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Jan 19, 2024
Andrew Walkley

Back in class: thoughts from learning and teaching languages at low levels

During the eighteen months of writing the new edition of Outcomes I put my teaching and language learning efforts on hold. Back in January 2022, when we started the project, I was teaching a beginner Spanish class and learning Russian, but it quickly became clear that my addled brain was not going to do multi-tasking very well, so the lessons came to an end.  

Now Outcomes is finished and I’m back in the classroom. I’m teaching a low-level Spanish class with a colleague at Lexical Lab and also starting again with Russian as what I guess you might describe as a false beginner. In both cases, I remain struck by the absurdity of the traditional low-level syllabus which still seems to be largely predicated on a building block approach to grammar plus lists of words  for practising that grammar.

Going back to the classroom as a learner, I am acutely aware of the many many things I have forgotten, but I also remember quite a lot. For example, I am quite capable of recalling past forms  if I can remember the actual verb I want to use them with! The problem is more the forgotten lexis than grammar, and yet most Elementary coursebooks suggest that the opposite is the issue: it’s supposedly the building blocks of grammar that we need to practise over and over again!  In many English courses, you still don’t even see an example of a past form till about halfway through an Elementary book! Most coursebooks will also endeavour to restrict the possibility of its use too, through controlled tasks.

In our Spanish classes, we try and focus more on natural kinds of conversations (as we do in Outcomes Beginner and Elementary). When you do this, while a task may predominantly require some very simple grammar such as the present form of the verb to be, you quickly see how some students will attempt to produce other forms – sometimes ‘correctly’ (because they have actually studied before), at other times not.

The insights of a lexical approach show how some ‘grammar’ can be taught as vocabulary. For example, in our first Spanish class, when introducing ourselves (essentially using I am / you are), someone tried to ask How long have you been a teacher? We taught the pattern Cuanto tiempo llevas (como professor / en Londres / alli). Another person wanted to say was and we taught era – that is, the word and not the whole underlying structure. These got practised and re-used by most students. Some weren’t always accurate when using them, but they enabled an extra level of the conversation and more understanding between students. How long would an English student have to wait before they were encouraged to use these forms in their Beginner or Elementary coursebooks?

Part of the reason for taking up these Beginner classes – both teaching and learning – was for my own professional development, so to speak, and to feed into our training – in this case specifically Teaching Languages at Low Levels. I felt that our book Teaching Lexically was more aimed at B1 and above, and our online course gives a better outline of how to apply a more lexical approach at low levels. Learning and teaching different languages has reminded me of what it feels like to be a non-native speaker teacher which provides helpful examples for the course. 

It’s also provided inspiration for a general consideration of language learning and how we think about level, goals and achievement. Broadly speaking, this is the theme of our webinar series this year. I’ve come to think of B1 as the final destination for most students. That’s certainly the limit of my ambitions with my current language learning! It seems to me that having B1 as an ultimate goal (inaccurate semi-fluency) should make a difference to how we conceive the teaching of languages at low levels. Would you agree? Why not join me for the webinar and our follow-up discussion?

Andrew Walkley

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