Friday, September 09, 2005

Warming up

Last week, we talked a bit about a teacher's conversation with individual students, looking at a dialogue where the teacher was asking each student about their vacation, clearly interested in eliciting a short, grammatically correct response, and then moving on to the next student. We wondered if it was appropriate for the teacher to interrupt and correct ("not I came a Buddhist, but I became a Buddhist. Repeat after me: I became a Buddhist").

It depends on the purpose of the exercise. If the purpose is simply to warm the students up, to get them talking and get them interested, then it's a mistake to interrupt a (rather interesting) story with a small correction. In my experience, however, many students, especially Asians, want their speech continually checked for error. They'll pause mid-sentence and wait for a response from me, affirmation or correction.

Is this something to be exploited? This is to say, I know the student is willing to have every error corrected, so I'll jump all over her speech? Or should it be discouraged?-- if a student is too concerned about producing nothing but perfectly correct English, it may take her a long time to say anything at all.

Dr. LoCastro asked if we had any experience in such a situation, and I was reminded of an exercise I did very often with my Korean students. "What did you do last weekend?" or "What will you do this weekend?" It began out of sheer curiosity-- some kids had come early to class and I wanted to chat with them, so I asked them about their weekend. It surprised me that they simply couldn't answer the question, didn't know the word "weekend." So I negotiated with pictures and expressions and vocabulary they did have, as well as my limited Korean, to get them to the point where they understood at least that I was asking them what they did at some point in time prior to today.

My goal in the beginning had been just to establish rapport with the children, to find out something about them. But it revealed a rather serious gap in their knowledge of English; this despite the fact that some students had a pretty large vocabulary. However, their vocabulary was largely a system of equivalencies. They would look at the word "tissue" written on the blackboard and shout the Korean word "hyuji." They were far less comfortable, however, recognizing the spoken word "tissue" or incorporating it into conversation.

The innocent question about weekends evolved into a series of small lessons which would be repeated and elaborated upon periodically: days of the week, the concept of past/ present/ future, "was/ am/ will be." The students tended to know verbs with the "-ing" suffix already attached. With more advanced classes I would sometimes try to get them to try out eliminating the -ing in favor of "I walked, I walk, I will walk," but in general this was just too much work. Instead I built on what they'd been taught to get them to say "I was going, I am going, I will be going." Not natural English, but functional-- and the primary goal was not to teach them grammar, but to get them to speak, and to feel like they were able to speak. Even if their English sounded very strange, getting them to say anything at all was a bonus.

"What did you do last weekend?" would also be a pronunciation exercise. The school I worked at was very concerned with pronunciation and encouraged me to do pronunciation drills often. Their primary goal seemed to be to get the students to spit out English phrases that sounded, to their Korean parents, to be well-formed and fluent. To this end they would memorize storybooks and then "read" them aloud at great speed. With interesting results, that might have sounded like fluent English to someone who speaks hardly a word of English, but pure gibberish to the Anglophone.

Being forced to produce authentic language, rather than recite a text, was frustrating for them and seemed purposeless-- the middle school entrance exams don't chat with children. But they're kids and like to talk about what interests them. So I'd ask "Bob, what did you do this weekend?" (they all had English "nicknames," some of them very eccentric) and Bob would say excitedly, in a thick Korean accent, "Warcraft!" Then I would respond, "Oh, you played Warcraft. You played computer games. Can you say that? I played computer games." Once I'd elicited that full phrase out of Bob, I'd move on to the next student who would, invariably, say "I played computer games" and then wait for me to move on down the line. Depending on time constraints, I'd ask the kids who they'd played against, whether they'd won, whether it was fun (and why or why not).

Occasionally, after five or six Warcraft freaks in a row I'd indicate that all anyone ever does around here is play computer games, didn't anybody do anything else? On a good day, this would crack the students up and they'd start searching their vocabulary for other things: "I played going to the halmoni [grandmother] house!" which provided opportunity to teach "went to" as an alternative to "going to," and to help them get the idea of what the word "played" means.

On a bad day, they simply wouldn't understand what I was talking about, and we'd go back to "I played computer games." It was sometimes difficult to tell whether certain kids understood that they were telling me how they'd spent their Sunday afternoon, or whether they thought they were simply stating a hobby. When there was time, going more deeply into it ("did you play computer games on Saturday or Sunday? Who did you play with?" etc) would reveal this, and would help them to get a more precise idea of the meaning of the words they produced.

Most of my kids hadn't been taught tenses yes, or any verb conjugation other than is/ am/ are -ing. Korean doesn't have a tense system in the way English does, so I didn't try to go too heavy on this. It was enough if they understood that if they were talking about plans they'd say "will be -ing" or if about something already accomplished they said "was -ing." I wasn't so concerned that they be able to explain why this was the case.

I was given pretty free range in that classroom-- very little material, no textbooks, little instruction as to what was expected of me. Which was frustrating, but also an opportunity to teach what I felt was important, to develop a communicative classroom. The administration consistently warned me against teaching conversation, insisting that our institute was primarily concerned with pronunciation, but for my own sanity I found it necessary to teach the kids, before anything else, to be able to communicate with me. If they don't understand me when I tell them to sit down, or if they're unable to ask to use the restroom, it's pretty much impossible to have any sort of education going on.


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