In Merrill Swain’s article, “Integrating Language and Content Teaching Through Collaborative Tasks,”Ã?Â the question of why French immersion students’ French was developing with “non-target-like morphology, syntax, and discourse patterns” is asked (1999, p.46). Swain approaches this question with the nature of both the instruction and the environment in mind. Teachers were presenting the French language in terms of grammar, which poses some problems for the French language learner. Furthermore, the environment itself did not invite learners to engage with the second language comfortably, thus reducing the amount of French communication that occurred in the classroom.
According to Swain, the fact that the language was presented in terms of grammar and that students were not particularly successful in learning the language, made it quite clear that second language classrooms should be designed with a contextual approach. In my experience this is always true, no matter what the subject matter, but especially true for second language learners. I always try to relate whatever it was I was teaching to everyday life. This was especially difficult for grammar lessons, but I feel as though there is always a connection. And even if there wasn’t, I would make the content relatable. For example, I gave an article about Internet addiction amongst teens that was riddled with grammatical mistakes, and then I asked them to find the mistakes and to correct them. The first person to finish got a prize. This exercise correlates grammar with relevant content and puts the lesson into an every day context, therefore enhancing the students’ experience.
Swain also discusses the “role of output in second language learning” (p. 48). I think that output and performance are extremely important in language teaching, in general (even in the first language). Communication is a two-way street. The French Immersion classes that I took in elementary school definitely did not take this into account. I felt like I was essentially taught “at” in French, and rarely had the opportunities to speak and even write in French. I would ask for clarification from my friends in English and I would memorize my French speeches. There was never a point where I felt natural speaking in French. I think that my teachers could have promoted two-way communication in the classroom and that my learning would have been enhanced as a result. Promoting open-communication in a positive learning environment is a necessity in a language arts classroom.
The importance of accuracy is also very high, as Swain points out (p. 48). So how does a teacher effectively balance correcting students with allowing for free speech? I think this comes with formal assessments. In formal assessments, it is okay to correct speech and oral communication skills, but in normal conversations, like when a student is discussing something or is asking a question, correction should not necessarily take place, in my opinion. Teachers should know their students and their needs, though, because some students are just aching for corrections. I once taught an ESL student in a Grade 10 Academic English class; he was a great student and wanted to perfect the English language so much that he would sometimes ask for more corrections, especially in his writing, than I had previously given him (and his papers were covered with teacher-ink!). So I think that the number of corrections that a teacher gives and how they are presented are all related to the student, their personal motivation, and their relationship with the teacher.
Swain, Merrill (1999). “Integrating Language and Content Teaching Through Collaborative Tasks.” Language Teaching: New Insights for the Language Teacher. 1999: 44-63.