The Fusion Model: Blending the West and the East in the Contemporary Language Classroom in China
In Chinese classrooms, an emphasis on accuracy stems from the traditional approach to learning, with further support from the influence of the Grammar-Translation and Audio-lingual methods. It may be given further weight by the relative ease with which inaccuracy can be identified and corrected, and the inherently greater challenge there is in generating fluency. Hird (1995) describes how language study in China focuses on careful analysis of each fragment of language, and how care and certainty are valued and promoted above creativity and quantity. The Fusion promotes awareness raising as a supplement to explicit grammar teaching, and also as a way of giving large classes instant feedback on the hypotheses they make regarding the language.
Awareness raising works on a number of different levels. In CHC learning, there has traditionally been a focus on the product rather than on the process involved in getting there. In order to make learners aware of the strategies involved in development of the skill, these need to be explicitly taught, explained and discussed. The rationale and objectives of class activities addressing strategy development should be emphasised. Simply put, learners need to know what they are doing and why in order to choose the most effective approach for the task at hand and to transfer their skills to situations beyond the classroom.
Learners also need to be provided with ample opportunities to notice the mechanics of the language; features of the target language to be acquired, what gaps exist in their own interlanguage, and differences and similarities between L1 and L2 in grammar, lexis, style, conventions, etc. Noticing techniques give teachers an opportunity to extend traditional techniques such as the use of models and translation, in order for learners to analyse their own output by comparing syntax, lexis and style/register, which will heighten their awareness of the target language. In reconstruction activities such as dictogloss or damaged texts, learners listen to or read a text which is then removed. They attempt to reconstruct the text, individually or in pairs/groups, and then compare their output to the original input, taking note of similarities and differences. In the matching stage, learners focus on form and consciously register some of their own “gaps” in their inter-language. This shows learners what they have not yet learned, and what they need to focus their attention on. In addition to analysing and noticing linguistic features of model texts, Chinese learners benefit from memorization and repetition of what has been noticed as necessary strategies for deep processing and long-term retention.
Vocabulary learning in the traditional Chinese classroom has relied in main on translation, analysis, memorisation and review, with the support of vocabulary lists, as the fundamentals of vocabulary learning. In the Fusion, what the learners are required to know about a word is broadened to synonymy, antonymy, collocation, connotation, word formation, phonology, register, appropriacy etc., to further increase automaticity in reading and listening. Personal vocabulary notebooks including the above features are essential, along with the recording of meaning and memorisation of lexical chunks rather than single words. Vocabulary lists have an important function to fill as a corpus, indicating which words are useful to learn and in what sequence. It is vital for learners to have a fully functioning command of the General Service List (West, 1953) before moving on to e.g. the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 1998) that is required for success in IELTS and tertiary studies. However, beyond a basic language level a context-based approach to vocabulary learning is essential, which means lists can be used as a reference as the learners meet the words in context, and used for records, coverage and review. In Chinese classrooms, texts provide a contextualised frame for exploring word meaning. This is in the Fusion broadened to the use of extensive listening and reading for further vocabulary recognition and acquisition. Vocabulary automaticity derived from both explicit study of texts and extensive reading and listening are essential components of fluency as one without the other is inefficient and ultimately ineffective.
An emphasis on accuracy has tended in a CHC context to go hand in hand with bottom-up processing in reading with meaning derived as the last step. This analytical approach is not without significant benefits for learners. Paran (1997) maintains that good readers are characterised by a fluent, automatised use of bottom-up processes. Teachers, therefore, should encourage the development of this automaticity to help learners achieve reading fluency. However, by focusing to a great degree on individuated components of a text, learners may lose higher-level processing opportunities to create meaning. A top-down model, which stresses the influence of prior knowledge of context on comprehension, has tended to be widely used in EFL texts to improve reading fluency. Contemporary views see comprehension as drawing upon both top-down and bottom-up processing, in what is known as interactive processing (ibid.).
Being an active CHC style learner means rigorous self-study, practice and preparation, all of which are seen as essential for success. Pre-viewing, which is a significant component of this, takes place out of class and may involve intensive reading of texts with the help of dictionaries, while highlighting and making detailed notes (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996). This pre-viewing allows for personal learning according to individual needs and pace, while class time is used efficiently for explanation and clarification by the teacher. Too great an emphasis on previewing as analysis of lexis and structures, however, leaves learners with a limited range of reading strategies. A balance of previewing and top-down approaches is achieved through schema activation, pre-reading discussions, skimming, scanning, and discovery as part of class input preceding the mastery of meaning gained through close analysis of lexis and structures out of class. In-class tasks continue to deal with clarification and explanation of lexis and errors from homework.
For increased exposure to L2 and advancement of fluency, extensive skills development plays a key part in the Fusion. An extensive reading programme fosters a top-down approach by exposing learners to large amounts of self-selected text that is read at a high rate, thereby incorporating the learner’s knowledge of the context and improving automaticity of word recognition. Extensive reading is valuable not only for expanding vocabulary but also as an important way to develop reading proficiency and language acquisition in general.
LISTENING AND PHONOLOGY
With limited exposure to the target language in an L1 environment, Chinese teachers are presented with a series of challenges in the teaching of listening and speaking skills, ranging from the type of approach taken to the quality of models available. The approach to how listening is taught, not only in China but internationally, has tended to be: generating interest, listening to the tape, answering the questions, listening to feedback and explanations of the answers from the teacher, and analysing the vocabulary and structures. This, however, does not address the key skill of learning how to decode sound features in a spoken text. In a majority of EFL classes, the sound awareness that provides the basis of skilled listening has been shifted to the speaking or pronunciation class, and broader text awareness has been placed in reading and writing classes. Not surprisingly, learners have difficulty in connecting the acoustic blur of normal everyday spontaneous speech with the language they learn in reading and writing and the tidy forms taught by teachers and overly scripted tapes (Cauldwell, 2002). The Fusion Model takes into account how to redress this shortfall, starting with the assumption that the provision and processing of good voice models is an essential step in building both listening and speaking skills.
In our model learners apply a set of questions for analysis of phonological features to an introductory part of the listening text. In pairs students emulate the recorded voice and compare their production with the original, using the same set of questions. This is a crucial pre-listening stage which serves as the basis for the development of the skill of decoding spoken language. Post-listening, learners use the tapescript to further increase sight-sound recognition, and awareness of intonation, stress, linking etc. The tapescript is also analysed further for items of lexical and functional interest. This approach combines a top-down approach to the listening with a bottom-up approach to decoding sound, and a transfer of this awareness to the students’ own production (Doogan & Bjorning, 2004).
In the Chinese EFL environment, the teacher may provide one of the few experiences in the target language. With an increased provision of authentic recordings of spoken language, the teacher is able to improve their learners’ listening and speaking skills without it being incumbent on the teacher to provide the perfect spoken model.
As in all skills, the Fusion strives for a balance of accuracy and fluency development in speaking. Richards (2002) and Willis (1996) note that in spontaneous fluency-focused communication, learners have little time to reflect on the language, and their production is marked by low levels of linguistic accuracy. They both suggest pre-planning as a way of reconciling fluency work with the concern for acceptable levels of grammatical accuracy. Through planning of linguistic content, higher levels of accuracy can be achieved, while preparation of the content is beneficial for fluent production. Further techniques for promoting accurate use include transcribing and editing of their own or their partner’s speech, memorization of structures, lexis, phonological features and task repetition.
Chinese learners require ample opportunities to produce communicatively focused L2, free of expectations regarding linguistic forms, i.e. with only implicit or no error correction. It is unlikely, given the constraints on time in school or university classes and the benefits that derive from form-focused class-work, that adequate time is available in class for sufficient fluency work. Fluency practice, therefore, needs to be complemented by extended post-class work. A ‘study buddy’ system promotes pair work outside class through emails, phone conversations, collaborative homework, etc., all of which can move forward or back on a cline from fluency to accuracy with learners acting as the monitor of their own and their partner’s language.
Writing classes need to promote accuracy in grammar and vocabulary and the development of fluency and communicative ability. Whereas accuracy in writing is effectively addressed through syntactic analysis, editing and memorizing, fluency can be enhanced by regular free-writing activities and the drafting stage of the writing process focusing on ideas, meaning and the communicative quality of the content.
The Fusion use of models may be more or less controlled. Structured activities range from ordering paragraphs, adding topic or supportive sentences to paragraphs, or filling gaps with suitable semantic or cohesive linkers or lexical/grammatical elements, followed by close analysis of the text (grammar, lexis, organization, content, style etc.) and memorization. In freer use of models, the learner also analyses and memorizes the text, and then produces a similar text on a different topic. Models are analysed, memorized, reconstructed, translated and discussed, in order to provide a basis for, or comparison of, student production.
For feedback on writing, rather than underlining or using a correction code to indicate learners’ errors, the teacher is encouraged to reformulate the text, retaining the original intention and meaning while making improvements to grammar, lexis, style etc. The learner compares the teacher’s reformulated version to his or her own, and the noticed differences are then recorded, memorized and produced in subsequent writing. As this can be a technique which places unrealistic demands on the time of a teacher of large classes, a sample text can be selected or constructed for reformulation, incorporating a representative cover of the learners’ ideas and language.
As in other skills, fluency can only be achieved through extensive writing, e.g. through email communication with peers or key-pals, journal writing and portfolio work.
The outcome of our exploration of ideal scenarios for professional development for Chinese teachers of English has been a fresh understanding not only of the needs of the Chinese classroom, but of language teaching and learning in general. As much as possible we have endeavoured to see the strengths of any techniques we have encountered, but we have also tried hard to vet any that have had insufficient foundation. To a great degree we think we have found the best, but perhaps the most enlightening thing we have found is how much different approaches to learning can gain from one another. What we have outlined in this paper is a Fusion which, we believe, has made the communicative approach more analytical and memory focused and model-based analysis more skills integrated and communicatively effective. We conclude that this will be of considerable benefit to teachers and learners in the Chinese classroom and beyond.
We hope you have enjoyed this paper, which was originally presented at
THE 2ND INTERNATIONAL ANNUAL CONFERENCE OF IATEFL CHINA
TEFL Practice and Reform in China: learning, adapting, succeeding, creating Tonghua, May 24-28, 2004