The curse of literacy?

Last Thursday was the fifth of November, notable in the UK as bonfire night, when the British randomly celebrate the execution of a religious terrorist who, in the event, failed in the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in order to kill the King. Hardly a great example of British Values, so instead, with my beginner ESOL learners, we did some work around telling the time, numbers, and verbs of the daily routine. We only touched on the daily routine stuff, but it was a nice class nonetheless.

What was nice about it? It is a small group, by current standards, and this meant that there was time to support individuals properly with feeling like the rest of the class is just waiting for you to come and set them up for something else. One of the things about beginners is that there is often little or no mental downtime for the teacher: in a high level class you can very often set a task up and it simply runs, allowing you to quickly check everyone is on task, then set up the next activity or whatever before heading back out to monitor student activity, give feedback and so on. In a beginner group you have to play it a bit tighter: you have to really carefully make sure everyone is clear about the task (and often there will be one or two students who aren’t, no matter what you try) by which time, really, the students need checking and monitoring. And then you’re straight onto feedback. There are rarely places to hide when teaching beginners.
One of the crucial and, for a beginner class, unusual things about this lesson was that I told the students to not write when we did the vocab work. For many beginner sol learners my writing is often the major issue in their development and their perceived priority. As a result, there is a tendency to copy and write everything. While there’s nothing essentially wrong with this, it can lead to a lack of focus on the systemic features of language: grammar and vocabulary. Of course, to a non-specialist native speaker, and indeed to many language learners, grammar and vocabulary is writing because this is most commonly how this is discussed and analysed in our educational backgrounds. But from a language learning perspective, grammar can be learned without any writing at all: indeed the vast majority of people learn language orally. Writing helps, for sure, but it’s an artificial imposition on the process borne out of social training.
So it came as a bit of a mental shock to the class when I told them not to write and to out their pens down. I’m glad I did too: it created a much more open and cohesive conversation, with high levels of humour and interaction. Rather than the usual beginner literacy panic about letter formation and writing on the line, the learners were able to concentrate on interacting and engaging with the language. There was a real sense of “oh that’s what you call it” which sometimes can get lost in the focus on developing literacy using known language. 
It also levelled the playing field a little. Some of the weaker writers, for example, are stronger speakers, and some of the stronger writers are less strong at speaking and overall it averaged out. More importantly, I think, there was also a greater sense of the group coming together as a whole because there was a greater focus on shared communication and negotiating meaning. There was a much more clearly developed sense of mutual respect, as well as practice in the less measurable skills of turn taking and listening in a conversation.
This may just be me, but there are times when I think that beginner teaching gets a little over obsessed with beginner literacy. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be addressed, of course, because it is crucially important, and is certainly one of the key restricting factors that stops learners from progressing. This importance, however, does mean that it’s tempting, even necessary, to focus a disproportionate amount of  lesson time on the literacy element, rather than the language learning element. I wonder how a level 1 class would react if you spent half the lesson focussing on reading and writing only familiar words in comfortable contexts. I do wonder if there are times when learners get fed up of the relentless focus on phonics, handwriting, spelling and the rest at the expense of essential spoken communication. I know I would probably reach a point where I would want to shout “enough with spelling my address and bloody CVC words! I want to be able to speak!” 


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