Wednesday, October 30, 2013

instant karma

When I was in graduate school, all teaching methods that involved instant feedback were out. If you were to jump on a student for pronouncing "three" as "tree," for example, he would stammer, make the correct "three" word again, lose his train of thought (not to mention his confidence), etc. Theory favored the affective side of it: let him speak as much as he is capable of speaking; let him string entire sentences together; correct him later, if at all, privately, and let him know that his pronunciation and/or grammar are impeding meaning, or should be worked on before the others. Naturally, those that impede meaning are more urgent than those that don't. Also, we are well aware that with much feedback in general, there is not a direct relationship between what you tell them to work on, and what actually gets improved on the following day. They like feedback, and appreciate it, and are especially grateful to know when it is responsible for their grade's being a little lower than they'd like, but, even when they apply themselves to changing their pronunciation or grammar, often they can't, at least not right away. Or, they will change it on a prepared speech, but immediately get thrown off when asked a question or expected to produce language spontaneously.

Now I am in a situation where I am teaching high-level learners; grammar and pronunciation are sometimes an issue, but usually not. The issue for them is often lack of tone, poor tone, long thought groups or poorly broken up thought groups, lack of prominence or no stress on important words. Tone, I think, is extremely important. They drift into a monotone, and people fall asleep, losing not only the information but also a sense of how important it is. Tone doesn't come naturally to speakers of other languages. They're head is full with creating sentences, recalling what they meant to say, making correct pronunciation (which, as I've said, is not bad at this level.

But a graduate student, A.H., has taken to giving them instant feedback on their DI (discourse intonation), mostly with their permission, and her partner, R.R., now jumps right in there beside her. They'll stop a student in the middle of the second sentence and say, "No tone!" or "Why are you using a rising tone? Are you unsure of yourself?" or perhaps, "Mind your prominence! Stress on the important words!"

Students, as I've said, liked this, and agreed to it willingly at first. They needed to know their faults and the sooner the better, they figured, even at the expense of obviously losing their train of thought, getting rattled in front of a crowd, etc. Generally they would be teaching in front of their peers. Generally their presentation was limited - maybe ten minutes at most. Generally they would stumble upon being corrected, but get back on their feet fairly quickly. Sometimes the fault that was pointed out would be corrected in what they produced after the feedback. In those cases, we could say it was a success. They were directed to mind an aspect of their DI (often one they weren't paying attention to); they would mind it; they would improve, and presumably they would learn the skill of considering DI simultaneously with the other things they were trying to juggle.

I stuck to my traditional method, which was to point out their weaknesses on a grading sheet, to be given them after (well after) their presentation, which often pointed out both DI weaknesses and traditional, pronunciation/grammar problems. My theory was that private, separated feedback could be handled more rationally later, could be separated from the plain view of peers, and allow their immediate observations more room to develop as they were speaking.

The instant feedback system had several negative consequences. One is interesting and worth noting. One poor girl, frustrated at being criticized for lack of tone, had adopted an uptalk kind of style. This actually is quite common. Students hear others doing it, and adopt it, and notice that they do better with uptalk than with nothing. I actually encourage it, although I know it's rather grating to the ears of a native speaker, it makes us say, "you're from the valley?" or "you're asking me?" or some such. But it is a tone, developmental as it is, and it helps them begin to hear them, hear their consequences, etc. So A.H. jumps on her for her uptalk, and says, basically, "You're giving out your syllabus (true). You're telling them how you're going to grade them (also true)...and you make it a question? WHY are you using uptalk?" The poor girl, flustered, starts over again. She realizes the feedback is intended to help her, she's not overwhelmingly embarrassed. But she really doesn't know how to vary her tones, or she would have done it. She is more embarrassed by not being able to make what she wants, than just being mistaken.

And this, in general, is probably the biggest problem. Tone becomes fluent in developmental increments, which are now disrupted, and not allowed to be half-perfect. If she develops a fear of uptalk, or picks up the disparagement on the part of native speakers in the room, she goes back to monotone. The disruption of the process sets back the entire thing, and, as a result, she can't use varying tones at all until she is entirely ready to make them all right.

I have often pointed out this tendency in the development of grammatical structures, for example, present perfect continuous. A student, in trying to say "I have been going to the Rec Center" says instead "I have been go to the Rec Center," producing an intermediate, developmental form. The computer tells them that's bad, go back to square one, or, the student is corrected and set back by an aggressive grammar-cop type of ESL teacher, who jumps on him, marks him down, publicly shames him, or whatever. Bottom line: avoid that structure altogether. Avoid trying it, avoid developing it, avoid putting it out there. Correction can have an opposite effect of stifling ordinary natural developmental progress. And it certainly doesn't reward experimentation, the risk-taking required to master anything.

These may be the traditional arguments against all feedback, and they remind me a bit of the writing "Error correction wars" in which some theorists argued strenuously against all error correction, and even those who were in favor of it were reduced to saying how much and how strenuously they would couch it in positive terms, save it until the end, devalue it or absorb it into larger meaning-expression issues. That kind of feedback, in writing, was out and was staying out as far as I could tell, last I checked. Those who wanted to know principal from principle were left looking online for one of those online proofreaders.

I should mention, by the way, that A.H. and R.R. tried to set up a study; they asked students how they felt; they tried to determine whether this method worked, and how students actually felt about it. While getting accurate results on its efficacy may be extremely difficult, the controlled environment under which they asked students their true opinions might yield interesting results; I'll keep you posted.

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