Making Target Language Stick – Part 2

In my last post about teaching an elementary student called Ben I tried to work out why he doesn’t seem to retain the language we learn during class. Since then I’ve had two lessons with him, so it’s high time I reflected on them!

Ben and I are currently working through a book called All of Us, and our target structure for the last few lessons has been “I’m going to verb“. After the first lesson it was clear he’d heard the phrase before, but unsurprisingly he got it mixed up with “I’m going to noun” and the present progressive in general. Faced with this confusion I felt I had two choices:

1 – hit the confusion head on and try to make him to notice the difference.
2 – recognise the confusion and use the lesson to help him notice the difference.

The first would count as just showing him the difference and demonstrating it. The second would be more a case of acquisition, as there would be no explicit instruction. In that short moment I chose to briefly highlight on the whiteboard how they were different without focusing too much on the present progressive, instead emphasizing our target structure. I didn’t hesitate to relate the structures to their Korean equivalents to help him see the difference, and this helped us to move over the issue quickly and for Ben to understand the difference without using precious working memory resources trying to understand my English explanation of it.

After making the difference clear I prepared a range of activities to help practice and produce our target grammar, which began with highly scaffolded bottom-up practice of the structure, then moved to an activity where Ben could refer to the grammar if he wasn’t sure about it. The activity was a game which consisted of us choosing somewhere to go and guessing what the other person was going to take or buy there, for example, “Are you going to take a bucket and spade?” (to the beach).

By the end of the activity he didn’t really need the structure, and we were having fun trying to guess what the other person would take to various paces. Great!

We’re going to go on vacation!

But then when he was leaving I asked him a couple of quick, genuine questions which he just couldn’t seem to answer… What are you going to do now? He clearly understood, but he stuck to his habit of one-word answers: play with friends.

Was it the unexpected pressure of the moment which meant he couldn’t answer? Was the way we used the structure  in class too narrow or inauthentic? Is it just because he’s not yet confident with the structure and needs to spend more time practicing it? Perhaps we just need a few more open activities to help him realize how to use the language.

I don’t think the way I taught him was completely ineffective, though there are no doubt better methods and I could have provided more opportunities for him to speak. But I can’t help but think that the problem lies elsewhere.

It could be the fact that one 60 minute lesson a week is simply just now enough time to learn a language (I remember reading that 5 hours a week is a good target for language instruction, though the source escapes my memory).

Or is it possible that I’m teaching him something too difficult, and that he’s not yet ready for this kind of language? I always get the feeling that Ben is really good at following instructions and copying the language in the moment, but that he’s just copying rather than learning. He’s been, well, schooled. So I think I’m facing the task of really getting him to engage with the material at a deep level of processing, and I’m not really sure how I’m going to do it.

The last comment to make about this class is an idea I came across in a recent #KELTchat on Twitter about English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). While we had a good dialogue on the subject, what stood out to me was the slightly unrelated opinion that the very idea of target language is problematic. I’m thankful to @Kurtkohn for pointing me one of his articles which seems to give a thorough analysis of these issues, which I’ll hopefully get to when my MA final essays are in next week.

So. Am I just trying to teach Ben the wrong thing by focusing on target language as described above? Is this why he’s finding it difficult to retain the language each week? Or do I just need to give it more time and more practice? I’d be grateful to hear any thoughts or ideas!

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