Self-learning in New Brunswick

I received an email yesterday, about an interesting experiment in New Brunswick, that shows that kids can learn languages better, and become more autonomous learners, if just allowed to listen and read without interference from teachers. The formal instruction in the language can wait, it seems.

This is from Timothy Mason’s very interesting web site.

“Even more intriguing are the results of an experiment in teaching English to young French Canadians in the bilingual province of New Brunswick, where about one third of the population is French-speaking. Because of the considerable expense, it was considered impossible to provide specialist teaching for all French Canadian children in the public schools. The provincial government decided to try out a method based entirely on input 2

  • Every day, in the schools chosen for this experiment, children in grades 3 – 6 ( from 8 – 11 years old) spend 30 minutes studying English. The classroom in which this learning is done is equipped with personal tape-recorders. There are also shelves upon which are kept a large collection of books. Each book is accompanied by a tape.
    On entering the classroom, the child chooses a book, sits at a table with a tape-recorder, and then reads the book while listening to the tape. The student chooses books from a menu adapted to her age. She works entirely on her own – the teacher does not intervene in the learning in any way, other than to encourage a pupil to organise her time or materials.

After three years, the performance of the experimental groups was compared with that of groups who had been taught by well-qualified and conscientious language teachers. It appeared that on most measures there was very little difference between the two groups. However, on a test where the children were asked to describe a picture, the experimental children were far superior to the groups who had been taught by traditional methods – they used a larger vocabulary, and a more flexible syntax than did the others.

Furthermore, the pupils said that they enjoyed their English classes, and looked forward to the English period in their day. They also appeared to be more autonomous in their approach to learning. When asked what they did if there was something which they did not understand, the majority of the traditionally taught students said that they would ask the teacher – those in the experimental groups said that they would listen to the tape over again, or look at the glossary at the back of the book.

Although the programme had not been fully evaluated at this stage, it does appear that children can acquire a considerable degree of proficiency in a foreign language without benefiting from formal teaching, from grammar lessons, and from being forced to use the language. However, the results of a follow-up study suggested that there was a limit to what could be acquired without a teacher, and that best results were to be obtained when the initial program was enriched by the presence of an instructor.

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