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Archive for the tag “EFL in Asia”

Burning Patterns into the Brain (Class Eleven)

“Alright–I want all of you to listen to the recording of today’s dialogue for homework and have it memorized and ready for recitation by Thursday. Yes, I know it was three pages long, but that’s beside the point. Your intonation must be exactly as you hear on the recording, and that means repeated practice. Each passage should be played and recited 30-50 times until you’ve mastered every line. If I find you have not done this, your parents will be notified.”

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Shuku loved the dictionary!

As a student, how would you respond to this assignment? The three Chinese EFL learners discussed in Monday’s article by Yanren Ding worked long and hard throughout their secondary school years to follow their teachers’ hard-lined approach and memorize most of their English textbooks. Not surprisingly, they resisted at first, but all three grew to appreciate the intense focus on recitation and the strict pedagogy. In fact, they credited their later success as winners of national speech and debate tournaments to the hours spent memorizing and reciting textbook dialogues and later memorizing scenes from English movies, line by line. Today’s blog post is devoted to these three learners, and to the topic of language memorization. I will also dedicate this post to my husband, and to my classmate Shuku, who both willingly memorized English dictionaries, one definition at a time. 

Here’s the gist of the article: Ding chose three mainland Chinese college students who had demonstrated high levels of achievement in English in order to learn what strategies they had used to achieve success. The learners were interviewed in detail, each describing years of memorization on a daily basis–a road on which they all, at first, traveled unwillingly. They spoke of the pressure they felt and the difficulty of memorizing lengthy passages of text. They did what they were told to do, however, in spite of the fact that many of their classmates, unable to imitate the L2 accent properly, resisted the practices of memorization and recitation. Ding reports that teachers simply gave up on those students, devoting themselves to others who were willing to put in the time (Ding, 2007, pp. 273-4). And, along the way, each of the learners found themselves becoming motivated not just by the teacher’s exhortations (they were praised and encouraged, as well as scolded), but by the English language itself.

Here is where it gets really interesting for me because I, too, am motivated by the love of words as well as the ideas they represent. In a previous post, I referred to psychologists Amabile and Hennessey’s definition of  intrinsic motivation, as characterized by “The drive to do something for the sheer enjoyment, interest, and personal challenge of the task itself (rather than for some external goal).” (Hennessey & Amabile, 2010, p. 581) Although Ding does not explore this issue at length, I believe that his learners H, W, and Z were unusual in their degree of intrinsic motivation, which gradually took root and flourished while they busily memorized passages of language. As they spent long hours at home listening and attempting to precisely imitate native speakers’ inflections, class time recitations and discussions grew easier; the students came to discover their own aptitude for English and to find pleasure in the sound of the words themselves.

Mind you, all three were modest about their English ability. Neither Z not W believed they had any aptitude, and although H originally mentioned her “natural gift” for language, she later changed the wording of the interview notes to reflect a more neutral stance. (Ding, p. 273).  However Z reported noticing that there were “…things that I could do but others couldn’t do,” (Ding, p. 277) and I am certain that all three learners were secretly proud of their ability to manipulate a second language. In short, they knew they were good at something, and though their ability must have made them stand out in class (a big faux pas for Asian students), they forged ahead, driven by the desire to perfect their language skills. They became intrinsically motivated.


Sherlock can be seen in China, too.

After graduating from high school, the students’ drive to memorize English continued through their college years, in the form of fanatic movie watching in English. Textbook memorization enforced by the teacher was replaced by out-of-class learning, as the three memorized dialogues from English language films, line by line, making a long train trip home once a week since television was off-limits in their dormitories. A combination of work and play? Absolutely! As Ding says, “…their purpose was not just to enjoy the stories; rather, their goal was to enjoy the language, imitate it, and memorize it.” (Ding, 2007, p. 227) 

So what exactly did years of memorization enable these devoted students to achieve? They learned patterns and formulaic chunks of language. They practiced diligently and learned them so well that they could easily retrieve and use them both in the classroom, in interviews, and on stage in debates. They learned to recognize and acquire prosodic features of language, practicing their own rhythm and intonation on a daily basis, constantly comparing it to that of native speakers. Most impressive to me is that the students mastered details of the English language that would not be interesting to more meaning-focused communicative L2 students. They listened for and learned to use collocations, function words, and inflections without worrying about grammar and apart from their desire to understand the meaning. H, especially, spoke enthusiastically of the enjoyment of listening for new and unusual usages and intonations that she might add to her own repertoire. The three also learned to hear their own voices and to take control of their own learning process. My guess is that the years of imitation and critical feedback from teachers enabled the students to be good judges of their own pronunciation and keen strategic learners. They knew what the standard was, and they knew how to achieve it. Lastly, they became producers of language, able to spontaneously and appropriately produce chunks of language to communicate, to persuade, to argue, and to expound. 

“Oh, yes,” you might say. “But was their language natural? ” Well, the answer is not a simple one, and before answering it, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. 

To begin with, how do we really feel about this kind of learning? Are we unknowingly condescending toward those raised in a culture where rote memorization of large bodies of knowledge is acceptable and preferred? Do we (speaking for myself and fellow westerners) feel a bit superior in our perceived ability to think critically and use language creatively? I’ll raise my hand and admit that I thought my husband was nothing short of pitiful when he first spoke of his dictionary memorizing days. Fast forward twenty years to the day when he scored higher than me on the Qualitative portion of the GRE exams, and ask me if I still think that. Go ahead–and you can also ask me if I regret being too high and mighty in high school to memorize algebraic formulas and chemical compounds…or better yet, don’t ask since I’m already properly humbled just by the writing of this post.

Now back to the question of “natural” and “creative” English. I only know learners H, W, and Z through Ding’s analysis of their statements, but my guess is that no, their use of English was not always natural or “native-like”.  After all, it is hard to find the perfect chance to use a line from a movie or a textbook dialogue in spontaneous conversation. Yet they were always concerned with context and alert for opportunities to make use of what they had struggled to remember. We can presume their English was not notably creative since much of it was lifted word for word from dialogues and scripts. They probably did not string elements of language together, but instead relied on formulaic chunks they had memorized. I have no doubt, however, that their language was appropriate (they were, again, very concerned with context), grammatically accurate, and spoken with native-like intonation and pronunciation. And because their heads were literally full of patterns and chunks of language that had been “burned into their brains” they were rarely at a loss for words. In short, their secondary school learning environment had demanded complete accuracy of language use. And–here is the amazing thing–they were able to achieve this because of their dedication to memorization, most of which occurred outside of any communicative context. Ding writes, and I agree, that freedom from the pressure of real-time conversation enabled the three learners to perfect their language skills. Taking all this into consideration, I see no reason to treat their achievement with condescension, or to bemoan a lack of creativity and naturalness, both of which would undoubtedly emerge with time spent abroad in an immersion situation. 

It is conceivable, of course, that such intense focus on form could have the adverse effect of inhibiting students from engaging in face-to-face conversation, but Ding writes that his subjects embraced the chance to converse and discuss in class as well. And their story reveals a different twist to what we know about how language is acquired. Scholars have repeatedly proven that learners’ noticing of the gap between an L1 speaker’s language and their own imperfect interlanguage is the key to real acquisition. Yet in many cases the gap remains unnoticed, and L2 errors become habitual. Perhaps those learners are the ones who can’t be bothered to memorize and recite? No matter how distasteful the idea might seem, Ding believes that this is so: memorization and repetition are an important part of the noticing process. He writes, “Passion for the language leads to noticing and rehearsal, which in turn lead to acquisition. Good language learners are superior to other learners in the two aspects of noticing and rehearsal.” and, even more directly, “…text memorization and imitation have a legitimate place in second language education.” (Ding, p. 279)

Lastly, I’d like to return to the subject of intrinsic motivation, which is what enabled learners H, W, and Z to memorize such a massive amount of input, thoughtfully process it, and finally make it their own for productive use. My guess is that many highly motivated Asian students are bored with communicative classrooms and with task-based learning in particular. Shuku, Alan, and I discussed this in our small group and Shuku admitted as much. “I was never task-oriented,” she said. “There was never enough speaking involved, and I wanted more direct feedback from my teachers instead. In class, I pretended to be an average student like everyone else, but at home, I did what those Chinese students did: I spoke in English out loud, and I tried to imitate my English teachers exactly.” And there you have it: those who love language for its own sake will not necessarily be happy task-based learners since they are intrinsically motivated by the language itself rather than in the task, which is assumed to be the motivating factor. And just as music lovers accept that memorization of several movements of a sonata is necessary to perform on stage, language lovers realize and accept that memorization is not only part of the process, but can be highly motivating in and of itself.

In the end, I’m proud to be married to a language-loving man and proud to be the friend of Shuku, who imitated her teachers and slept with a dictionary by her pillow. I hope that learners H, W, and Z are living productive lives, using their English regularly and with enthusiasm, and able to travel abroad to polish their already formidable language skills, which I suspect are already becoming more natural and native-like. 



Ding, Y. (2007). Text memorization and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System, 35(2), pp.271-280. doi:10.1016/j.system.2006.12.005

Hennessey, B.& Amabile, T. (2010). Creativity. Annual Review of Psychology, 61(1),pp. 569-598. doi:10.1146/1nnurev.psych.093008.100416





William Littlewood on Communicative and Task-Based Teaching in Asia: article review

Article Title: Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms

Journal: Language Teacher 40 (3), July, 2007.

Doi: 10.1017/S0261444807004363

William Littlewood.

William Littlewood.

Author: This article was penned by William Littlewood, who wears many hats including language scholar, professor, curriculum developer, textbook writer, and teacher trainer. Littlewood began his teaching career in Germany working for the well-known Berlitz language school, then returned to teach in his native U.K. In 1991, he traveled to Hong Kong on a research grant and has been based there since, currently lecturing at Hong Kong Baptist University. In addition to training EFL/ESL practitioners, he is a prolific writer of both journal articles and books. His TESOL textbook entitled Communicative Language Teaching: An Introduction has been translated into Basque, Japanese, Malaysian, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Greek.  He has a lovely smile.

Type of article: A revised transcription of a plenary speech given by Littlewood at the 2006 International Conference of the Korean Association for Teachers of English.

Purpose:  To discern why East Asian educators have trouble implementing communicative teaching techniques in the classroom, and to reflect on how teachers adapt to the challenges they face.  Littlewood attempts to re-frame the concepts of both CLT and TBT to make them more relevant and practical for East Asian classrooms.

What Littlewood has to say: After establishing the widespread use of Task Based Language Teaching in East Asia (under the umbrella of Communicative Language Teaching), Littlewood discusses concerns that have been voiced by teachers struggling to successfully implement tasks. He explores the problem areas of classroom management (“The students have too much freedom and I can’t restore order!”), avoidance of English (“They’re really into the task, but no-one’s using the target language!”), minimal demands on language competence (“Students spent forty minutes and used only a few easy phrases!”), incompatibility with public assessment demands (“We don’t have time for this–the national exams are coming up in a month!”), and conflict with educational values and traditions (“We’re used to accumulating bodies of knowledge in this country!”).

Based on studies by various scholars based in East Asia, Littlewood paints a sympathetic picture of teachers caught between the ideal portrayed by their national policy and the reality of their classroom situtation. Educators described in the article respond, in some cases, by simply ignoring policy and continuing to teach in a way that’s familiar and effective for them, complying on paper with the national guidelines for Comunicative Language Teaching.  Other teachers in China and Japan have re-interpreted CLT and tasks in general, adjusting the framework to better fit their students’ needs. This watered-down type of Task Based Learning is often more about practicing discrete language items rather than negotiation for meaning, it seems, with the addition of “context” providing the communciative aspect. One enterprising teacher in Mainland China was managing to double up, focusing on traditional exam-based English grammar and drills while also encouraging student interaction in the L2, and creative language use. Bravo, Mr. Yang! 

Littlewood, however, points out that many Asian teachers are unclear on the fundamental concepts of CLT and TBLT, assuming that such approaches mean focus on speaking and communication, with no place for grammar. “Not teaching grammar” and “teaching only speaking” were the two most common misconceptions uncovered in the study, along with the fact that many Asian teachers have only a “fuzzy notion” of what a task actually is. Most recognize that it is not a drill, but what about “exercises”? Can they be considered tasks if one adds a communicative element? Some teachers have created a middle ground called “exercise-tasks”; Littlewood suggests that this might not be a bad idea, and could in fact be taken further, to create a continuum of task types.

On the form-focused end of this continuum would be Non-Communicative Learning, including grammar exercises and drills: next would be Pre-Communicative Learning, such as controlled (rather than free) question-and-answer practice. Communicative Language Practice is third on Littlewood’s continuum, defined by information exchange based on recently-taught predictible language. Fourth would be Structured Communication, where finally the focus moves to meaning and includes more complex information-exchange activites. Still, this stage is stuctured and teacher-directed. Lastly, the most meaning-oriented activities would be deemed Authentic Communication, in which language forms are unpredictible and creative, and problem-solving, content-based tasks, and true discussion can be implemented.

Finally, Littlewood concludes that in the current post-methods era, “…no single method or set of procedures will fit all teachers and learners in all contexts”.  In other words, there are no ready-made recipes, so teachers had better start experimenting in the kitchen until they get it right. Good luck to us!

What Ruthie has to say: Hooray for the continuum–best idea I’ve seen yet! One size does most certainly NOT fit all, and the idea of a communicative continuum takes away the pressure many EFL teachers in Asia face on a daily basis. Specifically, it helps us see “failed tasks” in a different perspective: rather than a “task-gone-wrong”, the day’s lesson can be viewed as “closer to the form-focused end of the spectrum”. And hopefully, as students progress in their interlanguage and gain confidence, lessons will come to more closely resemble the “meaning end of the spectrum”. Some might disagree, but I believe Littlewood’s article should be required reading alongside Willis and Willis, who present the ideal model. It’s an important bridge that encourages educators to reflect more closely on their own situation and to better adapt their methods and teaching style to the needs of their students.

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