Mozart and ESL
One Principle of the Suzuki Music Method
Applied to Language Teaching
As I was thinking about what sort of new or unusual perspective on language teaching I might have to offer another ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher reading this article, I could only come up with one thing. I figured most of what I do is fairly common to most teachers: lessons from grammar texts, reading and discussing, writing compositions, group conversations, various games, etc. The one angle on ESL teaching that I possess that is unusual is that I also teach music according to the Suzuki Method (see http://www.Suzuki-Method.com). The Suzuki Method is filled with oceans of creative, nature-based ways to teach so many concepts and habits, but in this article I want to stay with one basic idea that seems to me to be fundamental to learning music or language: the idea of focused repetition.
In case you have never heard of the Suzuki Method of music education, allow me to give you the nutshell version. The method was invented several decades ago by Shinichi Suzuki, a young violinist in Japan. He contemplated how to teach violin to a four-year-old and had the revelation that children could be taught music along the same lines as they learned their native language. That is, first by listening a lot, then by copying and becoming fluent, and later by learning to read the written notation. (Traditional music teaching starts with the written notation instead.) This simple idea had wide ranging teaching implications. Later, Dr. Suzuki and scores of his young violin students playing Vivaldi concertos were on the cover of Time magazine, and Pablo Casals, the great cellist, wept at the beauty of their concert. The method spread all over the world, and is now used to teach a wide variety of instruments. Anyone who has seen one of these young Suzuki students play such complex material so happily and fluently is usually filled with questions about how it came about. I have seen many astounded faces over the years! However, since explaining the whole method is beyond the scope of this article, I’ll just return to the basic principle of focused repetition.
Mozart once said, “The best way to learn many things is to learn only one thing at a time.” This, of course, is the opposite of our hectic, modern lifestyle habit of doing many things at the same time, such as talking on the cell phone, driving, and chewing gum simultaneously. Most of us seem to believe that we can get a lot more done by packing each moment with as many activities as possible. It seems so strange to think that we could actually accomplish more by staying with only one thing at a time. So what did Mozart mean by that?
One thing Suzuki teachers do when teaching a child a new piece is to find a rough spot in the piece and have the child play it repeatedly. This not only smoothes out the performance of the piece, but also promotes mental focus in the child. Once that one little section is understood thoroughly, mentally and physically, often other parts of the piece or other pieces improve magically at the same time. In other words, by focusing on one small part, the whole comes together faster than it would have otherwise.
Having worked with this focused repetition activity so much in my music teaching, it naturally crept into my ESL teaching. I noticed that students who were fairly conversant in English still didn’t seem to understand some of the basic structures of the language, such as adding “s” to third person present tense verbs or using “do” or “does” correctly. I decided to begin each class when everyone was the freshest and most receptive with some focused repetition on simple grammatical concepts. First, I thought they might be insulted that I was starting with such basic material in an intermediate class. However, I began to see they really appreciated it, and as I did it more and more, I noticed it helped them be more precise when speaking.
You probably still wonder what I am talking about, so now I’ll try to be more specific and less philosophical. To begin my last class, for example, I wrote on the board, “We drink coffee every day.” Then I pointed at a student and said, “Frank.” The student responded, “Frank drinks coffee every day.” Then I said, “I”, or “the dog” or “they” etc. I would do this drill for five or ten minutes until I thought everyone had a crystal clear picture of the concept. Then I said, let’s make it into a question. I wrote on the board, “Does Frank drink coffee every day?”, and again, I pointed to a student with a word, such as “I” or “they.”
Obviously, this type of focused drill can be used with any aspect of grammar the teacher is hoping to get across. The point is to stay on one simple, basic point and to give lots of repetition to everyone in the class, really nail it down, so to speak.
I use it most often to get across the use of verb tenses. Sometimes I may want to contrast the use of two verb tenses, for example, present and present progressive. In that case, I would write a sentence on the board, such as Carlos drives to school. And I would say to the student, “now.” He would respond, “Carlos is driving to school now.” Then I might say “we, every day.” The correct answer then would be, “We drive to school every day.” Or I might say, “question, now, they”, and the answer would be, “Are they driving to school now?”
The key points are: First, explain the point you want to get across with lots of examples. Stay on one simple point, and call on lots of students. Be sure everyone understands and experiences lots of success and clarity. Do this exercise at the beginning of class when people are fresh and can really focus. Repeat important exercises on several different days to really get the ideas to sink in.
The rest of the class can be used for more real life language experiences, like reading, writing and conversations, or doing lessons out of grammar books.
Teaching English to speakers of other languages is such a pleasure, since nearly all the students are highly motivated to learn and are so appreciative of their teachers’ efforts. And we teachers are so fortunate now to have so many imaginative and practical materials to use. My hope is that this article gave you at least one more useful technique to add to your repertoire of teaching ideas.
About the Author
Joan Mishra has taught ESL for over 15 years in a variety of settings from private schools to community colleges. Her masters degree is in education (ESL) from Boston University. She currently teaches ESL to adults at Austin Community College and Suzuki piano and guitar to young children in her private studio.