| It is
always exciting to "discover" something and then get the "giggly
letdown," when you find out that someone has "been there and done
that." It's not always great for the ego, but it's a good part of the
discovery process. As I've said before, "If something is true, you
don't have to believe it."
I've told you that I'm working on the "English as-a-Second Language Criteria Performance Measure." I have selected 20 criteria of language performance skills in the ESL classroom, that I feel indicate that the student is gaining skills that will, among other things, lead to communication competence in the new language.
When I started, my first three criteria measured short-term retention and repetition of syllables, with no effort at presenting spoken material that is, or isn't, understood. In plain language, could these students imitate a new language with new features?
I had found over the years that students, who could briefly retain and imitate short utterances, with a high percentage of accuracy, were going to be winners, regardless of their current proficiency in the target language. My original design included sentences in variable phonological design, covering the full range of American English sounds in initial, medial and final positions. I decided that series of five, seven and eight syllable exercises would be rational in the listening, brief retention and imitation contexts. I designed the exercises for my ESLCPM Instructor Manual and tried them out on two groups of adult ESL learners.
What happened? I found that all of the students, with the exception of two who had obvious language acquisition problems, were able to repeat unfamiliar five-syllable utterances without difficulty. MOST of them were able to perform well with seven-syllable utterances, with somewhat varying levels of accuracy. NONE of them could comfortably handle eight-syllable utterances! Back to the old drawing board.
I had previously
noticed that in dialog exercises, certain thought groups were very difficult
for the students to repeat, compared to shorter thought groups. The next
few times I had students do repetition work on dialogs, without looking
at them, I noticed that the cutoff point for retention seemed to be around
seven syllables. Thought (or breath or phonic groups) are natural groups
of words within spoken sentences that can go anywhere from one to eleven
syllables. In English, they are bounded by junctures and contain exactly
one primary stress. I based the size of thought groups in my dialogs on
how I might say something in natural speech. As soon as I cut the longer
ones to seven-syllables or under, repetition worked. I had also noticed
that there was NO correlation in repetition competence based on who had
the highest or lowest ESL proficiency. Some of the lower level students
were very competent repeaters, even though they hadn't had the time in
performance-based training, to assimilate much language.