Category Archives: instruction

Life Skills-based Education in the EFL Classroom: Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Life skills-based education: a (very) brief outline
In its landmark report to UNESCO on the role of education in the future, the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (Delors et al.1996) underlined the growing importance of learning throughout life and the need to focus on four pillars of education, in particular: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, and learning to be – ‘learning to be’ including ‘learning to learn’. In accordance with this vision, the United Nations Educational Framework for Action (UNESCO 2000: 36) obliged governments to ensure “that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programmes” within the first decade of the twenty-first century.

However, even though the main goals of life skills-based education are largely agreed upon world-wide (i.e. enabling young people to lead a fulfilling and healthful life and to take control of their destiny, as well as empowering them to fully, responsibly and creatively participate in their societies, which increasingly entails being familiar with and tolerant of other societies and cultures), a generally accepted definition as to what exactly is meant by ‘life skills’ is still missing. In view of the diverse and continuously changing cultural contexts in which children and adolescents are growing up today and the changing demands of life they need to be able to cope with, this is completely understandable. In her background paper for the UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2003/4, Singh drew the following important conclusion: “It is not enough to ask how life skills are defined in general; rather it is essential to ask how they exist in diverse life situations and how they affect the empowerment of people.” (UIE 2003a: 2). This needs to be kept in mind when taking life-skills based education into the foreign language classroom.

Nevertheless, in order to capture the essence of what life skills-based education is and to outline the scope of it roughly, two general, largely complementary definitions are particularly interesting in this context. According to UNICEF (2007), life skills-based education refers to a number of psycho-social and interpersonal skills which can help people make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and develop coping and self-management skills. The overall focus is on empowering young people to deal with challenging life situations and critical incidents successfully and, ultimately, to lead healthy and productive lives. As such, life skills-based education is associated with relevant and engaging learning content as well as with contextualized interactive and participatory learning and teaching aimed at enabling all learners to acquire knowledge and to develop skills and attitudes which allow them to cope with a wide range of intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts and challenges.

Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO 1999) points out: “Life skills education is designed to facilitate the practice and reinforcement of psychosocial skills in a culturally and developmentally appropriate way; it contributes to the promotion of personal and social development, the prevention of health and social problems, and the protection of human rights.” More concretely, the following life skills are considered to be the most essential: the capacity to think creatively and critically, the ability to make decisions and to solve problems, the ability to communicate effectively, the ability to establish and maintain interpersonal relations, knowledge of self and others, the capacity to feel empathy, and the ability to handle emotions, including the ability to handle tension and stress (see PAHO 2000; 2001: 29-32).

Taking both of these definitions together, life-skills based education calls attention to a continuum of intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects of coping with life in the global media, information and knowledge society, seeking to develop an action-oriented competence in relevant life contexts in an integrated way. As Singh points out, the overall approach implies success in private as well as in professional life, which means that “the idea of success is not only the accomplishment of a happy working life, but also the creation of a self-fulfilling life outside the world of work and wealth creation.” (UIE 2003a: 4).

In sum, the international discussion of life-skills based education with its focus on human independence and interdependence, on knowledge, skills and understanding, as well as on beliefs, attitudes and values clearly indicates that current standards-driven reforms of foreign language education, in their unfortunate combination of simplistic and bureaucratic views of accountability and accountability assessment, and their tendency to exclude long-term sustainable aspects of education and educational assessment, have to be reconsidered. It is time to counteract the continuing withdrawal from general educational objectives and human needs in foreign language classrooms, without of course losing sight of the essence of foreign language teaching, i.e. of ensuring that learners achieve a good command of the target language.

Taking life skills based-education into the EFL classroom
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) (Council of Europe 2001) is based on a holistic concept of foreign language learning which is slightly but decisively different from that underlying life skills-based education. ‘Existential competence’, to begin with, is considered to be the “sum of individual characteristics, personality traits and attitudes which concern, for example, self-image and one’s view of others and willingness to engage with other people in social interaction” (2001: 11-12). Furthermore, personal identity is described in terms of “selfhood factors” referring to attitudes, motivations, values, beliefs, cognitive styles, etc. (2001: 105-106). However, by explicitly stating that existential competence and personal identity are thought of as the sum of various parts, the CEFR has, probably unintentionally, opened up a Pandora’s box of theoretical and practical problems and contributed to the growing obsession with assessment and accountability which we are witnessing in educational politics in many countries today. One fundamental insight of Gestalt theory should have been given more careful attention in this context: the whole is not simply the sum of its parts, and not just more than the sum of its parts, but significantly different in quality from the sum of its parts (see Wertheimer 1922, 1923). In all probability, the educational whole in terms of existential competence and personal identity which is meant here will be almost impossible to measure and fully account for in standardized tests. But this does not automatically mean that is it less precious and important for life in the twenty-first century – on the contrary.

In order to meet the growing challenges and demands of childhood and youth in foreign language instruction, the selfhood factors referred to in the CEFR, which are thought of as being mutable through learning need to be seen as far more than just “parameters which have to be taken into account in foreign language learning and teaching” (2001: 11-12). Since these factors or parameters are of utmost importance in improving individual chances in life, pushing forward social change and bringing about more integrated and participatory societies (see UIE 2003b: 7), foreign language learning in secondary schools should more directly address the educational questions and challenges that arise out of these, and, consequently, provide appropriate content- and context-based learning environments.

From this perspective, shaping what is taught in foreign language classrooms in terms of thematic content and outlining some of the key issues for communication is as important as the promotion of “methods of modern language teaching which will strengthen independence of thought, judgement and action, combined with social skills and responsibility” (Council of Europe 2001: 4). It needs to be remembered that foreign language learners will hardly engage in message-oriented and ‘form-sensitive’ classroom activities geared at mobilizing and improving their target language as well as their personal (intellectual, emotional and social) skills and abilities, as long as the thematic contents offered and the situational contexts created are felt to be uninteresting or irrelevant to them. Foreign language instruction based on thematic content which is unrealistically and artificially ‘designed away’ from everyday problems of growing up today contributes too little to helping learners become “thinking social actors” (Breen 1985: 144), even if learning is embedded in experience-, task- and activity-based communicative classroom environments. It rather leads to what Legutke & Thomas (1999) have appositely referred to as ‘dead bodies and talking heads’ in the foreign language classroom, with the learners more or less simply working out how to say correctly what they are told or expected to say by the teacher (see also Thompson 1996).

As has already been indicated above, four fundamental, highly interrelated thematic areas are currently of particular interest and importance to education in secondary schools from a life skills-based educational perspective – not only in Germany: health, ecology, citizenship and peace. However, since these thematic categories are far too abstract and too distant from the learners’ personal experiences to deal with them in the foreign language classroom as such, they need to be broken down to more specific thematic and contextual units which are flexible enough to spontaneously address concrete problems of life and respond to critical incidents as they come up almost naturally day by day. Distinguishing between macro-, meso- and micro-thematic content level considerations is one way of approaching this problem in theory, but in any case, more empirical research will be required to ferret out and understand contemporary learners’ needs in more detail in the coming years. Only on the basis of this will it ultimately be possible to make foreign language learning in secondary schools more authentic and meaningful – in particular with regard to the purposes for which the learners are expected to acquire the target language, the anticipated communicative settings in which the target language will probably be used by them, the intercultural events in which they will be required and willing to participate, the content topics they will be exchanging views about, the language functions involved in these events, the grammatical structures and lexical material that will be needed, etc.

Focussing on foreign language learning and teaching as an educational enterprise, i.e. as a cognitively, affectively and socially challenging long-term process of intercultural initiation, some suggestions for infusing life skills-based education into secondary school foreign language classrooms are given below:

Macro-level (concerning goal-setting and the selection of thematic content):
• Bring together the key elements of life skills-based education, of global education (see Cates 2002) and of intercultural education (see Byram 1997; Byram & Fleming 1998; Alred, Byram & Fleming 2002, 2006) with current approaches to content-based instruction (see Met 2002; Stoller 2004) and communicative language teaching in foreign language classrooms (see Richards 2005), including, but not overestimating the potential of task-based instruction in institutionalized secondary school settings.
• Step up systematic, empirically grounded foreign language and intercultural communicative needs analysis (see Long 2005) to identify thematic learning content and communicative substance which is of relevance to growing up and living in the twenty-first century.
• In order to avoid oversimplification and trivialization and to make foreign language education more learner-centred, authentic, and motivating, place more emphasis on the (cross-culturally pervasive) tensions, contradictions and pressures children and youth are confronted with in their daily lives (e.g. the surface-Westernization of juvenile lifestyles in terms of fashion, music, behavioural patterns, etc.).

Meso-level (concerning curriculum development and design):
• Integrate real-life thematic content into existing foreign language curricula; be aware of the possible mismatch between views of what is existentially important as seen by those who are growing up and as seen by researchers, curriculum advisors, coursebook designers and teachers.
• More specifically, try to identify thematic content areas and topics which can trigger lively classroom interaction in the target language, and can help to increase the learners’ willingness to communicate in the classroom and beyond.
• To facilitate better cross-curricular education, look for complementarity and interface between schools subjects.
• Example: ‘youth at risk’ (as a macro-level curriculum unit); meso-level topics: (a) ‘drug prevention’ (e.g. consuming premixed alcoholic beverages and/or over-the-counter drugs; smoking habits), (b) ‘healthy nutrition’ (e.g. food and eating habits inside and outside school; school meals; fast food), (c) ‘sexuality and sexual health’ (e.g. the emotional dimension of sex for men and women; Internet pornography; sexism; HIV/AIDS prevention), (d) ‘social and civic responsibility’ (e.g. vandalism and violence inside and outside schools; political or religious extremism or fundamentalism; racial discrimination), (e) ‘consumer behaviour and use of mass media’ (e.g. telemarketing; online shopping; phone-in television; mobile phone addiction and juvenile debt), (f) ‘sustainability’ (e.g. energy efficiency inside and outside schools; reduction of waste; recycling), etc. Central objectives: enhance target language communicative ability, explore/modify attitudes and values, increase knowledge, raise intercultural awareness, develop core skills towards effective use of knowledge in intra- and intercultural encounters (especially: critical thinking skills, negotiation skills, empathy skills, advocacy skills, refusal skills, decision-making skills, self-monitoring skills, counselling skills, skills for managing stress).

Micro-level (concerning learning environments and classroom practices):
• Upscale language and content integrated learning in regular foreign language classrooms by providing appropriate learning materials, by creating relevant and stimulating contexts and scenarios, by encouraging learners to share their everyday life experiences and to speak about critical life incidents, etc.
• Create experience-based, decision-oriented classroom environments in which learners can exchange ideas and views with children and youth from other cultures (e.g. in virtual communities in which learners collaborate trans-culturally and discuss their own values and attitudes towards concrete issues).

Alred, Geof; Byram, Michael & Fleming, Michael (Eds.) (2002), Intercultural Experience and Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Alred, Geof; Byram, Michael and Fleming, Micheal (Eds.) (2006), Education for Intercultural Citizenship. Concepts and Comparisons. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Breen, Michael P. (1985), “The social context for language learning – a ne­glected situ­a­tion?” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7 (2), 135-158.
Byram, Michael & Fleming, Michael (Eds.) (1998), Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective. Approaches through Drama and Ethnography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cates, Kip (2002), “Global Education.” In: Byram, Michael (Ed.) (2002), The Routledge Encyclopledia of Language Learning and Teaching. Routledge, 241-243.
Council of Europe (2001), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Delors, Jacques et al. (1996), Learning: The Treasure Within. Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-First Century. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.
Legutke, Michael & Thomas, Howard (1999), Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. London: Longman.
Long, Michael (Ed.) (2005), Second Language Needs Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Met, Myriam (2002), “Content-based instruction.” In: Carter, Ronald & Nunan, David (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language, 137-140.
PAHO (2000), Tobacco-free Youth: A ‘Life Skills’ Primer. Washington: Pan American Health Organization (PAHO Scientific and Technical Publications No. 579).
PAHO (2001), Life Skills Approach to Child and Adolescent Healthy Human Development. Available here.
Stoller, Fredericka L. (2004), “Content-based instruction: perspectives on curriculum planning.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 261-283.
Thompson, Geoff (1996), “Some misconceptions about communicative lan­guage teaching.” English Language Teaching Journal, 50 (1), 9-15.
UNESCO (2000), World Education Forum. Final Report. Available here.
UIE (UNESCO Institute for Education) (2003a), “Understanding life skills.” Background paper for the EFA Global Monitoring Report 2003/4: Gender and Education for All, the Leap to Equality; prepared by Madhu Singh. Available here.
UIE (UNESCO Institute for Education) (2003b), Nurturing the Treasure. Vision and Strategy 2002-2007. Available here.
UNICEF (2007), Life Skills. Online. please click here.
WHO (1999), Partners in Life Skills Education. Conclusions from a United Nations inter-agency meeting. Geneva: Department of Mental Health. Available here.
Wertheimer, Max (1922), „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. Reihe I.“ Psychologische Forschung 1, 47-58.
Wertheimer, Max (1923), „Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt. Reihe II.“ Psychologische Forschung 2, 301-350.

The post is based on:
Kurtz, Jürgen (2008), Life Skills-based Education in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms – Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision. In: Doff, Sabine; Hüllen, Werner & Klippel, Friederike (Hrsg.) (2008). Visions of Languages in Education. München: Langenscheidt ELT, 87-100.

Complexity Thinking in German Englischdidaktik

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

In a recent publication, Sarah Mercer (2013: 376) states that at present “SLA is undergoing what could be termed a ‚complexity turn’ as researchers become increasingly aware of and sensitive to the inherent complexity and dynamism in learning and teaching foreign languages”. While this may be true for SLA research, it is difficult to generalize across all academic disciplines concerned with foreign language learning and teaching in Europe and elsewhere in the world. I come from a different background – referred to as Englischdidaktik in Germany (English ‘Didactics’).

As an academic discipline, Englischdidaktik is by no means restricted to teaching, and it is not at all to be confused with a didactic, i.e. schoolmasterely chalk-and-talk approach to foreign language instruction built upon simplified assumptions of cause and effect. Rather, Englischdidaktik is a tradition of thinking about and studying teaching and learning that has always been sensitive and fully aware of the complexities, the richness, and the dynamic and emergent character of language pedagogical encounters, as well as the messy nature of foreign language learning. This does not mean, of course, that teachers and teaching should be messy, too. Teaching is more than setting the conditions for learning, because this would be a teaching strategy that is largely based on hope, not more than that. At its core, teaching is highly complex, professional decision-making, before, during, and after instruction, in order to increase the probability of learning.

One traditional heuristic for modeling complexity in general pedagogy and in foreign language learning and teaching in Germany is the ‘Extended Didactic Triangle’ (see below). Developed in the mid 19th century its origins are unclear, but the model nevertheless identifies three core components of any instructional system: student, teacher, and content (see the three corners of the triangle and the three vertices as well). Each of these components is immensely complex itself (various learner and teacher variables, etc.), and all components are interrelated in a complex, nonlinear, and dynamic way. Furthermore, they are embedded in a multi-layered societal and cultural context:

Kurtz_Complexity 1_Didactic triangle

This diagram depicts the beginnings of complexity thinking in Germany. A more recent approach to complexity is, for instance, Andreas Helmke’s ‘Affordance-Utilization-Model of Instruction and Learning’ (2009; my translation) which illustrates how many interconnected factors can actually play a role in the classroom:

Kurtz_Complexity 2_Helmke

However, in current research conducted in the field of Englischdidaktik in Germany a further, pragmatically motivated distinction is typically being made between classroom-based and classroom-oriented research, i.e. between studies that focus primarily on aspects of big C-complexity or small-c complexity, depending on the specific interests and questions of the individual researcher. Studies that focus on small-c complexity are typically conducted in the foreign language classroom (i.e. in many different ways, ranging from qualitative to quantitative, from ethnographic to experimental, employing different research methods, including participatory action research, design experiments, etc.). Studies dedicated to big-C complexity are usually representative of theoretical, rather than empirical research. However, this does not mean that conceptual (‘armchair-‘) research is less complex and important.

Kurtz_Complexity 4_Big C

I think that in the present age of competency-oriented and standards-based foreign language instruction, increasing attention needs to be given to big-C complexity (not only in Englischdidaktik-research) and how it influences or even shapes everyday classroom practices  (in terms of backwash effect):

Kurtz_Complexity 5_exogeneous

I also think that the delicate balance between big-C issues (outcome orientation) and small-c issues (process orientation) is at risk currently, not only in Germany:

Kurtz_Complexity 6_Imbalance

This is why researchers working in the field of Englischdidaktik and in its international sister disciplines need to step up their efforts to further investigate the complex relation between outcome-orientation (focusing on predictability, this way reducing complexity) and the highly complex processes involved in target language learning and teaching (which are difficult to anticipate).


Helmke, Andreas (2009). Unterrichtsqualität und Lehrerprofessionalität. Diagnose, Evaluation und Verbesserung des Unterrichts (3rd ed.). Seelze-Velber: Klett-Kallmeyer.

Mercer, Sarah (2013). “Towards a Complexity-Informed Pedagogy for Language Learning. Uma proposta de pedagogia para aprendizagem de línguas na perspectiva da complexidade”. RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v. 13, n. 2, p. 375-398, 2013.


The Sandwich Technique and the Give-and-Go Pass in Language Teaching

posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

The bilingual sandwich technique (see Wikipedia) has a bilingual counterpart initiated by the learner. When the learner slips in a mother tongue word or asks for a foreign language equivalent, the teacher gives it to him right away and expects the pupil to use it and continue in the foreign language. This is a bit like the give-and-go pass in soccer or basketball. The player (= learner) passes the ball (= mother tongue word or phrase) to a team-mate (= teacher) who passes the ball ( = foreign language equivalent) back to the player that had the ball. Here is an example from my primary school children who I teach once a week. We were practising how to introduce ourselves and say something about ourselves. There was also a phrase about brothers and sisters:

Gustav: I have no brother, and I have one little sister.
Teacher: Say: But I have a little sister.
Gustav: Was heißt: Die ist nervig? [What does it mean: She’s unnerving?]
Teacher: Say: She gets on my nerves. Sie geht mir auf die Nerven. She gets on my nerves. Please come here and say it all: I have no brother, but I have a little sister, and she gets on my nerves.

And Gustav managed to repeat it nicely. Remember: The mother tongue is an immediate solution, not a last resort. Seemingly paradoxically, pupils will become less dependent on their first language, if the sandwich technique and the give-and-go pass are used in a systematic and well targeted way.

Jack C. Richards Video Casts

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

In this series of professional development videos, Jack C. Richards discusses an array of topics ranging from observing classes to the Noticing Hypothesis and everything in between. The level is introductory, quite useful for interested viewers with little to no prior knowledge.

Technology: A Sea Change in Language Instruction

posted by Peter Smith, OpenExam

Economic success needs to be founded on an up-to-date education system.  Nowadays, this means keeping pace with the onward march of technology. With technology now at the forefront of education and economic development, what does this mean for language learning?


As shown in this illustration (c), the history of technology for language learning dates back to the invention of the phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877. Since then, teachers and learners have made use of a variety of audio and video technologies for building language skills.

The most complex of these is the language laboratory. In the 20th century, these tended to be expensive, under-used accessories behind heavy doors at the end of long corridors. Today’s ‘software only’ labs, in conjunction with ‘1:1’ policies, offer constant, unlimited access on the latest online devices and are unrestricted by classroom, school or geographical boundaries. They deliver all the bells and whistles of their hardware-based predecessors. In addition, they offer the full gambit of tools for resource creation and assignment. These allow for differentiated learning through synchronous and asychronous student/teacher interaction.

This development heralds a major sea change in language teaching which is having a beneficial effect not only on the quality and frequency of student usage, but also on language teaching methodology. Language labs have always been suited to behaviourist procedures, reinforcement through repetition, instructional cues and practice routines assigned by the teacher. Nowadays there are more and more opportunities for activities orchestrated by the teacher but controlled by students in collaboration with peers and exchange partners. This is providing a cognitive style of language learning alongside the traditional drills.

Online labs are beginning to allow new language lab activities, such as structured collaboration with partners abroad, which are more natural vehicles for developing mutual understanding than traditional classroom exercises. Students’ a priori knowledge of social networking let teachers to use lab tools to set up real-life scenarios for more meaningful learning. By routinely bringing students together across borders, teachers can provide opportunities for helpful exposure to the language. As with conventional language lab activities, the level of difficulty can be geared from a basic vocabulary swap through to daily bains de langues. There are many obvious benefits of this controlled linguistic immersion, not least the likely osmotic intake of all-important cultural information, highlighted by Juergen Kurtz on this blog.



A New Way to Teach Grammar: The Bilingual Option

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

This is a how-to-do it article. The theory and research behind it can be read up in Butzkamm & Caldwell (2009, 120ff.). I have chosen the for +noun / pronoun+ infinitive construction. Though it is eminently useful and transparent to speakers of many languages, I believe it is not much used by German intermediate EFL learners, simply because German and other languages prefer other constructions to express the same idea.

Lift the construction from a text the students have read and ask them to translate the sentence, for instance:

  • For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second.
    For this to happen, we must act now.
    For this to work well, we need to know more.

Here, the for-construction is a means to express purpose. For this meaning German normally uses a subordinating conjunction, i.e. ‘damit’. In order for the students to associate the infinitive construction with the familiar dependent clause introduced by ‘damit’, we need to practice:

Step 2:
T: Damit dies passiert, …
S: For this to happen …

T: Damit dies funktioniert, …
S: For this to work …

T: Damit dies gut funktioniert, …
S: For this to work well …

T: Damit die Märkte gut funktionieren, …
S: For (the) markets to work well …

T: Damit die Schüler fleißig arbeiten, …
S: For the students to study/work hard …

The open contrast between German: dependent clause, and English: infinitive works as a kind of inoculation against unthinking transfer of mother tongue habits. If the students hesitate, for instance with the negated version, the teacher simply gives the English sentence himself and asks the students to repeat it.

Step 3:
Perhaps the above examples are enough. The teacher has set the class on the right track and hands the activity over to the students: “Now make your own sentences along the same lines.” Alternatively, the teacher can allow a few minutes of silence for the students to jot down their ideas. This step is a must. The students must get the chance to experiment with the new construction, and the activity becomes monolingual. The mother tongue drops away.

Since the construction does not only express purpose but is also widely used in slightly different forms and contexts, these should be practiced too:

T: Es ist schon okay, dass du das sagst.
S: It’s okay for you to say that.

T: Ist es okay, wenn ich das sage?
S: Is it okay for me to say that?

T: War es okay, dass ich das gesagt habe?
S: Was it okay for me to say that?

T: Es wäre falsch, wenn wir jetzt gingen.
S: It would be wrong for us to go now.

T: Ist es normal, dass das passiert?
S: Is it normal for this to happen?

The students will now find it easy to come up with their own meaningful ideas, using different adjectives and different pronouns: ‘easy for us to…’, ‘unusual for them to…’, ‘not uncommon for him to…’, ‘important for her to….’

This is easy for Germans:

  • My hope is to find a good friend.
    My dream is to be a singer in a band.

However, this needs getting used to:

German (T): Meine Hoffnung ist, dass Papa aufhört zu rauchen.
English (S): My hope is for dad to stop smoking.

German: Meine Hoffnung ist, dass die Armen Hilfe bekommen.
English: My hope is for the poor to get help.

German: Meine Hoffnung ist, dass ihr gute Zensuren bekommt.
English: My hope is for you to get good marks.

Repetition is habit-forming, and believe it or not, part of language learning is habit formation. For correct speech habits to be formed, we need plenty of language turn-over in comparatively little time. This is what the exercise provides. Count the number of sentences the students have heard and produced and compare with other exercises which take the same amount of time.

Bilingual drills will be new for most teachers, who will have to learn, through trial and error, how to use mother tongue cues effectively, what cues work best and what cues are likely to cause interference errors from the native tongue. Let me say it again: Should the students hesitate (searching for English equivalents), the teacher simply translates his own sentence and makes his pupils repeat it. This is a simple way of avoiding interference. Another way of making it easy for the students and allowing them to get into the habit of the foreign phrase is changing only little things as you go from one sentence to the next:

German: Es war richtig, dass sie weitermachten (bzw. weiter zu machen).
English: It was right for them to continue.

German: War es richtig, dass sie weitermachten?
English: Was it right for them to continue?

German: Es ist richtig, dass sie weiter macht.
English: It is right for her to continue.

This is a way of playing it safe. But it can easily become boring unless the pace is rapid. – Just one more example. Bilingual cues are so flexible we can construct drills that tell a story, sort of.  Years ago, I tried what follows with grammar school kids in their first year of English. The textbook introduced the past tense rather cautiously, restricting the new forms in a first step to was / were / had. Well, yes, this is grammar, but for the pupils was / were / had are simply new words with a clear meaning, just like bread or butter. The sentences are no longer unrelated, the pace was fast:

German: Die Party war wunderbar.
English: The party was fantastic.

German: Die Party war großartig.
English: The party was wonderful.

German: Betty war da.
English: Betty was there.

German: Tim and Tom waren da.
English: Tim and Tom were there.

German: Ja, sie waren da.
English: Yes, they were there.

German: Alle  meine Freunde waren da.
English: All my friends were there.

German: Ich war in der Küche mit Tom.
English: I was in the kitchen with Tom.

German: Ja, wir waren in der Küche.
English: Yes, we were in the kitchen.

German: Wir waren hungrig.
English: We were hungry.

German: Wir hatten Würstchen.
English: We had sausages.

German: Die Würstchen waren gut.
English: The sausages were good.

German: Die Getränke waren auch gut.
English: The drinks were good. too.

German: I hatte ‘ne Cola.
English: I had a Coke.

German: Einige waren im Garten.
English: Some were in the garden.

German: Betty was so nett / freundlich.
English: Betty was so nice.

German: Sie war nett zu Tom.
English: She was nice to Tom.

German: Aber Tom war nicht nett.
English: But Tom wasn’t nice.

German: Tom war schlimm/schrecklich.
English: Tom was awful.

German: Aber du warst da.
English: But you were there.

German: Ich war glücklich.
English: I was happy.

German: Weil ich mit dir war (weil ich war …).
English: Because I was with you.

German: .. und weil du mit mir warst.
English: .. and because you were with me.

German: Es war 11 Uhr.
English: It was 11 o-clock.

German: Die Party war vorbei.
English: The party was over.

German: Zu schnell.
English: Too soon.

Mother tongue stimuli here work better than anything else, because of their flexibility. Many emotional overtones and nuances of meaning can be conveyed by the voice alone. Both the L1 cue ‘zu schnell’ as well as its English equivalent carry the tones and the facial expressions of regret. Or notice the emphasis your voice can convey when saying fantastisch/fantastic. In other words, we pretend as if the stimulus sentences and the corresponding responses were serious utterances, and can thus enhance meaning.

Well, yes, this is pre-communicative practice, but see Butzkamm & Caldwell (2009) to show you how this kind of drill can lead a class right into message-oriented communication. Bilingual techniques such as the ones proposed here must become known, tried out and tested more widely than heretofore. Proponents of a monolingual approach, however, pull the rug out from under their learners’ feet. If you have tried this out with other languages, please give me some feedback:

Butzkamm, Wolfgang & Caldwell, John A.W. (2009). The Bilingual Reform. A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching. Tübingen: Narr.

Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online: “The Dark Matter of Classrooms”

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Justus Liebig University (JLU) Giessen, Germany

Over the past 15 years, I have been interested in the question of how to balance scripted (pre-planned) and unscripted (spontaneous) communication in English as a Foreign Language classes. I started off with what H.H. Stern (1992: 199) referred to as the predictability-unpredictability continuum of instructed learning. Focusing on the notion of ‘improvisation in structured learning environments’, I created a number of prototype activities designed to give learners more room to talk and to allow for more spontaneous, creative, and flexible language use in the classroom (as documented on this blog and, in much more detail, e.g. in Kurtz 2001 and Kurtz 2011).

A few days ago, I stumbled upon the following interview with Alan Maley, who also problematizes this issue. What I like best is his distinction between preparation and preparedness. In my view, this hits it on the nail.

Interview with Alan Maley | Liverpool Online. (29.03.2014: Unfortunately, the interview is no longer available online. In order to find out more about what it means to be prepared for the unexpected, watch this:

Kurtz, Jürgen (2001): Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.

Kurtz, Jürgen (2011): Breaking through the Communicative Cocoon: Improvisation in Secondary School EFL Classrooms. In: Sawyer, R. Keith (ed.) (2011): Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 131-160.

Stern, H.H. (1992): Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford: University Press.