Return to the Universals
Nigel Norman on two studies of how pupils learn languages and what motivates them.
How do we learn languages? These two books represent scholarly, yet practical responses to that perplexing question. Faced with the methodological uncertainty born of policy innovation (the national curriculum) and a continuing decline in the numbers taking languages in schools and colleges, teachers and teacher educators need more than ever to return to the universals: what motivates learners and how do they learn?
Michael Grenfell and Vee Harris provide firmly critical reviews of appropriate research fields, before presenting their own case studies and questionnaire findings of pupils' perceptions of the language learning process. They examine theories of language learning and acquisition and cognitive theory, while Gary Chambers covers psychology and socio-educational theory. Combining this with empirical findings, both books provide fascinating insights and positive ways forward for the communicative-weary modern languages teacher.
Part One of Modern Languages and Learning Strategies establishes the theoretical rationale and includes three illustrative accounts of learners who have developed their own approaches without explicit training.
Part Two contains practical guidelines for classroom activities that involve systematic instruction in learning strategies, in a six-stage cycle, and also includes five case studies of teachers who have used them.
The book is based on the premise that, in spite of curriculum reform and swings of the methodological pendulum that have brought attractive, authentic and lively materials and activities, "learners have not progressed as much as might have been anticipated ... they lack linguistic autonomy".
The communicative approach has been found wanting, but the answer lies not so much in the whims of methodology, as in our understanding of how language works and the process of acquiring it. This process can manifestly be assisted by adopting specific learning strategies.
Thus, starting with awareness-raising, instruction continues with modelling, general practice, action planning, focused practice and fading out of reminders, and concludes with evaluation.
The whole is a fascinating, critical and highly perceptive analysis, that is both resolutely academic and yet lucid unstuffy and extremely readable. The constant linking of the linguistic with the pedagogic will appeal to researchers and teachers alike.
Although the case studies and samples are few in number, the exemplar materials are highly appropriate and resoundingly practical: the outcomes are effective and they demonstrably warrant larger-scale implementation.
If Grenfell and Harris are concerned with the What and How of language learning, Gary Chambers deals with the Why. He examines theories of motivation and attitude before outlining the context for his longitudinal, comparative research questionnaire, based on four different age groups over a three-year period, of pupils in Leeds and Kiel, north Germany.
Questions range from why pupils are learning GermanEnglish, and how useful they find it, to how much they enjoy certain classroom activities and the importance of the teacher, textbook, equipment, visits abroad etc.
Findings from the exhaustive survey allow analysis under a number of chapter headings: attitudes brought to the classroom, influence of the home environment, cross-cultural perceptions, the teacher's hats, what can we learn from the Germans?
Given the huge difference in status of English in Germany and German in Britain, and the time allocated, it would appear that the language teaching situation - specifically pupil reaction to provision - in both countries is similar. The principal difference seems to lie in the area of perceived relevance.
German pupils attach considerably greater importance to language learning for vocational and socio-cultural reasons than British pupils, who expect a high level of enjoyment. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that the two most significant determining factors on motivation are: usefulness and enjoyment. Interestingly, in both contexts the influence of the teacher on pupils' motivation also is paramount.
Embedded among the wealth of rich empirical data are helpful diagnoses of motivational problems (see chapter 9, The Teacher's Hats) and extremely useful strategies for enhancing enjoyment. (I particularly liked the Frau Young Project Approach 1 in chapter 11, "I did it my way!").
Recommendations that go to the heart of national policy, cultural attitudes and expectations ultimately lie beyond the reach of the one who is the most important factor of all: the teacher.
These two books will do much to move on the pedagogy of language teaching and learning and they deserve pride of place on every language teacher's shelf.
Nigel Norman is Lecturer in Education at the University of Wales Swansea