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May 03, 2007

Playful Experience is the Best Teacher of English

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This week, the English-Blog is pleased to present the following revised version of "Playful Experience is the Best Teacher," an article submitted for publication by author Darryl Bishop. The original version won first prize in the 2006 Philadelphia Writers Conference for best magazine article. Bishop's second piece on English-Blog examines grammar instruction from . . .

. . . an artistic perspective and suggests that grammar can best be taught simply by telling stories -- one word at a time . Your feedback on this column is greatly appreciated!

Playful Experience is the Best Teacher of English

I hear and I forget
I see and I remember
I do and I understand – Ancient Chinese Proverb
I play and I appreciate – Darryl Bishop

Wisdom teaches us that experience is the best teacher. If you throw a child into a pond to teach her to swim, she will flail and splash around until the correct movements of arms and legs save her from drowning. The child learns ‘by doing’ and has little time for conscious thought to learn the skills required. Similarly, in teaching a child to ride a bike, you sit and hold him on the bike, give him a few simple instructions, wait until he catches his balance and let go. Some conscious thought is required to understand the instructions, but the child develops his motor and balance skills with little conscious effort. By trial and error, the pupil realizes the movements that work and just as importantly, the movements that do not.

Experiential learning is an interacting, experimenting and noting experience. The student learns by directly interacting with various elements: water, air, gravity and bike. Through trial and error, the student experiments with the different ways of doing something. Then, the pupil subconsciously notes the most effective ways to do something. Unfortunately, if the student tries the wrong alternatives, he or she could drown or hit a tree. Adult supervision is needed to facilitate the learning process.

Similarly, in learning a language, experience is essential. As babies, we interact with parents, guardians, relatives and peers in order to imitate, sort out and compare the numerous sounds, tones, rhythms and pauses of the language. The basic desire to communicate motivates us to make sense of what we hear and experiment on our own through trial and error. After much experimentation, we intuitively note the most effective ways to communicate.

In infancy, we begin to develop four universal language skills – our innate abilities to identify, reveal, describe and relate. Once we begin to pronounce the sounds of the language, our parents or guardians begin to prompt us with questions that ask us to identify (Who/what is that? – “Dada”), reveal (What is Mommy doing? – “eating”), describe (What color is your dress? – “pink”) and relate to our surroundings (Where is your toy? – “in box”).

The answers to these questions introduce us to the four major word types of English. Names, such as ‘Dada’, ‘girl’ and ‘Unca Don’, serve to identify the things and persons that we want to discuss. Relators are words that reveal the relationships between people and things as expressed through their actions (eating food, playing golf, teaching students), experiences (enjoying opera, appreciating art, being afraid of wolves) and relationships (loving others, owning homes, marrying, having friends). Details, such as ‘blue’, ‘two’ and ‘big’, serve to describe in more detail the people, things and other parts of our thoughts. And links, such as ‘in’ (the box), ‘by’ (the door) and ‘at’ (night); serve to relate the surrounding context of our thoughts.

Through nursery rhymes, bedtime stories and various other sources, we sense that the words of each thought that we hear are arranged in a simple story format with up to five elements, such as,

“Mary had a little lamb.” – Sarah Josepha, 1830

As the first line of a nursery rhyme, this mini-story begins with a main character or topic, Mary. The theme or relationship ‘had’ follows, focusing on Mary’s relationship with her pet. The supporting cast or related item is added next: her pet ‘lamb’. Several details are added to further describe the lamb: ‘little’ describes the lamb’s size and ‘a’ describes how many (one). Finally, the scene or context of the thought is set at some time in the past, which the letter ‘d’ in the word ‘had’ indicates. Eventually, we learn that the expression of a thought is simply a matter of telling a mini-story with a topic, relationship, related items, details and context.

Equipped with skills, words and story elements, we learn to speak fluently. At the ripe old age of two, we are able to express our thoughts, hold conversations and tell stories. However, we need additional instruction to master the language and all of its nuances. To become effective speakers and writers, we need a more comprehensive understanding of the forms and structure of English expression. In other words, we need guidance and instruction to facilitate the learning process.

In the classroom, experiential learning can serve us to study the structure and nature of English. We can appreciate the experience in the following interactive exercise, called ‘Starting a Romance Novel’ that is designed for high school pupils. In performing the simple task of creating a story, students discover:

  • The four universal language skills (the abilities to identify, reveal, describe and relate),
  • The four major types of words (names, relators, details, links), and

  • The five elements of thought (topic, relationship, related items, context, details).

    Teacher: What are some of the things that a reader expects to see in a romance novel?

    Students: After a discussion, the students suggest ‘romance’, ‘love’, ‘sex’, ‘intrigue’, ‘passion’, ‘dates’, ‘kissing’, ‘hugging’….

    Teacher: Let's keep the reader in mind as we create our story. The first thing we need to do is introduce the main character that will serve as our topic of discussion throughout most of the book. Let's give this person a name.

    Students: ‘Moe’, ‘Larry’, ‘Curly’, ‘Madonna’, ‘Beethoven….’ [After much kidding, the students agree on ‘Curt’.]

    Teacher: Obviously, for a romance novel, we need at least one other person to become romantically involved with Curt. What shall we name this person?

    Students: [After another round of discussion of possible names] ‘Wendy’.

    Teacher: Now, somewhere in the book, we want these two lovers to do something romantic. We need to reveal a relationship that tells our audience how ‘Curt’ interacts with Wendy. What is it?

    Students: [After numerous suggestions based on the expectations of the reader, set earlier, the students settle on] ‘Kissing’.

    Teacher: OK, now we have the basic components of a thought, or mini-story, that we can build upon. We've identified Curt as the main character or topic of discussion for the novel. We've also identified Wendy as a related character that will interact romantically with Curt. And we've expressed an underlying theme or relator ‘kissed’ that reveals what Curt did to Wendy. In English, we generally put the topic first, then the relationship, followed by the related item or character:

    Curt kissed Wendy.

    However, from the thought that we just expressed, the reader doesn't know the full relationship between Curt and Wendy. Let's add several details that will further describe their relationship.

    Students: [students suggest that Wendy could be his wife, mistress, cousin…. They agree that Wendy is ‘his mistress’.]

    Teacher: OK, let's add these details to our thought that describe Wendy’s relationship to Curt:

    Curt kissed his mistress Wendy.

    The next step is to set the context of the thought. Readers need to know the circumstances, situations and objects that surround the thought. In other words, the writer needs to answer any questions that the reader may have about the thought: who, what, where, when, why, how, which and whose. For example, where did Curt kiss Wendy?

    Students: [In discussing this question, students will discover that there are several ‘where’ questions that can be answered: where, on the body, did he kiss her (on the cheek, on the lips, on the neck), where did the kiss take place (in the bedroom, in the kitchen, at the library) and where were they sitting or standing (on the bed, beside the fountain, under a tree)?]

    Teacher: Notice that the different where-contexts that you've suggested included words, such as ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘at’, ‘beside’ and ‘under’. What do these words indicate?

    Students: [After much discussion and prompting, the students determine that these words indicate the relationship between the story and the context in answering the question ‘Where?’]

    Teacher: Let’s call these little words links, because they make the connection between a thought and its context. What would happen if we threw them out? For example, if we wrote:

    Curt kissed his mistress Wendy lips library fountain.

    Students: [After some laughter, the teacher facilitates a discussion that will lead the students to come to the following conclusion:] The reader might have a difficult time determining what lips, library and fountain had to do with the thought. [The students also decide to use two where-contexts ‘on the neck’ and ‘in her bedroom’.]

    Teacher: Now we have expressed our thought and answered the question 'where'?

    Curt kissed his mistress Wendy on the neck in her bedroom.

    Now let’s answer the question, when? For a romance novel, when would be the best time to kiss someone? Morning? Afternoon? Night? Noon? Midnight?
    Students: After discussing the best time for kissing, the majority of the students choose ‘after midnight’.

    Teacher: Now the context doesn’t have to be placed at the end of a thought. It can also be placed at the beginning. This gives readers or listeners a sense of the surrounding circumstances, before they find out what happened. Do you want to put the when-context, ‘after midnight’, before or after the thought ‘Curt kissed Wendy’?
    Students: In discussion, the students discover that if they put the context before the kiss, then the reader may immediately assume or surmise that the kiss was romantic. They choose to place the context first.

    Teacher: In English, when writers and speakers place the context first, they usually separate the context from the main thought with a comma or pause:

    After midnight, Curt kissed his mistress Wendy on the neck in her bedroom.

    The teacher continues to ask for additional context, details and discussion until one of the main thoughts of the novel (a plot or subplot) is expressed, such as:

    After midnight, Sir Curtis Bond kissed his mistress Wendy on the neck in her bedroom with her jealous fiancé peering through the window.

    With this simple and playful exercise, students enjoy a creative learning experience that painlessly introduces the fundamental concepts of English without heavy terminology, technical explanations, rule memorization or sentence analysis. While the teacher prompts the students, they learn how to create and express a thought simply by creating and telling a story - one word at a time [similar to the way we learned to speak as a child]. The terms presented are common, descriptive English words that are easily grasped and remembered, so that the students can concentrate on expressing their thoughts. During the lesson, the teacher emphasizes and repeats the key components, while the students absorb the basics and develop their language skills intuitively with little conscious effort.

    Besides the four universal language skills, students develop other communication skills as well. Notice how the students added a bit of intrigue to the romance-exercise by including a mistress and a soon-to-be jealous fiancé. This common skill is often used by novelists and also by gossips and rumormongers to spread their stories.

    The lesson also applies modern teaching methods that encourage creativity, exploration and discovery. By using the students' own words, the lesson empowers the student to create and consider various scenarios. In exploring different options, students gain an appreciation of the variety of expression and an important lesson in diction. By discussing the pros and cons of each suggestion, students discover the most effective and meaningful ways to express themselves. In this way, learning becomes an imaginative adventure of exploration and discovery.

    In addition, interactive methods of teaching encourage cooperation and teamwork among students rather than competition. Working together to achieve common goals makes students more productive than working alone does. In the romance exercise, all students participate by brainstorming the elements of one thought. Through interaction with their peers, students learn English from each other, becoming better communicators and listeners in the process. The teacher or facilitator makes sure that everyone becomes involved.

    Through discussion, students also learn to criticize, comment on and question each other's choices. Each student plays the parts of both writer and reader. Writer and speaker critique groups employ this method to hone their skills.

    Students also learn syntax, inflections, punctuation and the many nuances of the language in the same playful, interactive and intuitive way. Note that the when-context ‘after midnight’, included a comma to separate it from the main thought. The relator ‘kissed’ included the inflection -ed to indicate that the action took place in the past.

    Above all, the importance of the audience is emphasized throughout the exercise so that the student understands the dynamic nature of the communication process. Students begin to realize that in order to put their thoughts into someone's head, they need to satisfy the expectations of their audience. Students not only apply the four universal skills to express themselves, but also develop them to affect their audience. In the romance exercise, the student learns to:

  • Identify people and things that the audience can distinctly recognize;

  • Reveal relationships, actions and experiences that the audience can vicariously experience;

  • Describe qualities and characteristics that the audience can vividly perceive; and

  • Relate the surrounding circumstances, conditions and objects, so that the audience can picture the scene or context (the big picture) behind the thought.

    The student begins to understand that communication is most effective when the audience can recognize, experience, perceive and picture the thoughts being expressed.

    The romance novel exercise is designed for high school and adult pupils, but similar exercises could be constructed for different types of students. Small children can learn the basics simply by telling a story, with their parents pointing out story elements and structure. Older children can attempt a children's novel with imaginary characters. Non-English speakers can use words from their own language to express English thought patterns.

    Notice that the teacher facilitates the learning process instead of merely imparting knowledge. The interactive romance lesson uses the Socratic method of asking questions, whereby the master asks provocative questions that encourage students to think and make informed decisions. In other words, don’t tell students what to do - ask them what to do - and let them figure out the language for themselves. Actually, the story-facilitator plays a game of ‘hot and cold’ with questions that lead students to the desired answer. The student intuitively absorbs the lesson, while the teacher acts as a mentor: emphasizing and repeating important concepts, encouraging discussion, and offering options and alternatives, while providing sage advice. As a friendly coach, the teacher keeps the experience lively and playful by indulging the students' amusing suggestions, such as ‘Moe’, ‘Larry’ or ‘Curly’ for names in the romance exercise.

    The facilitator also uses positive reinforcement and encouragement techniques throughout the exercise without being critical or judgmental. What do teachers do when the student uses ‘ain't’? They simply switch to a lesson on the effectiveness of slang, using examples with ‘ain't’, ‘cain't’ and ‘tain't’ (it may be all right with your pals, but because ‘ain't’ has so many meanings, it might not always be clear). There are no right or wrong answers, only helpful suggestions that encourage students to grasp language concepts and make informed decisions.

    The ultimate language learning experience is one where students can play with words and expressions, develop language skills, express their thoughts, tell stories and appreciate the art of expression. A creative, interactive, intuitive and playful learning experience is the easiest and most rewarding way for students to explore, discover and enjoy English.


    About this entry's author: Darryl Bishop is a business engineer with over 30 years of experience in transforming complex business applications into intuitive and down-to-earth instruction. His primary interest is in the field of grammar studies, especially on how to make them more effective.

    Darryl theorizes that “much has been written about the limitations of traditional grammar instruction. Its methods focus on the preferences of 18th-century scholars who had great respect for formal academic scholarship, Latin structure and terminology, Classical Greek philosophy and thought, scientific classification, the establishment of high standards, and the rote memorization of terms, definitions and rules. As an academic subject, it fails to treat English expression as an art form. As a tradition, it bypasses modern linguistic wisdom and practices. And with an analytical framework, it neglects the intuitive aspects of English expression. Designed for the scholars of Ben Franklin’s time, the subject for many students becomes dry, boring and irrelevant.”

    Darryl’s business solution is simple: replace the academic, traditional and analytical aspects of grammar with artistic, modern and intuitive instruction. Over the next few weeks he plans to submit articles that show how easy and fun it is to study grammar from an artistic perspective. Your comments are welcome and Darryl will likewise respond to your remarks.

    The English-Blog hopes you will enjoy Darryl’s contributions! To read Darryl's first publication "Born To Tell Stories: New Insights for Grammar Presentation," please click HERE

  • Posted by lhobbs at May 3, 2007 01:48 PM

    Readers' Comments:

    found it very interesting.I was a lecturer for 27 years and now occasionally teach participants of language diplomas. I also teach spoken English. Thank you for the nice inputs. Will be glad receive thought provoking articles.

    Posted by: jyothinatarajan at May 6, 2007 10:05 AM

    Darryl Bishop's paper is something that every credentialled teacher in the United States knows.
    We were taught in college that interaction was mandatory. Grammar was non-functional as a teaching tool. After teaching for twenty two years in California schools I went to China to teach people to speak English. What the Chinese teachers are doing is ugly stuff--grammar, reading, and writing, to every student, but nobody speaks English correctly, including the teachers. Then there are the arrogant TESL teachers who think their short courses of teaching endows them with total knowledge of teaching someone to speak English.

    All anyone has to do in China is to teach people to say anything you want to teach them, and them have them practice every day, because they don't even know how to practice at home by themselves.

    TESL needs to change its teaching methods, apparently, and find out what it really takes to teach people to learn a foreign language. Ask me. I know. I have been in China for fifteen years, and I haven't seen anyone who was taught somewhere else who could speak English correctly, and most people in China walk into our office and begin at the entry level (which is below beginning).

    So, yes, interaction, practice, and anything but grammar should be taught to people all over Asia, I believe. I have been in Japan and Korea, but no where else. If things are different someplace, I would like to know about it.

    Bob Toomey

    Posted by: Robert H. Toomey at May 18, 2007 05:08 AM

    I would love to receive information from your website and subscribe . But unfortunately the site subscribe function doesn't seem to work and has an error . I looked for a contact link and found none , but I did manage to sign up with type key .
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    Posted by: classca at July 9, 2007 10:01 PM

    I found this blog on a google search and boy am I glad I did. I thought I heard someone mention it in a free chat room.

    Awesome read!

    Posted by: Chatter at July 21, 2008 12:43 AM

    Well said.

    Posted by: Nerina at October 28, 2008 06:30 PM

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