Since today's communication-based language teaching is supposed to be human and painless, instructions in modern and fashionable course books tend to avoid "drastic" words like, for example, learn, lesson, exercise, or (the most violent of all) drill. Students are seldom asked to learn a lesson: they proceed along various steps in units of a given material and they improve their skills by practising certain activities instead. However, we may be easily misled if we are not aware of the fact that language study is hard work, and acting out role plays in superficial situations may not necessarily be enough for satisfactory results.
The more interesting and colourful textbooks and lesson plans are made, the less attention authors seem to pay to sufficient grammar and vocabulary practice. In most of the cases there is a relatively short text in an attractive topic surrounded by pictures and a series of short activity tasks, and only very small notes on grammar and surprisingly few additional words and expressions are provided. However attentively may the student complete all the steps suggested, there will always remain "blind spots" in corresponding grammar or vocabulary themes, which will never become active parts of one's language skills by merely doing a fashionable course book even with the best possible teacher in class.
In addition to practising activities aimed at communication skills development, we should devote as much work as possible to the acquisition of a stable grammatical and vocabulary background. It is often said that vocabulary-based communication is perhaps the most important feature of present day language learning and the teacher should never overdo grammar (especially if testing is concerned) - but then what will happen to the remarkably large number of students who don't feel safe enough to use the language without a certain grammatical background?
As students are often afraid of making mistakes, they are not always willing to get into more complicated situations of language usage and tend to simplify their utterances for the sake of safe performance with the least possible errors, which may not be the best and fastest way of improving one's skills. Considering this problem, what should the teacher do? Would it still be reasonable to go back to past methods and drill the students with structural exercises?
One of the simplest ways of providing a stable grammatical background on which any communicational activity can be built is grammar practice on the basis of transformational substitution, which requires very few, if any, instructions and gives a good possibility of vocabulary extension at the same time. Fluency drills (however hard the word 'drill' may sound) can be easily inserted in any lesson plan, and students can also be encouraged to create their own transformations based on given examples after a relatively short time of practice with the teacher. Thus, after a series of receptive, repetitive exercises, a high level of productivity can also be gained, especially if the student is not only supposed to do similar transformations to predefined examples, but is also challenged to make up funny or absurd variations of the same thing with a larger set of vocabulary items.
© Vadász György
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