Yes! I just said... Yes, yes, pencil for you. (I put the pencil in his hand and pointed to his chair.)
He went and sat down with the pencil.
But what was the point of using English at all in this situation? I could have made gorrilla grunts and produced similar results! Clearly, the technique of saying "repeat after me" is a useless one for helping students acquire a new language and yet many times teachers find themselves resorting to this or just giving up altogether.
As teachers gain greater experience in their professional practice the occasions when they must ask learners to "repeat after me" diminish. Teachers learn to scaffold* language tasks so as retain authenticity in discourse with learners yet still elicit the targeted language. In the "can I have a pencil" example above, I failed in any attempt at scaffolding, obfuscated by the inclusion of a large chunk of functional language too large for the analysis the learner required. However, even in situations where the teacher believes eliciting language will be easy, discourse can become confused and lead to frustration. The following from a conversation I overheard during an observation of a class between less experienced teacher and a Spanish learner of English. The teacher's objective was to get the learner to use the verb "like" and to express his likes and dislikes. Football seemed a likely topic.
Figure 2. Eliciting the target language we want from our students to practise can often prove unpredictable.
(¿Qué? = what? Betis is a Seville football team.)
Young learners, especially, can be oblivious of an instructor's intentions to practise a language item and instead will focus on the literal meaning of discourse (Lightbown and Spada 1999). At some point during the six stages of this dialogue the teacher expected Paco to use the verb "like". The teacher's frustration in the end leads her to resort to saying (though not meaning) that she liked Betis football team - much to Paco's delight at having found a fellow Betis supporter!
Among other beneficial features, Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) identified the following about scaffolding:
- simplifying the task,
- maintaining pursuit of the goal,
- marking critical features and discrepancies between what has been produced and the ideal solution,
- controlling frustration during problem solving,
- demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.
However, as Ellis (2008:235) points out in an extract he himself recorded, a teacher may have to gently back down and relinquish her/his target language eliciting objective. In this case, however, she does so gracefully to ensure authenticity prevails and reduce possible learner tension at not properly comprehending. She is showing a beginner learner a picture of a bicycle with no pedals. She wants the learner to say what is wrong with the bicycle.
T. I want you to tell me what you can see in the picture or what's wrong with the picture.
L. A /paik/ (= bike)
T. A cycle, yes. But what's wrong?
L. /ret/ (= red)
T. It's red, yes. What's wrong with it?
T. Black. Good. Black what?
L. Black /taes/ (= tyres).
Ellis describes the final outcome as a "co-construction" where eventually, after not receiving the answers she was hoping for, the teacher changes tack and provides the learner with the empathetic gambit, "Black what?", which allows the learner to feel his utterance is coherent and meaningful. Despite the adeptness of the teacher's intervention, her original goal has not been achieved. On the other hand, if this were a test situation regarding the learner's ability to comprehend in a fluency output situation, the teacher has gleaned the learner does not possess the L2 knowledge for the task and can arrive at a valid assessment. Then again, if the objective was to encourage discourse and facilitate a framework for language development, the lack of comprehensible input affords very limited exposure for acquisition.
Due to the comprehension upsets that may arise from spoken discourse in the classroom, text materials are usually brought in as a safe haven to facilitate understanding. Target language from the course curriculum such as the class text book is usually introduced through written text for students from about seven or nine years old upwards. When teachers practise previously presented language, they will often use the same medium (text) for guiding students in activities in the target structures such as sentence matching, gap-fills, etc. Text presentation is considered useful for foreign language learning as it is a way to visualize L2, which in turn can help deal with the abstraction of the unfamiliar sounds of foreign words. Text becomes the dominant tool for oral language practice. Most teachers will be familiar with the following style of diagrams to elicit oral practice in the classroom.
Text is an essential tool for L2 practice as it the only one known to teachers that allows students to have a visual reference of the L2. It also "fixes" language on the page or on the board and ensures our students focus on the target language.
Unfortunately, text is a poor tool for oral practice of L2 for the following reasons:
a) Students passively read text following its phonetic clues. The above "I like / don't like" chart provides little for the students to think about. If the student is not challenged mentally, acquisition will be slow.
b) It is possible to read a foreign language (even aloud) and not comprehend the meaning.
c) Text-based practice exercises which require active cognitive interaction are usually non-holistic; gap-fill exercises, for example. They make students think about language but only focus on very specific items while essential accompanying lexis is overlooked. For example, it would be better if Paco (see above) could be challenged to produce in its entirety:
"I don't like Barcelona"
rather than the lexis/grammar specific:
I don't ______ Barcelona. (like/likes)
d) Students tend to convert text to oral language with the consequent transfer of L1 phonetics interpreting written words in L2 leading to inaccurate pronunciation ("bread" becomes /breiæd/ for Spanish natives, for example).
Text, then, is better-adapted towards academic tasks such as L2 writing practice but poor for training students in communicative oral speech.
On the other hand, the more we deviate from the text-control tool, the less easy it is to draw students towards practice of the language we require from them or even to get them to speak at all. Text-based practice in L2 learning may be an inefficient tool for improving oral skills yet teachers tend to depend on it extensively due to a fear of loss of control of student language output when text is absent.
Figure 4. Mutual comprehension is happiness. Gesture in the classroom.
In the situation in Figure 4, when the student blurts out something in Spanish or struggles to express himself in English, the teacher gestures in silence what the student wants to say in English. As this gesture code has been built up over time in the classroom and is always introduced during the presentation of new language, there is immediate understanding. The student finds the gestures guide him/her to produce the correct utterance in English. There need be no corrections or spoken demands that the student produces the utterance - just a silent reminder and guiding through gestures.
Figure 5. Facilitating utterances in English through gestures. A gestural version of the conversation in Figure 2.
In practice sessions of oral English, the teacher can not only successfully elicit the answers but also the questions - the student produces the whole conversation! If the student just answers "no" and the teacher wants that full sentence answer, she just needs to gesture and the student produces. Furthermore, the student must interpret the gestures, conjugate and construct, which means this is not a passive reading task but that active cognitive interaction required for foreign language acquisition.
*Scaffolding is defined by Ellis (2008) as "the process by which one speaker (as expert or a novice) assists another speaker (a novice) to perform a skill that they are unable to perform independently".
Article based on findings from Phd thesis. (Bilbrough 2017).
Ellis, R. (2008). The Study of Second language Acquisition, ed. OUP.
Ellis, R. (2008b). The Study of Second language Acquisition, ed. OUP. p.235.
Lightbrown, P. M. & Spada, N. 1999. How languages are learned, revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wood, D., Bruner, J. & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17: 89-100.
Wray, Alison (2002). Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.9.
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