Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to sit in on Dr. Beniko Mason’s demo of her Story-listening (SL) approach to teaching language. I was immediately struck by the similarity between her approach and how we often “read” fairytales / legends to small children. When reading to small children, we rarely read word for word. Rather, we take great liberties with the text and modify the story to make it more meaningful to the listeners in front us. We also use illustrations to make the story more engaging and more comprehensible.
That is just what Dr. Mason did during the demonstration I watched at the COFLT Conference last fall. Dr. Mason began drawing on the board as she began telling a story. She pointed, gestured, jotted down a few words and told a detailed story, just the way a mother would. Truth be told, I was not engaged in the story nearly as much as I was in the Story Listening process. I had been following Story Listening on social media and was really curious about the approach (and why it had sparked such heated debate).
Dr. Mason shared data, which demonstrated strong growth in English, and although I trusted her and her data, there were a few things that made me feel skeptical about using SL in MY classroom. This led me to asking Dr. Mason a couple of very specific and significant questions:
What level are your students, and have they had any previous language experience?
My students are university students. They have had approximately four years of previous language study before coming into my class.
You mentioned that your students have to take a reading comprehension assessment as part of their “degree” in their subject area (primarily business). Do you ever give any oral proficiency assessments, or is your focus strictly on partial acquisition for comprehension only?
No, I do not. I focus on reading comprehension only. I do not evaluate students’ verbal proficiency.
Those two answers actually cleared up my skepticism. Based on Dr. Mason’s students, her SL was advanced, exactly as it should be for very literate university students with four years of previous language study. Dr. Mason also indicated that students also do extensive reading, which also has a positive impact on her students’ reading scores. Her data/test scores are impressive, so it stands to reason that teachers should consider SL for their own students.
As with any approach, teachers need to consider the needs of their own students before blindly following a single approach. Since many of my students do not have consistent schooling, and as a result have weak (or no) literacy skills in L1, shorter attention spans and less cognitive power than Dr. Mason’s university students, I definitely make modifications, just like I do with any other approach. (i.e.: TPRS, MovieTalk, reading-based strategies, etc.) My stories are much simpler, much shorter and a bit more interactive.
My reading program is also much different! Unlike Dr. Mason’s students, most of my students do not read outside of class (in spite of my encouragement/pleading), and our Free Voluntary Reading sessions are short (10 min.) and not necessarily independent. My co-teacher and I need to provide a great deal of support to help non-literate students develop literacy skills in general / make gains from reading.
Finally, and probably most significant, is the contrast between our learning objectives. My number one priority is to facilitate full acquisition, which means I need to provide a huge amount of (repeated) exposure to comprehensible/comprehended linguistic data until students are able to communicate– at least on a very basic level. Given the fact that many of my students do not read (well), that exposure is primarily provided through auditory input.
Since language learners need vast amounts of CI and brains crave novelty, that leaves me with ONE logical solution: Use a variety CI-based, SLA-focused approaches! Every learner is unique, as is every class. What works on Monday may not work on Tuesday, and what works in first period my not work in fifth! Use the only litmus test that matters– your students’ success and growth in the language.
Carol Gaab has been teaching second languages since 1990, including Spanish for all grades/levels and ESL and Spanish for various Major League Baseball clubs, most notably directing the Spanish and ESL programs for the San Francisco Giants. She also provides teacher training workshops throughout the U.S. and abroad and edits materials for various authors/publishers. Carol has authored and co-authored Spanish curricula for elementary through upper levels, as well as numerous leveled readers.