Language learning as a tornado (or: yes, we do need to teach this again)

Don’t raise your hand because you might be in public, but are there any other ESL teachers out there who, in moments of frustration, have thought or said, But we covered that last class/week/semester/level/year? Yeah, thought so.

There are some skills that once learned are fully mastered and almost never regress, like walking, counting, reading (try looking at these words and not reading them to yourself), or riding a bike (so I’m told). Learning a language, sadly, isn’t among them. I studied German for 12 years including an undergraduate degree, but when I went back to Germany after a 15-year gap, my language use was pretty messy. Oh yes, I’d learned all the cases and articles and irregular verbs at some point, and I faintly remember something about strong and weak nouns, but now when I speak, I make so many mistakes that I’m a favorite source of parody. I told an entire summer school last year that they should wash their tie-dyed t-shirts in the dishwasher.

Language learning is dynamic: features of the target language are acquired, muddied, lost, and relearned. And that’s OK.

What is not OK is to insist that there’s something wrong with a learner who struggles with skills and structures that have previously been taught. Yes, I know we taught the present perfect tense in Level 3, but that doesn’t mean the student can use it correctly in Level 6. Why not? Well for a start, they probably practiced the tense in narrow, personal contexts (I’ve been to Canada! I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower! I’ve lived in Delaware for 8 years!), but now they’re expected to choose the correct tense when writing a literature review (researchers have found …. studies have demonstrated … recent evidence has called into question …). Not to mention the fact they have encountered a wider range of tenses since Level 3 as well as a whole bunch of other grammar and vocabulary that they’re trying to use correctly.

You can think of language learning as a tornado: the winds spiral (a popular metaphor for good curriculum design) but they do so in the shape of a funnel. As students become more proficient, they want or are expected to function in a wider range of contexts, which means drawing on more lexicogrammatical resources and using them in new ways. The ways we use present perfect in daily conversation are not the same as its functions in graduate research writing. Conversely, the kind of German I learned to understand 19th-century literature is not much help when I have to discipline 9 year olds who chase each other with staplers.

The same is true of skills and strategies. I’m getting a bit leary of these supposedly universal reading skills that textbooks call finding the main idea, differentiating facts and opinions, or reading subtitles. I suspect that, like writing strategies, these would be better taught in the context of genres where they are most naturally used. But my point here is that none of these skills should be considered so basic that they can’t be recycled at a higher level for a higher purpose.

Take, for instance, an old chestnut: identifying the author’s opinion. There’s nothing about this skill which makes it inherently more suitable for a lower level. It all depends on the sophistication of the writing. In a blog post that’s full of I think that … and we should all… and in my opinion … , learners with lower levels of proficiency  should be able to locate the opinion. But in more complex texts where the author draws on multiple interpersonal language resources to align and distance the reader, identifying the opinion (or more likely, multiple opinions of multiple voices) is far more challenging and certainly an appropriate task for advanced learners.

So, keep spiraling and expanding. Meanwhile, I have a dishwasher to repair.

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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