Myths ripe for busting

Classroom practice is due for a rethink, argues Martine Pillette

New century, new programme of study: fundamental change or merely a cosmetic job? Most of all, a welcome chance to rethink a few of the theories which - in the past 10 or 15 years - have led to some established and largely unquestioned classroom practices.

Myth 1: 'Don't introduce the written word too soon' The written word is often blamed for interfering with accurate pronunciation, hence advice such as: "Don't show new words until your pupils have done intensive listen-and-repeat practice" or, in extreme cases: "Don't introduce and written language in the first three months of the course."

But when faced with such blind tactics, many learners try to devise their own spellings as memory props. Besides, when it comes to poor pronunciation, I do not perceive the written word as "the bad guy". Instead, I blame the failure to teach pronunciation and to do so in relation to spelling. Unless learners are taught the sound-spelling system, they dare not guess at pronunciation and become reluctant speakers.

This highlights the need to rethink language presentation techniques to preclude a dichotomy between the look of words and the sound of words. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority requirement to teach "the principles and interrelationship of sounds and writing in the target language" is therefore welcome. After all, this is what children are learning to do in their English lessons at key stage 1.

Myth 2: 'Put topics first' Formerly, translation and writing picture stories in the past historic was what mattered. Then came the topic approach, with its worthwhile aim of putting communication first. Shame about the rote learning, though. The excessive focus on topics has generated a lexical overdose in the early years - hardly a suitable foundation for sustained progression. Learners may know dozens of nouns but cannot create their own messages because structures fail them. The problem persists in the GCSE years, where may learners perceive each topic in isolation and therefore display few signs of linear progression.

By not listing topics any more, the revised programme of study rightly seeks to redress the balance by inviting us to address topics as contexts rather than as an end in themselves, and to make more room for skills - including grammar. This has fundamental implications. For example, energies need to be focused more on building a solid foundation in the early years than on devising repair measures in the exam years in the unrealistic hope of rescuing learners who have already lost the plot. No cosmetic job after all.

Myth 3: 'Grammar is a retrograde step' Grammar is back on the agenda - as the backbone for communication and creativity. Given that learners are now investigating how th English language works through their literacy training, the good news is that they are more likely than previous generations to accept grammar as a natural part of foreign language learning.

Besides - and not discarding the need for differentiation - grammar provides essential tools across the ability range. Indeed, when starved of any knowledge of patterns, learners are left to rely on rote learning: hardly easier and more motivating than learning to apply a few codes. Ask your pupils what they prefer: memorising phrases without understanding how their constituent parts are put together, or carrying out substitution activities that enable them to create new messages.

Myth 4: 'Independent reading is a luxury' The main foreign languages taught in the United Kingdom are full of cognates which, as long as the resources are adequate, can make a wealth of reading matter accessible event to beginners. After all, learners - did I say boys? - tend to find topics such as sisters or pet rabbits somewhat limiting after a while. Besides, independent reading is known to have many positive effects on overall linguistic development: passive vocabulary acquisition and grammar reinforcement to name but a few.

The programme of study asks for "listening, reading and viewing for personal interest and enjoyment, as well as for information". I know about the pressure of time. Teach 10 new words today and you can check whether pupils know them tomorrow. With independent reading, the positive learning outcomes cannot be measured so quickly and directly. But if we are serious about progression, we need to make more room for long-term objectives in schemes of work.

Myth 5: 'There never is enough time' Where lesson time is in short supply, classroom techniques have to be assessed carefully for their effectiveness. Do drawing and colouring enhance learning or are they a time-filler? When pupils are in slow mode, why not ask them to work against the clock and possibly in teams, to add a competitve edge for good measure? If too much teaching by topics does not work - as shown when learners have to be taught O puis-je...? afresh each time they start a new topic - would it not be more time-effective to teach language functions such as convincing or seeking permission more explicitly? If dishing out worksheets galore wastes precious time, why not opt for resources that take the "less is more" approach? If "death by past papers" does not improve performance, why not work on fewer past papers but focus more on skills and techniques? The programme of study is, after all, about skills as well as knowledge and understanding.

Martine Pillette is an in-service training provider. Her publications include: 'Tips for Busy Language Teachers' (Collins), and 'Formule X' (Collins), reviewed on page18

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