EMF5 Day 1 | Malgosia Tetiurka: Myths and facts about teaching Young Learners | Talk summary

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Conferences
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This was the second plenary of the first day.

In this talk we’ll stop and think about some fundamental issues connected to teaching young learners and things that we take for granted. Malgosia Tetiurka invites to audience to discuss these statements:

  • YLs learn L2 in the same way as L1
  • YLs learn L2 effortlessly, just like L1
  • YLs learn by doing
  • Learning L2 should be fun
  • Anybody can teach YL, you don’t need high qualifications

Do YLs learn L2 in the same way as L1?

MT showed us a clip of a father talking to his child in mother tongue (the child playing with a toy stalk during breakfast, father interacting with the child giving him instructions F: Give the stalk some tea! The stalk likes tea! Give the stalk some yogurt! Where’s the pear? Give the stalk some pear. And give dad some tea!)

The video illustrates some facts about learning L1:

  • L1 is learnt in a context-embedded situation, and there’s lots of context to fall back on if you don’t understand
  • there’s a lot of input: the father says a lot and isn’t discouraged that the boy doesn’t say anything
  • there’s lots of repetition
  • there’s emphasis on meaning
  • when the boy produces some language, his dad doesn’t correct pronunciation

Do YLs learn L2 effortlessly, just like L1?

MT showed us another video clip from this talk by Deb Roy, who wanted to understand how his infant son learned language and so installed audio recorders all over his house. Roy ended up with 900 hours of recording which he’s now analyzing.

The extract MT showed us contained recordings of Roy’s son trying to produce the word ‘water’ on multiple occasions over 6 months. It’s clear that the boy was struggling with the word for 6 months (something that would probably put a L2 teacher’s patience to trial!) Also, the boy started out with ‘gaga’, then learnt to say ‘water’, but then at some point reverted back to ‘gaga’. So it takes lots of effort, trial and error to learn our L1.

Penny Ur: If I’m in charge of alooting foreign language teaching hours, I’ll invest most of them in the older classes where I’ll get a better return for my investment’. 

Starting early may not be a good investment. But our aims might be other than getting better results faster. 

MT went on to compare L1 acquisition and school learning in terms of

  • exposure (acquisition: high; sl: almost none)
  • communicative need (a: ever present, because whenever a child needs to achieve something they have to ask; sl: in most cases the teacher speaks the child’s L1 and the need for L2 is somewhat artificial and needs to be somehow generated)
  • the varieties of language the child is exposed to (a: we don’t limit the child’s contact with dialects on the grounds that the child might not understand; sl: limitis)
  • opportunities to interact with other people (a: numerous; sl: it’s a great problem to make children speak)

So to sum up, the school situation is artificial compared to L1 acquisition and we cannot draw analogies between these two settings.

Do YLs learn by doing?

Yes, learning a language is a skill that can’t be learnt by hearing about it, like learning a car. There’s place for gap-fill exercises, but what else can we do?

  • [inside the classroom] Get students produce a puppet of themselves – this will make acting out dialogues a lot less contrived, this reduces the amount of stress, makes language practice a lot more playful and dramatic. ‘What a child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow’ Vygotsky – here the puppet is the assistant
  • Get the students outside the classroom. One possibility: into the virtual reality. But for now MT will focus on taking the students out of the classroom literally. She showed us a clip of learners in a forest doing meaningful things, inspecting a tree through a magnifying glass and deciding whether it’s healthy.

Should learning L2 be fun?

Of course, because this makes it more digestible. However, fun does not always equal engagement.  Malgosia Tetiurka has observed quite a number of lessons where fun didn’t lead to engagement and language learning.

Defining engagement:

  • devoting substantial time and effort to a task
  • the intensity and emotional quality of children’s involvement in initiating and carrying out learning activities
  • energy in action

Engagement as flow: cognitive and emotional engagement, attained as a result of balancing child’s skills/abilities and the degree of challenge presented by the task at hand. So engaging tasks = the tasks that are on the border of the learner’s abilities, matching the capabilities of the person.

Example: children listening to a story, ‘receptive engagement’. Evidence of engagement:

  • non-verbal, e.g. focussed facial expression, prolonged eye contact with the teacher and the material the teacher is using, occasional gasps, etc
  • verbal

Problem: what’s accessible by some learners might be too challenging for others in the classroom. Solution: scaffolding. Malgosia Tetiurka demonstrates scaffolding:

  • she recites a nursery rhyme accompanying it with gestures
  • recites it two more times (first slowly, then very fast) getting the audience to repeat the gestures

Anybody can teach YL, you don’t need high qualifications

Malgosia Tetiurka’s opinion is that you can transfer from teaching YL to teaching teens, adults etc, but you can’t do the other way round. The best teachers should be sent to primary schools.

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