Practicing speaking with (young) learners

I am a strong believer in input-based learning, as that is how I best learn languages myself. However, recently I have started to question this approach, particularly but not exclusively for my younger students.

There does seem to be a ‘silent period’ for most learners, where they are more comfortable listening than speaking. This varies according to age and character, but seems to exist for all learners (even if it is just a few minutes for the most active/outgoing). I wouldn’t take it as far as this school (which enforces a silent period of about 6-8 months), but I like to keep it in the back of my mind.

The arguments for following a silent, input-heavy period seem pretty persuasive to me:

1. learners can get comfortable with the sounds of the language
This is important because if you can’t hear a sound, you’re unlikely to be able to produce it. There seems to be a case for delaying production until students have enough exposure to the sounds and rhythms of a language.

2. learners can become familiar with basic vocabulary and grammatical chunks
Assuming the input is at an appropriate level, learners will be able to hear the same vocabulary and grammatical chunks multiple times, beginning to acquire them.

3. learners can relax, lowering their affective filter and allowing them to focus on the language
This is pure TPR talk, but I find TPR extremely effective for beginners. Being able to sit back and not have to worry about performance seems to make it much easier for learners to pick up language.

However, this is a slow process. We’re talking about hundreds of hours.

In Japan, where most children learn English for an hour or less a week (elementary school age children at our school have 50-minute lessons), it is clearly not enough to expose children to appropriate input and wait for them to want to speak.

I think David Paul was very right to emphasise teaching children basic phonics so that they would be able to do reading and writing homework as soon as possible. I find children find it much easier to remember language when they have heard, said, read, and written it. It also has the happy side effect of seguing into extensive reading. Recently at Cambridge English we have been trying out various reader programs (Follifoot Farm, Story Street, Oxford Reading Tree, Springboard Readers, Rigby Star). On the whole students enjoy reading in class and for homework.

The other thing we have started doing recently is memorizing questions and answers and short dialogues. At first I wanted to make our own materials (something that may yet happen), but soon after that we came across MPI’s QA series, which does almost everything we want and saves us from reinventing the wheel. The books are not perfect, they have a few awkward questions in there and I’m not sure that the QA300 series really works, but they are cheap, easy to use, come with Japanese translations for students and parents to fall back on, and have CDs available.

So far I’ve been pleased with the results. Each student is set a few (2-10) questions to prepare each week, then has a test in their next class. If they can answer perfectly, they clear the question and get assigned new ones. If not, they review the same questions for the next class. Most students enjoy the challenge and are remembering more common questions. A few students love it and are shooting through the series, and some students are really struggling. As the students work individually at their own pace, this is not too much of a problem. On the whole , it’s been a positive development for our school.

So there we go. I still believe in input, but feel that it is not enough for a Japanese eikaiwa context. We supplement with reading and writing as well as memorising question and answer patterns, which seems to help but we’re still not completely where I would like us to be.

What do you think the most effective ways to teach children in an eikaiwa context are?

Hi Ben. Enjoyed reading your post. I agree that an input heavy curriculum may not serve our students well in a Japanses context.
At my school for young learners, I follow a lexical approach. Focusing on lexical chunks designed for short conversations. The lexical chunks have, hopefully, interesting vague pictures to add content along with a well established context. Most of the class is devoted to speaking. When we aren’t speaking, we are drawing, writing and sharing our drawings (like mini presentations).
I also like the QA 100 books. I like to point out the chunks and collocations that are present in the book. I also try to mix up the meanings and have the students make their own sentences using the book as a model. Actually, there are lots of activities that you can do from those simple common sentences.

I can go on and on, but won’t.

Mark in Gifu

Hi Mark

Thanks for stopping by! Please go on as long as you want, it’s great stuff 🙂

Do you mean you have flashcards with lexical chunks instead of vocabulary? Sounds really interesting (and useful). Ideally students would learn a lot of chunks, then have epiphanies when they come to study grammar later on (“so that’s what that was”). I’ll have to look into something similar…

16 Oct 2011, 9:12pm
by Mark Kulek


That’s right.
Ben, I made a YouTube channe,l from last month, so that my students can practice the chunks at home and so that their parents can see what we are doing in class.
Go and have a look. Warning, not very professionally done and a little embarrassing. Enter Gifu Kids on the search tab.
Mark in Gifu

Mark, you are several steps ahead of me! I have been wanting to make a Youtube channel for a while now, perhaps this will finally spur me to action.

I like how flexible your flashcard system is. Presumably as it is modular, you can build up increasingly complex conversations.

Very inspiring stuff.

17 Oct 2011, 9:44pm
by Ryan Hagglund


Ben, do you find the students are able to take the questions and answers they’ve memorized and then use them in meaningful situations?

Thanks for all your thoughtful posts, by the way!

Hi Ryan

My pleasure. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to give you a boring answer: some do and some don’t 😉

Some students master them immediately, most can occasionally pull one out of the bag in conversation and writing, and some never manage to produce them.

I console myself with the thought that, if we weren’t doing this, 100% of them would never have the chance to try.

We’ve been doing this for less than a year though, so there’s lots of room for improvement.


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