The saying goes that "common sense, isn't." It's true enough that we constantly see a lack of common sense in terms of bizarre management decisions, idiotic customer questions, terrible study habits, and so on. However, when it comes to reasoning about certain topics, I think "common sense" and "conventional wisdom" are both quite widespread but often not especially sensible or wise.
For example, much of what I've learned about teaching in my program has been counter-intuitive, and I really believe one reason that most of these rigorously researched-based findings have not been implemented by school systems is that the research simply contradicts common sense. Depending on the situation, the administration, students, parents, voters, politicians, and/or sometimes ill-informed/poorly trained/out-of-touch teachers go berserk at the suggestion of change or reform, because the suggestions just don't make sense to them.
A fair amount of blame for this resistance must be placed on researchers, academics, informed teachers, and even journalists for not paying enough attention to how to address the questions raised by "common sense." It's fair play in academia to think that your argument should stand on its merits, but that just doesn't work in terms of public attitudes or policy. I think a lot of the roadblocks to ESL education reform, education reform in general, and even the national language debate could be solved if the advocates would try to educate the public (the way Al Gore is trying to do in An Inconvenient Truth
) rather than simply insisting that we are right and they are wrong and stupid and racist, and throwing up our hands in disgust. (See the widespread belief that teaching a child two languages means that a child will either lag behind in her native language [an anti-second-language-learning argument popular in Japan] or in the dominant language [a popular belief in the US even among bilingual populations]). A lot of the research we read on ESL education the United States completely contradicted what I previously believed myself, and I had considered myself more sympathetic and well-informed than the average US citizen. So how can we expect those who aren't in the field to simply accept our prescriptions for change?
Stephen Krashen, a (sometimes over-hyped and controversial) luminary of my field wrote an excellent paper on the use of reading to improve language skills, "We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis" (The Modern Language Journal
, vol. 73, no. 4, 1989: pp. 440-464; available via jstor.org). The point of the paper was to review the existing data on teaching these skills and test it against three hypotheses, one of which is Krashen's own Comprehensible Input Hypothesis. It was a good overview of the field, and fairly unbiased considering the theme, but the spelling section was particularly interesting.
Guess how well spelling classes contribute to children's spelling abilities and vocabulary levels.
The answer is, not at all
. Some studies showed short-term benefits, but the evidence shows that over the long term, students who receive no explicit spelling classes perform just as well (or as poorly) on spelling and vocabulary tests as students who do.
That would certainly contradict most people's common sense, the way things "ought to be" taught, "the way we've always done it," etc. Actually, I think I hear William Bennett's head exploding right now.
In fact, reading, especially pleasure reading, is one of the only things that does
increase spelling skills and vocabularies. (I particularly enjoyed Krashen's assertion that even if spelling classes proved to be twice as effective as reading [which they didn't], he'd still advocate one hour of reading for fun over half an hour of word drilling .)
Well, you can imagine how your average school administration/parents/etc. would react to the suggestion that spelling classes should be done away with. Krashen, however, is one of the practical academics who does pay attention to what other people think; he writes that we need to inform students about the language acquisition process, which both helps them keep learning on their own and "will also eventually produce an informed citizenry that understands language acquisition" (455). Wouldn't that be nice?
The final section of the paper includes suggestions for how to answer the kneejerk complaints/problems of "1) we lack books and money ... ; 2) our students need to pass discrete-point, form-based tests; 3) next year's teacher will expect them to know certain words, certain rules, etc.; 4) reading in school should focus on works of proven worth; 5) parents, school boards, and administrators expect to see vocabulary lists and spelling drills" (454).
I especially liked his answer to complaint 3: "Just because next year's teacher does it wrong doesn't mean this year's teacher should also do it wrong." Is that a hint of cattiness I detect? Regardless, it's a good point! (More details follow the snark, naturally.)
Complaint 4 is something that really, really bothers me. It bothers me when native speakers are forced to read works solely for their historical merit before many of the students have ever learned to read for pleasure. I really think it destroys the enjoyment of reading and thus stunts students' vocabularies, writing skills, general knowledge, etc. For English learners it's an even bigger problem. How can you expect students to slog through something that they barely understand and
doesn't appeal to them in the least? Krashen points out that "large quantities of light, 'low risk' reading, ... in which they can skip words without fear of missing anything that affects their grade, will result in vocabulary growth and overall language competence that will make reading the classics easier" (455). In other words, not just spelling and vocabulary, but the "feel" for the language that native speakers have, such as deciding which of a dozen synonyms to pick. No matter how many times a student reads the definitions on a flash card, the "different social and affective meanings" are really only learned by encountering the words in use (453).
And (for those of you who have encountered vicious opposition to encouraging genre reading, comic books, etc.) he quotes James Britton: " ... a taste for the stereotyped, the second-rate, may at times be the first rung of a ladder and not the first step to damnation" (453). (I don't know what Britton/Krashen refer to specifically here, and I wouldn't refer to genre literature that way by choice, but sometimes you have to address the outraged in their own vocabulary.)
The bad news is that "few first language and nearly no second or foreign language teaching programs do anything to encourage [free voluntary pleasure reading]" (454). The good news is that a few more do now than in 1989 (see Sustained Silent Reading
), although I think they're still in the minority, especially in EFL situations abroad. The other good news is that my advisor has given me the unofficial thumbs-up to do my thesis on finding out just what students do
like to read, so that can be used in classes when possible.
(Hmm, Krashen's Wikipedia entry is not good at all. Wikipedia seems to need TESOL help in general.)
(Outside, I can distantly hear the voice of a little girl singing "London Bridge" in the chilly fog. I think I may have woken up in a horror movie, which would certainly explain my bizarre compulsion to write a totally voluntary academic-ish essay first thing in the morning.)