Friday, May 30, 2008

L2 teaching methods: a reflection

I have been thinking about second language learning, its application in New York, its application in France, my classroom training, and my experiential training. Language learning has gone through many permutations and fads in the past decades. My mother can tell you that teaching methods are cyclical in their usage: one year it's the hot new thing to do, only to be thrown out the next year, but come back ten years later. I've been wondering about the required methodology here in France, its subsequent results in the general French population's linguistic success, and how it compares with everything I've been taught.

As a student at Cortland, the word "communicative" was pounded into our heads. Our lesson plan formats focused on permutations of grammar concepts that used the vocabulary. I have, you have, she has, we have, you all have, they have tea. I have tea at noon. You have tea at two o'clock in the afternoon. One of my favorite lesosn plan formats is PACE, which stands for Presentation, Attention, Comprehension, Expansion. It works like a dream for introducing new grammar ideas without shoving a conjugation table in your students' bewildered faces. (What's a conjugation, and why have I never heard that word until French class?) The focus of a communicative classroom is, obviously, organic communication using the memorized vocabulary lists and grammar structures in culturally appropriate situations. As a methods student and as a student teacher, I struggled with developing and implementing student-centered activities. I'm very good at talking; everyone who knows me knows that all too well. What is difficult for me is to "give up control" of the classroom and let the students discover the language on their own, while I provide the materials and culturally appropriate situations in which to practice their newfound communicative ability. This communicative approach is not immediately comfortable for me, but I managed some success in my student teaching placements.

As an EFL teacher in France, I am bound by the same national curriculum that my colleagues must follow. There is a required pedagogical approach in language education, and it mostly involves memorizing structures and replacing various vocabulary words. My students completely understand themselves when they say "My mom's name is Marie; she is tall and pretty; she is in the kitchen." I am expressly told, "Do not teach them grammar. Conjugations are done in middle school. You are here to teach them to speak with an authentic accent, vocabulary, and culture." After a couple of workshops and very little oversight for a first year teacher, I am happy and proud to say that I've grasped this methodology fairly well. My third grade students can tell you their name, age, favorite color, favorite farm animal, the day, the month, shapes, count to 20; my third graders can tell you their name, age, favorite color, physical and personal description, describe their family, name 32 different foods, and now the rooms and furniture in the house; my fifth graders can tell you about the weather, their clothes, the time, school subjects, and places in town. I am very proud of the progress my students have made in their expressive ability, albeit very limited in scope. However, I'm not allowed to teach them grammar, and quite frankly there is just not enough time or cognitive development for it to be of much use. They are only nine years old. My students had the hardest time reading the penpal letters Mom and Maggie sent because they were written with organic syntax, something my students couldn't possible broach based on their education. It stressed them out, and me as well. I thought my students could communicate; why don't they see the words they do know? I realised that this methodology has taught them into a memorized, structure begets structure, uncommunicative corner.

Recently, I've realised that the methodology I use here in France is the Audiolingual Method, or ALM. This is the method used in my parents' language classrooms. The teacher speaks exclusively in the target language; the students listen and parrot the structures, replacing vocabulary words. Little attention is paid to grammatical structures or concepts. The joke in the language education world is that the first phrase the students learn to say in the language is something so situationally exclusive that it's virtually impractical - things like "May I have another cup of coffee please?" It's very teacher-centered, and students almost passive absorb the language through osmosis. (I have slept on my Spanish grammar book. I still cannot conjugate the subjunctive correctly on the first try.) This method matches the French educational system well, as it is authoritarian and focuses on rote memorisation. Students participate in class by posing and responding appropriately to questions. This method lends itself easily to TPR, or Total Physical Response. I observed a TPR classroom while at Cortland. I was amazed at the students' communicative abilities but they had no concept of conjugations or syntax. I do TPR a lot just because miming instructions in English is easier for me than trying to figure out if "au-dessous" or "en-dessous" or "dessus" means "on top of" or "underneath." I cannot keep those straight.

The antithesis to ALM is the communicative approach that was preached to me at Cortland. This approach acknowledges the necessity of metacognition in language learning - students have a right to learn how they're learning the language. Students are encouraged to think about the language and develop organic utterances based on the grammatical structures and vocabulary. The teacher presents using authentic texts lke stories, poems, videos, and songs. This method lends itself easily to student-centered activities like dialogues, skits, listening exercises, and other tasks that the NYS Regents tests and that the National Standards emphasizes. I fully maintain that while my French fifth graders rocked the socks off the NYS Checkpoint A written evaluation (a 100-word note), the painfully weak attempts of my New York eighth graders were more communicative and organic.

In the past weeks, I've been thinking about the differences of teaching in France, teaching in New York, how my experience in France will help or hinder teaching in New York, and what this means for me as a language teacher. Has this experience trained me the "wrong" way? I mean, I have been told time and again by Jean and Patricia, my methods instructors, that language education must be communicative and student-centered; my parents, both excellent teachers, remind me constantly "It's not about you, Rose;" my best mentor Rhonda told me "You are not 100% responsible for their successes or failures." All of these things tell me that what I'm doing in France is the opposite of my training and the expected methodology in New York. Am I in trouble when I return?

I maintain that this experience in France is invaluable both professionally and personally. I am learning so much immersing myself in The Real France, which is what I really wanted when I applied for this job. I will have so much to offer a class of students in New York. I am learning so much about classroom management and lesson preparation. I am learning so much about how students learn language. I am learning that my family is more than important, and that someday I want a family as well with the man who supports me and loves me. However, despite all the lessons this experience has taught me about myself, life, people, teaching, and language education, I can't help but wonder if this is a step backwards in the world I intend to enter upon my return. I mean, I'm practicing the "no-no" methodology! How can I enter a New York classroom and effectively teach using the New York and national standards, American textbooks, and New York teenagers? I feel like I need to observe a New York classroom before I dive back in again. However, due to my schedule and logistic needs, I will probably go from the airplane into a classroom.

My beach reading this summer includes my methods textbooks and Spanish literature textbooks. I really need to reintroduce myself to American education and language learning methodology.

For the four remaining weeks, I will continue my English lessons as I have before, but trying desperately to incorporate more student-centered activities. Let them free!

Thank you for reading. I love teaching, I really do; I just hope I'm not doing it "wrong."


Jennie said...

Even after years of teaching different classes and levels and nationalities/first languages... sometimes I still feel at a complete loss when it comes to teaching English. I've studied teaching methods for so long, and I've merely come to the conclusion that those methods just don't work. I know what doesn't work - but I still have yet to figure out what does work best (self-study and in class!). And it's a bit frustrating because I feel like I should know more or feel more confident or something... Obviously I don't know how to explain it very well, but I get what you're saying. :)

Nicholas said...

I think you should stay in France and teach English instead of coming back home to teach French. That way I'll have an excuse to go to Europe, at some point anyway.

And also so I can continue bragging that my sister lives in France and teaches English to little kids.