Imagine there’s no levels…
About 10 years ago, my good friend and former colleague Ken MacDougall caused much consternation in the staffroom by saying that, instead of testing and placing students according to their level of English, we should just let them choose their own level. We assumed he was joking, even though he said it with a straight face (Ken does that sometimes) and, though there were some tentative attempts to ask him what on earth he was talking about, he didn’t elaborate (Ken likes to be mysterious) and the conversation moved on.
Over the years I’ve been reminded many times of Ken’s idea, usually when placing students into levels or dealing with students who disagree with the level they have been placed into. More recently though, I’ve started to wonder if he might have had a point.
As things stand at the moment, most language courses follow a linear model of learning. Students start at whatever level they test in at, and they do unit 1 of a book, followed by unit 2 of a book, and so on. When they finish the book they move to the next book and do the same thing again. The expectation here is that by “doing” each book they are moving upwards, from one level to another. The whole system is based on the notion that students need to learn one thing before they can be deemed ready to learn something else.
In most cases, the order in which language is presented is based on linguistic complexity. Most coursebooks organize language in this way – even ones that claim not to. If you check what language is being taught in each unit, they almost always start with the present simple, then the present continuous, then past simple etc.
However, learning doesn’t work like this. Language doesn’t work like this. Language isn’t learnt like this!
First, let’s look at the order in which we tend to teach language. It’s pretty well-established that students don’t learn language according to linguistic complexity, despite the fact that we teach it this way. The past perfect continuous may appear more complex than the third person –s, but studies show that third person –s is one of the last things that students manage to acquire. Just because it is easy to do, third person –s is pretty useless; English uses pronouns to signify the subject of a sentence. Consequently, students find it difficult to acquire.
There have been attempts in ELT to re-categorise the order in which language is taught, such as the Cobuild English course, which tried to present language in order of frequency of use. It wasn’t very successful, largely because the whole concept was new and it freaked people out. But another problem with the Cobuild English course was that it took one linear model of learning and replaced it with another. And this brings me to my next point; that any linear approach to teaching language doesn’t tie in with the way we actually acquire it.
The brain itself is a complex network of neurons. Rather than processing information in a linear fashion, it takes in whatever information it receives and makes connections and deductions, forming a network of interconnected concepts and ideas. Once these connections are established, repeated exposure and/or practice help to strengthen these connections. It’s true that certain skills can be mastered one after another, but the order in which these skills are mastered is, to a large extent, arbitrary, and will be different for everyone depending on their environment and their learning priorities.
In addition to this, language itself is not linear. It involves the complex inter-relationship of grammar, vocabulary, sounds and written text. We also need to consider the impact of socio-cultural and contextual factors; who’s speaking, who are they speaking to, what is the desired impact/force of what is being said, etc. It’s very hard to break language down into a logical order. This can only really be done with grammar and, as I’ve pointed out, this logical order doesn’t tie in with the order of acquisition.
I understand that a linear approach to language teaching fits within the constructs of our current model of education. And I also realise that people have been successfully learning English through this model for years. What I’m suggesting, though, is that learning is taking place despite the model, not because of it. The order of teaching doesn’t match the order of learning.
It’s not just me saying this – the linear model has been criticized for being stuck in the Victorian era, when it was all about factory production lines. Individuality and creativity have been stifled by this system, and many people feel this model is no longer relevant in modern society. The big thing these days is the Internet, and the forming of global communication networks. This is an era of innovation and creativity. An approach to education that acknowledges this would tie in a lot more with how our brains function, as our brains are also about forming networks. Each person’s brain contains a different network, based on individual experiences, needs and motivations. The current model doesn’t really address this as students in the same class are expected to start with the same existing knowledge, learn the same things at the same speed, and finish with the same level of knowledge. Do we really think that this is possible in practice?
Let’s imagine a teenage student in South Korea, who has never been abroad and whose only existing need to use English is to understand Youtube clips and play online computer games. Now let’s compare him to a Polish woman in the UK, who has children in the local primary school who speak English fluently, and who cleans offices despite having a degree in Economics from her own country. They are both currently studying Module 6 of Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate. Why is it assumed (first of all) that both of these students already know all the language that exists in Cutting Edge Elementary and Modules 1-5 of Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate? If it’s because they have already studied these materials, why is it assumed that this was the most appropriate study programme for both students? And secondly, how could the same programme possibly be most appropriate for both of them at the same time?
Even within the same context, there are students whose prior learning experiences and future needs are very diverse. In my college, we have students like the Polish woman above, but we also have young Pakistani men who want to progress onto business courses, Somali refugees who had little or no formal education as children and want to become nurses, Chinese teenagers who were sent here by their parents and don’t particularly want to learn anything, Spanish graduates who need English to improve their employability back in Spain, and many more. They are all studying in the same class because they are all “at the same level”. But what does that mean? If learning is not linear, is the whole thing purely arbitrary? Is a level just a label? If we just placed our students randomly and exposed them to whatever language that was being taught on that course, would it be much different?
Let’s go back to Ken’s idea of letting students choose their own level. What would probably happen is that students would choose to be in the same class as their friends, with likeminded students, with students who may have had similar learning backgrounds and probably have similar goals and motivations. If this happened, it would allow the teacher to design a course that focused on common (context-based) learning needs, leading towards goals that all the students were intrinsically focused on. There would be a more holistic approach to language itself, which is more in tune with current theories of language acquisition. Grammar, lexis and pronunciation would be taught as required by the learners, not as dictated by the coursebook or teacher. A range of pre-existing language knowledge would mean students could learn a lot from each other, so peer-teaching and –learning would feature highly on such a course. Does this sound so terrible? I actually think it sounds pretty good.
Ken MacDougall, ladies and gentlemen – you may say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one.