This Week In Language Education: April 21, 2017

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Note: This post is an experiment in which I link to and comment on recent news and research developments in language education. It’s the sort of thing I’d like to get in my own email box each week, but since no one else seems willing to do it, I’ll give it a go.

Why Language Learning Apps Haven’t Helped Struggling ELL Students

I’m biased, of course, but the obvious answer seems to be that none of the attempts so far provide compelling, comprehensible input to young students. The article cites as a “good” example of technology the service Listenwise, which has National Public Radio (NPR) stories that children can listen to. There are two obvious problems with a service like this:

  1. Most kids are probably not enthralled by topics such as “Beowulf, Paganism and Christianity.”
  2. NPR audios are native-rate speech, which is too fast for many ELLs. This seems to be a lesson almost impossible for some ESL teachers and material developers to learn: Slow. It. Down. The audio must be comprehensible. This stuff isn’t.

Brains at MIT Invent Very Sophisticated Flash Card App 

You can try to memorize L2 vocabulary words while you wait for your email to open, or something. Lots of people with awesome SAT scores spent many hours on this.

We need an award for the dumbest use of technology in teaching languages. This will be our first nominee. Submissions welcome!

More Evidence of Language Shift: Child Bilinguals

This is not news, but confirms what we already know: English is in no danger of being overtaken by Spanish in the U.S. On the contrary, most kids shift quickly from the home language to English: “In their longitudinal data, the researchers found evidence that as the children developed stronger skills in English, their rates of Spanish growth declined.” Note that these children were only four years old – language shift happens very quickly (original article behind paywall).

Chinese Parents Do an End-Run Around Cram Schools, Turn to Harry Potter

Chinese parents seeking better ways to help their children acquire English are using cartoons and children’s books. But the obsession over teaching children English from an early age is almost certainly unhealthy, and the approach being used with the books, with Accelerated Reader-style testing, is completely counterproductive. Why not just let the kids get hooked on reading? The rest will take care of itself.

Reading in a Foreign Language – April, 2017 Issue

I’ve already commented on one article on reading anxiety.

“Phonics Works!” (No Better Than Vague Alternative for Adults Learning Klingon)

A good example of a bait-and-switch headline in Science Daily promises us that “phonics works” and that “sounding out words is the best way to teach reading.” But the study summary states:

The paper describes how people who are taught the meanings of whole words don’t have any better reading comprehension skills than those who are primarily taught using phonics. In fact, those using phonics are just as good at comprehension, and are significantly better at reading aloud. (emphasis added)

So apparently phonics “worked” no better than the vaguely-defined “whole word” method on the only variable that matters, reading comprehension.

But wait! It turns out this wasn’t a actually study of kids learning to read at all. This was a study of a small group of adults “learning to read 2 sets of 24 novel words (e.g., /buv/, /sig/), written in 2 different unfamiliar orthographies.” Alrighty, then. Paper is behind the evil and very expensive APA paywall.

New Fieldwork Opportunities for SLA Scholars (Warning: NSFW!)

The Daily Mail reports that attractive “bilingual models” (women only, it seems) will strip and teach you a new language – all at the same time! One of these multitasking “teachers” is quoted as saying that “[r]ather than learn Spanish from some generic app, my fans can have a casual conversation with me, which is especially conducive to learning a new language.”

More links:

Something I missed? Send submissions/ideas for future editions to jeff [at] backseatlinguist.com

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