Skimming the portfolios of my students… portfolios is a little fancy for the simple stack of papers… skimming those many papers, I realize I’m just getting students to react to Latin. Whether they react to written material, usually stories, or to spoken material or to notes they’ve taken, the idea is for them to react to Latin, to take it in. VanPatten distinguishes between input and intake; I’m hoping to achieve intake, i.e. what the students absorb when they read or hear the language.
And then I think of the minute grading, checking, correcting that goes on. The student follows a formula to create a word or sentence in L2; the teacher checks to see the student did it right. If not, then the teacher puts a check mark by it. To what end?
Clearly, the teacher expects the student to do one of those V-8 juice commercial bits and hit himself on the forehead. The student might even be expected to feel some embarrassment or even shame and swear never to make that error again. The result, it is hoped, is that indeed the student will produce L2 without that error from then on.
How often does this happen? My guess is – seldom. But what does happen? The student gets the product back, looks at the red marks and concludes, “I just can’t get this.” Perhaps the student salvages his ego by thinking, “This language is really dumb.” Often, teachers are so defensive of their language or their teaching or their authority that they never avail themselves of the opportunity to hear what students really think; they believe their job is to guide the student’s thinking and make sure he enunciates the proper attitude. The result in any case is that the student shuts down.
Does marking errors ever work? Sure it does. When the student is ready. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers take the attitude that the student had BETTER be ready, i.e. they resort to punishment, offering up bad grades and even detentions. But there are students who may get only a few red marks, nothing overwhelming, and they will look at their errors to try to figure them out. The results of this are mixed: sometimes the student sees it or the teacher shows them the error and it registers. A huge issue in SLA is whether or not this sort of cognitively conscious insight transfers into acquired language. My sense is that it very well may.
Another thing that may and, I believe, often does happen is that the student doesn’t really grasp the error i.e. doesn’t understand why they made it. An example might be the use of the TL equivalent of English ’do’ to make a question e.g. do you eat eggs? The correction occurs in the form of “you don’t need ’do’ there” or “The TL doesn’t use do to make questions.” The typical student is left pretty much in the dark b/c he doesn’t understand what ’do’ has to do with anything…….. yes, his mind has drifted off his question about the equivalent of ’do’ and now he’s just satisfied that he has ’learned’ how to make the question…. for that ONE sentence. But the next time he’s “composing” in L2, he’ll make the same mistake. And the teacher will decide he’s dense.
Frankly, even if a cognitive rule getting, rule explaining, rule using approach worked, I think few teachers understand either the rules of English or the rule of the TL well enough to explain them. One of the things I want to do with this blog is to list such rules for English and for Spanish so we can discuss them. While they may not be necessary for acquiring a language, a language teacher certainly should know them as an expert on that particular language.
There’s a history to all of this and perhaps other participants to this blog can offer their knowledge and insight into how we developed this way of understanding the language acquisition process. I think we should start with the Prussians.