Friday, June 15, 2012

SVO and the World of Meta-language

Ahh...meta-language. There's quite the debate as to whether meta-language hinders or helps students acquire another language. (By meta-language I am referring to the words we use to refer to words. Confused? i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, subject, object, present progressive, passive voice, etc.) I tend to fall on the side that meta-language is useful in limited quantities in error correction.

For example, as I mentioned in the previous post, my freshman tend to start off the year giving me one word responses.

Me: "Hi, what's your name?"
Student: "You-jin."

Me: "What did you do last weekend?"
Student: "Shopping."

Me: "Why don't you have your book today?"
Student: "Home."

It's funny, the student's meaning is clear in all the above examples, but these responses are obviously not acceptable. For one, it sounds  rude. Now, my students are not rude. They will usually say these things with a smile on their face; however, it sounds rude none-the-less. Two, these responses sound unintelligent. Once again, my students are not unintelligent; they just have some bad language behaviors.

One word on bad language behaviors-- it is teachers that reinforce bad language behaviors in their students. Often times teachers don't want to decrease student motivation by correcting student responses. Students then learn that one-word responses are okay. We do not do a service to our students by letting them use language that would not be acceptable in English speaking countries.

How then is a teacher to correct a one word response. Many teachers often overtly correct a student's response hoping that the student will parrot the correct response back.

Teacher: "Where is your book?"
Student: "Home."
Teacher: "No, say, 'My book is at home.'"
Student: "Oh, my book is at home."

The only problem with this is overt error correction rarely creates student uptake (see my website in About Me / Writing Samples for a paper I wrote on the is subject). In other words, the student knows they did something wrong, but that's all they learned. In fact, the teacher did all the work.

This is why I always make my students speak in sentence, and why I teach them that every sentence has a subject, verb and sometimes an object. I have a power point that I show in the first week of class (see my website under Adult ESL for English Survival Skill PPT) that reviews how to make sentences. This may seem simple, but it's a simple thing that students often don't put into practice. This way when students give me a one word response, I can use met-language to have them create a grammatically sound sentence.

Me: "Where's your book?"
Student: "Home."
Me: "Use a sentence. What's the subject"
Student: "My book .... home."
Me: "Where's your verb?"
Student: "My book is home."
Me: "Good sentence. 'My book is at home.' Please remember to bring it next time."

This may seem a bit like pulling teeth, but it takes awhile to break old habits. After a week or two, I can just ask students to use a sentence (no reminding them of SVO) and a few weeks later, I don't have to remind them at all.

Some teachers may think that this style is a bit too nit-picky, that it is ultimately demotivating for students, but I have found the opposite. When students are able to make their own sentences, when they correct their own mistakes, it helps develop a feeling of accomplishment.

Another thing to keep in mind, is try to have a sense of humor about all of this. Don't berate students when they get things wrong, and don't put them on the spot. It's a balance between helping them, but also holding them accountable for their own language.

Helping students develop good language learning habits goes beyond teaching a language, it helps students develop a learning skill they will use for a lifetime.

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