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language-oriented learning

August 22, 2008

Today, I attended a seminar with Melissa Castillo, of Perspective-Based Learning, where she spoke on the importance of having not only content-centered objectives in our classrooms, but language-centered ones too. She started off the seminar talking about a study conducted by Douglas B. Reeves involving observing many classrooms over a series of years. Some of the more shocking observations…

– Zero percent of classrooms observed required student to write, speak and answer questions in complete sentences.
– Zero percent of classrooms observed included bell to bell instruction in their daily routines (bell to bell instruction means teaching from the second class is supposed to start to the last second with no down time.)
– Evidence of assessment in which zero students were engaged in the learning process: 82%

Castillo also revealed that, typically, a teacher asks around 80,000 questions in a school year that are focused on the content, while students ask roughly ten questions in that same span of time! Seems that teachers that spend a lot of time talking to the students in class without engaging thoughtful responses from students is really wasting their time. No wonder teachers feel tired all the time.

The amount of talking between students in a classroom affects how well they use language. It isn’t merely about being able to speak words in English, its about constructing thoughts on the fly that are understandable on both ends of the conversation most of the time. You have to think in the vocabulary of the subject if you want to understand it.

Teachers that talk more in their classes than the students do (be that in engaging group activities or in thoughtful responses to questions and classroom discussion) tend to see an increase in the amount of time spend handling discipline, instruction, and lecturing. Otherwise, when a teacher tries to keep the students engaged in the language of the content, feedback, encouragement and praising increases, while discipline and instruction issues decrease dramatically.

This is all very interesting to me, being of a wordy inclination. I think it is important to exercise precision in thought and execution of language. What good is learning a language if you can’t get around it. And I’m not just talking about English as a social medium of communication. I also mean the jargon of all the academic subjects, including music. If I don’t think in terms of music, I may never really understand its basic concepts.

We learned about how to make objectives based around content and around language improvement. We discussed how students on grade level need 14-20 exposures to a word to make it stick in their vocab, and below grade level students need 40-50 exposures. We learned how to ask questions. We learned how to structure lessons around getting the language across and which vocabularies to worry about in the instructional patterns of the day to day. I never thought I would find a non-music seminar so interesting and so informative. It just isn’t about speaking or writing: It’s about listening, speaking, reading and writing in the language involved, using the vocabularies at work.

What this means to a music teacher? Well, why can’t all that language bit be the language of music? Why can’t I involve in my lessons exercises that requires students be able to explain things back in the terms I teach them? Nothing. It is very possible, and I hope I can really get a good grip on that sort of thing.

Yes, this is a bit of ramble, but I just needed to get the concepts down on paper for my own retention. See, by writing it, I better understand it already!

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