SSi – the answer to problems in schools?

In the unusually heated discussion on a previous post, ‘How angry schools can make me’, it was suggested to me that I shouldn’t be ‘arrogantly berating teachers’, and that at SSi our work ‘is already at least half done for you’ because anyone searching for a language course must by definition be motivated.

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled

SJSA Grade Six – The Year I Rebelled (Photo credit: Michael 1952)

As someone who was brought up by teachers in a family of teachers, who married a teacher from a family of teachers and who spent eight years teaching, this startled me slightly.  Yup, I think that teachers are pretty much the most important people in the world (I consider parents a subset of teachers…;-)).  I went back and double-checked, and yes, the post still said that it was schools that made me angry – at which point, it seemed to me that the misunderstanding might have arisen in part because I hadn’t gone on to talk about potential solutions.

The focus on SSi, and how it does or doesn’t work, made me feel that it was being taken for granted that I thought schools should just be using our methods – but as I’ve said elsewhere, the method I’ve developed was designed for individual learners, and it has been a surprise to me when people talk about using it in groups.  I know it’s been used occasionally in schools, but as it stands, I don’t think it could possibly solve the problems in education.

So today, I feel like mulling over some ideas about how language teaching in the UK could be improved – to the point where even the occasional bad teacher wouldn’t upset the apple cart.  I hope this will make my feelings about teachers (and their various insanities, such as ‘staying in the job’) a little clearer!

Oh, and I’ll come back to that bit about ‘at least half’ our work having been done for us at SSi already…;-)

Small scream

So, let’s recap.

Language teaching in UK schools is (with honourable exceptions!) in a pretty dire state.  Years of education lead to students who are not capable of maintaining a conversation in the language they’ve been studying, and many of them believe that they’re ‘bad at languages’ even when they have no problems talking English (a language).  This is a waste of their time, and it’s a waste of their teachers’ time, it doesn’t make anyone feel good, it’s almost certainly a bad thing for the economy, and it’s a particularly bad thing for languages like Welsh.

There are two broad problems happening, as far as I can see.

One is that language teaching is a subset of teaching as a whole, and the education sector in the UK has suffered enormously from being a political toy, with changes imposed by government every half-hour or so for decades, many of which have focused on measuring the immeasurable.  You can’t measure it?  At all?  Stop doing it, then, and do something you can measure.  And then spend more time measuring it.  Talk about the education sector to a teacher who has resigned, and I can guarantee you that the term ‘paperwork’ will come up.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, though, language teaching also suffers from historical ideas about how to learn a language – that you have to learn a grammar to be able to speak a language, in the same way that you have to learn how an engine works before you drive a car.  Oh, hang on.

At this point, I realise that I’ve embarked on writing a book here, not a blog post.  So let’s just stick to the chapter titles.




Bored (Photo credit: Clover_1)

Over-worked teachers with too many made-up targets to hit.

Students who have no current need for the language they’re learning.

A common focus on reading and writing because of historical ideas and because it’s just easier to manage a class of 30 or more when they’re reading or writing – when they’re speaking and listening, it can get, er, unmeasurable very quickly indeed!

Students who are shown the component parts of a language, and told to learn them on their own – given vocab lists as homework, that sort of stuff – and given how little time the average teacher has to keep up with developments in our understanding of how learning works best, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that most children have very little idea of how to learn.  For example, a recent test showed that highlighting key terms in a text was more or less entirely ineffective – but it remains very popular, perhaps because at least it adds a splash of colour to a boring activity.

Students who succeed tend to succeed by the intellectual equivalent of brute force – going over and over mountains of material until it is fixed in their memory for long enough to pass an exam.  Oh, by the way, how much of your school mathematics or history or biology do you remember?

[List cut short by a sub-editor].

21st Civics, Language and American Studies (CL...

Possible and exciting solutions (focusing on stuff that schools can do themselves, without change coming from the government)

Change the focus to speaking and listening – deal with reading and writing in the last couple of years before GCSEs, by which stage your children could and should be confident speakers.

Use technology to create new opportunities to play – get children to make friends via video links with children who speak the target language but don’t speak English – obviously, the younger the better for this in English-medium schools, because in most of Europe fourteen and fifteen year olds will already have a LOT of English.

Work on creating entertaining games for 2 to 4 players that can be played via video links and which need teamwork and communication – this is something that should be done at research level, rather than thrown at individual teachers to help push them over the edge.

Build games for 2 to 4 players that work in the classroom, needing teamwork and communication, but with built-in volume control (perhaps some value attached to an element of secrecy).  Make sure that each group can achieve a target – don’t make it a zero sum situation – so that every group that achieves their target can be given praise.

Give children homework that actually guides their learning – in other words, automates the process of interval and repetition that is so important in acquiring anything new.  This is where something similar to SSi might come in handy – it would need to be refined quite a bit – shorter chunks, more focus on the language needed in the game playing – but ten minutes of listening to an audio track on their phone or computer is likely to be completed a lot more than an open-ended, read this vocab list until you’ve ‘learnt’ it kind of task.

Put all this together, and you’re working towards building a situation where language lessons are a welcome interval at school – a chance to relax, chat with friends, play games, gossip, as long as you’re doing it all in the target language.

If this is happening from Year 7 (that’s 11 year olds) onwards – or even starting before Year 7 – by the time you get to the last couple of years before GCSEs, reading and writing would just be a matter of adding increasing amounts of written material to the game process, and would be an addition to an enjoyable process, rather than something that made students feel overwhelmed and unsuccessful.

Any chance of any of this actually happening?

Flying pig

Well, as William Gibson famously said, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

In other words, almost everything in here is happening at a school somewhere in the UK – you can pretty much guarantee that.  There are teachers going above and beyond somewhere in every county, and whatever the framework they have to work within, language teachers all instinctively know that using the language in a social setting is going to help their children succeed.

But are there any schools building an entire approach to language teaching like this?

I’d love to hear about them, if there are.

The biggest barrier I see is the communication that would be needed – getting curriculum designers to talk to game designers, getting them both talking to online learning designers, building the technology or the models of best practice with existing technology, all that sort of stuff.

But it’s do-able, that’s for sure.

And the fact that it’s difficult doesn’t make it any less important.


Oh, that bit about at least half our work being done for us at SSi?

The desire is there, certainly.  But we have a large number of people who reach us with very low levels of confidence, and desire without confidence isn’t what I’d call motivation.

We’ve had interesting discussions on this blog previously about the importance of the praise in our lessons – by now, I think that praise, and the obvious functionality of the lessons, is significantly more valuable than the fact that someone originally fancied speaking Welsh.

We’ll know more about this in the next few months, when we can (ironically!) measure what happens with our early stage learners rather more precisely.  I still think, though, that we’ve got a huge amount of work to do, which I don’t think would be the case if most of it had already been done for us…;-)


31 responses to “SSi – the answer to problems in schools?

    • I’ve heard a lot of really great things about the education system in Finland, and it’s something I’d very much like to find the time to look into more closely…:-)

  1. How can European schools teach the English language sooo well when British schools are so bad at language teaching?

    I can still remember my school French lessons…I am, You are, He is, She is…zzzzzzz.

    A friend of mine told me just today that he was disappointed that his daughter had recently given up Spanish at school. Shame.

    • Worth bearing in mind that English as a second language teaching has the enormous boost of such high levels of media – films, music – which is a large part of making sure that children in Welsh medium schools are functionally fluent in English at a very early stage – so I’d bet that the quality of language education varies throughout Europe, but that it’s starting from a different baseline with regards to English and also with regards to the need for multiple languages being so much clearer (and more normal) than in the UK.

  2. Daniel Kahnemann has some interesting things to say about the value of praise – it works much better than anything else in getting results.,_Fast_and_Slow
    I like your suggestions for solving some of the problems – like making friends with other children who speak the target language. I learnt more French in a week on a French camping site playing with a bunch of French kids than in six months in French classes at school.

    • Ooh, diolch – I was trying to find a specific quote about praise for this blog, and couldn’t for the life of me – looked through half a dozen or so relevant books I’ve read in the last couple of months – and now I remember it was in that Kahnemann book…:-)

  3. @Vaughan. “How can European schools teach the English language sooo well when British schools are so bad at language teaching?”

    The think is that they don’t! I did not learn English from school, well I did a little bit, but it was a small supplement to the TV I watched, the games I played, the books I read, the music I listened to, and the internett I browsed. My greatest foundation and what really made my English what it is today is that about the age of 10 I started thinking in the language, talking to yourself really is great for learning a language.
    On the other hand I had French for 5 years in school, I could not have even the tiniest conversation in French.

  4. Ah, let me play! 😉

    I’ve said myself that schools should spend a lot more time on speaking and listening. I can see why schools want more reading and writing, and you just highlighted it in your blog – that’s measurable. And, it’s “easily,” and neatly, measurable – one two-hour testing block, thirty or so students quietly taking their exam, and at the end, the results showing if a student should move on to the next phase, or even if they could move on. Something tangible, something that only takes a couple of hours to administer (not counting the grading process) and something relatively streamlined – going down the list for each paper ticking off right or wrong. The alternative test for speaking and listening would have individual students and/or small groups standing in front of the teacher, speaking and responding. Takes a lot mroe time, and pressures the teacher to grade the student(s) at the moment rather than later on. A school would want something like this at the higher levels, where there are fewer students. Reading and writing saves time. (Caveat: this goes for systems which have a final exam at the end of each semester. Don’t know if British schools do that, or it it’s all targeted toward GCSEs and A-levels.)

    Leading to…

    Teach it earlier. The earlier the better. My first Spanish lesson was::
    A: ?Que’ es esto?
    B: Es un libro.
    A: ?Tienes tu’ el llibro?
    B: Si’, yo tengo el libro.
    That was in first grade – age 6 at the latest, for me, age 5-6. We had just begun reading and writing in English, so didn’t have the skills necessary to read and write in a new language. We did have hand-outs where we matched the picture with the Spanish word, but I don’t remember doing that in class, just that blurb I wrote above. I also remember the first dialogue of ninth grade Spanish. Back then, we spoke in class. Teacher chose two students and they stood up and recited the week’s dialogue with each other, substituting the person’s class name for our book’s ‘Paco.’ We spoke. We interacted, even if it was just by script.

    Leading to…

    Speak. Speak with people who will then speak back, so you will also need to listen. I like your idea of speaking with people who won’t let you slip back into your native tongue. And, as above, the earlier the better. I love Marie’s comment about thinking in the language – so true! I spoke Spanish with friends who were learning French, and they spoke French back at me. We had to make up our own sentences that way, because the books didn’t map directly to each other. We had to think in the language in order to come up with things to say. We were all doing well in our classes, which makes me think that this random practicing had an effect for us. I was also fortunate in that a lot of people in my neighborhood, and at my church, were native Spanish speakers who liked to help me out, and that there were a few who didn’t speak English yet, so couldn’t cut me slack. Speaking ‘in the wild’ involves a lot of thinking in the target language. One last on this – when I took Arabic, we had testing at the end of the course. The tests involved reading, writing, and then speaking to a board who would ask us questions for which we were unprepared. We had to understand the question, then give an answer. We only had knowledge of potential topics, so we’d practice speaking and thinking on those topics in Arabic in the run-up to the test. This involved a board of people who were not our instructors, so the work involved for the teachers was spread out a bit more evenly.

    I like your suggestions. I also agree with your observation that schools, or higher boards, or politicians who release funding, parents who want measurable results, the public who demand measurable outcomes, and/or so forth, are the fly in the ointment. I also think that students who are motivated to practice outside of class are more likely to do these things on their own. So, how do you get students (who may be required to take the courses) excited enough to do it?

  5. Well, I said I was going to refrain from posting here anymore, but if I am misunderstood or quoted out of context, I must speak up. Aran, when I said that at SSi your work “is already half done for you,” that was not a criticism of SSi. I have always been very complimentary and supportive of SSi. I have told you personally how intrigued I am that I retain what I have learned even when I go months without listening to lessons or hearing a word of Welsh anywhere in my life (other than listening to my Welsh music). As a linguist and language researcher, I have been very interested in how this whole thing works and why. I would really like to be welcome to participate in these discussions without feeling like I will be banned if I question anything.

    That comment that you quoted above was in the context of your comparing SSi to children learning in public school classrooms. There is certainly nothing wrong with SSi learners being more motivated than kids in public schools. It doesn’t in any way devalue what you do. I myself certainly like and appreciate having motivated students – which is, quite frankly, one reason I wanted to teach at the university level rather than high school – but that certainly doesn’t mean I (or you) have no more work to do!

    What you have said about U.K. learners’ (or is it just primarily in Wales?) lack of self-confidence is fascinating to me, as is the apparent success of your “praise” in the lessons. I cannot relate to that with my own students, because, generally speaking, my students are not lacking in self-confidence, nor do I hear that as a big complaint among high school teachers here. The “praise” in SSi lessons is also interesting, even amusing, because my students would not buy impersonal “praise” from someone who doesn’t know or even hear them. In our textbook online oral practice, my students laugh and even snicker at the anonymous voice that says things like “Muy bien!” when students answer oral questions online. I would like to be able to discuss and understand such interesting things without anyone being threatened or offended by my interest, questions, or comments.

    I would also still like for someone to answer my very legitimate question about WHO is telling kids they are no good at languages, if not teachers or parents, because you have still not answered that question. It’s not enough to keep saying it is “schools, not teachers.” My point was simply that it seems to me that *people* have to do that. So if not, I would like to understand how this abstract, inanimate concept of “school” is telling kids they’re no good. I am not being sarcastic; I just honestly want to understand this, rather just being dismissed as overly critical.

    Thank you in advance for your time and patience in helping me understand some of these interesting topics.


    • “I would also still like for someone to answer my very legitimate question about WHO is telling kids they are no good at languages, if not teachers or parents, because you have still not answered that question.”

      Personally speaking, from someone who has had a child go through secondary school; it is the child themselves that say that they are, “no good at languages.” From listening to the comments of my own child and discussing this with other parents, their own children are saying, learning languages is a..”waste of time, boring, useless, why do we have to learn this?”

      Unlike SSi where the language sticks over a long period of time and can be used in conversation, from what I have seen myself and hear from parents on this subject is that taking a language to GCSE level is just a tick box exercise and the language has no practical use and will be soon forgotten.

      Sadly, the only lessons children seem to learn from taking languages at school are: Languages are hard work, boring and useless. This is no reflection on the teacher, they can be brilliant and lovely people, but it would appear that the system in school is at fault.

      • Great summary. I believe it is now clear to anyone who reads this that we are talking (and always have been talking) about systemic failure…:-)

    • I don’t mind if you criticise SSi, and I’m not particularly concerned if any specific point is critical or not. I can’t see how I’ve quoted you out of context here, though – you said that our work is ‘already half done’ and I disagree. It’s interesting that you find our praise ‘amusing’ – it might be enlightening for you to look at the discussions about this earlier in the blog, where the overwhelming consensus was that it is vital and believable.

      Re: ‘who is telling children’ – at risk of being slightly repetitive here, it’s the schools. Schools do their ‘telling’ via grading systems everywhere I’ve worked and everywhere teachers I know have worked.

      • “‘who is telling children’ – at risk of being slightly repetitive here, it’s the schools. Schools do their ‘telling’ via grading systems”
        Absolutely. Compare the SSi approach. To quote: ‘don’t worry about the mutations too much – almost everyone in Wales gets them officially wrong at some point, and everyone will understand you.’ Result: learner is confident that he/she will be understood.
        A school teacher has to mark down mistakes (whether or not the language used by the student is understandable) according to a pre-existing external grade structure. Result: student thinks that he/she is officially bad at languages.
        A good teacher might say ‘I can understand what you’re saying/writing, now you just have to be a little more precise to get a higher grade’, but the school is still saying, effectively, ‘incorrect. Low grade.’

        I think I can see Karen’s point about the praise. Personally, I find it very rewarding in SSi, partly because it’s true (I really have learnt a massive amount, as I’m told I have) and partly because it sounds genuine and warm even though I’ve never met the teachers. I can, though, imagine teenage students who are already sceptical about the language learning enterprise and who therefore find ‘impersonal’ praise hollow and/or amusing. Perhaps that’s just a maturity thing, or perhaps it relates to the ‘anonymous voice’ Karen mentions, which is surely very different from the voices on SSi, who very quickly seem familiar and friendly. But surely the point is that in school, students don’t need impersonal praise (however genuine it may be): the teacher can offer bespoke feedback on their development throughout the year. Any praise offered automatically by an anonymous voice is rather redundant in comparison and likely to be recognised as such.

      • Diolch yn fawr iawn, Gwil – your summary of the balance between what a good teacher might say and what the student will still ‘hear’ via the grading is exactly what I had in mind – thank you very much indeed for commenting…:-)

        Our earlier discussion about praise started from me musing about how I’d been a bit concerned about it sounding insincere, but that I’d gone ahead with the scripting because I’d realised that there were certain things I knew about the learner as a result of which lesson they’d reached. Actually, checking now reminds me that it was a full post – here it is:

        Since this explanation is touched on in the lessons themselves, I think there’s a fighting chance that even teenagers would see that it’s based in fact – it’ll be interesting to do more testing on that as our resources grow…:-)

  6. I just wanted to say that I agree with the comment of Aran about the Schools discuraging children. Having gone through the English system I was told several times that I was not good at languages: either by the marks which were given, the refusal to allow me to study further, comments from teachers and even one school saying I did not have the ability to be able to learn German which I had requested several times.

    I moved to Europe to finalise my second degree convinced that I didn’t have the language knack or the brute force in my interlect to be able to be able to learn languages without it. It was only on seeing that for most people arround me being able to get by (I.e. Converse) in at least one other language was considered completly normal. Now I speak two foregn languages happily (both at work and in my personal life) and take great joy in studying several others (including Welsh… Sorry I’m still not chatting fluently!) Despite working full time and spending the absolute minimum time in lessons.

    How was this achieved? I learnt for the first time in my life that languages are fun to play with and by listening and watching the language as it was used in daily life. The school system taught me that if you cannot memorise the spellings of 20 irregular french verbs and their full conjegations a week then you cannot speak French… Tricky when you are dyslexic. It was only much later than learning intuativly how to speak the conjegations (yes most of them make sense when you say them!) That I started to understand the spelling.

    SSi was a revelation for me as you have basically packaged how I have learned languages into an accessable format. So yes the structure of school learning in the UK tells people that unless you have a special knack or very strong memory you cannot excel at languages… And if you do not excel at something you should not continue to study it. I’ll stop there and not start ranting about the effect of league tables on how schools stream students to the levels and subjects where they will get the maximum measuable marks. But I back up what Aran said on marking… As I watched a language examiner say to someone “I can give you whatever mark you like on the piece of paper, but it will not impact how well (or not) you speak the language”

    • Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to comment, Martin, I really appreciate it. I’m sorry you had to go through the experiences you did, but I’m delighted that you ended up finding out for yourself how much fun languages are – and thank you very much indeed for your kind words about SSiW!…:)

      I’m sure we could have a good rant together about league tables! Maybe one for another day…;-)

  7. Re Aran: ‘

    Since this explanation is touched on in the lessons themselves, I think there’s a fighting chance that even teenagers would see that it’s based in fact – it’ll be interesting to do more testing on that as our resources grow…:-)’

    Diolch, Aran, that’s very interesting – I hadn’t read that earlier post. I have no doubt that the majority of SSi learners value the praise and see it (or maybe just intuitively feel it) as based in fact, whether they’re teenagers or not. What I was trying to come to terms with was the gap between that experience and Karen’s one of students finding that sort of praise funny. And I think it comes down to the fact that in schools, there’s a manifest difference between someone who knows how effectively you can use the language (ie the teacher) and can praise/teach accordingly, and the automatic voice that says ‘muy bien’ whatever you’ve done. Add in the fact that in schools, learners may already be sceptical, and that ironic difference becomes funnier. The magic thing about SSi is, as you say, that difference is significantly reduced: you do know how well the student is doing. Even if SSi isn’t right for classroom use, then, it still relies on the fundamental student/teacher relationship that’s so important to educational learning.

    • Yup, I can imagine that having an audio file playing ‘Well done!’ in a Oliver Reed sort of voice at random points in a lesson probably wouldn’t do much good (although laughter is good for learning ;-)).

      Of course, now I’ve said that, I want to go and test having a recording of Oliver Reed saying ‘Well done!’ at random points in a language lesson…;-) It would certainly make a great short video!

      Ww. Hang on. I think you’ve just given me a really fun idea for how to expand on our praise.

  8. Vaughn: Thank you for your well-reasoned response. What you say makes some sense out of the notion of an abstract, inanimate “school” telling kids they’re no good. The school-vs-teacher horse was already dead a while back; I simply wanted an explanation and discussion of what all that meant.

    About the praise in the SSIW lessons: If those words of praise work for SSi customers/learners, then that’s fine – wonderful, even – so by all means, keep it up. I repeat that I am not criticizing SSi. I’m sorry that some people seem to be missing all the praise and positive things I have had to say.

    I have been reading this blog for quite some time now, as I indicated in an earlier post. Since all this is related to my research, I am just trying to understand your school system, among other things, and an apparent frame of mind that seems very foreign to me. I see plenty of people here in the U.S. thinking they don’t NEED foreign languages (see previous comments about American ethnocentrism), but I do not, as a general rule, see kids here thinking they CAN’T learn languages. Sometimes older adults have the notion that they’re “too old” to learn, but not children or university students as a whole. I would have liked to hear comments about that study I mentioned earlier in which the only thing American students rank #1 in is confidence. I am just INTERESTED in this apparent cultural difference, not critical of either one. Ideally, I think we all aim for a balance between these two extreme mindsets.

    • The difference in the praise seems to be, on reading other comments, that the praise is backed up by the fact of the learner having gotten to a particular point in the lessons. So, there’s some logic for the learner to cling to, making the praise more legitimate. A recorded ‘well done’ when the lesson is the assigned lesson for the week doesn’t have that logical foundation. At least, that’s how it seems to me. A student can be floundering with the week’s work and still hear that ‘well done’ and think to the recording, ‘you didn’t hear me, you have no idea.’ I’m thinking it’s related to the self-paced v. the structured lesson plan, which of course, is necessary in a school setting. (I’m also wondering if it might not be a bit of peer pressure to laugh at the recorded voice no matter how it actually affects the student – as has been said, this is a very cynical time in a person’s life.)

      I’d known some people back in school (remember, I graduated high school in 1973) who thought they couldn’t learn a language, but those people didn’t take a language because of it. People with the confidence and/or motivation to learn, took languages, to there was a natural culling process going into the courses. I don’t know if that’s changed, what with language requirements for university and college and more people going on to college. An aside – as someone who went to college years after high school, I wonder if all programs require a language, or if it’s just certain programs, like the humanities, or, more specifically to me, the English major, cognate in linguistics. Would history majors, or chemistry majors, etc., need a language?

      Are you currently involved in research on language? Am intrigued.

      • Hi Cer, thanks for your interesting comments. Looks like we both had our early formative years before 1970, before the whole American obsession with “self-esteem.” I don’t know if you have kids, but since the 1970’s American parents (guilty as charged) have OD’d our kids on self-esteem. Every kid gets a trophy and a gold star, because we parents and teachers seem to be afraid of damaging our little darlings’ self-esteem. As Garrison Keillor says, “Welcome to Lake Woebegone, where all the men are strong, all the women are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” 😉 So, at the university level we have lots of kids who think they’re the cat’s pajamas and expect to get A’s just for (occasionally) occupying a seat. Consequently, we’ve had rampant grade inflation over the past few decades. I think this is part of why U.S. kids are behind so many other countries in math, science, and other subjects. I used to have a cartoon on my office door that shows a bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed young man at a job interview, clutching a brief case in his lap. The interviewer looks at the guy’s application and says “SO, I see you majored in self-esteem…”

        Re language requirements: In Tennessee, two years of foreign language are required for all high school students, not just those on the university track, so there are lots of kids who are just there because they have to be. At the university level, however, most of our students are studying a language because they *want* to. Yes, I think you are right about the natural culling process at the university level. The motivation they already have, by virtue of voluntarily signing up for a foreign language course, makes my work a lot easier – even half-done, as I figuratively said earlier. I freely admit that I like getting students who are already motivated, because it leaves me more time and energy for creating fun, productive, communicative class activities.

        As for FL requirements at the university level: Some foreign language is required for some majors where I teach, but not all. Even when it is required, they don’t have to take more than two years. But we get students from all majors in our classes, even at higher levels beyond what’s required for their particular major. Students here more and more are recognizing the need for languages, especially Spanish, whatever field or career they are pursuing. So there’s lots of motivation, much more so (at least it seems to me) than in high school.

        About the praise issue: Of course I understand that the SSi “praise” serves a purpose. When I said that I was “amused” by the praise in SSiW, it was that I am affectionately reminded of my own students and their reaction to that unbeknownst-to-them voice on their online listening and speaking exercises. The online voice and “praise” my students hear is *supposed* to be amusing. There’s even a silly little cartoon dude accompanying the voice.

        By the way, I put “praise” in quotation marks because there is a difference between praise and encouragement, and I think the latter better describes the “praise” in SSiW lessons. There are semantic differences here, and I think maybe we are using the word “praise” with different connotations. Parenting and education experts actually advise *against* “praise” in the literal sense of the word, since that word implies subjective value judgements. When we’re *not* making such subjective value judgments, then I think a better word might be “encouragement.”

        We teach our future FL teachers not to make value judgements, whether positive or negative, but rather to assess student achievement by using specific objective descriptions of what students can actually DO with the language (as opposed to what they *know* *about* the language, and as opposed to judging that they are “good” or “bad” at something). We state course goals as “learner outcomes,” meaning what we want students to be able to DO with the language at the end of a given lesson or course. Thus assessment is not a value judgment, but rather just an objective description of students’ functional language use, i.e. a description of where they are at that moment on their language-learning journey. So, ideally, their assessments are based on what they CAN do rather than (traditionally) what they CAN’T do. I think that’s why the encouragement (what has been called “praise” on this blog) in SSiW works well for most people: As someone – in effect – said above, the “praise” assumes the listener/learner has successfully reached a given level, or they most likely wouldn’t be listening at that point. And having that explicitly pointed out to them is encouragement to forge ahead.

        Cer: I’m not sure everyone here is interested in furthering this discussion to this degree, and we may be taking up too much room on Aran’s blog, so if you’d like to “chat” some more offline, you could email me at If you don’t mind my asking, where are you? In the U.S., Wales, elsewhere in the U.K., or…?


  9. I’m definitely guilty of not injuring my children’s self-esteem! They told us, and we believed them since They were experts, that damaged self-esteem was a terrible fate and led to all sorts of problems, like unemployment, drug use, staying in abusive relationships, and worse. It’s a disservice, as they’re often painfully surprised on moving into the working world, to find that productivity and playing nice do actually matter. It was one of those fads that I, for one, was afraid not to go along with, because I worried that my kids would be disadvantaged. Live and learn!

    Am sending an email. 🙂

    • A cousin of mine who does quite remarkable work with young people at risk of exclusion believes it is enormously important to differentiate between self-esteem and self-worth. She considers healthy self-worth as being an unshakeable belief in your own value as a human being, while self-esteem she sees as a vital measuring tool to help keep you on track – ie, when you do bad things or achieve less than you can, a healthy self-esteem should get knocked down a few levels, and that’s the sign that you’ve got work of some kind to do (be it emotional or academic). It’s the self-worth, the belief in your own fundamental value, though, that gives you the belief that it’s worthwhile trying to earn improvement in your self-esteem.

      Knowing the transformations that she can trigger in groups of teenagers at risk of being permanently excluded for gun and knife crimes, often in a matter of less than an hour, I find her approach very plausible…:-)

  10. Oh, yeah. No amount of self-esteem building will stand in for healthy self-worth. And a blow to the self-esteem will be weathered better by a good, healthy respect for oneself.

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