EFL 4 Digital Natives Part III: Be Brief

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A little over three years ago, in March 2007, digerati bible Wired magazine dedicated its front cover to “Snack Culture,” the societal phenomenon that has seen the shrinking of the average duration of virtually any form of media or entertainment. From “long-playing” music albums replaced by three-minute music videos and iTunes singles; from half-hour television shows displaced by two-minute YouTube video clips; from hard-to-learn, tutorialized Playstation and X-Box games giving way to pick-up-and-play “casual games” played online or downloaded to PCs and mobile phones, all signs seem to point to a shift towards a short-attention-span, content-skimming, short-format-favoring world. It seems to be that nowadays, anything worth being said has to be conveyed in five minutes or less, upon pain of being tuned out by the audience.

Some exceptions do exist. The same Digital Native generation that zips from a Facebook session to a Wii multiplayer game to an Instant Messenger exchange — all in less time than it takes me to read the lead story in this week’s Economist — grew up reading phonebook-sized Harry Potter hardbacks which have now given way to similar-sized Twilight tomes. With the exception of these portals into tween-friendly fantasy worlds, however, there does seem to be a pervasive preference for content that can be consumed briefly, painlessly and 100% on-demand.

Therefore anyone engaged in the challenge of teaching English to teens or young adults, where motivation can already be low due to a host of other factors (low boredom threshold; hormonal distraction; sleep deprivation; negative peer pressure; inability to absorb abstract concepts; rejection of information not felt to be useful; etc) needs to be aware of “Snack Culture” and how it is influencing the way young people prefer to learn. In particular, teachers must avoid making input material and lesson segments too long, thus adding another barrier to learner attention and motivation. There may be a place for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh in the EFL classroom, but not with these kids.

The key with this age group is to favor “content chunks,” in the same way that by now we think of lexis as “word chunks,”; and above all to keep changing pace. Teenage brains are neurologically incapable of retaining focus on any one contextual framework, task or situation for longer than 20 minutes (the story goes that three teenage boys, caught vandalizing a news stand and arrested by the police, were allowed a single phone call after a half-hour in the police station’s holding cell. They ordered a pizza). To be on the safe side teachers need to orchestrate their “performances” with a marked change of subject, direction and tone every quarter of an hour. Many English teachers are already doing this, thanks to the wealth of short-format materials now available through video-sharing sites and online language learning resources.

A caveat is not to take this advice too literally and jump from one item to a totally disconnected task five minutes later. The best formula is to combine content and stylistic diversity within a coherent thematic context, so that, for example, a viewing of a clip from the excellent, inspirational 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness could be followed by looking at the lexis of motivation; a discussion about race relations in 1980’s America; and a short writing exercise about what it takes to persevere in the face of adversity.

The solutions get a little thinner on the ground when it comes to finding pre-engineered bite-sized portions when trying to enhance learners’ exposure to the language outside the classroom. The usual (half-hearted, if truth be told) exhortations by teachers to “watch a movie in English,” or “do grammar drills 3, 5, 6, 7 and 9 on pages 116 – 121 in your workbook” simply do not compute with individuals for whom reading an entire copy of the slimline Newsweek (recently sold for one dollar – the company, not the magazine.. that tells you a little something about where textbooks are headed, but I digress…) would constitute a task of herculean concentration, comparable to someone of my generation tackling War and Peace in a single sitting.

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Fortunately, a small number of new online EFL / ESL services have been created to provide potential solutions. For example, a typical user session on the sister site to this blog, teen and young-adult oriented EFL service English Attack!, is designed to be 15-20 minutes in length, during which time the learner is exposed to several play-throughs of a short (1- to 3-minute) clip taken from a recent movie, TV show, news program or music video; a series of exercises and a short-format game based on that clip; and associated Engish-language social networking opportunities (commenting, voting, sharing, chat). User data so far, gleaned from over 6,000 learners from all over the world using the Beta test version of the site, points towards an average user session of about 16 minutes, which would seem to validate this optimal “chunk length” for self-motivated learning outside of the classroom.

So the key to finding the right style for keeping teens and young adults engaged with their language learning, both inside and outside of the classroom? Chop and change, be creative, and improvise. And above all, be brief. Cut that authentic dialogue 8-minute TED clip down to the essential three minutes; and in terms of subject matter, pick something your learners would want to watch anyway, outside of an EFL context. For this age group, whatever your personal tastes, just think Jerry Bruckheimer, not Merchant Ivory!

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