Simplification

Simplification

The reason most kids don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring – Dr. Semour Papert M.I.T.

In many ways, this cuts to the heart of some of the problems we face in the EFL/ESL market. The methodologies that have been touted since the 1950’s have all been focused on one primary goal; making language learning easier.

In the early days of the modern era of language teaching the fast and accurate acquisition of the language was the imperative. World War II saw the first large scale “scientifically” backed efforts in the field of language acquisition. The need to train spies and army intelligence officers jump-started research into SLA, a field which had been previously dominated by missionaries. This focused early research efforts on the ease and speed of acquisition, not pedagogical concerns.

To a lesser or greater extent, this is still prevalent in the field where the debate over methods tends to centre on testing how fast a student can acquire competency in the target language.

In response to the research, we have stripped the language down to its component parts; simplified these components as much as possible; taught the various skills in isolation until students can repeat the rules governing language construction in their sleep; and then are shocked when students fail to be engaged.

It appears (as many a teacher will tell you) that the easiest way to do something is not necessarily the best. To achieve a state of flow there must be a degree of challenge present. Students need unnecessary obstacles to push themselves forward and engage with what they are learning. Finally, moving as fast as possible towards one’s goal precludes the deeper more fulfilling exploration of the language that gives true mastery.

So, what does this mean for EFL/ESL?

Do not discount materials as too hard until they have been tried in the classroom. Many teachers will not select a book because they feel it is too “difficult” for the students before they even think on how to add scaffolding to support it. Remember that a teacher’s belief in the ability of their students is often a predictor of student performance (you can read more about this here). If we believe the material is too difficult it will be, and conversely if we believe it too easy, it will be.

Choral repetition or simple matching activities will, by their very nature, not be engaging to students, and as such, should be used sparingly.

Remember that interest trumps readability and difficulty. If the activity is cognitively challenging, the student has a true chance to engage with the material, thereby increasing retention and interest.

The quest for efficiency in language learning has left many disillusioned learners in its wake. It is as if we are attempting to teach someone to swim by throwing them out of a boat, fishing them out of the water, reviving them and throwing them back in again until they learn to swim. While it is the most efficient teaching method, there is no way that it will produce a life-long swimmer.

We as language teachers cannot sacrifice the potential for joyous, engaging learning on the altar of simplicity.

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