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Multi-tasking in a foreign language

Note: Students, if you find this article difficult to understand, read the part about exams!

What is linguistic multi-tasking? When do we encounter it? And how is it tackled in the classroom? In this article, I’ll go through the idea of skills and skills teaching in a bit of detail, and look at the challenges involved as well as the areas in which teachers can aim to develop their students.

Skills

In language teaching, when we talk about “skills”, we are referring to four things: Reading, Speaking, Listening and Writing. We can divide these up in to two categories: receptive (from the word “receive”) and productive (from the word “produce”). These words refer to how we are interacting with language. The two receptive skills are reading and listening, because the language comes to our eyes or ears through text or audio, and the two productive skills are speaking and writing, because we produce the language ourselves, either orally or on paper. As language students, we ideally want to improve all four skills to achieve both receptive and productive fluency.

Challenges

When we try to improve a skill, we face a number of problems. The problems could be systematic – this means that with our productive skills, we might struggle with parts of the skill; pronunciation (speaking), spelling (writing) or vocabulary, grammar or discourse (both). These aren’t the only problems though. We might also find it hard to perform the skill itself. Here are some possible problems:

  • Fluency – it’s difficult to speak without stopping regularly.
  • Expression (circumlocution) – I don’t know a word and I can’t explain it
  • Comprehension – there might be too much text / audio, or it might be too fast or advanced in level.
  • Structure / Coherence – it might be difficult to write in paragraphs, or to organise spoken ideas.
  • Recall – It’s difficult to remember what was said / written about, because I’m not very good at taking notes
  • Inference – I find it difficult to use context to guess meanings of difficult words

There are, of course, many others, and teachers should work on helping students acquire the techniques to improve their skills. However, there is another level to this: if each individual skill is difficult, how on earth are we supposed to perform two skills at the same time?!

Multi-tasking

Here are a few examples of times when you need to multi-task.

  1. Conversation – listening (to the other person or people) and speaking (replying, conversing)
  2. Ordering – reading (a menu) and speaking (talking to the waiting staff)
  3. Lectures – listening (to the lecturer) and writing (taking notes)
  4. Research – reading (the material) and writing (again, taking notes)

It’s fair to say that number 1 is the most common, but what links these scenarios? Notice that they all require you to use one receptive and one productive skill at the same time. Generally, we are OK at this in our own language, and can pick this up in a second with correct training and practice. But what happens to our brains when we try to combine two receptive or two productive skills at the same time? Give it a try. Try writing an email while having a conversation. Try reading a book while listening to the radio.

Was that easy? I’m guessing your answer is “no”. It’s pretty simple – if we listen and read at the same time, there is too much information coming to our brains at the same time. Similarly, if we write and speak at the same time, we put pressure on ourselves to produce twice as much language as we usually would in a particular space of time. Granted, some people can do it, but it isn’t a majority, and the percentage of those who can drops significantly in a second or third language.

The Problem with Exams

So, where are these situations in which we are pushed in to combining two receptive or productive skills together? The answer is that, in general, they don’t exist. This is firstly because communication is about direction; we give and receive. If we need to give or receive twice, we just extend the interaction, rather than doing it all at the same time. It’s also about avoidance. We can usually avoid these situations by having a measure of control over our communicative environments (although this often requires classroom training in a second language). Unfortunately, exams take away this control and put us in strange situations, which aren’t always reproduced in real life. I personally think that those parts of exams are therefore not very useful, but whether I like it or not, they exist. Here’s an example which we come across in Cambridge Exams (FCE, CAE, IELTS):

A listening exam with a multiple choice section. The question and the choices account for a lot of text – too much to remember in a short time.

So, in this situation we are being trapped. We don’t have enough time to read and remember all the information in these questions, so we find ourselves reading while listening to the audio. Unsurprisingly, this is difficult!

An Exam Solution

I’ve had a lot of success with focussing students more on note-taking. Not only is this a real-life task (as mentioned before, lectures and meetings both require this), but it helps prevent this situation. Here’s how:

1) Student reads the questions and focusses on their meanings and keywords. They don’t really look at the multiple choice options for more than a couple of seconds (reading).

2) Student listens and takes notes (listening and writing).

3) After the listening, student matches their notes to the multiple choice options (just reading).

At no point is the student completely engaged in reading and listening at the same time. The student can make notes in English or their mother tongue (depending on preference), and they can use shorthand, abbreviations or spider diagrams – all of which can be taught and practised in class.

In the classroom

It is clear, then, that there is more to teaching skills than perhaps we acknowledge. Yes, it’s all well and good to teach a speaking or a listening lesson, but do we teach them in conjunction with each other as preparation for real-life experiences? I’m not suggesting that this would necessarily work with lower-level learners, but as students approach fluency and competency, they need to be challenged with real-life scenarios. Part of this is recognising and implementing strategies to avoid overload by extending conversations to avoid double-receptive or double-productive situations, or by learning to take notes in exams to minimise a clash of tasks. It is also accepting that receptive and productive skills often run parallel, and then receiving training on how to deal with this fact.

In light of this, I’m going to be publishing some ideas for real-life, “multi-skills” classes. If anyone out there has got any resources / ideas on this, I’d love to see them. In the meantime, watch this space.

 

Simon

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Learning in Chunks – just a question of lexis?

It is not exactly revolutionary of me to mention the word “chunk” within the subject of ELT. It has been long established that vocabulary needs to be presented less as individual discrete items, but horizontally, so as to include and acknowledge collocation. Words are indeed the key to communicative language, but prepositions, adjective / noun or noun / verb combinations, and high-frequency connections are the glue that holds it together. Without these things, it is impossible to achieve any real level of productive fluency. None of this is in debate.

There is a particular part of this that is starting to interest me, though. It isn’t the fact that we ought to draw attention to collocation, or words “in chunks” though. It’s the implications of “chunking” for a learner. Chunking isn’t, in fact, just a method of expansion, for as it encourages learners to observe vocabulary in groups rather than individually, it also facilitates the breaking down of full, multiple-clause sentences, in to manageable, bite-sized chunks (Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach). Again, not a new observation. But is the idea of “bite-sized” usable in other skills?

At this point, I’m going to switch to reading tasks, specifically, academic reading. As an IELTS teacher, I watch a lot of struggle. Students are faced with daunting amounts of text, answers hidden amongst technical terms and “distractors”, and a time limit that would have most native speakers struggling. Often, the sheer volume of text is enough to guarantee demotivation, and, ultimately, failure. I’ve looked at techniques, of course. We’ve scanned, skimmed and inferred until blue in the face, but often it just isn’t enough. Perhaps they aren’t up to it yet. Or perhaps they encounter problems because the task, not the text, isn’t “bite-sized”.

Let’s look at a typical task in an IELTS reading exam. True / False / Not Given questions typically present themselves in order in the text, and require the student to scan and skim in a linear fashion, albeit not necessarily having a clue about the percentage of the whole text covered by the task (unless there is a clear, “scannable” keyword). In general, students are presented with about seven questions, and 800 words of text. They then proceed to read question 1, scan the text, find the answer, write the answer, and repeat for question 2 et cetera. Of course, if they can’t find an answer, they don’t really have a point of reference from which to continue moving forward through the text. In other words, it is difficult to establish linear movement, and can result in time-costly rereading and doubling back. In an incredibly time sensitive exam (1 hour, 3 texts, 2400 words, 40 questions), this is not exactly ideal.

Now, let’s say that a student approaches this in a slightly different way. Upon receiving the task, they break the questions, and then the text, in to bite-sized chunks. They draw a line under question four, and look at questions 1-4 as a separate task. They are not only breaking the task down, but they are also immediately acknowledging that they are likely to be looking at less of the text; the first four-sevenths, roughly. Granted, this is still not exact enough to be comforting. The next stage then, is to isolate the text in a more precise way. The student scans for a keyword match in question 1. They aren’t looking necessarily to find the exact answer at this stage, merely to highlight the area of text in which the answer lies. They draw a line indicating where the text relating to questions 1-4 starts. The next part is to do the same again, but instead of doing this for question 2, they do it for question four. Once they have drawn this second line, they have created a text box, in which four answers lie. The text box is considerably smaller, and therefore less daunting, than the original text, and task, as a whole. They then go through the standard question-answering techniques as they are usually taught. This process is then repeated with questions 5-7, again focusing on isolating “answer-heavy” text, and eliminating time-wasting and a general feeling of being overwhelmed by volume.

While early in my research in to the benefits of this, results so far have been good. Not only have 100% of my students responded positively to this concept, which I believe is more than half the battle (for I am a disciple of the affective filter), but success rates in linear tasks have also gone up considerably in over 80% of these students. I am keen to acknowledge that reading methods and techniques are very much individually subjective, and, as a result, it is difficult to say that there is a “right” way. However, if learners feel that they can approach a task with more confidence than before, I am positive that this will directly contribute to an improvement in results alone, as so many learners are beaten before they step on to the pitch, to use a famous sporting analogy.

I’d love to hear from teachers and students who would like to give this a go. My contact details are on this site. Get in touch, and help me answer the following question: “Can we use the idea of chunking as a reading test technique in general English and exam settings?” And, even more interestingly: “Is there a practical use for a technique like this outside of the environment of comprehension-based tasks – could chunking improve reading ability as a whole?”

 

Simon Richardson