They Had No Idea

Have you every taught something to your students about English that utterly shocked them, perhaps opened their minds to a whole new perspective on the language? But to you, you though this big reveal was something they had known the whole time because surely someone must have told them. Well, no, because it takes a combination of the right opportunity, the right students, and the right teacher knowledge to pull something like this off.

I’m not even talking about something amazing, either. Today, for example, is the first time I realized this phenomenon and then I immediately thought back to all the times my students had for the first time learned something no other teacher had told them in the years they had been studying the language.

Today, with an upper-intermediate level reading class, I decided to give students an opportunity to learn a little bit more about the words they were reading because I noticed, though they knew the meanings, they often could not use them in a comprehensible manner. So, I showed them an example of a sentence in the text: “Cities often invest in public art.” Nothing special here. It’s a very basic topic sentence of no significant value – at least, that’s how most students saw it. Then, I zeroed in on the words “invest in public art” and asked them what they noticed. (Ah, noticing! The gateway to learning English.) We discovered that, given English’s affinity for prepositions,  “in” is a likely word that often follows “invest”, and a noun or noun phrase representing a company or something that requires money follows “in”.

I explained to students that they have just seen an example of an English pattern (my friends reading this would call it a lexical chunk, others may be daring enough to call it a phrasal verb). English, any language for that matter, really consists of many patterns, and knowing these patterns can make the language easier. I even told them this interesting fact I learned about Zipf’s law: 50% of any text will be made of patterns and 50% of the text will be made of “singletons”. I showed them a few more examples and asked them to search through the text to find anything else that was interesting.

What ensued was 10 minutes of silence – the type of silence that you can feel, because you can feel the confusion and bewilderment, like the first time you dump a 1000 piece puzzle on the table with all the pieces face down. But, with a little assistance and praise, the students were able to find a few things. We discussed their findings as a class. Quietly, without the enthusiasm students usually had. Lesson failed.

Then, after class, three separate students came up to me and thanked me because they had never learned that there were patterns to the English language and that they found this information extremely useful. One even told me that he studies hard, but this will probably make his studying more effective. Students are not natural language investigators, so although patterning seems obvious to us, it is something we are taking for granted. They had no idea. But now they know, and I hope it helps them.

I was floored and ecstatic after class because of the compliments and because of the effect it had on students. And then I thought back to how many times this has happened but I never really took notice. It happened recently when I compared the pronunciation of 2-syllable noun/verb homographs (such as the nouns record, object, conflict and the verbs record, object, and conflict). Not only were they a little offput by the existence of words that have the spelling but different uses and pronunciations, but they were pleasantly surprised when they learned these words follow a regular pattern of stress (on the first syllable of the nouns, second syllable on the verbs) and unstress (the first vowel in the first syllable of the verb often becomes a shwa). What seemed like “crazy English” a minute ago became rule-based and orderly. They simply had no idea.

When students learn that words in English connect in such a way that the sounds change (a classic example: “Do you want to” becomes /dujəwɑnə/) they are shocked. They are even more shocked when they learn that they can pronounce any word if they learn the IPA, something that was staring at them in their dictionaries from day 1. They just had no idea.

Is Shock and Awe a teaching methodology? Maybe it will be the next best thing, up there with Demand High and The Silent Way. In any case, it seems to be effective, useful, attention-grabbing, and something novel that the students haven’t encountered but probably should have. They just had no idea. And neither did I, until now.