Tempting blind alleysAsking to what extent what we think is useful and effective is not and to what extent what we think is not beneficial is.

Earl Stevick who died earlier in the year wrote some of the best books on language teaching and learning in the past 50 years. Two of my favorites are Helping people learn English and Memory, meaning and method. In his writing and in conversations he called activities and fads which sounded good but when examined were detrimental to learning “Tempting blind alleys”.

I just returned from two conferences and the two most tempting blind alleys that I heard about over and over were 1. if students made mistakes it did not matter as long as they got their point across and you understood them and 2 correcting students’ mistakes makes them feel bad.

Consider these words a student said:

Police shoot thief

Which of these sentences did the student intend to say?

1. A policeman shot a thief.

2. The police shot a thief.

3. A policeman shoots a thief.

4. The policeman shoots a thief.

5. The policeman shoots the thief.

6. The policeman shoots at a thief.

7. A policeman shoots at a thief.

8. A policeman shoots up a thief. (In a drug set up.)

9. A policeman shoots up a thief. (Shoots many bullets into the person.)

10. The policeman shoots up the thief. (In a drug set up.)

11. The policeman shoots up the thief. (Shoots many bullets into the person.)

12-23. If we substitute policewoman for 1 to 11 we have 11 more possibilities.

24-47. If we substitute policemen and policewomen for the singular form, we have 23 more choices.

48-95. If we substitute thieves for thief we have 47 more options.

Of course the person might have been asking a question rather than making a statement! Did a policeman shoot a thief? When we hear the three words we do not know if the speaker intended a statement or a a question since we cannot see a question mark or a period. We might hear a slightly different intonation. But we might not.

Unless we write out the 95 options I just suggested and ask the student which one was intended how can we know what he wanted to say? The words a, the, at and up and the different forms, shoots versus shot and police versus policeman and policewoman, policemen and policewoman all change the meaning in very big ways.

The words a, at up and the are called function words. They and ones like them—is, are, was, and, could, etc.–all can be written on one piece of A4 paper so another label is A4 words. But when I asked some students to suggest a name for these words they suggested mortar words. They said that words like policeman, shoot and thief are brick words. Without mortar words we cannot be sure what is intended. We then noted that mortar is made from lime, cement, sand and water. So they said that lime could be word order, cement different forms of words like shoots and shot, and sand can refer to words like the, at, a and water can be upper case letters and punctuation which indicate when a sentence begins and ends.

Going back to the tempting blind alley idea–it might sound positive to hear that as long as we get the intended message from a student it does not matter if the sentence is incorrect–which of the 95 options do you think the student intended? I have just asked a question that it is impossible to answer. And today and everyday around the world millions of students are saying incorrect sentences which many teachers think they know the intended meanings of but which in fact there is not way they can know the intended meanings of.

If we ask students to write a sentence that we say and they write something quite different, we are faced with the same dilemma. How can we determine that they got the message we intended?

Here is a sentence that a teacher said which she asked her students to write.

I like ice cream.

Here are some of the renditions students wrote:

1. I spring.

2.  I like spring.

3. I ice.

4.  I cream.

5. Like cream.

6. Like ice.

Which of the 6 show that the student understood the meaning? I would say that none of them understood. They wrote a few words they thought they heard but they did not understand what the teacher said.

At one of the conferences I just attended when I heard these Tempting blind alleys a group of teachers were staying at the same hotel I was staying at and wanted to go to dinner together. I was familiar with places to eat in the area close to our hotel so when I saw teachers who wanted to eat together individually I said that there is a tapas bar very close to our hotel. Nine of the ten teachers said “I have never gone to a topless bar!”  The tenth teacher lives in Barcelona and he said “I am not interested in going to a tapas bar since I can eat them every night.”

Penny Ur was one of the plenary speakers at one conference. One of the questions she discussed was whether students want to be corrected or not. For decades I have asked students how they feel about being corrected when I chat with them after classes I have observed. All the students say they want to be corrected and corrected explicitly. They do not find it useful for the teacher to say “I saw him yesterday.” after the student says “I see him yesterday.”

My questioning of students has been incidental and in conversations. Penny has given questionnaires to hundreds of students in Israel asking them about being corrected when they speak and when they write. She reported that 90% of the students want explicit feedback both when they speak and write!

To the idea that students do not want to be corrected because they are embarrassed is another Tempting blind alley!

In most of my writing I remind teachers that we have to constantly ask what we think is useful and productive and how what we do not think is useful and productive might be productive.

In Earl Stevick’s books and conversations and in Penny Ur’s work and her plenary in Japan in October the same questions are asked.

You can answer questions about learning and teaching if you record 3-minute segments of your lessons and transcribe them with your students and analyze them.. When I call my bank, my cable company, my doctor, my credit card company, I hear messages like these: “This call might be recorded so that we can better understand your needs and train ourselves to serve you better.” Or “We’re taking a fresh look at everything we do, to serve you better.” Coaches regularly have videos made of games that they analyze with their players.

ENJOY, ENJOY! And let’s never underestimate the capabilities of our students!


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