Words and letters may not be all they’re cracked up to be

Today I want to tell a story. This story had an impact on the way that I organize my lessons, the way that I view my role as a teacher, and the importance of remembering or memorizing dialogs for language learning.

This story comes to us from Plato’s Phaedrus. In the story Socrates tells the story of Theuth, an Egyptian god who  discovered numbers, calculation, geometry, and writing. One day Theuth was talking to the king of Egypt, Thamus, and said that he had a special gift. There is a thing that if the people learn it, they will improve their memories and become wiser. The king replied that Theuth’s perception of writing was skewed, and that he did not understand it properly. Instead of remembering and understanding things, students would rely on writing as a way of being reminded. Students will be exposed to many ideas, but will not think about them properly, and while appearing to be wise, will know nothing.

I came to two conclusions after reading this story.

1. In a general sense, presenting material in a written form and not expecting students to remember it detracts from their ability to improve their intelligence. It has been shown that simple memory ability can predict intelligence, and that ability can be improved through practice.

 2. Written words interfere with my students’ acquisition of English. This may sound like a rediscovery of the audio lingual method, and it may be, but without most of the behaviorist theory. In classes that I teach, I use my own teaching materials. I have been handing out the materials before an activity, and when it involves the use of a dialog, the students have it before they listen to me and/or my partner teacher repeat the dialog.

As a result of reading this story, I started to think about what was happening with my students. This, I guess, is the sequence they experience.

1. Materials received. Begin to read content.
2. Follow teacher’s direction to look at the dialog (which they have read, if only silently, already).
3. Listen to the teacher(s) read the dialog while looking at the words on paper.
4. Follow the teacher’s direction to read and repeat
5. Move on to related activities

They have read the dialog and heard what was said then by the teachers through their own filers first, and move on before having time to incorporate what is said.

To test this presumption about students’ perceptions, I altered my presentation method. Since my students are at a beginner level, I chose a dialog that was applicable to the content we were going to cover anyway, so as to remain within the bounds of the syllabus, but shorter than the one originally planned.

This was the progression I used for both classes.
1. Instructed students not to write anything.
2. Introduced pre-listening questions
3. Reviewed answers to pre-listening questions
4. Asked students to repeat the dialog section by section after me, imitating my speech whether they “understood” it or not.
5. I then split the class into groups to recite parts of the dialog, which they were now beginning to memorize.
6. Finally, I asked them to use a pencil and do a dictation of the dialog, after which I gave each of them a paper version of the dialog to check their written dialog against.
7 I explained the content in Japanese (their L1) and then read it again with the paper.
8. We then practiced the dialog with the paper.

Judging by their reactions, the students experienced a heightened awareness of pronunciation and meaning in the dialog without having a print version available at the beginning. Since they were only listening to me and then repeating the dialog, they were less likely to read it in a Japanese pronunciation as they are encouraged to do in some of their high school classes.

They were more realized and playful than times when they were given a written version of the dialog first.

After reading the tale of Theuth and Thamus, I became convinced that letters can be counterproductive, especially if the one goal of the class is to remember and make language part of the learners’ intellectual too kit. Simply reading aloud promotes the reuse and reinforcement of fossilized language habits.
(Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Thoth.svg)

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