Optimal language learning

I recently started watching a Chinese TV show for children with my 32-month-old son. My vocabulary is much larger than my son’s, but my son seems to grasp fast dialogue somewhat better than I do. So I was surprised to find that I understand my son’s shows better than he does. I suggested to my wife that I have an advantage because my son relies completely on his ears whereas I’m able to read the characters at the bottom of the screen (because Chinese TV usually prints the dialogue text).

My wife replied that I’m able to follow the dialogue better in part because I have greater knowledge of the world. I agreed that was a big factor. For example, in last night’s show, the kids in the classroom had show-and-tell. My son’s never experienced that, so unfamiliarity added a layer of complexity to his attempt to absorb the dialogue.

Coincidentally, I woke up this morning and read this interesting New York Times op-ed on educational practices and educational testing that addresses the very topic my wife and I discussed last night:

These much maligned, fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available. The problem is that the reading passages used in these tests are random. They are not aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards. Children are asked to read and then answer multiple-choice questions about such topics as taking a hike in the Appalachians even though they’ve never left the sidewalks of New York, nor studied the Appalachians in school.

Teachers can’t prepare for the content of the tests and so they substitute practice exams and countless hours of instruction in comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea.” Yet despite this intensive test preparation, reading scores have paradoxically stagnated or declined in the later grades.

This is because the schools have imagined that reading is merely a “skill” that can be transferred from one passage to another, and that reading scores can be raised by having young students endlessly practice strategies on trivial stories. Tragic amounts of time have been wasted that could have been devoted to enhancing knowledge and vocabulary, which would actually raise reading comprehension scores.

Let’s imagine a different situation. Students now must take annual reading tests from third grade through eighth. If the reading passages on each test were culled from each grade’s specific curricular content in literature, science, history, geography and the arts, the tests would exhibit what researchers call “consequential validity” — meaning that the tests would actually help improve education. Test preparation would focus on the content of the tests, rather than continue the fruitless attempt to teach test taking.

A 1988 study indicated why this improvement in testing should be instituted. Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups — strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests. The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball. Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge.

The experiment confirmed what language researchers have long maintained: the key to comprehension is familiarity with the relevant subject. For a student with a basic ability to decode print, a reading-comprehension test is not chiefly a test of formal techniques but a test of background knowledge.

This raises a more general question: Is it better to learn language (or programming, carpentry, etc.) through books and formal instruction or trial-and-error interaction with the material? Both approaches are productive and can — if teachers adapt their teaching to students' current abilities — reinforce one another. In many fields, new learners begin with formal training but gradually spend more and more time with trial-and-error, hands-on learning. Flying airplanes is a good example. New students must learn the standard body of knowledge and pass an examination. Then they must spend a lot of time flying airplanes with a gradual decrease in the role of their flight instructor.

I believe our schools are overemphasizing formal learning while underemphasizing encouraging children to read, read and then read some more. Kids should read whatever interests them, not whatever the teacher insists they read. As a child, I read countless books, and I re-read favorites like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a zillion times. Each time through, I understood it better than before and grew more comfortable with the words and intuited the meaning of previously unfamiliar words.

My nephew currently is struggling with reading because he views it as a required chore — like visiting the dentist — rather than something fun and enlightening. I suspect that’s partly because his teacher generally chooses his required reading. Reading what others tell you to read is boring.

This coincides with research that our brains form permanent memories much more easily when we’re emotionally engaged. The stronger our emotional reaction to something, the more likely our brains are to create permanent memories of the experience. So, it seems that you’re more likely to learn from reading a book you enjoy than a book you’re trudging through as a class requirement.

For much of the time I’ve studied Mandarin, I’ve relied heavily on books. But the past few years I’ve incorporated a lot more intuitive learning, the kind of learning my son uses to learn Mandarin. I’ve downloaded countless audio broadcasts that I listen to on my iPaq whenever I’m brushing my teeth, doing the laundry, putting away dishes, raking leaves or walking to the store. I usually understand the gist of the broadcast and learn new words. This is especially easy in Mandarin because so many words are what we call “compound words” in English. The Chinese put two or three characters together to create a word; you can often figure out a word’s meaning from context and the sound of its component characters.

Listening comprehension and reading comprehension are distinct skills. But they can reinforce one another if smart teachers speak about the same content that students are reading about. One reason my early years studying Mandarin were less than ideal is that the textbooks I used focused on Chinese history, customs, ethnic groups, and foods that I didn’t see around me or have any need/opportunity to talk about. I’ve since found books that focus on more everyday items and activities, and now I have more opportunities to solidify that vocabulary because I speak and hear those words with my wife, son and in-laws. So my personal experience confirms the op-ed writer’s comment that language learning should be integrated with students' non-language (science, global studies, etc.) content classes.

Remarkably (to me), my son intuits the concept of “Use it or lose it.” When he hears a new word, he’ll often immediately re-use that word in a few sentences. That’s a brilliant technique for learning new vocabulary and for learning most anything else.

P.S. One reason I’ve stressed book learning while studying Mandarin is that there is a very weak relationship between written and spoken Mandarin (as you might guess from the fact there are so many mutually incomprehensible spoken Chinese dialects all of which use the same written language) whereas there is a very strong relationship between written and spoken English. Consequently, you cannot begin to learn to read and write Chinese without extensive book learning. But someone who learned to speak English and knew basic rules of spelling could write in a comprehensible manner. Studying Mandarin through books lets me study both the written and spoken languages simultaneously.

P.P.S. My mom — an expert on educational testing — commented on the op-ed:

When a standardized test is designed for use over a broad area (e.g., a state) and there is considerable variation within that area (e.g., 115 individual districts) in the specific content that is taught, you may still end up with some students having an “unfair advantage” on the test. And whatever the specifics of what is taught, it may be more “relevant” to some groups of students than others.

She’s right, of course. But there’s a spectrum between the extremes of each-teacher-for-him/herself and a minute-by-minute national daily curriculum. For example, a national curriculum could specify grade-specific themes each month and then teachers and students could select material on those themes. For a Civil War theme, a Pennsylvania teacher might cover Gettysburg while a Virginia teacher might cover Manassas and a South Carolina teacher might teach about Fort Sumter. Similarly, students might choose to read different kinds of books about the Civil War, one choosing a book on Lincoln, another on slavery, and a third on famous generals.

Posted by James on Monday, March 23, 2009