Freedom, Shackles and the Comfort Zone

I’ve read a lot of posts and articles recently encouraging teachers to get out of their comfort zones and thought I’d start by sharing this graphic from www.teachthought.com.

And while I don’t disagree with anything suggested in this post, I wonder how aware we actually are about what is, and isn’t, within our own comfort zone? How do we define our own comfort zone? How do we take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone? Is it even necessary?

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, comfort zone can be defined as a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested

Doesn’t sound like too bad a place to be, if you ask me! But is it really the best a teacher can do for their students? If we spend a lesson testing our learners’ ability and determination, surely it is only fair that we should be put to the same test? So, how do we know, exactly, what might be in (or out of) our comfort zone?

For the purposes of this post I conducted a little (extremely unscientific) research. I asked teachers from around the world ‘How would you define your comfort zone, as a teacher?’ Firstly, yes, I phrased the question badly – I assumed that the concept of a comfort zone would be universal – turns out, it’s not! There were lots of responses involving coffee, a comfy chair, no children and even the pub. Many more responses were about the type of learners or lessons that people like to teach; C1/2, business, adults, poetry etc. What very few seemed to do, was to equate it to their methods, activities and style of teaching. Maybe defining our comfort zones by what we enjoy is no bad thing though.

My favourite answer (thank you Philip Shigeo Brown) was ‘A developmental place where we often strive to be and yet strive to grow beyond by getting out of it’. I reckon he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Or at least he would have done if people were actually aware of the existence of their own comfort zone.

Senninger defined the different learning zones long these lines;

The Comfort Zone – the area in which you feel you have mastery, where you are happy, content and confident in your abilities.

The Learning Zone – where you stretch yourself, try something new, feel a little discomfort but not much in the way of stress. Looking at new ideas and thinking ‘yes, I could probably give that a go’.

The Panic Zone – does exactly what is says on the tin, new practices which genuinely scare the heebie-jeebies out of you. Stress on an unproductive level. Cold sweats, nightmares, irrational urges to go to the loo 47 times in 5 minutes, you get the idea.

On the whole, I get this explanation and I like it. I would probably make just one teensy change…

I don’t see how the lines can be defined, there must be degrees of challenge? Surely there can’t be some arbitrary tipping point at which things go from stretch to utter terror? (having said that, my first conference presentation came jolly close…). To my mind there are some ideas that I am more comfortable with trying than others; some practices I would more readily incorporate into my teaching than others; some contexts that I would find more challenging, terrifying and stressful than others, but would still give it a go (as I do, periodically, with teenagers) and some stuff that I would just never even countenance (not much – but some).

The thing is, as we stretch ourselves, the things that start off panic inducing, gradually move into our learning (or stretch) zone. As the comfort zone becomes wider, the slightly scary thing becomes the comfortable thing and the terrifying thing also moves – to become a somewhat less terrifying thing. Imagine the plughole in the bath – that big hairy spider will go down it eventually, as the water spirals round.

If you google the topic you will find loads of ‘inspirational’ graphics along these lines.

Now, I don’t know about you – but I just find this plain depressing. Is it really suggesting that unless we take some almighty leap into the unknown, we will never be any more than mediocre, with sad mediocre lives and an uninspiring outlook on life? This is just unrealistic (a bit like a celeb’s Instagram accounts – where everything is perfect, they all wake up with a full face of make-up, a kale smoothie in their hand and no-one sweats at the gym). If we used this as ‘inspiration’ we’d NEVER get to the ‘good stuff’ because it’s just too far away!

The key is to take little steps. Reflect on your teaching, see where your own comfort zone lies and then decide where and whether you should move on a little (or a lot). Find something that interests you; a question you’d like the answer to, a new activity that helps your learners, collaborate with a colleague, read, observe a colleague and copy something that you feel works well, research other approaches to a recurrent classroom problem.

Your comfort zone is just that, comfortable. It isn’t a prison but neither should it be your goal (I was going to say it isn’t a gaol but neither should it be your goal – but wasn’t sure if old English words were universal and, actually, it looks a bit naff, but hay ho).

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in what you do (although there have been suggestions that the boredom of staying within your comfort zone may contribute to burnout) but, just for kicks, maybe add just a frisson of stretch.

References

Senninger, 2000 – Learning Zone Model; Abenteuer leiten – in Abenteuern lernen (Facilitating adventures – learning in adventures). Münster: Ökotopia Verlag

6 Ways to Increase Your Learners’ Vocabulary

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Spaced repetition – once introduced, keep using the vocab so learners become familiar with it – review new vocabulary at the end of each lesson and the beginning of the next. Encourage the use of flashcards and/or apps like Quizlet and Brainscape for repetition between lessons. Typically, a word needs to be used 14 times before it is considered ‘learned’.

Teach in Context

Learners need to have somewhere to ‘put’ new vocabulary., if it is taught in context, studies have shown that they are more likely to retain it than words in isolation. Context also helps with comprehension of new vocabulary. So, if it is not relevant to the lesson – don’t introduce it yet!.

Read

Learners need to understand 95% (Laufer) of a text to make it enjoyable and comprehensible. Reading is an excellent way to be introduced to new vocabulary in context. Try graded readers, newspapers, magazines, internet articles – anything that interests the learner (sport, music, film reviews or even whole novels).

Teach Word Formations

Introduce learners to the different affixes that, using the same word stem, give a different meaning. With a knowledge of these prefixes & suffixes, learners can rapidly increase their working vocabulary. A little basic morphology and learners can create word families of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs all from one word.

Chunks and Collocations

Words are rarely used in isolation – teach your learners which words are commonly used together. Verbs and nouns together aid fluency. Knowing the function of a word (in action) makes it easier to understand and remember. Use Corpus based dictionaries and sites for practical examples like BNC/BYU and Just-the-Word.

Word Webs

Encourage learners to create lexical sets when learning new vocabulary. Include synonyms and antonyms and anything relevant. Writing words as a ‘web’ can make the words more memorable and connections and relationships between words easier to see than in a standard list. For an excellent example see vocabulary maps.

Fossils, Slips and the Power of Positivity

A recent question posted in a Facebook group got me thinking. The question was along the lines of “how should I deal with students’ fossilized errors?” The answers were varied, ranging from drills, games and repetition to gestures, signals and electric shocks (ok, I made that one up, but…).

Maybe the first question, rather than ‘how?’, should be ‘why?’ – Why are they making the error and why should we correct them?

Selinker coined the term ‘fossilization’ in 1972 to describe the errors made as a result of differences between a learner’s L1 and the L2 they have learned; where the L1 has a strong influence on a learner’s use of the L2. Selinker also, handily, came up with the concept of ‘interlanguage’ in order to explain the process of using the L1 as a template for learning the L2. Fossilized errors are the L2 language that stops changing despite more of the L2 being learned.

For example, pronunciation of ‘ed’ in the past simple (looked, liked, showed etc) is troublesome for even high-level French speakers – instinctively using /id/ rather than /d/ or /t/ because of the L1 need to articulate all vowels. Similarly, speakers of many nationalities often have difficulty with the third person singular –s in English because it just doesn’t exist in their L1.

The term has, however, become widely used and abused to encompass all errors repeatedly made by learners. But are all of these ‘errors’ actually errors? Are there different types of errors? At what point do they become fossilized? (and is it really such a terrible thing?).

James (1998) defined errors as ‘an unsuccessful bit of language’ (a gloriously vague definition which somehow makes perfect sense), but are there degrees of success? Should a valiant attempt to use language, with little or no effect on intelligibility, really be deemed an error? Using James’s definition, if the language is successful (in that the learner is understood) then no error has occurred.

For this reason, I wonder whether it would be helpful not to use the word ‘errors’ at all, perhaps ‘slips’ and ‘attempts’ might better describe (and serve) our learners’ language use.

Slips are very often what we mean by ‘fossilized errors’ and can often be corrected without too much trouble, but only if the learner is in on the idea. The learner knows the rule/meaning/grammar etc but their interlanguage has got in the way of internalising and acquiring the language. They use an incorrect form/meaning/grammar because it is instinctive, not because they don’t know it. Recasting, gestures, facial gestures are simple ways of prompting the learner into realising their slip and correcting themselves. If the corrections are not internalised after a period of time and the error has little effect on the intelligibility of the learner, I would be inclined to ignore it after a while rather than repeatedly denting the learner’s confidence.

Pieneman (1988) came up with the teachability hypothesis; it runs along the lines that if the learner isn’t ready to learn something – they won’t learn it. This means that all the corrections, games, drills, recasts, role-plays, gestures and electric shocks won’t make the blindest bit of difference. As a teacher this is the point at which we should consider sitting the learner down and firmly say ‘this isn’t working, perhaps we shouldn’t do it again for a bit’. It can become infuriating, and somewhat soul-destroying, for the teacher to repeatedly point out the same wretched slip lesson after lesson after lesson after lesson ad infinitum, and similarly distracting and depressing for the learner. We can facilitate learning, but we can’t force it.

Attempts, on the other hand, come from a different place entirely. These could result from language the learner has noticed (nothing can be learned unless it has already been noticed, Schmidt, 1990), possibly has been taught at some point (but not yet acquired), maybe has been heard somewhere or is a close or unsuccessful direct translation of the L1.

Attempts could also be language the learner does not yet know, has not learned, but has maybe noticed (and thus, attempted to use). This may seem contradictory; how can a learner use language they have not learned? This is often language that forms a ‘false friend’ in their interlanguage (vocabulary or structure that they think they know, but does not translate) or a genuine misunderstanding about the meaning/use of a structure or vocabulary. Either way, because the learner hasn’t already learned the language/vocabulary/grammar they can’t self-correct and need to be taught the form, meaning and pronunciation.

Attempts are ripe for teaching. This is language that is useful to the learner, that makes some degree of sense to the learner, that they have heard and are now curious about. This is the language that you can teach, this is the language that will have your learners leaving your classroom thinking ‘that was really good, I learned something useful that I understand’ – just the reaction we all really want! Attempts are what you should be using to plan your lessons, attempts are proof of the language your learners want and need to use. Attempts are good and to be encouraged because it shows you what they can and can’t do and what they want to be able to do. When people say ‘we learn from our mistakes’, in ELT, they really mean ‘we learn from our attempts’.

Attempts show us, the teacher, what our learners can and can’t do and also what they want to do with the language. Because the learner can’t self-correct, this is where things can get a bit sticky; do we really need to (indeed, should we) correct all of these errors? Perhaps it should be the consequence of this ‘unsuccessful language’ that should drive our correction technique for this type of error. It is up to us to decide whether the attempt affects the learner’s communicative intelligibility and should be corrected, or whether (for the time being) it can be left.

Errors are negative; they are the big red marks in my maths book. Errors make the learner feel they are wrong. Errors are rarely praiseworthy. Attempts are what we should be striving for. Attempts are positive. Attempts are the best bits about teaching. Attempts show effort, need and the confidence to try. Make a note of attempts in the classroom, use them. Maybe not in that lesson, maybe the next, or the one after that – but use them.

Imagine saying to your learners ‘that was a great attempt – let’s see how we can make it even better’. It sounds much more encouraging than ‘let’s correct the errors together’ (and so much better than an electric shock).

Tamara Parsons

References

James (1998) Errors in Language Learning and Use: Exploring Error Analysis. Harlow, Essex: Addison-Wesley Longman

Pieneman (1988) Determining the Influence of Instruction on L2 Speech Processing. AILA Review

Schmidt (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching