But am I familiar with familiar?

Lately I am so grooving on Paul Nation’s 4-Strands.  I mean, it’s got it all, right?  25% of your time on meaning based input (graded readers, book floods, news stories simplified with a frequency checker, movie clips, audio books), 25% on meaning based output (tasks, student directed conversations, role-playing), 25% on form or language focused work (ah, the glories of saying SVO, prefix and suffix challenges, comparing various uses of polite language) and finally, my favorite until recently, 25% of course time on fluency.  And you know why I used to love fluency?  Because it was something I just didn’t spend enough time on before.  I was always in such a rush to give the kids something new to learn (there’s quite a bit of pressure at my school to produce results) that I didn’t take nearly enough time to practice what the students had already learned.  But you know what?  Fluency has fallen off my list of faves. 

Paul says the students should be using language which is “largely familiar” to them in fluency activities and that the key point is to push them to use the language a little faster, a little smoother than they are used to.  The pressure is the key.  Take that “familiar” language and push on it and turn it into a diamond of fluency.

So what’s my beef with Paul Nation?  Almost nothing.  If it weren’t for him, I would have never have even known about frequency checkers.  And that alone has changed my life for the better.  No, I’m not angry with Paul Nation.  I’m angry with my own inability to clearly identify just what language my students are “familiar” with.  For example, if I use key vocabulary (including phrases) and grammar (including functional grammar) from the previous lesson, but the students somehow managed to forget it over the weekend (imagine that), I somehow go from a fluency activity to a meaning based output or input activity.  Which has gotten me thinking, what does it mean for a student to be largely familiar with some aspect of language anyway?  I’m not trying to be facetious about this. 

Lately there was a little dust-up on how to teach vocabulary on the Osaka-JALT page on Facebook.  It all started with Mike McKay’s request for help: “How can I get my students to understand that ‘smart’ means ‘intelligent’ instead of dressing like Dapper Dan?” Suddenly I was faced with the fact that students might think, “Hey, I know this language!”  But, in truth, not so much.  This could be due to L1 Interference, misunderstanding at the outset, or an inability to even recognize when they don’t recognize something (a problem of awareness or what I like to think of as the ‘lemon juice effect’).   So just how familiar with the language do students need to be for their level of familiarity to qualify as familiar?  

Or maybe I’m just too hung up on putting things in their nicely labeled boxes.  Paul Nation never said that there wasn’t a constant flow between the four strands.  If a student forgot most of the materials from Friday’s lesson over the weekend, and the planned Monday morning fluency activity turns into meaning based output activity, that doesn’t mean that in the middle of the activity that same student wouldn’t be able to shift into practicing fluency…right?  I guess I just got lulled by those crisp clear “25%”s marching through the article.  I thought I had finally gotten ahold of a more concrete and perhaps less time consuming way to organize my courses.  But of course language teaching isn’t crisp and clear. 

I’m also reminded of another number.  This one pops up in Lightbown (2003).  “1”.  As in students, “cannot achieve native-like (or near native-like) command of a second language in 1 hour a day.”  At my school, students aren’t getting 1 hour of English classes a day.  And a majority of them aren’t studying 1 hour a day either.  That doesn’t mean students don’t need to practice for fluency, just that I have to do the messy hard work of keeping track of where my students are to make sure that that particular 25% finds its way into class.

Lightbown, P. M. (2003) “SLA research in the classroom / SLA research for the classroom.” Language Learning Journal 28, pp. 4-13.

Nation, I.S.P. (2007) “The four strands.” Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching 1, 1: 1-12.

Nation, I.S.P. (2003) “Vocabulary.” In D. Nunan. (ed.) Practical English Language

Schmidt, R. (1993) “Awareness and Second Language Acquisition.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13, pp. 206-226.

3 thoughts on “But am I familiar with familiar?

  1. Hello Kevin, I am really grooving on your blog at the moment. I am with you about being confused about the meaning of the word familiar. I saw a talk a few months ago where the speaker said that we need to know 95% of the words in a text to understand the text. I couldn't help but wonder what "know" meant in this case. My question as I read your post was about the 1 hour + needed to achieve native or native-like proficiency. I wonder if this is the goal for most of your students? Thanks for reading and thanks for the food for thought. –Mike


  2. Hi Mike,Thanks for the groovin' compliment. You know, that 95% number trips me up as well. In 2000, Hu and Nation published, "Vocabulary density and reading comprehension" in Reading in a Foreign Language. In it they go into much more detail as to where the percentage of necessary "text coverage" (i.e.: known words) comes from. They actually posit the number should be 98% and that at the 95% level, nowhere near a majority of readers will gain comprehension. And even 98% coverage, "does not make comprehension easy." Now this all makes perfect sense on the surface, but once again we end up with that nagging question of what is 98% coverage? How do we actually know our students know that 98% when they think they know it? But I guess that's our job. To nudge and question, prod and ask to make sure that those words our students think they know are actually known. I would guess one simple way to go about it would be to have students underline all the words that they think they know in a text as opposed to focusing on the words they don't know. By having them focus on each word within the context of the sentence, instead of just scanning for unknowns, there might be a better chance of them having that "aha" moment of, "oh, this is a word I think I know, but I actually don't know what it means in this context."Is native or native-like proficiency a goal for my students? Nope. Thanks for the reminder. That is a goal for maybe 2 out of my 39 students. Most of them have much more number driven goals. They want to get 2nd Level on the English Step Test or cross the 500 mark on TOEIC. But I guess my goal is always to give them the tools so that, if they do decide (someday) that they want to achieve native-like fluency, they know how to go about it.Ah…time to work on my next paper.Thanks againKevin


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