When I first started teaching I used to use an activity from “pronunciation games”. You might have used it yourself The handout has a series of forked paths, each one ending with the name of a capital city. You choose a difficult pronunciation for your learners in my case R/L for Japanese students, and assign one for sound for “turn left” and the other for “turn right”. You then write a series of minimal pairs on the board and have one student read them trying to direct their partner to a pre-decided capital city. The mispronunciations would usually result in students going to the wrong city and (supposedly) highlight the perils of mispronunciation. I distinctly remember saying something like “you might say you like eating ‘lice’ which is really disgusting!”
I feel quite embarrassed when I think about this for two reasons. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that anyone hearing a Japanese students say “I like eating lice” would have no problem understanding what they were going for, but more importantly, because what I failed to notice at the time was that this activity had the effect of making precisely none of my students any better at pronouncing /r/ sounds. Despite no improvement, students enjoyed the activity and I thought it was great. This got me thinking recently; are the things we do in the classroom for the sake of the students, or for the sake the teacher?
Take the “reading skill trilogy” I’ve criticised before. Prediction, skimming and scanning and guessing from context, as I’ve noted, arguably have some very serious problems. Yet they are good for filling up reading lessons and the “aims” columns of observed lesson plans. These ‘skills’ may have limited use for students but are very useful for teachers. A teacher planning a reading course now has something to teach. We can do “prediction” on Monday, “skimming” on Tuesday, “guessing on Wednesday” and so on.
Another example of this phenomena I think is some of the language we use. For my external DELTA lesson I wrote about teaching cause and effect. In order to teach this lesson I had to find out which language items would be the most useful so I created a corpus of about 5 million words from various academic texts. I then checked off the usually course book lists of “cause and effect language” and what I found was quite surprising.
Textbooks and websites often have long lists of cause and effect language, such as:
as a result of
can give rise to
as a consequence of
Interestingly the corpus data showed that while some of these phrases were used frequently, others were barely used at all. Now corpus examination like this is not without problems. However there were some very telling findings. Whereas the word ‘effect’ appeared 691 and ‘leads to’ 368, in 5 million words, ‘owing to’ was only used three times. Other words like ’cause’ were common appearing 189 times but ‘stem from’ didn’t appear once. For teachers and textbooks writers there seems to be a philosophy of “more is more”. The more terms we present to students, the more we may feel we are teaching them, (giving them value for money) when in actual fact, focusing on more commonly used phrase and making sure students have a strong grasp on those, could arguably be better strategy. After all, isn’t presenting two phrases, seemingly as equals when one is hundreds of times more common, a tad misleading?
The same argument could be made about cohesion phrases like ‘in addition’ and ‘moreover’. In fact the argument has been made, convincingly by Crewe (1990). Throwing a big list of phrases at students might seem like a good idea, but as with cause and effect language ‘less’ is probably more. There are two reasons for this:
firstly, students are often lead to believe that these phrases are synonymous:
Words meaning ‘and’
and, too, as well (as), either, also, in addition (to), besides, furthermore, moreover,
both… and…, not only… but also…
Call me picky but ‘moreover’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. Moreover means that the second point I’m making may be even more important that the first. Would ‘and’ convey the same meaning here?
She had noticed that there was a man sitting in the second row of the stalls to her right who was observing her, rather than watching the play. Moreover, he seemed to be smiling at her as if he recognised her (BBC)
Presenting these phrases as being ‘equal’ will (and does) lead to confusion and misuse. Here is an example (content altered) from a student essay:
Also, for example, if a Chinese man is dieting, then he has a real need to eat healthy food for a period. Moreover, it can be suggested that consumers can feel happiness when they are in process of consumption (student essay)
the use of ‘moreover’ here is plainly wrong and that there are almost four of these cohesion phrases in two sentences is worrying. The linking phrases are sprinkled on like hundreds and thousands (US sprinkles). Any one who has worked in EAP will recognise this kind of writing.
And Secondly, this approach may also lead students to being overburdened with language which they probably don’t need. Corpus research (Hinkel 2004:323) indicates that the commonest linkers in formal academic writing are:
It is surely better that they can use five commonly appearing phrases well, than 10 or 15 phrases badly. It is also surely better that they are more familiar with more common phrases. It may be nice for a teacher to present students with a huge list of exotic linkers, like some kind of extravagant badge of erudition but how useful is this for students. In the case of language learning Less may well be more.