Traditional Teaching

For thousands of years kids learned languages by listening to them. Meaningful, comprehensible input was all they knew, so the languages they heard were easy for them. Adults would say things to them that had meaning, look them in the eyes, tell them stories, pause if they didn’t understand, look for their reaction, smile and laugh, sing them songs, and, on a good day, even chant. Adults would ask them questions repeatedly. They learned because it felt right, because what they heard meant something to them.

Then, for the first time since kids started learning languages, they found out they could be wrong. Unexpectedly, adults started asking kids to learn languages not by listening to them, but by looking at them, how they were constructed, the pieces of language, etc.

Kids were forced into analyzing language, trying to understand what an adverb is, as if that could be understood, and what a stem changing verb is. They saw that their success depended on their ability to grasp these ideas. They stopped listening to the language in a way that had meaning to them, and they started conjugating verbs. This new method had predictable results. Kids learned slowly. Many gave up and put their heads on the desk. It felt wrong to them. But it went on for a hundred years. It is still going on.

Then Blaine Ray came along, and said, “What is going on here?” Blaine suggested that we return to more traditional ways of teaching, ways that convey meaning to the learners. A few embraced his ideas, but many attacked him as being “non-traditional”.

One is prompted to ask, “Who, really, are the traditional teachers?” Blaine and his merry band, or those who espouse the new-fangled notion that the way to learn a language is by breaking it up into little pieces and analyzing them?

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One Response to “Traditional Teaching”

  1. Mark Says:

    The notion that you can only learn a language by sweating it out is a hard one to shake. We’re so conditioned to believe in our culture than anything worth doing is worth doing the hard way. I imagine even many, perhaps most, teachers that have nominally embraced Krashen’s CI Hypothesis and related hypotheses have really only done so maybe 70%. They agree that comprehensible input is very important but still devote half the class to grammar-based work and “practice” speaking exercises.

    I remember as an adult student of Spanish I was very attached to the notion that I wasn’t getting much from a class unless I could spend lots of time practicing speaking and gets lots of correction! That I didn’t start to gain fluency in Spanish until I really started listening didn’t occur to me till much later.

    One of the things that I ran into as an EFL teacher of mostly adults (down in Guatemala) was dealing with student expectations: the expectation of grammar work and speaking practice. I would begin each course with a discussion of Krashen’s principles but people don’t really believe till they experience. I found that I needed to give them ample opportunity to retell stories just so they would feel like the “did” something in class. Whether or not the time spent retelling contributed to acquisition or not, it did contribute to overall satisfaction with the class experience at least in the short term.

    I would imagine you would have less problem countering these kinds of expectations with younger students.

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