Mind the gaps!

2020-02-10 03:02:52 英语学习·教师版 2020年1期

Julia Alexander

Thirty spokes made one by holes in a hub,

By spaces joined for the wheels use.

The usefulness of clay in shaping pots

Comes from the hollow where the clay is not.

Doors and windows in a house

Are needed for their emptiness.

So are we helped by what is not

To use what is.


The meaning of a message lies not in the way it is expressed, but in the way it is understood. Spoken or written words are just the ‘spokes. Understanding is created by the listener in the spaces between them. The ancient Chinese character for Listen (see the picture above) proves that this principle has been understood for centuries. Ear, eye, heart—hear, see, feel: everything we know begins with the learning of our senses.

Listening is the primary sense, first because it is involuntary: we dont have an ‘earlid, so once the ear is formed, it is always ‘on. Next, because the ear is fully formed at 20 weeks gestation, a baby spends 18 weeks tuning in to the mothers speech patterns before being born. Babies arrive ready-primed to respond to the mother-tongue. Recent studies in neurology show that sound patterns in speech and music have a privileged life in both short- and long-term memory, and thus in learning and understanding.

The human brain is a pattern-seeking organism. The ear hears by converting sound waves from the environment into electrical signals. These carry information—about frequency, timing and loudness—from the ear to the brain. The brain listens by detecting variations in the signal, and comparing those variations with patterns that it has met before. This pattern-finding is almost instant—a cascade of processes that fire in milliseconds; but the working memory is also very short. This is why we often instinctively play over what we have heard—either aloud or in the minds ear—to refresh the sound imprint. Repetition gives our brains more time to decide whether to discard the information or to store it. In that time, we make connexions with other sensory input, and with patterns—or ‘stories—that we have already learned.

Though reading and formal study are important parts of Confucian education, Confuciuss ideal list of disciplines for an elite education is a call to integrate sensory learning with cognitive (neocortex) pattern-finding. (Note that timing and memory are the ‘master-facultiesthat figure in everything we do.)

1. Music: hearing, timing, harmony, structure, touch, dexterity, memory, performance;

2. Computation: proprioception, number, space, counting, rhythm, calculation;

3. Calligraphy: sight, touch, texture, space, rhythm, language, meaning;

4. Archery: eye, hand, strength, space, distance, balance, timing, judgment;

5. Chariot-driving: co-ordination of all the above at speed on an unstable base;

6. Spiritual observance (ritual): reverence, acceptance. (Possibly the modern equivalent would be ‘mindfulness: holding acceptance and attention to now so that unconscious insights may slip through the‘gaps.)

Though his precepts were written down (in The Analects), Confucius ideas have been transmitted publicly—orally, in the classroom, by story-telling, analogy, question and answer—for more than two thousand years. To my mind, the intense vitality of Chinese learning traditions owes a great deal to the Confucian tradition. I see Chinese performancearts, which fuse concentrated discipline of mind-body-spirit with astonishing invention, ambition and mutual cooperation, as an emblem of a uniquely Confucian inheritance.

In our European tradition, Socrates is our first-known great teacherphilosopher, born into an artisan home in Athens about ten years after Confuciusdeath. Having endured poverty, hard labour, hunger, displacement and war, Socrates was more interested in ethics than in the elements of a fine education, but Confucius would have recognised the Socratic method. Socrates famously taught by asking questions—oral / aural asking-and-answering in the public forum—where understanding is formed in the ‘gap between question and answer. Socrates mistrusted learning from written texts. Indeed, he said, ‘The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners souls. They will trust to the external written document, and will not think for themselves. You will give your followers not truth, but only the appearance of truth. These pupils will be heroes of many things, but they will have learned nothing. It is ironic that Plato devoted himself to recording Socrates thoughts in writing, but thats what disciples of great men do! Platos writings were an excellent basis for moral education while teaching and learning were based on oral transmission, question and answer, story and analogy. Things began to go wrong with the advent of printing. Once printed books became‘the authority, education in all subjects became less about understanding and thinking, and more about memorising chunks of raw information for which the learners minds and imaginations were unprepared. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out in The Medium is the Massage (1967), ‘Print is a ditto device. Exclusive dependence on printed text led to centuries of ‘ditto learning in all subjects, including languages.

Before L.G. Alexanders New Concept English was published in 1967, all foreign-language textbooks were similar, all of them badly organised, and all based on ditto-learning of raw information. There was no relationship between a Book Lesson and a lesson in class. Book Lessons had varying numbers of pages, and took unpredictable numbers of class lessons to teach. Book Lessons consisted of verb tables and word lists, with ‘rules about bringing the two together. The ‘rules were full of poorlyunderstood ‘grammatical exceptions—mostly misleading. Examples were entirely artificial. One very famous English course contains a ‘text that reads, I have a book. You have a book. So we have two books, etc. Another presents the imperative with, Put your finger on your nose. Another counts the number of ‘words saying, e.g. You have now learned 423 words, while the text in the same Lesson uses complex grammatical items such as should, must, ought not to, and inversion of subject and verb after negative adverbs (seldom, rarely, etc.). Reading texts included words and grammar that did not appear in their Lessons tables and word lists. Pictures showed pupils in classrooms. (Think about it!) Worst of all, there was no organising principle, no progression from one Lesson to another. English lessons were ‘lessons about English, reliant only on memory, and entirely without real purpose; but as Socrates pointed out,‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.

New Concept English is based on a series of clear principles:

1. It uses ‘slice-of-life stories, because stories make language memorable. If the story-teller has the right spark, the learners bond with the authors voice. (Teams of writers, in my experience, never have the same charm.)

2. The texts are short, set out on single-page layouts, so that the teacher has time to present them and move on to question-and-answer exercises in a single lesson.

3. Pictures are instrumental to the learning, so there are no silly pictures of e.g. ‘a classroom scene, and no selfindulgent, ‘busy eyecandy-layouts, either. (A text-book is a tool, not a plumpudding! Busy pages distract from the task.) In New Concept English, everything on the page is purposeful.

4. Page lay-outs define each intended task. The pages are conceived in terms of one page = one lesson, or one doublepage spread = one lesson. There is always a match between the page and the time the class is expected to spend on it. The look and feel of the material are important sensory anchors for the learning.

5. The system is based on aural / oral learning followed up with reading and writing. Students listen to the story, matching sounds to meaning, then practice a series of oral exercises till they can reproduce them. (If you can hear a sound accurately, you can say it—but the brain needs time and repetition to process foreign-language sounds.) Vocabulary and Grammar are learned together by oral substitution / repetition: the same category of word, e.g. ‘noun or‘determiner is repeated in the same slot in a pattern-sentence, so that the brain stores the ‘tune (the auditory imprint), while also coding patterns of grammar.

6. The grammatical syllabus is rigorously controlled, so that learners know where they are and what is expected of them. Each unit of work is recycled and built upon, step by step, with no unexplained puzzles or nasty surprises. Learners do not like mysteries.

There are two syllabuses in New Concept English:

1. The ‘Content Syllabus = the step-by-step grammatical syllabus with controlled, progressive vocabularybuilding.

2. The ‘Skills Syllabus = understanding, speaking, reading and writing.

Both syllabuses are ‘a story. The learning-process itself is a ‘story. Story is ‘process, and process makes patterns. I said earlier that ‘the human brain is a pattern-seeking organism. Learners find patterns in the language-and-meaning of structurally-controlled dialogues and stories. The Skills syllabus is also a story: understand, answer, ask, say, read, write. If our students are to make sense of what we want to teach them, both syllabuses must be activated progressively together. In practice, the two syllabuses are united in the planned sequence of each Lesson.

Marshall McLuhans complex book, Understanding Media (1964) remains highly relevant to the way we think about media, including digital media, today. In 1967, McLuhans deliberately popular work, The Medium Is the Massage, caught the mood of the times and sparked a revolt in education across Britain. His phrase, ‘Print is a ditto device, led to a complete rejection of all ‘rote-learning in all subjects. ‘Discovery-learning became the new mantra, as it remains to this day. I believe, though, that the educational establishment in Britain has oversimplified the message, so that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Consider these current educational orthodoxies:

1. ‘Repetition is a mindless waste of time. Compare: ‘Listen-and-echo (= imitate) is a natural strategy in the early stages of all learning, and especially so in learning languages.

2. ‘Oral structural drills are just mechanical. Compare: ‘Observations of first-language learning show that mothers and babies instinctively use repetition in naming things, in rhyming games and in reusing words in new contexts. We use the same processes when we learn a foreign language. If we deny our learners the chance to practice oral drills, theyre likely to spend much more time writing out ‘ditto grammar exercises, with much worse results. The decline in using oral drills in class has coincided with the rise in use of dull Grammar Practice Exercise books (and a near-collapse in foreign language learning in most UK schools).

3. ‘No reading aloud allowed.This is just silly, as far as the language classroom is concerned! Reading aloud is an important stage in matching learnedsounds with their printed / written forms, and in recognising / confirming wordboundaries.

4. ‘Rote-learning is harmful because its boring. Compare: ‘Rote-learning (= learning by repeating the sound)—is inbuilt into the way our brains work. Sounds have a privileged life in human memories. People have chosen to learn poems, rhymes, songs, and arithmetical patterns by reciting them for thousands of years. True, purposeless rote-learning of abstract data is junk; but repeating / reciting meaningful speechsounds / music is a normal learning pathway. Teachers must judge how and when to use it appropriately.

5. ‘Nobody can learn new words from vocabulary lists. Compare:‘Learners who have mastered basic English sentence structure (Subject—Verb—Object / Complement—Manner—Place—Time) can learn most of the words in a vocabulary list in a few minutes, because their brains can code the words phonetically and grammatically. Of course, lists of isolated words are useless for beginners, but they are an easy resource for advanced learners. As Dr. Samuel Johnson remarked, He must bring knowledge with him who would bring knowledge home.

6. ‘Grammar is boring and irrelevant. Compare: ‘Grammar is the answer to the question. Learners learn grammar when they want to classify the learning they have already experienced. In ‘ditto learning, grammar rules were presented before anyone had asked any questions or could understand the answer.(It didnt help that ‘grammar taught in ditto-learning was often inaccurate, partial and misleading. Note that there is no such thing as a ‘grammatical exception in any language. There are only larger and smaller categories, for which there are always reasonable explanations.)

7. ‘We dont teach grammar because we teach “communicative English”.Compare: ‘Without a proper syllabus that teaches the whole paradigm (I, you, he, she, it, we, they), students will learn only “phrase-book English”. Its like saying, “Im a terrible driver, but thats OK, because I dont drive further than the supermarket.” Our learners need to operate the whole system. Whats the point of learning to say, “Id like a cup of coffee, please,” if you cant also say, “And my friend here would like one, too”?

8. ‘Children learn by finding things out for themselves. Answer: ‘It depends what you mean by “find out”. Looking up an essay on the web or in a book, and copying it out without understanding is also “ditto learning”. Discovery comes to the prepared mind. Without preparation, every kind of formal input is a “ditto device”. Asking children to“communicate” when they are unprepared traps them into learning mistakes.

When Professor McLuhan wrote Understanding Media, he would never have wanted to create a set of superficial mantras for how not to teach. Half a century later, his work remains as little understood as it is important. There isnt scope here to explain his ideas, except briefly as they apply to language learning. McLuhans starting point is that ‘memoryis not the same thing as ‘knowledge, that words on a page are just the surface; that to understand them, we must each make sense for ourselves of the patterns they contain. McLuhans next point is that media are not all equal: some are ‘hotterthan others. Its often said that radio is a hotter medium than television, ‘because the pictures are better. I think this is because sounds exist in time, while visual images exist in space: our brains are very interested in time, while visual images are slightly cooler, less immediate.

Listening to a story at the start of an active oral / aural language lesson is ‘hot. Reading is cooler, therefore suitable as a follow-up: reading allows us to reconsider, revise and recombine what we have learned. What about the new media? Well, clearly, when we handle a book, we feel its size, weight, number of pages, the paper its made of, the smell of printers ink or dust from the library. We turn to the chosen Chapter or Lesson, knowing where in the book it must be. Our eyes scan to a left- or right-hand page, then to a particular point on the page. A welldesigned page, double-page or sequence of pages in a textbook contains its own navigational ‘map of how it is to be used. These physical / spatial cues become part of the memory. They are anchors for the learning.

Compare this with digital text. In digital media, there is only the screenshot. There are no sensory clues (that link with our sense of ‘time), to say how far we have progressed, nor how much of the ‘Book or the ‘Lesson remains. The amount of text-to-view is generally very small, determined by the screen size and shape, not by pedagogy. Whole singleand double-page lay-outs—part of the usual ‘map in language textbooks—are not available. ‘Text jumps about on the screen as the user scrolls down. As the idea of ‘a page dissolves, so does the principle of ‘order that is imposed by page lay-outs in a well-designed book. When learners can cherry-pick Lessons, texts and exercises in any order they like, the notion of a progressive series of tasks, each building on the one before it, goes out of the window. Enthusiasm for digital material as a replacement for books ignores the principles of syllabus and skills-development. Writing on-screen language-exercises is also a less engaging process than writing on paper. When we write with a pen, pencil or typewriter, we use all our senses in real time in an act of physical creation. The product is an artefact: right or wrong, the script is solid proof that we engaged with the problem in the order it was set, and solved it. Typing out answers, filling in the blanks on a screen, in any order, is a much cooler process. Push a key and both exercise and answers are gone and forgotten.

For me, a language-course consists of a well-planned story-based coursebook, with lots of sound recordings that I can play over and over on my tablet computer. As for reading, like everyone else, I read the newspaper and my messages on a tablet; I read slight novels on my Kindle when I travel; but when I want to read or study something serious, I buy a book!

Thats not because Im old, though of course I am. Its because I need to use my senses as well as my brain. Mind the gaps!

Julia Alexander(朱莉婭·亚历山大),著名语言教学专家,《新概念英语》作者亚历山大先生的夫人,曾任朗文出版公司全球教师培训师和语言教学方法顾问。她与亚历山大先生通力合作,协助出版了《新概念英语》(新版)、《朗文英语语法》、《朗文高级英语语法》等多部著作,并与人合作编写《新概念英语》(青少版)系列教材。近年来,她致力于研究语言教学中听说技能的发展。