Stevick insists that oral communication should have the language and the reason to talk, otherwise it’s just an aeroplane without fuel (or with one wing). Discussing poems is not the first of the techniques he recommends, it’s one of the ‘other ways to oral activity’ – and yet it’s an intrinsically interesting and authentic way to encourage learners to speak. Students can discuss what happened in the poem, think about their own reaction, try to understand the writer in terms of language and ideas… It’s a nice reminder of how valuable those simple things are – and the benefit is that the students are really invested in the discussion.
My favourite teaching poem is, alas, not very romantic or mysterious. I use it to practise ‘th’ and ‘s’: I can think of six thin things… Well, you know how it goes 🙂 Anyone cares to share theirs?
Stevick considers ‘structural silence’ another type of audio aid, and says that it’s ‘the least used and least understood’. It’s so true! Sometimes we are so intent on filling all pauses that we are not using this wonderful tool enough. First of all, controlled silent moments can give students an opportunity to get their thoughts together without distractions (so Stevick recommends using longer silences at the end of the hour, after a big grammar presentation or a story, and shorter ones after each activity in a series. This can help separate stages and activities from one another, assist memorisation and accuracy, make language practice more meaningful. Finally, it may be helpful to combine structured silence with a visual aid to increase its impact. Wonderful, isn’t it?
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From drills, Stevick moves to memorisation: love those traces of the audiolingual approach! To memorise dialogues, he suggests using an interesting technique called ‘Memorising in 3D”. It’s done with a set of small objects, e.g. Cuisenaire rods, and there is a whole range of activities to choose from (I’ve reduced it and picked my favourites: you can go to the book for more):
- Build a copy of the dialogue with the rods together with the students, choosing different lengths and colours depending on the word.
- Build a copy of the dialogue or sentence from the end backward.
- Point at a word at a time and call out a student.
- Have students put words into phrases or ‘single breath-groups’.
- Remove one word/rod at a time and write it on the board, until the whole dialogue is on the board.
- Remove one rod at a time and have the students reconstruct the whole dialogue.
And the benefits are: better concentration, teacher’s silence, visual impact, better memorisation… Nice, isn’t it? It’s good to go back to older sources sometimes.
A bit later in the book, I’ve found an interesting explanation of how we can deal with mixed abilities and mixed reactions of a group of students. If some are eager for more variety, others are still enjoying an activity, and yet others are feeling lost and need more practice, the trick is to keep the content of the activity, but change the technique: so the ones who are ready to move ahead will feel that they are moving ahead, yet the others won’t be overloaded. And the best part: if you can learn enough ways to vary the technique, “all of these variations will not merely add to one another – they will actually multiply one another”.
What better incentive to never stop reading about new tricks of the trade? 🙂
Don’t we all like a good metaphor? Stevick can come up with quite a few. For example, to explain how short-term and long-term memory works, he uses the image of stencils lying on a small worktable (this is short-term memory). As new stencils are added, the older ones fall off the table on the floor. So, if you need to keep any of them for a bit longer, you need to attach them to the wall, for example, by rubbing them so that they are charged with static electricity (this is a metaphor for long-term memory). But if we keep charging them, they will stay for longer. However, if we want to hold them on the wall forever, we need to spray them with paint before they fall off. However, paint will keep just fragments and images of them, which is how our permanent memory actually works.
Sounds like a very useful way to teach students how to learn, do you agree?
When Stevick writes about communicative and linguistic competence as the learner’s goal, there are no surprises: we all know that the students need to know what to say and how to say it. However, there is also a third competence, which he calls ‘personal’ and lists several levels to it:
1) mastering techniques like using flash cards or making vocabulary notes (just another name for ‘learning how to learn’ skills, isn’t it?);
2) knowing which techniques work specifically for you (learner self-reflection?);
3) understanding the process of mastering a new technique (this is a bit vague for me, but it’s close to reflection and metacognitive processes);
4) knowing how to deal with emotions as they arise in the process of education (EQ?).
So, how does the teacher go about developing all these competencies? Give the students enough different options for (1); allow them to experiment for (2); comment on their progress, but don’t “talk it to death” for (3) and modify their teaching to deal with negative emotions, but remember that “you are dealing with a group of other humans who may be quite unlike each other” to help with (4).
Funny how people used to speak about the same things in ELT even 40 years ago!
I’ve always wanted to find an excuse to write more about Earl Stevick! Now that I mentioned humanistic approaches in two previous posts, it seems there’ll never be a better chance 🙂
So, here we go: Teaching and Learning Languages by Earl W.Stevick, my favourite ELT writer of all times. First published in 1982, but still very relevant – at least that’s what I think. By his own admission, Stevick wrote this tiny book as something practical, but not a ‘how-to-do-it’ book. He was focusing on the principles of teaching, on thinking about ‘how-it-works’, beginning from the first words the teacher says when they enter the classroom.
And here’s my favourite quote for today: “When you called the people there in front of you ‘class’, you accepted for yourself the role known as ‘teacher’, and along with it an obligation to help your students to move toward the goals that they brought with them.”
Quite a lot to unpack here: the advice to find out about the learners’ needs as soon as possible, the understanding that calling yourself a teacher means taking on a huge responsibility… Does this quote speak to you as well?