EMF5 Day 1 | Herbert Puchta: Teaching Very Young Learners — What’s Hot, and What Not | Talk summary

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Conferences
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For the next three days I’m going to be posting my notes from the talk I attend at E-merging Forum 5, the biggest international conference for teachers of English in Russia. This is the flagship British Council event in Russia, and this year there are participants from 260 cities. If you aren’t attending in person, you can still enjoy ten plenaries, which are going to be live streamed.

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This post is a summary of the talk by Herbert Puchta, who started the conference with a plenary on teaching very young learners.

The content of the talk:

  • The differences between very young learners and young learners.
  • What is the best age for learning another language?
  • Lessons to be learnt from SLA (second language acquisition) research
  • Looking into classrooms – 2 examples

So, what are the differences between very young learners and young learners?

Can you imagine what your life would be life without being able to read or write? If yes, then you might have innate understanding of what it means to be a very young learner. But we struggle to imagine life without note-taking.

So the key characteristic of from the teaching point of view is their pre-literacy. They represent what’s called the primary oral culture.

What is it like to be pre-literate? Kieran Egan: [there are] ‘similarities between some forms of thinking evident in adult oral cultures [from early human history] and in children’s thinking.’

  • One obvious similarity is that for both of them language is perceived through sound. Sound is extremely attractive for very young learners, which is why they are so deeply attracted by any sound effect. Basic instincts compel us to pay attention of to sounds.
  • There is relationship between thinking and talking. In modern cultures we ‘think before we talk’ – for pre-literate oral cultures language and children language and thought are much more closely connected. It’s through speech that children clarify and develop their thinking.

What is the best age for learning another language?

How early should we start teaching children?

When families immigrate, it is the youngest family members that fully acquire the language. This observation led to the development of Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) some 20 years ago, which claims that the best time for learning a foreign language is between ages 2 and 12 and that humans are unable to learn a foreign language to a native-speaker standard after the age of puberty.

Over the last 10 years, intensive research has been carried out on CPH. In spite of this, the language teaching practitioner is faced with a dilemma:

  • There is still no agreement if  CPH exists or how age influences language learners. So for an uninitiated reader it is difficult to know who to believe.(Dornyei, 2009) Even for pronunciation, it is not clear. There is solid research evidence that there are exceptional adults who started to learn a new language in an instructural context late in life and definitely achieved the performance level of native speakers .
  • There are some voices against starting early (e.g. Dornyei: we cannot transfer the benefits of natural language environment into classroom.)
  • Puchta doesn’t agree with those critical voices: in his opinion, it is possible to create the conditions that turn language learning in school contexts into a meaningful and successful activity – a belief based on observing primary educational programmes around the world, especially in private language schools. Lessons to be learnt from SLA (second language acquisition) research

 Lessons to be learnt from SLA (second language acquisition) research

There was comprehensive study of immersion programmes Survey by Nikolov and Djgunovic (2009):

  • There’s no scientific backing up of the claim that learning a second language will negatively affect the development of the first language.
  • Young learners learn more slowly, but this is not a reason not to teach them: if done well, teaching L2 actually contributes to v.y.l. cognitive development and their motivation, which is importance for later, life-long learning and ultimate proficiency levels.
  • Very young learners benefit from activities that are meaning focused, and rely a less on rules (and e.g. phonetic transcriptions for 4 year olds is a no-no).
  • Very young learners’ teachers need to have high language skills.
  • We need to learn from SLA, gaining insight into how language is learnt the natural way.

What can we do to provide children with opportunities similar to ‘natural’ SLA contexts?

  • Quantity matters: 20-60 minutes of instruction/week is clearly not enough – the only positive impact might be the learners’ motivation.
  • Quality matters:  in an article in Meaningful Action, Scott Thornbury stresses that learning is based on cognitive processes that go far beyond input-output processes. In a primary classroom, we teach learners nursery rhymes – that is, launch the input-output process, but we need to go further.
    (1) The Learning Body, embodied interaction – something that is probably even more important for young learners than in any other classoroom.
    (2) Language is embedded in social context with learning happening through active participation in the language classroom. We need to create an emotional response.
    (3) Language learning is an ‘extended process’. Western tradition has viewed cognition as something accessed only by the individual. Vygotsky: if learners happens, cognition is socially shared between the participants – learners and teachers. And when you interact with a child teaching them their mother tongue, it’s that shared condition that we’re using – this is a reflection of the point made earlier that for very young learners language and thinking are interconnected.
  • So, we need to  move beyond language and look into silence, gesture, gaze and movement in the language space.

Looking into classrooms 

1st example:

Puchta went on to show us a transcript of interaction in a primary classroom:
T: look at the girl here. Is she happy or sad?
Ss: Happy!
T.: She’s so happy! Do you think she likes apples?
S Yes.
T: Yes yes yes! Do you think she likes cake?
Ss: Yes yes yes!

Why does the T. say yes yes yes three times?  The teacher knows that she’s going to later introduce a song which has a line ‘yes, yes, yes’, and she uses this moment to introduce that: she speaks rhythmically and that is why the learners pick up on that.

T puts on the song. At this moment one girl stands up and tries to go past the teacher towards the free space in front of the room. The T: trying to stop her and asks: can you sit down? Student: NO! The teacher notices that the girl is swaying slightly, so the student is communicating that she wants to dance (she doesn’t have the language to say she wants to dance yes).

T: Do you want to dance? S: Yes, dance! T: Dance. Good girl! You want to dance

Puchta: here we can sense how embedded the social interaction is in this learning space, how much rapport building is going on. In fact, the teacher is scaffolding the learner to express something beyond what she can at the moment.

Lightbown and Spada, 2013: ‘Teachers and researchers cannot read learners’ minds, so they must infer what learners know by observing what they do’.  Learning doesn’t happen simply through imitation and practice: the learning is based on internal cognitive processes and prior knowledge. 

2nd ‘classroom example’

Puchta’s nephews (5 and 3 y.o.) wanted to learn English. Puchta decided to try Total Physical Respons.

P: watch me and do what I’m going to do.

  • P: Stand up! > and they stood up.
  • Go forward
  • Stop
  • Jump!
  • Touch the floor
  • Touch the door

After carrying out these instruction several time, he said he was tired so they continued carrying them out on their own; after several repetitions P said: OK, now we’re going to jumble he order.

Puchta says that lots of people think this is TPR, these days everything is TPR if it includes a bit of movement. It’s not: the person who developed TPR has the fourth phase: novel instructions. And it’s only because of this phase that we get the kind of internal cognitive processing that’s based on prior knowledge.

So P gave the older of his nephew the new instruction: Jump to the door. And this was beautiful. You could actually read from his physiology and his body language, and from the big smile on his face, how these processes were going on.

This illustrates one more time that we need to go beyond ‘input-output’.

And another thing we need is storiesUnfortunately, when it comes to stories in v.y.l. materials, they’re not stories.

‘The story form is a cultural universal; everyone everywhere enjoys story. The story, then, is not just casual entertainment; it reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world and experience.’ Kieran Egan

Puchta went on to show a story he wrote as an example of a badly written story that exemplified some inadequate stories from published materials. A story needs to live up to certain criteria. For v.y.l., stories are reality.  They will respond to them – cry, laugh and believe them. What are the quality criteria for stories? Kieran Egan: mythic understanding. 

  • clear beginning – middle – end
  • a little magic, somethign that can’t be explained through logic
  • a problem that’s resolved later
  • strong emptional contrasts, e.g. good-bad, happy – sad, huge – tiny, greedy – generous etc – these are the source of values that we can convey

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