Note: This is the second in a series of articles focused on foundational skills needed in being an English language instructor.
I think I was about six when my mom decided we needed a piano. None of us played the piano, but somehow she convinced all of us that we needed one and she ‘voluntold’ my brother and me that we would be joining her in taking lessons.
A few weeks later, a brand new upright Baldwin arrived at our house and the three of us headed off to piano lessons from a friend of the family. I can’t say I was the best student, but I think I was better than my brother who promptly quit after about a month of lessons. My mom wasn’t that bad since she had a musical background, but things got too busy for her and she ended up quitting after a few months. That left me as the lone pianist in the family. Since everyone else was quitting, I thought I would give it a try. Sadly, someone had to justify the piano purchase, so I was told in no uncertain terms I was going to continue taking lessons.
Surprisingly, I eventually started to enjoy it and I ended up sticking with piano lessons into college and then again as an adult. I never was very good, but I was good enough. To add to my musical repertoire, I also took up the trumpet and eventually the French horn.
I don’t think I’ve played any of those instruments in the past decade, but what I learned from that time has stuck with me. I can see a lot of parallels between learning to play an instrument and learning another language, especially when it comes to error correction and feedback.
A symphony often starts with a sonata, a piece of work in three sections: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The exposition introduces us to the theme, the development builds on the theme by introducing variety and tension, and the recapitulation brings us around again to the main theme and key of the score.
When I was taking piano lessons, my teacher would often have me attempt a piece of music on my own for the first time and then she would often play it through for me to let me know how it sounded. I would then go through it more deliberately section by section until I could play each section pretty well. I would then attempt to play it all the way through without stopping.
During all of this, my piano teacher would provide correction and feedback, sometimes while I was playing and sometimes after I was finished. Her comments were both supportive and corrective, focused on what where I was at in the process.
When it comes to language learning, we need to leave learners the space to try things out on their own at first. In doing so, students will often surprise you with what they are able to achieve on their own. We can also learn a lot from that initial attempt, as long as students are given the space to make those mistakes without fear of a teacher coming down on them. Then, students need to be exposed to use of that language used authentically in context. The next step is controlled practice in more detail with plenty of correction and feedback, focused on that particular language component. It’s also important during this time that learners be given a chance to play with the language, taking it past it limits to learn the parameters in which it is used. Lastly, students are placed in a situation to bring it all back together in a more natural way without the focus on the discrete items, but still with comments and corrections.
Following the opening sonata in a symphony is the adagio, a slower, more expressive section of the music. The music is more relaxed and less structured, allowing the audience to breathe.
During my piano lessons, my teacher would make sure to mix things up a bit and let me go back and play some things I enjoyed doing. Often, these were pieces I knew well and felt comfortable playing in front of my teacher. Looking back, I can see how she meant this to be a time to unwind a bit and build some confidence after being so focused on what wasn’t as comfortable or familiar. It also gave me time to apply some of my new skills to something old, creating something even more rich and diverse.
In language learning terms, this is the time when students have now moved on from such a focused use of that particular language structure and are now able to relax and enjoy things a bit more. In a learning environment, it is important recycle things in new situations, allowing students to build on past successes and apply new things in creative ways. By mixing the old with the new, students can make connections and gain confidence.
This is the dance portion of the symphony, also broken up into three sections to provide contrast and intrigue. The minuet is all about repetition with slight variations to keep things interesting.
After my piano lessons, I was expected to practice every day on scales and other exercises along with a few songs. I was to take the things I learned during the lessons and to apply them during my practice time. When I would come back for my next lesson, I was asked to play through the songs I had been practicing to see what progress I had made during that time and from that the cycle would start over again. This may have seemed repetitive, but as progressed, my practice time became an avenue for me to experiment and test the boundaries once again. It was also a time of self-reflection and self-assessment. I didn’t always like practicing, but when I came back to the lessons, I was pleased when my teacher remarked on the progress I had made. I couldn’t always see it myself, but it was there.
When learning a lesson, it is important to give students a chance to take the language practice outside of the walls of the classroom. Some teachers give homework while others leave things more open ended. No matter how it looks, it is important to cycle back around each lesson to allow students to demonstrate the progress they have made between lessons. This puts the onus on the student to push themselves, but still keeping them accountable. Let students know how they are progressing since it is not always apparent to them.
In a symphony, the final section is all about bringing things to a final conclusion. This is a time to showcase the talents of the orchestra by revisiting the themes explored over the course of the symphony.
Every few months, I was expected to participate in a piano recital. It was a time for us to showcase what we had been learning to our friends and family. My teacher would allow me to choose a piece from a few selected items she thought would fit in well for the recital, but were also pieces that showed my progress and talent. My parents would sometimes record it in some way so we could listen to it later on. It gave me something to strive for and I enjoyed showing off my skills a bit.
In language lessons, we can often get so caught up in the grammar and vocabulary and fail to produce anything of value for the students. Anything they create is simply for the teacher or their classmates. We need to give them a chance to shine in various ways. Give your students something to work towards. Provide them choice, but make sure you push them a bit as well. Their hard work should lead to something productive and creative that displays their skills in a concrete way. This production could also be archived in some way to allow for exploration later on.