Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 2 Number 1
January 1962



Grace Blossom

The importance of teaching a student to speak a new language before he attempts to read it cannot be over-emphasized. Charles Carpenter Fries, author of Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language, says a child will learn to read two to three times faster is he first learns to speak the language. If a written word has no oral counterpart in the mind of the child, it is like trying to find a reflection in a mirror for which no original exists.

Or again, it is like a child trying to read when he has little or no idea what sound or sounds have been assigned to the various letters of the alphabet. That the importance of the oral aspect of a language is often overlooked by the teacher is really no fault of her own. Our teacher training institutions have in the past stressed the teaching of reading to the total neglect of the language, perhaps because we can come back and look at the printed word again and again. It has a permanence for us that the spoken word does not have, and we forget that the printed word wouldn't even exist if it did not first have an oral counterpart.

It takes a considerable amount of "brain washing" of the primary teacher, especially, to enable her to drop teaching of reading as an objective and replace it with the teaching of oral language. Probably this is so because she remembers learning to read but has forgotten learning to speak. To her, reading is the language.

Assume that we have accomplished our first objective--the awareness of the importance of learning to speak English first and proceed to the second objective--the preparation of teaching materials. In any second language teaching situation the three basic principles are:

1. Listen

2. Repeat

3. Memorize

This is the way the small child learns to speak a first language, and it is the only way to learn to speak a second language. It is the application of these principles in a second language teaching situation that needs to be carefully worked out. One of the difficulties here is that situations differ from school to school and even from classroom to classroom. It is this variation in teaching needs that make the ability to write one's own material so helpful. Writing or adapting material to a specific situation is not difficult if the teacher has completely accepted the first tenet of language teaching--Learn To Talk First.

Forget about reading until the student has a talking vocabulary of at least four hundred words, all taught in context. Before attempting to write the needed materials, look at the teaching environment. Ask yourself, what do my students need to say and understand to be at home in this classroom? These are their first needs language-wise and if you, the teacher, work them out you can teach them in an easy relaxed fashion. You know that they are immediately useful to both you and the student for communication purposes. The next step after deciding what is needed is to write it down following a few simple rules.

1. Write the materials in talking English. Beware of chart-like sentences. (Rarely do we say, "This is a pencil," or "This is a chair.")

2. Make the sentences short, three, four, and not over five words, especially at first.

3. For little children four new words a day is enough; for older students, eight new words a day is considered a fair learning load. By holding yourself to a limited number of words, you must continually reteach the old ones.

Very often the morning greeting is the first lesson in learning a new language. To be able to communicate at once establishes a bond and starts the day right. Teach whatever form is used in your school. Does everyone use a formal "Good morning, how are you?" or a less formal "Good Morning." Teach the polite forms of our language first. "Good Morning" will get one by anywhere. The very informal "Hi" will not do in formal occasions and will be learned soon enough. Following the morning greeting, commands or requests such as Come in or Please shut (close) the door, What is your name? My name is ------------------------- What is your father's name? May I go to the bathroom? (washroom, lavatory, toilet) Wash your hands, Go to the dining room (lunch room, cafeteria). The choice of words must be based on usefulness. The child needs to be at ease in his environment as soon as possible. He needs to establish communication as rapidly and as economically as possible. Since these needs differ more or less with each situation, it is so helpful if each teacher can write her own materials.

In writing these materials, each new word is underlined. This is necessary as it gives the teacher complete control of her language program. Otherwise the same words may be taught over and over to the neglect of others. The teacher must work step by step toward her goal of four hundred words in meaningful context. By alphabetizing the vocabulary list in the back of any set of basic readers (the ones used in your school would be best) and checking each word on it as the materials are written, the teacher has a firm control of her oral language program at all times. She knows what has and what has not been taught. In conjunction with the basic vocabulary list, an environmental list will be needed. These are words useful mainly in one situation only, and would not pass the test of usefulness in a basic word list. For a boarding school you might need such words as auditorium, dormitory, clinic, advisor, matron, while for a day school these might not be useful. But such words as recess, bus driver, departs, Ship Rock, Tuba City might be needed.

In teaching any language effectively always keep in mind the three basic principlesólisten, repeat, memorize. It is the application of these principles that challenge the teacher as the method will differ with the age of the students. Basically the teaching is "listen and repeat". The teacher, who should be a native speaker of the language, says the sentence and the students repeat it after her. Whether this is done in a game, in singing, or just plain rote must be left to the judgment of the instructor. The importance of having the student repeat after the teacher cannot be over-emphasized. Fully half or even more of the value of the lesson is lost if the student is not trained to mimic the teacher as closely as possible. It gives the teacher an opportunity to check for mispronunciations which are the beginnings of accent. A student who can learn to mimic a native speaker of the new language accurately will speak without accent and with native speech intonation. Left to incidental learning, he will superimpose his own intonation pattern on the second language and he will substitute the nearest sounds in his own language for the unfamiliar sounds of the new language.

Do not allow these errors to become habit since it is almost impossible to break them once they become established. Repeating after the teacher trains the ear and the vocal organs of the student until he will repeat the utterances without self consciousness. By one method or another, rote, games, or singing, the new language must be overlearned. Anything else is useless.

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