Research Against Research

This post was inspired by the recent article More Research is Needed – A Mantra Too Far? in Humanising Language Teaching by Alan Maley, co-founder of The C Group. Judging by the length of the article and bibliography as well as the language used, Maley appears to be an experienced academic professional and researcher. Using academic methods, he claims that research is overrated and that there are many other, more effective ways for teachers to increase their knowledge. He encourages inquiry as a more practical and direct way of solving problems and improving teaching methods.

Five years ago, before venturing into the academic world, I wrote an article for the ETAI Forum entitled Experience and Observations from the Field vs. Research and a PhD which made similar claims. Now nearing the end of my B.Ed., I re-read the article and decided that none of my views had changed.

As someone who makes most of my living using songs and games to teach English to young children, I read with interest the articles in the last ETAI Forum related to these topics. Some would say that I should have considered a career change after reading about the study in which students who started learning English later actually performed better. A similar change was also suggested to me during a discussion in another forum, regarding a study done in America which showed that CDs and DVDs have no significant affect on a child’s verbal development. However, my grass-roots instincts make me question the conclusions of both these studies. In both cases, a vocabulary test was used as the measure of language acquisition. My experience as a teacher, a mother and a living, speaking, bilingual human being tells me that much more is required to communicate in any language, foreign or native.  For starters, if a large vocabulary were the only thing necessary to communicate in a foreign language, Google Translator would do a perfect job every time.
When students go out into the real world, they will need to speak, read and write in English. Therefore, I suggest that the following parameters also be considered by anyone interested in researching language ability and development. I believe that they will find that children who begin learning at a younger age score better in all these areas.
1.      Motivation
Both researchers and people with common sense consider motivation a significant factor in any learning experience. Children who have the opportunity to experience English first as something fun and non-threatening will be more motivated when difficult learning comes later.
2.      Willingness and ability to understand spoken English
How do the children react when spoken to in English?
a.       Do they panic and insist that they don’t understand, even when basic language is used? (I’ve encountered this many times in late elementary school)
b.      Do they try to understand even if they haven’t learned every word in the sentence? Do they recognize language chunks?
c.       Do they respond naturally, without noticing or commenting on what language the teacher is speaking? (the most common reaction among pre-K to 1stgrade)
3.      Willingness to speak
a.       When spoken to in English, do they answer in English or in their native language?
b.      When shown a written word in English, do they read it out loud in English or give an immediate translation?
c.       How confident are they about speaking in English? How natural is it for them? Like anything else in life, the younger you develop a habit the more natural it becomes.
4.      Pronunciation and listening
a.       How accurate is their pronunciation? Sounds that don’t exist in the native language are difficult to acquire later in life, and young children are much better at imitating.
b.      Can they distinguish between vowel sounds?
c.       Can they distinguish between words like angry/hungry, tree/three, mouse/mouth, etc.?
Let’s face it, you can’t learn any language, and certainly not a language as inconsistent as English, by simply memorizing rules and lists of words. You need to be exposed to a language, hear it spoken correctly and, most important, use it. Younger children learn by doing and absorb information naturally. The early years are the ideal time for language learning. The older they get, the more they become accustomed to learning through books and exercises. They may be better at passing tests, but can they speak?

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