Wittgenstein for Learners

I think these quotes are apt for pondering language learning and expression. (Images are not restricted by license).

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A Game of Consequences

This is a wonderful and classic game to play in a classroom to get a collaborative comic book narrative from the students. The game is as old as the hills and is also known under the names of exquisite corpse (a Surrealist version of the game), consequences, comic jam, and a hundred other variations.

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In an ESL context, the game takes a fair bit of instruction to set up properly, and several iterations & tweaks to get it executed optimally. The instructions have to be really clear and initially there is a lot of monitoring involved so that students don’t get the format mixed up or out of kilter with each other.

1. Organize the students into a circle if possible. This activity works best with five or six students — preferably of a Lower Intermediate level or above.

2. Tell the students that they are going to write a story (in fact, five stories) together, but that they won’t know what the stories are until they are finished. 

3. Distribute a sheet of paper to each person.

4. Ask everyone to write a sentence. This is the beginning and can be anything they like. If necessary, stress that they cannot talk to each other about what they are writing.

5. Then, under their sentence, ask them to draw a small picture about what they wrote.

6. They then fold the paper so the sentence is not visible, but the picture is.

7. The paper is passed to the person next to them. Each person writes a new sentence next to (not under) the picture. Emphasise that the sentence should be about this particular picture.

8. When they have completed this, ask each student to draw another picture about what they have written, under the previous bit.

9. Then ask everyone to make a fold again between the new picture and the former sentence.

10. Pass the papers once more.

11. Repeat until the papers are full and the stories are complete.

12. Ask them to read their stories, and also read them to the class, while everyone has a laugh. Analyze the grammatical errors.

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I like the game because it’s bizarre, surreal, creative and entertaining. The students are generating meaning within the parameters of a group activity, yet with enough scope to add their own individualism and creativity. It’s fun, in a way it is therapeutic, and it gets them getting to grips with the concept of short narratives. So give it a crack. It’s not about getting stuff perfect sometimes, it’s about enjoying the class and using what English you can; imaginatively.

 

 

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A Myopic Mode of Teaching

Here’s a post I recently put on WeChat (a sort of Chinese Facebook) bemoaning this common preference.

“I frequently meet people who say they want 1-to-1 English classes for their child, or for themselves. But why?? One-on-one classes are NOT the best way to learn.

1. They can be boring for the learner

2. They can be difficult for the teacher

3. And costly for the parent

The best number in an ESL class is 4-10: that way you can do group activities, games, and get lots of speaking opportunities. It’s just better value all round.”

Although most people agreed that this format is flawed and basically inefficient, some also offered explanations along the lines of parents wanting the best for their child; ergo maximum attention from the teacher — the implication being that more students means it’s harder for the teacher to control the class.

I feel this reaction is extreme though and certainly exacerbated by the one-child policy. The simple truth is that: two heads are better than one. I’m not suggesting packing people in à la state education. I just believe in having more than one solitary soul being taught in a hermetically sealed bubble with ultimately limited scope and variety.

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A Philosophical Meandering

People might say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but how can that be true when it is hard for us to see anything in nature as ugly, except that which is crepuscular — i.e. things that crawl out at night. There is a fundamental spectrum of beauty in the universe that comes only from light. Hence the bower bird and the bat enchant and repulse in equal measure. So indeed maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s just that the beholder may not be us. Yet somehow greater than the presence of beauty is the metaphysical sense deep within us that interprets it, puts stock in it and intwines it with our feelings, which radiate out as if from an all-encompassing inner diamond, to those connected on our wavelengths, in particular, not the electromagnetic wavelengths of light and heat, but the electo-man-get-it wavelengths of auditory perception, that is, the metaphysical sense we share in language.

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Practising the Art of Writing

CreativeContextsCover-smallThis is a new book that my father wrote before he passed away. It is a structured course in creative writing providing opportunity for learners to work through a variety of exercises individually.

Family bias aside, this is a course that gets right to the heart of the writing process and which reflects his expertise as a teacher and a writer. However the book was never published in his lifetime, so I’m releasing it here on Amazon.

Contexts for Creative Writing

Although the course is designed for L1 users (KS3 and above), when you see the directness and simplicity of the exercises then you see how easily transferable they are to ESL and all teachers of English, as well as for anyone wishing to develop writing skills in general.

Here is the rationale.

This book is based on the belief that the best writing comes not out of the blue but from a context in which the writer can feel involved, and that writing needs as much practical emphasis as a craft as does woodwork, art or music.

To aid involvement each chapter contains an initial situation to provide a context which is explored and broken down in a workshop fashion, the practices learned being then applied to a variety of similar situations.

The contexts themselves cover a range of writing opportunities and functions — factual and analytic, descriptive and imaginative, dramatic and narrative — exploring the particular needs and challenges of each. They are also progressive and from chapter to chapter there is a development to more complex situations and styles.

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The Holy Grail of Communication

ciceroMy rather long-winded definition of fluency is the ability to speak quickly and effectively on a subject while demonstrating an easy flow of language in which thought is articulated effortlessly with meaning being fully conveyed on a broad range of topics.

Problems with fluency include

— long pauses

— omissions

— repetitions

— revisions

— stuttering

— badly mangled syntax

— badly distorted pronunciation (the cause 80% of communication breakdowns at my, admittedly rough, estimate)

— poor prosody

However, for a better understanding of the nature of the aptitude it is helpful to turn to the thesaurus to further consider some words that come under the semantic field of fluency:

Competence – having adequate skills and knowledge to produce and understand language.

Performance – being able to use the skills and knowledge in real situations.

Proficiency – the ability to speak or perform sufficiently fluently and accurately.

Loquacity – very talkative and communicative, but often with a tendency to ramble.

Eloquence – the ability to express thoughts, feelings and ideas with aplomb.

Articulate (adj) – able to formulate clear, precise and effective language.

Articulation – the movements of speech organs to produce language

Elocution – the study of formal speaking with an emphasis on ‘proper’ pronunciation.

Prosody – delivery of natural intonation, rhythm and stress.

Enunciation – the act of speaking clearly – the opposite of mumbling.

Diction – another word for enunciation/clarity in voice.

Diction – the adroit use of vocabulary, hence Dictionary.

Phraseology – the act or style of choosing certain chunks in expressing oneself.

Oratory – the study of soapbox performances, rhetoric, persuasiveness and debate.

Erudition – polished and deep knowledge of a wide range of subjects

Wit – quickness and skill in making funny remarks

The words highlighted in red indicate an emphasis on form rather than meaning. When speaking a language, fluency is more important than accuracy, that is to say, meaning is ultimately more important than form. And thus fluency is slightly different to proficiency. Language is, first and foremost, about communicating. That means getting a message across, and cosmetic grammar and pronunciation inaccuracies do not, for the most part, preclude that.

Native speakers may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse topics and strategies, inaccurate word use, use non-standard grammar, and may even be illiterate. But, they are still able to communicate well enough to be fully understood in any situation or subject they wish or need to talk about. A person like this is fluent but not proficient.

Of course teachers do not want to create illiterate, inaccurate speakers but it is important to know what communicative priorities are. Accurate language use, both in speaking and writing, can be acquired relatively easily once fluency has been established. Fluency on the other hand, takes a lot more work even after a person has learned English for years, has a good knowledge of grammatical rules, and has acquired a large vocabulary.

 

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A Classic Book by Otto Jespersen

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This book was first published in 1904 and is a classic in the field of language teaching. I have reformatted the text from the original and I’m offering it as a download here for free: Otto Jespersen — How to Teach a Foreign Language. As well as being a methodological pioneer, Jespersen was one of the world’s seminal linguists and, among other things, he is noted for discovering the Great Vowel Shift in Early Modern English. In language teaching he is known for being the father of the Direct Method — a landmark development in the evolution of language teaching, providing a more humanist approach emphasising not learning for learning’s sake, or even for simply communicative reasons, but also for enrichment and for the enjoyment of the learner.

Jespersen was one of the first proponents of the need for developing spoken proficiency and more natural production. As such, most modern language teachers today use a style that is inherited directly from this. The Direct Method represents the first movement away from Grammar Translation. It formed a much-needed practical and innovative revolution in teaching and while the book is over a century old, it still holds relevance and profound ideas for us now.

As you might expect though, there is a slight over-emphasis on accuracy and his approach is generally syntax-heavy. The book is extremely detailed, technical and logical. The text habitually tends towards what we might consider the unimaginative and one-dimensional, he never mentions role plays for example, nor indicates the types of tasks and activities of the huge variety that we have in our reach today. His descriptions of exercises are rigorous to a level that we might find excessively meticulous.

But he does outline a fundamental and thorough approach, offering countless exercises to present language and create interaction through context and induction, emphasis and elicitation. His ideas on texts are also very good and congruent with what is appropriate and optimal for learners (Chapter III), which is for me both validating and inspiring.

As well as this, Jespersen’s approach has a strong focus on phonology and the use of pictures in class, particularly student-generated pictures — which, if you are reader of this blog, you will know that I am a big fan of. He was also possibly the first writer to allude to the concept of immersion (Chapter IV).

But above all, the book is an advocacy of breaking with translation and goes to great lengths to provide a very clear and balanced view of translation’s (mis)use in learning. Jespersen was a true pedagogue and he left no stone unturned in investigating, reasoning his way through and using every ounce of his experience in understanding how we best learn languages.

 

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