a learning experiment


thanks to Bob Doran on flickr for his light experiment

Earlier today the twitter-based #eltchat group were discussing experiences of, and opinions about, some “alternative” teaching techniques, namely the Silent Way, TPR (Total Physical Response) and Suggestopedia. I mentioned a method I’d experimented with years ago – an Accelerated Learning self-study course, loosely based on the principles of Suggestopedia – and how I’d been amazed by the results. 140 characters certainly weren’t enough to be able to go into it in detail and as the conversation moved on I offered to write a blog post about the experience. So here it is!

I was studying for an MA at Reading university at the time and preparing to tutor on a teacher training course preparing Thai secondary school teachers to set up self-access centres in their schools. As part of my preparation I decided to follow a self-access language learning course myself, to put myself in the students’ shoes and use the experience to feed into the course. My plan after finishing my MA was to look for work in Latin America and I wanted to start studying Spanish. At the time I was a confident and fluent user of Italian, so it wasn’t that challenging and my motivation was certainly high. In order to counter these very positive factors I decided to opt for an approach that I had no experience of, and had some reservations about its efficacy. It was the hype more than anything else that made me skeptical. Anything that promises such amazing short term results seemed too good to be true. So my mindset as I approached my first Accelerated Learning lesson was far from perfect.

But I was also ready to give it a fair chance. I was going to follow the rules to the letter, do as I was instructed, no matter how skeptical I felt and see where it led me. I was amazed by the results.

Now this all happened a long time ago, when self-access centres were language labs, with tapes and print books and a lot has changed since then, including the courses offered by the Accelerated Learning company. I have to admit that my memories are patchy too, and the learner diary I kept is gathering dust in a box in someone else’s attic far away! But I’ll try and describe that first lesson as well as I can.

The course was story-based and the first part of the first lesson consisted of listening to the first episode of the story. Although the language was obviously graded and the dialogue included basic greetings and the functional exponents you’d expect in the first unit of a coursebook, the story itself was narrated in the past, using simple, continuous and perfect verb forms. There was a lot of repetition and images to support understanding and the first impact with the language was purely passive. I spent an hour in the language lab and didn’t have to say a word. The emphasis was on exposure and absorbing the language. The same story was told in three different ways. Firstly with music in the background and read by one narrator. My task was to follow the script and the images on the page. This is where my knowledge of Italian came in handy. There are so many cognates, so many similar structures that I could pick up a lot simply from reading and comparing with Italian. And the obvious comparison also helped me notice differences as well as similarities. I think this L2 hook helped as much as anything.

The second reading was dramatized, with voices for the characters. I can’t remember their names, but the basic story was a mystery based on a journey. A man travels from the States to Mexico, I can’t remember why, but he’s carrying – or receives – a package that he has to deliver to an unknown person at an unknown address. Sorry, all a bit patchy more than15 years later! So the story includes very simple, core functional exponents for greetings, exchanging names, asking for personal information, but the context of the story lifts it above a banal first meeting. There’s a love interest too, of course, as in all good stories!

So far, so good. Nothing too way out. I’d listened to and understood the story and was ready for some form of testing or production or practice. But the third stage was yet another listening. I was asked to close my eyes, make myself as comfortable as possible, preferably in an armchair (not possible in the language lab unfortunately) and listen to the third reading, concentrating on the music and not the words. This time the background music was foregrounded, the narrated story was very, very quiet in the background. This was getting a little out of my studying comfort zone, but I followed the instructions as well as I could. When the third reading finished I was told to close my book and go away and do something active for at least an hour and not to come back to the book until the next day.

I followed the first part of the instructions. Walked home to my student flat, bought some food on the way, got home and cooked, chatted to flatmates. I hadn’t brought the book home with me, so I couldn’t cheat on that count, but what I did do was sit down and try and write the story text from memory. And that’s when I was amazed. I had retained whole chunks of the story. I was able to write down at least 80% of the text in one sitting, with hardly any effort to recall whatsoever. When I compared my text with the one in the book the next day I found that a lot of what I’d written was word perfect. I think the support of Italian played a huge part in that, but still, the story must have been at least 300 words long. I wonder whether any other approach would have furnished me with the confidence and structure to reproduce a whole text, including narrative verb forms and dialogue after just one hour.

Now, I have to admit that once the training course got under way and we’d explored the pros and cons of learner diaries I dropped the experiment and didn’t get much further with my self-access learning course so I can’t comment on long term effects.  One year later I was living in Madrid, immersed in a very different form of accelerated learning!

Still, some food for thought I guess. And a lesson in not judging by appearances and hype!  But was it just a flash in the pan? Was it just a typical example of the Hawthorne effect?  Or is this something we should be learning from and taking into our classrooms – online or off?  What do you think?

Do you have any interesting learning experiences to share – alternative or not – I think the crowd over at #eltchat would like to know … and me too of course!  Leave a comment, or if you write about one on your blog, could you send me the link?  Thanks!

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10 Responses to a learning experiment

  1. Chiew says:

    Interesting. Can’t say I’m familiar with that method. I’m, however, sceptical if it would work on everyone, especially someone like me with a notoriously bad memory. Also, will that ability to recall chunks prepare someone for usage out of that context? I suppose there must be more to the method than what you’re recounting here – I should try to read up more on it.
    Welcome back, Ceri!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Chiew,
      Yes, there is more to it than I’m telling here. After the initial input session there are game and drill and communicative production exercises which put the language into use and into new contexts. But as I said in the post, I didn’t actually explore that much. What I liked about it – what struck and stuck with me – was the exposure to a range of structures on day 1 – the introduction of the past, with the same narrative chunks repeated over and over – the quantity of input – and the fact that on first meeting the language there was nothing to do really but sit back and take it in. This definitely lends itself much better to self-study than classroom teaching, but it confirmed and feeds my interest in things like encouraging extensive reading, making creative use of teach talking time, trusting students to cope with large chunks of input – and of course, the value of contrastive analysis and the use of L1 and any other L2 in building up our internal “language machine”. But then, as you, I think, reading between the lines, I think anything so formulaic may well not stand the test of time, and probably won’t appeal to all learners. Still mulling it over though … thanks for getting me to delve in a little bit deeper! 🙂

  2. Pingback: An experiment with accelerated learning | efl-resource.com

  3. Pingback: The Silent Way, Suggestopaedia, TPR and other ‘designer’ methods: what are they and what can we learn from them? | elt-resourceful

  4. Interesting method. Had never heard of that variation on use of lang. labs.
    Just to play devil’s advocate here, it is possible your success had to do with two factors:
    a – The effect of the new. what is a taught in the first lesson is very often remembered best and new methods often succeed at first because a lot of attention is paid to them (and the teachers invest more time in it because its new).
    b – Your knowledge of Italian. I think that cannot be discounted when you are learning Spanish.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Naomi,
      So nice to see you here!
      I completely agree with both points – I think the magic dust of experimenting was very much at play – and I don’t think it would have been anywhere near as successful in Hungarian for example (a language I managed to learn only just over 100 chunks in after two months of continual immersion!). But having said that I guess that maybe the experience did colour my feelings about things like the importance of input and exposure, of, for example, encouraging extensive reading, of making creative use of quality teacher talking time where the language is graded for understanding but not for structures, of building in silent periods sometimes, of not always insisting on production. Or maybe it just struck a chord with strands of my teaching philosophy that I was exploring at the time?
      To tell the truth I hadn’t really given it much thought at all until the topic came up in eltchat 🙂
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. Pingback: #ELTchat » The Silent Way, Suggestopaedia, TPR and other ‘designer’ methods: what are they and what can we learn from them? #ELTchat Summary 12/09/2012

  6. Sandy Millin says:

    Thanks for sharing that Ceri. It sounds fascinating. I’m in the process of deciding what I’m going to do for my Experimental Practice lesson on my Delta, and I have to say that I had discounted a couple of methods without really considering them at all. Maybe I should try something completely different like your accelerated learning experiment.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Sandy,
      I’ve just been reading and enjoying your post on the Olympics and Paralympics. Fascinating.
      I guess part of the idea of the Experimental Lesson is to go outside your comfort zone, experience something unfamiliar with an open mind and then be able to reflect on it. So, in a way, it really doesn’t matter what the focus is, it’s more a question of whether it’s going to help you to reflect and learn I guess, in which case accelerated learning would be as good as any other!
      Out of curiosity, what methods have you rejected?
      Good luck with the DELTA!

  7. Pingback: a learning experiment | Merit Teacher's Digest | Scoop.it

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