New English Writing Talent
Welcome to the first edition of The NEWT, the online magazine for new writers, poets, essayists, playwrights, and screenwriters. We welcome contributions from anyone wishing to see their work in print, although we do have certain guidelines:
1. Your right to an opinion does not make your opinion right.
2. That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
3. Facts don't care about your feelings.
And so, without further ado, let us introduce our first article, on the subject of why students of English as a foreign language seem so reluctant to actually speak it.
Why Won't My Students Speak?
After years of struggling to get more than a basic response from learners, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps the problem was not that they didn't want to speak; the trouble was, they didn't know what to say.
It was not until I started studying for my degree (yes, I did everything backwards - job first, degree later) that I realised just how simple, and how complicated, a conversation could be.
Conversation analysis was a component in my English Language and Literature degree. Once I understood the ideas of function and form in speech, I could adapt these ideas to my teaching. This meant looking at speaking exercises from a different perspective; in terms of structures, rather than words or phrases. In other words, by showing them how to build a conversation. (I often use the analogy of words and phrases as bricks, and monologues or dialogues as walls, floor, and roof of a house)
For example, with new groups or students, we often begin by asking 'Where are you from?', which usually elicits the standard response 'I am from Poland' (I began my teaching career there - more of that, perhaps, in later blog posts), which may be correct English, but it's hardly a fascinating opening to a pleasant chat.
So, to help students offer a better response, I developed a flow-chart-style diagram to show how this could be extended into something not only more interesting, but also more natural.
By following the diagram, the students were able to develop the basic response 'I am from Poland' into 'I am from Poland (basic fact) I live in Gdansk (general fact) It's a big city (specific fact, article + adjective + noun) in the north of Poland (specific location, fixed expression 'in the X of Y) It's a nice place to live (positive opinion) because it's near the sea (justification, conjunction, preposition of place) but there are a lot of tourists in the summer (negative opinion (balanced response), there are + plural noun, fixed expression ' in the + season').
I have used this technique many times and I can honestly say it works. Students love it because they can see genuine improvement in their spoken English in a matter of a few minutes.
Approaching language learning and teaching through structure and function, not words, phrases and sentences, has definitely helped me to help my students to go beyond the basic response by showing them what to say, and how to put it all together.
When my daughters were little, we always had a pumpkin lantern at Halloween. It was one of the rituals that marked the passing of the year. Those big square cages would appear in the supermarkets, placed conveniently at the end of the fruit and veg aisle so that no parent could casually wander past looking for spuds without eager shining eyes imploring ‘Daddy! Look! Pumpkins!’
Oh, they know how to play to their audience, those old frauds Sainsburys and Tesco. They know that no half-way decent father is ever going to disappoint his darlings, and so every year, at least three weeks before the big event, the big cages are wheeled out and the aisles are festooned with fake cobwebs above the frozen pizzas, witches on broomsticks hurtling over the oven chips, grinning skeletons dancing around the pick-and-mix sweeties, and of course, the inevitable jack o’lanterns everywhere, all not-very-cunningly designed to part poor old Daddy from his hard-earned cash.
It’s an accepted and acceptable con, an understood unreality, the ritualised marking of the seasons. As adults, we know that witches aren’t real, skeletons don’t dance, and a pumpkin is just is a big American root vegetable. Halloween is a bit of a giggle, not to be taken seriously.
As children, we don’t know all that. The cynicism has not yet drained the joy from life, and maybe, just maybe on that one special night, there are monsters and ghosts and goblins, oh my!
When my daughters were little, the rituals were what kept the monsters away. My youngest was terribly afraid of the dark. Even when she exclaimed in exasperation ‘Daddy, I’m not a child. I’m eleven!’, yet she would still come into the parental bedroom and ask if she could get in with us because she didn’t want to be alone through the darkling hours.
I remember hearing somewhere that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. Fear of the dark, fear of abandonment, fear of the monsters that lurk in the darkness. As someone once said, it is the feeling that there is something out there in the darkness that does not love the fire. It is watching and it is not afraid.
Love dispels fear as light drives out the darkness. To know that we are loved is to know that we are not alone in the night. The light of love will always send the monsters scuttling back into the shadows.
The pumpkin jack o’lantern is more than just a cynical, annual cash-grab by the soulless corporations. It is the symbol of the love that will bring us through the long, dark winter. It is the physical embodiment of the hope and faith that can take our trembling hand and guide us safely through the frost-time until the sun returns and all is bright once more.
When my daughters were little, we always had a pumpkin lantern at Halloween. These days, there are no pumpkin lanterns. The cobwebs are just sprayed-on fakery. The witches are just cheap, mass-produced silliness. There are no shining eyes imploring me to get the biggest, the roundest, the best American root vegetable, take it home, and spend an hour or two with the little knife and big spoon, carving out the toothy grin that will shine through the darkness, driving away the monsters.
They are far from me now. The marriage, always rocky, has long since fallen apart, destroyed by the very real wickedness of lies, and the ultimate evil of an unfaithful wife, a witch who delighted in flaunting her betrayal and broken vows.
And yet, the joy has not disappeared from Halloween; it has been absorbed into the weft and warp of love and loss that is woven across and through the years. My children may not need Daddy to hold their trembling hands in the night-time but they know that I am always with them in spirit, just as they are always in my heart. Love conquers fear, always.
No matter how cold and dark the frost-time, in the deep midwinter, earth as hard as iron, water like a stone, no matter how many monsters lurk beyond the firelight, watching and unafraid, the light of love, be it only a candle in a carved lantern will always shine out through the darkness, a beacon of hope and a promise of spring. Halloween is a bit of a giggle, but never lose sight of that golden ray of truth that guides us all forwards, even through the eventual, inevitable, ultimate dark threshold we all will cross. Love will guide us home.