October 2017

If Students Were Horses

If my ESL students were horses I’d know exactly what to do. I was a horse trainer for 20 years before I went to Teacher’s College. What I learned from training horses is there is a basic pattern for teaching any horse to do anything based on the way horses think. From how horses learn in the wild or from their mothers when they are born, to herding cattle for cowboys and jumping another horses (I’m not sure the reason for this stunt however…) all horses’ brains work the exactly same way. The same five simple learning patterns/principles operate all the time:

1) The trainer has authority over the horse as in the trainer is higher in the pecking order – horses are herd animals

2) The horse understands exactly what is expected – clear communication

3) The request is not too difficult – progress in small steps

4) No fear – animals try harder to please the trainer if they are not afraid – respect them

5) No pain – horses can’t learn when they hurt

A horse will do anything asked of it when all of those conditions are met. It’s simple.

One of the first things I noticed in Teacher’s College is we didn’t study how people’s brains learn or any systems that were always true. We learned to teach hundreds of thousands of details about English. English spelling is random. IPA is a dysfunctional translation step away from fluency. We teach 208 Latin grammar rules and exceptions as if they applied to English (they don’t). Teachers learned how to make up their own programs using topics they chose randomly. No continuity. We were very comfortable accepting English is difficult and taking 1,700 – 10,000 hours to teach it. No wonder ESL class is not an effective place to learn English!

In my experience the vast majority of students wanted one thing – to speak English better. Even Advanced students who had completed untold years of English classes and were for all intents and purposes fluent, lacked confidence speaking English. Students never learned to speak English confidently at any level from any background. The situation was ridiculous. It became my life’s mission to give every student at every level access to speaking English confidently in every situation. And it is happening because of patterns.

Speaking English is dead easy. Every baby in North America, Great Britain, New Zealand… figures it out before their second birthday. Speaking English isn’t that difficult.

To redesign teaching Speaking I started at the beginning. How does the human brain understand and process information? What are the patterns that must be satisfied in order for humans to learn? The answer was found in a little book called Brain Power by Rita Baker that cost $8.00.

Humans are pattern seeking, meaning making machines. You can load people up with details about English, about anything really, take grammar rules for example or memorizing spelling… but those pieces of information don’t impact learners’ ability to use the information learned. Rita Baker totally explained why school has traditionally been a waste of time, particularly for language learners. (Bad teacher training is the root of it). So what are the patterns that toddlers figure out that enable participation in language and access to fluency through conversation?

There are six patterns for Spoken English and they are explained with examples in English is Stupid, Students are Not. All conversation follows these six patterns with no exceptions.

People patterns are not horses patterns. We are not herd animals to the same degree. For example 1) Authority only takes humans so far. With authority teachers make ESL learners sit in class, do homework and take tests but can’t make learners use what they have learned outside of the classroom – where they needed it. Authority is misused with humans. Our education as teachers (along with the authority that comes with the position) has failed to produce results. It isn’t the students who have failed, we have failed our students.

For students this story has a happy ending, for teachers not so much. I taught Speaking Canadian English at Sheridan College in Canada for many years. It is a course I designed and English is Stupid, Students are Not (click for the free PDF that is being downloaded globally about 1,000 times a day) was the text book created for that course. My students at Sheridan were mostly foreign-trained professionals, usually engineers and accountants but nurses, office administrators, police officers… as well.  At the beginning of every term, I’d listen to these articulate, intelligible, highly educated, successful people introduce themselves in English and tell their stories, aspirations and expectations of the course in English… and I’d wonder – “How do you not know you are speaking English now?” But the truth for my beloved students was they had problems speaking English and I respected that so I’d ask them, “Why don’t you speak English now?” to acknowledge their reality.

I taught thousands of students and they all gave exactly the same short set of reasons for not speaking English. This is a pattern. Something stops even highly educated learners from freely expressing themselves and jumping into the flowing river that is conversation. Unlike horses, where criteria had to be in place before they could learn humans need a block taken away before they could use the English they knew.

Students are stopped by a tiny pieces of wrong thinking that well-intentioned, badly misinformed teachers instilled in them a long time ago.

Basically, learners stop themselves from speaking for reasons that aren’t real. Check out their list. To have students speak English confidently teachers have to identify and remove the non-reason that is preventing the learner from speaking. There are very few of these wrong thinking, non-reasons but they are super inhibiting:

1) Believing Speaking English is difficult – this is an unempowering stand that isn’t true. If you don’t believe me ask a two-year-old.

2) Concerns about making mistakes, especially grammar and looking foolish. Let this one go. Grammar is important in writing not in speaking. Important words, context and body language are the vehicles for sharing ideas in conversation. Grammar isn’t on the list. Native speakers don’t even listen to grammar – Chapter Three in English is Stupid. (If your teacher argues with you about this get a more up-to-date teacher). Native speakers make grammar mistakes all the time!

3) Self-consciousness about accent. Let this go too. Everyone has an accent. It is neither possible nor necessary to get rid of an accent unless intelligibility is an issue. See footnote below*

4) People talk too fast. I can’t make people talk slower but I can speed up listening. Chapter Three in English is Stupid on Important Words. 20 minutes well spent to double or triple listening speed.

5) Shyness. If a learner doesn’t talk in their first language it is extra hard for them to speak in English. Too bad. They have to do it anyway. What are their hobbies? Can they join a club, volunteer, tutor math (or whatever they excel in), get an entry level job in their field (this is the best one)… They must surround themselves in English and participate.

6) Vocabulary. You got me here. Learners do need words to speak a language but they don’t need many. Coach students to take their best guess, mime, gesture, carry a pen and paper, point to a picture, use a pocket dictionary… they must get out there and talk with the words they do know. It will work for them. I promise.

Pattern is everywhere. To drive a vehicle from a motorcycle to a transport truck you need to know how to start it, make it go forward, stop it and steer it. That’s the pattern for driving anything. If you are washing dishes you probably figured out the order: glasses, cutlery, dishes, pots and pans – cleanest first. There is a pattern for washing dishes. Everything humans do is by pattern. Students are not horses but we all learn by finding the simple patterns that are always true. Learn the simple patterns for speaking English. It’s free.

Note to Learners: speaking English is like riding a bicycle or playing the piano, the only way to do is to do it. You don’t need to study about it anymore. Jump into the river of conversation, you’ll be okay. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes – everyone you are talking to already has. Most students are stuffed to the gills with tons of useless details about English they believe will help them talk. They won’t. Those endless grammar details are actually preventing you from talking. Talk first, improve second, like a first language. Fluency comes from doing not studying.

Learners – what your teacher probably hasn’t mentioned is that you have enough information to speak English successfully now. You have to appreciate how new and difficult this approach is for teachers to grasp. It invalidates almost everything they have dedicated their careers to. Be a little bit patient with them but if they insist on silly things like IPA or grammar as your access to fluency blah, blah, blah, you have to move on. You can talk to me, I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

Teachers – help learners identify what is stopping them from using what they know. The problem is probably on the list above. Then support them letting it go. Play Frozen for them if you have to. If you know what you are doing it takes 30 hours or less to have your students speaking confidently to strangers. If you can’t help them do this it is time for you to be a learner again. Your guide is a free PDF English is Stupid, Students are Not. Enjoy.

Until next time,

Teacher Judy

*Intelligibility Footnote:

If you are from Europe including Russia, Central or South America, Australia (just kidding) you are completely intelligible and there is no reason to fix your accent.

Middle East, India and Pakistan, Asia – your intelligibility issues are small and easy to address. Learners from these language backgrounds need a few tiny pieces of information to transform their intelligibility:

  •  Arabic: you need more vowel sounds found on Page 55 of English is Stupid, Chapter Two on Word Stress and Pausing on Page 128.
  • East Indian and Pakistani you need Word Stress – Chapter Two and Pausing on Page 128 .
  • Asia you are missing some sounds – Chapter One of English is Stupid and you need to pronounce final consonants. English speakers pronounce them. You also need Chapter Two on Word Stress.

With love. JT