Why is English so hard? Don’t ask native speakers because they don’t think it is. Don’t ask fluent second language speakers because they might feel superior.
Don’t ask a teacher because they might blame the student. Don’t ask a public school because it’s just the scores that are important. Don’t ask a tutoring school because it’s just the tuition that’s important. Don’t ask a student because most don’t bother to.
If I may, I’ll refer to Mr. Edwin Perez, Mon Jun 25, 2007 7:21 am GMT. He posted his opinion on why English is so hard by pointing out that even the standard rule about long vowels doesn’t always work. “Dive, dine, guide, bide, abide, bike, Nike, site, but GIVE???” And what does he think about the inconsistencies of English spelling? “Y wish enywan cud giv mi the the cleerest and simplest reeson tu biliv that thouz spelings ar lojikul. Other lenguejes ar mor koherent and this kurrent sistem is full ov wat Y koll idiotidity with oll ur duw/due rispekt. Y hope u kynda get the ydea ov wat Y meen.”
And here is the response from Mr. Damian in Edinburgh Mon Jun 25, 2007 8:01 am GMT. “Firstly, is some kind of sanity going to return to this otherwise sensible Forum? I wonder what prompts some people to act in this way and ruin things for others but I reckon it's just one of the many pitfalls on the internet.... This thread......."Why IS English pronunciation so irregular?" ......because it IS! It's just the way it is, and that's how it has developed over the years since its inception. It's part of the fun of our English Language, and when you finally come to terms with, and learned, all it's seemingly unnaccountable idiosyncracies and inconsistencies then that's the point when you realise that you have mastered it. No reforms are necessary and no way will they ever be implemented...at least not here in the land of its birth....well, The English part of it anyway. Live with it....get over it......”
Oh great. For all you second language learners struggling in your English class, “Live with it and get over it.” If you can’t follow the rules, you are mentally ill and we will call you dyslexic. Until recently, I thought dyslexia meant that you saw letters reversed making it difficult to read. Pardon the references to generic online definitions, but one site states dyslexia as, “a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.” Dyslexia is not a term for those who cannot read. Dyslexia is a label for those who have difficulties learning to read. If learning to swim was not easy for you, you had a disorder.
The text admits that the disorder might not be just in the learner, but in the teacher or the methods. “Children with dyslexia are often labeled as treatment “resisters,” as they do not seem to progress with even the most intensive and careful instruction.” Likewise, heavy people resisting a weight loss regime of the most intensive and careful instruction have 1) an eating disorder 2) a weight loss disorder 3) a quack disorder.
The answer should be in the next sentence, “The failure to respond to traditional intervention is so common among dyslexic students that it is now accepted as a valid alternative to formal diagnostic testing.” All this says is that those who have difficulty reading have difficulty reading. Furthermore it does not rule out that the “traditional intervention” at hand is not working. With no “valid alternatives to diagnostic testing” the easiest thing to do with people we don’t understand is to stamp them with a label. Consequent burning at the stake is optional.
But all is not so grim. The description continues, “They do well on tests of phonetic decoding, but have difficulty with irregular words, indicating a visual or surface type dyslexia. Phonics, based teaching won’t help that group because their reading barriers lie elsewhere.” This is quite revealing since the reading barriers are elsewhere and not necessarily within themselves. If they do well on phonetic decoding, they can differentiate sounds. If they find irregular words difficult, they are quite normal. Adding yet another category such as, “visual or surface type dyslexia” is another excuse for saying, “We don’t know.”
The final paragraph, almost as a footnote, admits that people can learn to read, but may need to use, “alternative mental strategies, relying more heavily on right hemisphere and frontal regions of their brains.” Note that most game changing innovations are first called, “alternative mental strategies” and using different parts of the brain should not be considered compensatory. “One long-term study of teenagers found that development of such “compensatory” brain pathways was the only distinguishing characteristic that could accurately predict which students would later become capable readers.” This translates as, “itz abowt taim U ghet it. Yor wun-cize-fits-aughl suhlooshun kumz phrum yoor oughn wrait phoot. It might even be possible that that shoe doesn’t fit anyone at all.
At one elementary school, the children have basically been abandoned. The students take it upon themselves to hit the gong to signal that class should begin, but it’s rare if the teacher is there. The gong rings hollow with a class unattended. The reason one teacher is not there is because she does a brisk business of selling snacks outside the school and even after the morning rush, she seems more content to sit in the shade of her umbrella and count her profits than to stand in the classroom. Left on their own, eight year-olds wreak havoc in the classroom. Some run and scream and some jump on the desks. The naturally quiet ones try to ease their suffering by seeking refuge by scribbling in their notebooks.
Before the students start creating chaos in the classroom, they are happily self-managed outside in the schoolyard. Maybe it’s because they’re used to having so much time on their own. Children play shuffleboard with sandals, flick marbles and rotate among a number of other games. Sometimes they argue, but it’s usually about their rules. Their sense of social order is in stark contrast to unmanaged classroom.
New games appear in the schoolyard. Most recent is the emergence of a popular game using tamarind seeds, maybe because tamarinds are now in season. Cupped holes have been scraped out of the hard dirt surface, sometimes with Nazca-like patterns or those reminiscent of modernist earthworks. I found one pattern in the outline of a girl with holes dug for the eyes, mouth and other anatomically appropriate areas. The holes work as a kind of cribbage pot. The seeds are scattered and flicked expertly into the hole. I’m not sure what the rules are, but it’s obvious that they are being followed. Groups of five or six children huddle around in quiet concentration surrounded by an outer ring of spectators. Quick calculations are being made to keep track of who is winning. Of course, there are no adults hovering over their shoulder to order them around and tell them what to do. Self-management is the essence of good play.
Little does the teacher-cum-vendor know that her brisk sales are not from the tamarind paste but from the seeds. A mere 1,000 Kip package has exponential value in terms of inventiveness and students know the value of play. I have seen students count the seeds in the plastic packages before making their purchase just to be sure to get the best deal. Once they have enough seeds or move on to another game, the teacher will lose her sales.
It’s hard to help the teacher understand the tremendous effect she has on the students. We’ve pointed out that the primary source of garbage in the schoolyard is coming from her merchandise, but she just laughs. She may not have experienced how difficult it is to teach children when they’re stoked with sugar and MSG. What she also doesn’t understand is that her pocketed profits are coming from a desire to play and a desire to learn. Has she ever considered selling books? Before that happens, we might find ways to get her daily sales translated into more learning games, but do we really have to go to all this effort? Will there be a day when she simply enters the classroom, working for the pay she gets and educates the children in a friendly, playful and productive way? She might be on the right track since it can all start with a handful of tamarind seeds.
Did you ever diagram sentences in school? I did, but that must have been in around 1975. It doesn’t seem that widely used now and it’s hard to explain why. It must have fallen out of fashion or was replaced by a more powerful academic agenda. Basically, sentence diagramming makes it visually easy to understand where the subject and predicate are and how everything else is related. The subject and predicate make up the horizontal line while trees and roots extend the sentence above and below.
One reason that it may not be popular is because it is old. Not any older than grammar itself, but old enough to lose pedagogical appeal. The method is traced back to Alonzo Reed and Brainerd (what a name!) Kellogg in their book “Higher Lessons in English” (What a title) published in 1877. Apparently, at that time it was a tremendous hit and sold lots of copies. Diagramming stayed in the schools for around 100 years. The history of its rise and fall is narrated in a book by Kitty Burns Florey, “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: “The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences.”
She attributes the fall out of favor in the 60s due to a strong trend away from anything that appeared rote or mechanical. Self-expression held precedence over accuracy as the tweed and topknots of grammarians weren’t cool at that time. In the ivory towers high enough above the beat of the times, purists left the organic branching for parse trees, which they may have found to be more satisfyingly less visual. If there is ever a full circle, sentence diagramming will come back into popularity since digital media has freed our brains from linear constraints.
Diagramming sentences can be fun in the way Sudoku or crossword puzzles are fun. The challenge is to understand how the constituent parts are actually related to each other. Opponents will say diagramming is more of a diversion than an instructional tool since you’d have to know grammar before figuring out the pattern. The simple alternative is to use the diagrams already completed. Just because the component parts are already put together doesn’t mean the observer can’t figure out how it works. A diagramed sentence is an engine running.
I’ve observed how learners can explore sentence structures by tracing their fingers over the lines. First, they complain that the order is jumbled, but quickly see it as a puzzle to be solved. They’ll move through the sentence like a maze and as they say the sentence out loud, often recognize if they’ve taken a wrong turn. Diagramming also shows that there may be more than one way to say the same thing while the meaning is locked into the inherent structure.
It works in any language and might be best to start with Lao though simply by repetitive tracing, it’s possible to absorb the sense of a structure. By practicing with many examples, grammatical patterns will start to emerge as if set into the grooves of the brain. Practicing in this way can stimulate visual, auditory and kinesthetic functions and best of all, can be fun.
In our search for better methods, there may be a treasure trove of wheels that have already been invented. The most important point is to discard our assumptions that what we’re using now is always the best. Old shoes usually fit the best, but we can dare to kick them off, dig our bare feet into the sand and feel our way around again for something new to try.
In the simplest of equations, development is about abundance. Since abundance is not an absolute, we measure abundance by growth and since economic growth has no limit, we worry about the consequences at a later date, be it that we deplete all our natural resources or shrivel up from ever increasing temperatures.
At the same time, it’s hard to deny that an empty gas tank needs filling and when we see what’s lacking, we take out our calculators to see how much we can afford. Can we build more schools, buy more books or equip every student with a tablet? In Laos, students are still studying on dirt floors, sitting eight to a bench and studying by oil lamps. Of course they need more.
But in the same way that the lamp won’t illuminate if it’s not plugged in, there is always a weak link that cuts off our efforts. By process of elimination, I’d say that the brains of young students are not the problem. Before I distribute resources, I want to be sure the teachers are plugged in.
We must give credit to teachers. Teachers work under insufferable conditions. They lack resources, work under low pay and are often stationed in extremely remote areas. The classrooms are often freezing in winter and sweltering in summer and with up to 80 students in a classroom, many are at a loss as to what to do. They need resources, they need training and they need more pay. To ensure there’s quality in their teaching, most are required to make more lesson plans. That seems to be the solution.
Regardless of their insufferable, but noble positions, I have often scratched my head as to how to urge them to improve their skills. Hours of lesson planning often end up with lists of obscure words or lessons on mangled grammar. Sometimes teacher training feels like pouring water on hot stones. Overworked teachers are looking for less, not more. What will they do with more workshops, more manuals and more methods? I would suggest offering less.
Less is more when teachers are asked not to do two things; use a blackboard and read from the text. Letting go is not easy since holding on to these two methods are ubiquitous in the classroom. Without these two props, some will wonder if it’s possible to be a teacher. Using less challenges teachers to think more. The teacher must innovate in order to connect with the students.
There is one more hole to plug. Use less mid-term and final tests and more daily quizzes. Daily quizzes require teachers to define learning targets. Quizzes provide feedback and motivation for students. Daily scores show teachers how well they’ve taught the day before. Quizzes partner the teachers and students in a common goal.
When teachers avert their gaze from the blackboard and peer over their books, they see individual students rather than just hear a blurry mass of chorused responses. They see how some students succeed while some still struggle. I was told that some of the most effective teachers are those teaching the Lao alphabet because the goals are clear for teachers. They want to see their students learn. They are also confident enough with their own knowledge to dare and try any new way to teach.
Fill teachers with confidence and motivation, pay them for their efforts and share the benefits of students’ success. That’s got to be one way to make it all work.