50 Shades of Gray Matter (what matters to them)

?????????????????????Grey, or gray matter is the part of the brain that processes information and controls our perception of how things are seen or heard. It plays a key role in memory formation and influences our emotions and speech. Our vocation as professionals is to find the ideal method of filling and stimulating students’ gray matter in order to form successful autonomous, lifelong users of the language.

Although most teachers say they are using Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) or Task-based Language Learning (TBLL) approaches, most have been using a methodology that continues to include too much memorization, repetition and stock unnatural conversations that students soon forget, or never learn. We need to better stimulate them and their brains through meaningful tasks and natural communication in order to awaken a yearning for language, a purpose for language and a love for language.

Using language is fostered through personalization and living the language in real-life situations and discussions. This needs to be more prevalent in the classroom. Teaching students to interact with meaningful dialogue will impact them by building natural social and interpersonal skills that are coherent and will be necessary for them in the future as expert users of the language. Negotiating and persuading in the new language as well as questioning and arguing are skills they should grow up with, empowering them to build their own voice. Confidence comes from usage and successful results, which will then feed the need for more vocabulary, structure and usage. Holding up a “Conversation Time” sign in class and telling them to practice talking to their partner about subjects that mean nothing to them doesn’t work. Using authentic materials or relevant topics of interest to them to drive a realistic discussion does. Elaboration through presentations and show-and-tell should be utilized at every opportunity right from day one. This will stimulate questions such as “how do I say…?”, thus opening the door for “presenting” grammar without rules and presenting it in a meaningful way. This is how to motivate a future user. Make them come to you, to the language.

We need to promote oral communication much more than we have been. Although we teach writing by using drafts and second drafts in order to achieve more accuracy, complexity and fluency, we don’t allow the same preparation for oral skills. We must allow for more rehearsal so learners have the time to recall more complex structures and develop proper usage on their own. Quite frankly, this will be of utmost importance in their professional life when their presentation and instantaneous communication skills will be called into play in the workplace. Many of them perform outstandingly with their writing skills due to a lower pressure threshold, as writing usually avails more time; live communication in today’s global workforce doesn’t afford the time to seek out structure and vocabulary though. These skills need to be developed since the earlier stages of language learning in order to fill their gray matter for the future.

In my years of reteaching English to returning advanced learners, I find that what the lack of accuracy in adulthood is due to the lack of meaningful communication during their formative years of learning. What they are struggling with, are the skills they never really developed to begin with in their early stages of language acquisition. As they never became expert users of certain grammatical and structural features, as we never made them relevant, they have lost years of practice with proper usage and in fact, have most likely formed fossilized mistakes. How can we continue to scaffold when the base is missing? So, we spend time later in their life trying to search the gray matter for something that was never there.

If we really want to succeed in our job as teachers, we need to become guides. If we guide them to using language with passion and meaning, practice and personalization, they will want to continue to learn, read and have the desire to further develop on their own, accurately. Passionately. We can lead them to a whole new path of autonomous learning. Lifelong learning. Making lifelong users… without any shades of gray.


000Rob Howard is the owner of Online Language Center. He is a teacher, tutor, trainer, material designer and author for English as a foreign language. He is also a consultant and has been a frequent speaker internationally regarding online retention as well as using technology in and out of the classroom. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S., he is currently residing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

You may e-mail him at rob@onlinelanguagecenter.com.

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