EXCEL Corner - "Discovery Learning"

by Aleta Loftis

Part One:
Imagine being in 10th grade and starting to study English for the first time.   Now picture this:  Your new English teacher puts you in the English 6 book because that is the normal book for tenth grade students.  You would be studying superlatives, the present perfect continuous, first and second conditional, and relative pronouns when you didn’t even know how to say, “Hi.  How are you?”

It sounds crazy doesn’t it?  However, this is just the problem some Mongolian kids have been facing lately.  Apparently, some officials are requiring their English teachers to teach beginning students at high levels.  Please explain to your school officials that Dr. Mira, who is a leader in writing the national English textbooks, advises students to begin at the beginning no matter what their grade level. 

Part Two:
It has been such a wonderful experience for me to sit in on a new language teaching program this past semester.  Our new ELI teachers are learning Mongolian from the very beginning.   I’ve been here for over nine years, so why am I studying in a beginning Mongolian course?   I’m not sure.   It just sort of happened, but I’m extremely thankful.  This new method involves lots of listening, talking, and discovery learning right from the outset.  There is virtually no reading or writing for the first few months. (Does that sound familiar to you 4th grade teachers?)

Our Mongolian teacher just shows us hundreds of pictures from a huge variety of categories.  We have to point at pictures and listen to her say the words in Mongolian.  We soon started picking up the new vocabulary without even realizing it.  How did we learn it?  DISCOVERY!
I’m wondering if we as English teachers have forgotten the value of discovery learning?  How does a baby learn to take hold of something he wants?  How does a pre-toddler learn to pull himself up and move along, holding the side of a couch or chair?  How does a child learn that the past tense of “eat” is “ate” not “eated”?  The child just keeps trying things out.  He keeps learning from positive and negative feedback and experimentation.

Our two new ELI teachers are communicating in Mongolian after only three months, and I am astounded.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Granted they are young, 21 and 22, and quite sharp…but still!   I’ve seen young people study language for a long time and not get very far.  There is something to this discovery method.

How is this related to us as English teachers?  Well, I guess we first need to ask ourselves if we want the easy teaching life or are we willing to sacrifice our old comfortable methods for something that is out of our comfort zones?  As humans we naturally lean toward the simplest means of accomplishing a job.  Why?  I am not sure, but I think it is because we hope for more free time to relax and have fun.
How long have you been teaching?  Have you found a way to do little and still get the job done?  That is not always bad, but if your students are not benefiting… …well, you get the point, right?
It is interesting that I’m writing this on New Year’s Day.  I didn’t plan it that way, but it is true.  People usually want to start fresh for the New Year.  I personally avoid making foolish New Year’s promises that I can’t keep.  It just makes me more frustrated when I fail to accomplish those lofty but unreachable goals.  However, for a few moments, let’s do a little analyzing of our teaching styles.
Are our students experimenting with English and actually progressing?  Are they excited every day when they come into our classrooms because they know that each new day with us means further development in the exciting and infinite realm of language learning?

Maybe there is something we can all do to expand our own teaching and our students’ learning circumstances.   I’m not suggesting that you spend three extra hours in planning your daily lessons.  I’m only proposing a different slant on your perspective.   Instead of shoveling piles of information for students to copy and memorize, how about giving them some clues that will spark their interests?  How about encouraging them to “jump in” and discover with their imaginations and brainpower?
Here are a couple possibilities:
  1. Bring in eight to ten cooking utensils from your kitchen and put them on a large table (or several desks pushed together) in the center of the classroom.  Have your students gather around the sides of the table.  Don’t just start holding up each item and telling them the English names.  Instead, say the English as one student alternatively points back and forth between two items.  When the students seem to have grasped those two words in English, choose another student to point over and over to the two new items they’ve just learned plus one more as you say the English.  Keep this going until the whole class seems to have all the new vocabulary down. 
  2.  Now you point and have the whole class say the items.  Help as needed.
  3. Next, use the same method, but hold up each item, show the way it is used, and tell the students the English verb for that action.
  4. Finally, put the students into double lines.  In one of the line’s, the students should each have one kitchen item and use it for his partner.  The students with an item should say, “This is a ladle” or “This is a can opener” or “This is a pitcher.” and so on.  The students without a utensil must say to their partners, “You are ladling.”  or “You are opening a can.”  or “You are pouring.”  etc.   After a few rotations, have the Ss switch roles.  
What do you think?  Of course, don’t do this every day.  Variety is the spice of English learning.  After teaching the above lesson, go home and rack your brain for another way to help your Ss learn through DISCOVERY.

It is not easy for a teacher to switch directions, especially after becoming comfortably settled.  However, if our students were to suddenly become more energized about learning English, wouldn’t it be worth the effort?   Again, we need to ascertain if we are willing….  Be brave and ask yourself if you are willing….

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