A Solution To Asking Wrong Questions (e.g. “How Do You Teach X?”): Focus & Flip

Ask 10 teachers how they teach X, and you’ll probably get 10 different responses. However, if you flip it, and instead ask “how do students learn X?” you might get what in many cases is the only answer. Furthermore, it helps to focus the question first because most “how do you teach X?” questions are way too broad. Teachers can’t possibly teach everything about X, so there’s gotta be a more specific outcome to the question. What is the point of X? Or, what are students expected to do, or know about X? For example…

  1. Take a question teachers always ask:
    • How do you teach the subjunctive?
  2. Focus it:
    • How do you teach students to identify subjunctive verb forms?
  3. Flip It:
    • How do students learn to identify subjunctive verb forms?

In this case, the answer is quite simple: students must memorize verb forms. There’s no way around that one. Humans won’t spontaneously infer which verbs are subjunctive. To identify them, students will have to be shown what they are, commit them to memory, and then recall from memory. So, the teacher who expects students to identify subjunctive verb forms needs to provide them, and hope their students have good memories (oh right, that last part is out of their control). Not a very reliable thing to expect, it turns out.

Consider back to the alternative, too. Just think of all the different answers you could get to “how do you teach the subjunctive?” They’ll probably all be from the teacher’s perspective, like descriptions of activities, and have nothing to do with the actual learning that must go on, too. This is probably why so many teachers reinvent the wheel year after year. The teaching isn’t actually addressing what students need to learn. Of course, that grammar question is a bit silly since the focus doesn’t have much use. Let’s look at a related question with a more useful purpose…

  1. Q: How do you get students using the subjunctive?
  2. Focus: How do you get students to speak using accurate subjunctive verb forms?
  3. Flip: How do students learn to accurately speak using subjunctive verb forms?

This answer is also simple: time & exposure. Accuracy, especially in speaking, isn’t expected for the first years (3-4+), with or without any “error” correction, either. For any language to come out (output), students need lots of examples coming in (input). So, the teacher who expects accurate use of subjunctive, then, needs to ensure that there are tons of examples of subjunctive verb forms in what students listen to and read. Oh, and they also need to have patience. Any teacher who expects—and gets—beginner students speaking accurate subjunctive verb forms either doesn’t know the research, measures that in isolation and moves on, or is seeing short term memory results. Yet also probably holds “review” sessions each year!

So, give Focus & Flip a try!

Flashcard Blitz

As a comprehension-based and communicative language teacher, I’ve largely dismissed promoting any use of flashcards due to their connection with memorization. Beyond disappointing research about this kind of explicit learning, my classroom experience has confirmed that the more students are aware of language, the less fluent they seem to become. For example, the frequent note-taking academic students are typically those who can’t respond without second-guessing themselves and checking said notes, overly concerned with accuracy, etc., which slows them down quite a bit. Above all else, teaching practices requiring memorization lead to inequity since individual differences can’t be accommodated. Then, Eric Herman lobbed some mind grenades in Acquisition Classroom Memo #39. He can be trusted to do that, and we’re all better teachers for it…

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