As teachers we are always saying that we are on a ‘journey’. I know for me the transformation of my teaching from ‘teaching the textbook’ to ‘facilitating language acquisition and use’ is an exciting one. It’s also, as we always affirm, about small do-able changes – steps that, when they are taken, will ‘stick’. I have learned – and now seen put into practice – the benefits of teaching in context – and learning that way too. And although my examples of ‘how’ and ‘why’ may seem a bit odd to a teacher who uses the regular a-b-c’s in their teaching it is the lessons on ‘real contextual’ learning that are key for me and perhaps you will see your own journey in them as well.
I am a Japanese teacher and, as a result, my students not only are mastering a 2nd language – but also a 2nd, 3rd and sometimes 4th orthography. We begin in year 1 with hiragana – a script of 46 sounds out of which any ‘native’ Japanese word can be written. Then we start to add in katakana – another 46 character script primarily for words imported into Japanese from other languages (think ‘pizza’ and ‘T shirt’) . As students are learning these we also throw in kanji (Chinese characters) – not all of the required 1900 or so to be fluent but about 300 by the time students are done Yr 4. Whew!
The old “Teach the Content” way – Ah the old days. It would look like this. Start students learning Japanese – they can’t write the characters yet so let’s use ‘romaji’ (Japanese written in English characters) until we have introduced all the written hiragana. Then when we’ve done that – let’s test those characters – discreetly – in batches of 10 – making kids memorize them because if they can’t memorize them like that well then they can’t use them can they? Then let’s finally make them write phrases that they’ve written in romaji the ‘real’ way. Oh and what about those import words? Well we’ll keep writing them in romaji until Yr2 when we introduce katakana (the same way as the first script) and then force them to stop using the english letters and use those. Whew – head awhirl? I suspect my students’ were!
The start of “Teach in Context” way – Speak First! Suddenly it struck me – why use the English letters? Japanese kids don’t. They speak and speak and gradually learn to write the words that they know. So last year my Yr1’s started speaking. Using picture clues we learned, practiced and used key content phrases to interact with classmates. “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?” etc. As the characters were introduced we started reading…BUT…I still taught the characters and tested discreetly. That is I still tested the ‘sounds’ – as, well, sounds. And I still used the ‘romaji’ for foreign words…A start it was but…
The evolution of “Content” way – Give It To Them When They Need It – This year has seen an evolution in my teaching and use of characters. The first has been that I have dropped the ‘romaji’ altogether. In consultation with my Yr 2’s & 3’s (and my new more ‘aware’ self) I decided to introduce the ‘katakana’ foreign-sound orthography as needed. That is the students are not required to know how to write it but they are required to see it and use it. So now they get a chart as part of their key package. They can try using it but they get the katakana chart for all tests/quizzes (and I don’t mark their ‘spelling’ of them). To help them read it I write the hiragana sounds they know over top to help them. They are – shockingly – using it correctly in context. Next year when I want them to be ‘off chart’ I see an easy transition.
Evolution Step 2 – Don’t “Test the Content” – “Evaluate in Context” – This year I also returned to teaching a compressed course called Beginner’s Japanese 11. It is a ‘catch-up’ course that tries to introduce content /structures of Yr 1 & 2 in just 1 semester! (I know!). I haven’t taught it in 8 years and how I’m approaching it reflects my ‘context’ shift. I still taught the individual characters (wait for it) but instead of the dreaded ‘write rows A-O, KA-KO’ tests now we tested in ‘context’. The first quizzes were writing phrases we knew – and students could have the chart if they wanted to. The majority came prepared to write and didn’t use the chart at all. They liked that they were tested on what they knew already rather than random sounds. As for the Chinese characters – I’ll ask that they recognize them and instead of waiting for when the book said to introduce them – they’ll be in there the first time that they see the word.
Next Step To Come…? I’m toying with introducing the characters as we need them. While the ‘context’ in me likes that the ‘content’ part of me realizes that they need all the characters to be able to read short passages that may contain words they have not yet seen. I’m still thinking about this.
Context, real-life use and not the ‘content’ should be what/how we are delivering language to our students…and I’m finally seeing that.