Let the Children Speak!


Courtesy of Public Speaking for Kids

Two dialogues from classrooms with very different learning environments.  Can you guess which one allows for more learner autonomy, emergent language, and student participation?

S: Ehm, how old is your father?
L: My father is forty years old. And how old is your father?
S: Fifteen years old.  How old is your mother?
L: My mother is thirty-nine years old.
S: How old are you?
L: I’m twelve.  How old are you?
S: I’m eleven.  What are your foreign languages?
L: My foreign languages are Sport, Textil.  What are your foreign languages?
S: My foreign languages are Biologie, Textil and German.
L: Ehm.
S: Oh, ah how ah how ne, what is the name or your father?
L: The name of my fater is Felix.  And what is the name of your father?
S: Ehm, the name of my father is ah Bernd, ah.
L: What’s the name of your mother?
S: Ehm, ah, my mother’s name is Maria.  And your mother’s name?
(Legenhausen, 1999:  166-167)

L: What should we talk about, Claus?
C: I don’t know, we could talk about our music group ‘Big Engine’.
L: Yeah, that’s a good idea.
C: I think it’s fun.  Now we have to play, ah , record our tape.
L: Yeah, the first time.
C: Yeah, it’s very exciting.  I have made a cover to our tape at home.
L: That one you showed me?
C: Yes.
L: The only thing it’s beautiful.
C: Beautiful?
L: Yes.
C: It’s lovely. (Laughing)
L: I think it’s good, too.
C: Yes.
(Legenhausen, 1999:  167)

In the above two dialogues, the students were put into pairs and given the very basic task of simply talking to each other in English for a few minutes.  The dialogues are from two classrooms of the same level and age but different countries with different learning environments.  Which one do you think comes from a classroom where children are given their own voice?

The first dialogue is from a German classroom where children learn from a textbook and follow a fairly prescriptive progression of learning targets.  The second dialogue is from a Danish classroom where learner autonomy is encouraged, the voice of the learners is listened to, and choice is an integral part of the learning process.  In the words of Legenhausen,the researcher who conducted the study, the Danish learners “do not construe a contrast between authentic and didactic tasks” (Legenhausen, 1999:  181).

This was a post I’ve been yearning to write for a while and Dave Dodgson’s recent post told me the time had come.  Dave reflects on why, after years of English language instruction, learners still have poor communicative ability.  As Dave hints at, I think the key lies in the contrast we see above.  Text book type teaching and prescriptive curriculums simply don’t engage learners.  Further more, the English language becomes only something used in the classroom; it’s not seen as a part of who they are or connected to their life.  For language to be truly internalized, it has to become part of a learner’s identity, not something done to them at school.  What do you think?



  • By Scott, September 20, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    Thanks for posting that, Nick. This is research that Ema Ushioda mentioned in her plenary at IATEFL a year or two back, and which I’ve been trying to get hold of ever since. It’s referenced in a German language book called Autonomes Fremdsprachlernen, edited by Edelhoff and Weskamp, and published by Hüber, 1999. How the devil did you find it?

  • By Adam, September 20, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    I’d be interested to see how these two dialogues developed beyond the two extracts we see here.

    The first seems fairly wretched while the second seems like a conversation that two humans might actually have.

    Of course, there’s the possibility that in either of these situations the learners might have been ‘primed’ by the teacher and that, particularly in the first case, the students could have done a lot more with the language if they’d not been fed a series of prompts.

    I think it’s a gross over generalization to state that text book type teaching and prescriptive curricula simply don’t engage learners. A lot don’t, certainly, but that’s as much if not more down to how they are applied by the institution or the individual as to the curriculum itself. Fair enough, there are plenty of bad curricula out there but there are also a lot of good ones being poorly realized.

    Never forget that there are many positives to text books, which are prepared using masses of scientific data to analyze language use and present it as efficiently as possible. Most people come a cropper when trying to apply a book to a context for which is was not designed. Recognizing the possibilities of emergent language that isn’t in the text book and exploiting it is a direction that I’d like to see the dogme movement take in the coming years.

  • By turklis1, September 20, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    It’s in a piece Ushioda wrote for a new collection called “Identity, Motivation, and Autonomy in Language Learning” released by Multilingual Matters.

  • By turklis1, September 20, 2011 @ 4:01 pm

    Hi Adam, just like Scott, I’d like to get my hands on the full study, the excerpt this comes from did not indicate any prompts that were used besides ‘speak in English for a few minutes with a partner’.

    I think there are ways to apply prescriptive curricula to the learners, but it’s very often a deviation from the curricula and therefore often considered undesirable by the people who make or oversee the curriculum. Take for example a unit on sports with a class of mostly housewives. The curriculum prescribes that in this unit they learn how to express likes and dislikes about various sports along with learning some interesting sports terminology. With this group of learners, why even bother with that topic at all? When I refer to a prescriptive curricula, I’m referring to ones that generally prescribe the pace, vocabulary, and structures in a way that allows for little or no deviation. This could be because of administration, assessment questions, or the sheer amount of material being covered. A prescriptive curriculum also by definition assumes that the curriculum designer knows better than the students what they need to learn and what they are interested in, both of which I don’t agree with.

    Sure, there are advantages to text books, but I think the above snippet of research points to one of their many dangers. I also honestly believe the text books are designed more for teachers who are so buried in paperwork or who don’t have a postive enough environment with strong mentors that they need it both as a guide and a time-saver rather than something that’s created for the students.

  • By turklis1, September 20, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    I would also add that I think it’s something David is referencing in his previous post. Why does it seem like the children haven’t learned much or at least become somewhat comfortable with the language in 5 years? Of course there are no simple, pat answers to that question, but I think the above is certainly a factor.

  • By DaveDodgson, September 21, 2011 @ 1:34 am

    Hi Nick and thanks for extending the discussion here.

    One crucial factor that I mentioned in my post is the slow manner of progression made as kids at my school move through the grades. They spend an eternity on ‘have got’, ‘can’ and present simple without ever seeing past tenses, even passively in stories. Why? because the coursebooks used just keep them going over the same old thing again and again.

    But, naturally, there are other factors as well, one of which I have seen close up this week. I am teaching mainly in the 5th grade this year and one of my current classes was previously taught by me when they were 3rd graders. From the very first day, I was teaching them functional language to use in class (asking for help and permission, explaining problems etc) and very quickly these phrases became second nature to them and many of them started to adapt these ‘chunks’ to make new phrases and questions all on their own.

    However, their teachers last year did not continue this and now they are struggling to say even the simplest things like ‘I haven’t got my notebook today’ (they were coming out with things like ‘Sorry, I left it at home’ by the end of 3rd grade). As soon as the classroom becomes a place of ‘follow the coursebook’ where English is a lesson and nothing else, the practical use of language (for the majority of students at least) disappears

  • By turklis1, September 21, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    Hi Dave, I would completely agree with your comments based on my own experience as well. I often find that material taught outside the curriculum is what ends up being the most valuable and most used. Like you said, simple routines for the classroom are great because that language is real and useful to the students. They can see it as part of their lives. Vapid discussions centered around checking out books from a library when there really aren’t libraries in Turkey doesn’t bring the language home in the same way.

    It’s interesting to me that your curriculum is so slow paced. I often find the exact opposite to be the problem in many places. The curriculum is so fast and expects so much there is no time to really look at or retain anything. Good reminder that pacing should be balanced.

    Good discussion and thanks for bringing it up!

  • By Adam, September 21, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    I’m really enjoying this discussion (I must go over and comment on Dave’s post, too).

    As someone who works on the curricula at my university, I’m well aware of the perils you allude to and admit that many teachers find it all too easy to fall into the trap of teaching by numbers.

    It’s a shame that course books aren’t – we presume – used as a springboard for emergent language, which they easily could be. I think I’ll be blogging this year about how I deviate from the course book whenever I can and how I use the prescriptive syllabus documents that I myself helped to develop as a springboard rather than a crutch. Sounds like a plan.

  • By Anne-Marie Barraja-Rohan, October 12, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Thanks for your post, very interesting. To be honest the minute my eyes set on the first conversation I knew it had a fake sense to it, very construed, whereas the 2nd one has a natural occurrence to it, ecological in a sense. I’m pleased that this kind of research is happening in children’s classrooms. I used to teach ESL to adults and am a strong believer in getting people find their own voice in L2. I have found that conversation analysis has helped me teach conversational English and has helped students understand what is going on below the sentence structure. By showing them what really occurs in native speaker conversations, learners then can take what they need and use it for themselves in a communicative situation. It’s not about advocating what they should say, rather it’s about what happens when they say X, Y or Z, the illocutionary force and perlocutionary effect. If you’re interested in a different approach to teaching oral communication skills to adults you can check my blog.

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