A Traditional Teaching Technique which Returns as an Innovation: Teaching Reading Comprehension via Translation
by John Farrand-Rogers, PhD
This Conference is dedicated to the question of "innovative instructional practices." However, the term "innovation" has to be understood in its context, which is of course the individual school, or possibly a whole educational system. A curricular or instructional change, which is new for one institution, may be well-established in another, or may even be a practice long abandoned elsewhere as outdated. In this sense, the words "innovation" and "innovative" lose a large part of their initial meaning.
Our argument is that an innovation has to be understood as a change within a specific institutional setting and limited to that setting. It comes as an answer to a need, either an existing problem which requires a solution, or as a measure intended to achieve a particular goal (and in this sense also, therefore, as a solution to a problem). The relevance and usefulness of the "innovation" are a response to to the problems which it is designed to meet, rather than looking for newness for its own sake. Old practices may therefore still be relevant.
The Context of a Real Problem
As an example, we consider the case of a change in technique used for teaching reading comprehension of English as a foreign language. Most academic literature (both in research articles and in textbooks) is published in English. Consequently, many universities in non-English speaking countries include reading comprehension of English texts as one of their courses, or as one of their requirements for admission.
This policy is not unreasonable, but nevertheless may run into practical difficulties. In the case of Mexico, English is generally inadequately taught at the lower levels of the educational system, which gives a poor grounding for subsequent studies; if students have found difficulties in the past, they are bound to have negative feelings about learning the language. Even when their teachers have awarded them pass grades, they are very aware of their own shortcomings. This situation is aggravated in many cases by an emotional hostility towards the United States as a culturally dominant power and a rejection of its language as a symbol of that domination.
Traditional Language Teaching
Once upon a time, in England at least, the teaching of foreign languages was influenced by the traditions of Classical language teaching. What mattered was grammatical accuracy and the acquisition of an elegant mode of expression, developed through translation from and into the foreign language. It was only in the 1960s, partly following the expansion of the tourist industry, that this attitude was replaced and modern languages came to be seen principally as a mode of communication, where accuracy could be sacrificed in the interests of communication in a "real life" context. This brought in the "direct method" of language teaching, wherein the pupils expressed their thoughts and needs directly in the foreign language, including in the classroom, without passing through the stage (or obstacle) of thinking first in their mother tongue.
It was about this time that the teaching of English as a foreign language developed in its own right as a field of study (and possibly a business as well). Since its priority was the development of communication skills, it adopted the recently-introduced attitudes and techniques of foreign language teaching, giving priority to listening and speaking in active situations, and giving less weight to grammatical accuracy.
Since course materials were developed commercially, teaching materials were designed for use on a world-wide scale, and little attention was paid to any elements of understanding that a specific foreign language could provide.
This vision of language teaching (both of English to foreigners and foreign languages to English-speakers) seems to us to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In both cases, teachers failed to take advantage of the fact that their students were not beginning language-learning from scratch, but had already developed a knowledge of structures and meanings in their own mother-tongue.
When faced with the problem of teaching reading comprehension to Mexican university classes, therefore, it made sense to take advantage of their linguistic and cultural antecedents. A first experience of teaching reading comprehension with an officially adopted, standard text "Reading and Thinking in English" proved a failure, in part because is was directed to a world market, and made no use of our students' background of an Indo-European language as their mother tongue; in part because it looked for immediate understanding based on the whole sense of the text, without having recourse to an analytical approach; and in part because its contents (for the most part, physics, chemistry and biology) were irrelevant and uninteresting to groups of students of philosophy, history and pedagogy.
Our solution was firstly to select texts which were of relevance and interest to the students. For example, in the case of a group of students of town and regional planning, we found texts which dealt with the environmental problems facing Venice, the corruption of the Spanish political system, the difficulties of the Soviet Union as it reduced its military machine and some of the disadvantages of the Cuban planned economy. These are subjects not normally touched upon in the Mexican media, and proved sufficiently interesting in their content to overcome the problem that the medium of communication was the language of US imperialism. There was motivation to understand the text.
The second problem was that the level of understanding varied enormously among the different students; some had had a good grounding in English, including extra coaching at private language schools, while others were limited to what they had picked up from poorly trained teachers in rural secondary schools. Our solution to this problem was to share the problems and the information by translating the text aloud. In this way, all could understand the structure of the language. At the same time, the pace of the work was not held up by difficulties (including lack of vocabulary and the need to consult a dictionary) because almost always somebody could provide an immediate answer, or at least a suggestion. In addition, since the atmosphere was totally informal, members of the group could make relevant observations about the contents and encouraging remarks about the linguistic knowledge displayed by others.
In practice, we found that working collectively overcomes the problems of isolation and its consequences: dull routine and fatigue. Students did not prepare the texts in advance; there was no need - apart from which there was little time available for them to do so, bearing in mind their many other commitments - and the texts were being seen for the first time and understood almost immediately. Understanding of English grammar (such as it is) was acquired by custom and use, rather than rote-learning.
This form of working goes back thirty years or more, except that perhaps the texts are more interesting than those of Livy and Caesar. In any case, English grammar is more easily understood than that of the Classical languages, because it largely revolves around structure and patterns. As such, this form of teaching is in no way an innovation. On the other hand, it breaks with the current established methods within the university (and elsewhere) and solves a very real problem.
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