A language is a tool and people want to learn to use this tool. Our job is to teach how to use this tool. When setting a strategy to achieve this goal, there is one question we must ask ourselves: what degree of mastery do we want our students to achieve?
Surely, there should be only one answer: fluency. By fluency, I mean of course fluency, not bilingual. A bilingual speaker masters the language just as a Native speaker does. That is not our objective (unless specifically set by the student). A fluent speaker can speak easily, accurately and confidently. That is our objective. Whatever the student learns, the student must be able to say it easily, accurately and confidently.
How do we achieve this goal? I will present the E.A.T. principle in which we Establish structure and basic logic, Automate and Test instincts and reflexes.
Phase 1: Establish structure and basic logic
In this phase, you will present the target language and practise the structure. The student’s logical and rational thought process (System 2) is working to understand the “why” and the “how” of what you are presenting.
Through exposure (speaking, listening, reading, video…), introduce the target language simply and logically. Use simple codes to illustrate the structure (S=subject, V1=verb in 1st form, …). Do not overcomplicate your explanations. Use a simple basic logic to explain the target language (Past Continuous is Context, Present Perfect explains now, Second Conditional is a Different Reality,…). Our objective here is that the student has a clear structure to apply. Use basic exercises like fill-in-the-blanks (FIBs) to check the understanding of the student.
Move on to the next phase if the student makes no mistakes in the FIBs meaning the structure and basic logic were established.
Phase 2: Automate
In this phase, you will distract the student and create pattern reflexes. The student’s logical and rational thought process will get distracted so that their automatic and reflexive thought process (System 1) can take over.
Engage the student in races and competitions in which time and scores will distract the System 2. Your aim here is to “break” the student’s System 2. Students tend to rely on their System 2 when they use new target language. We need them to stop doing so to reach fluency. As their System 2 falls back and System 1 kicks in, their mind will develop pattern reflexes. Just as we learn to type on a keyboard, use household electronic equipment , walk and breathe, we learn to speak a language through training of our reflexes.
Activities of phase 2 will help the student develop the pattern reflexes:
1 – “Do you speak English?” – pattern=”do you” – reflex=”Yes, I do.” / “No, I don’t.”
2 – “What did she say?” – pattern=”say” – reflex=”She told me/said that she wanted/was going to/would …”
Move on to the next phase after 3 runs with no mistakes meaning pattern reflexes have been designed.
Phase 3: Test Instincts
In this phase, you will put the student in a controlled production activity environment to test that the reflexes have been well built. System 2 will be concentrated on achieving the overall goal of the activity and System 1 will be devoted to the language used.
There are different levels of autonomy a teacher can give students in production activities. Start with controlled production activities in which the goal is very clear and the use of the target language is obvious. Let’s say the target language is Past Tenses, the controlled production could be a set of cards with situations and the student must explain himself: “why were you late for the meeting?” When you are satisfied that the pattern reflex is accurate and strong, you can move on to more free production style activity to let the student use the target language in a natural and free context. For Past Tenses, it could be as simple as small talk between colleagues on a Monday morning.
Move on to free production if the student makes no mistakes using specifically the target language meaning instincts are well established.
As you can see, the E.A.T. principle establishes a clear structure of how to teach fluency to students. First, establish structure and basic logic for the student to accept the target language logically. System 2 is in place. Then, automate and create pattern reflexes. System 2 is distracted. System 1 is in place. Finally, test the instincts and reflexes of the student. System 2 and System 1 are in place, just as they would in a real life situation. It is a fact though that real life situations require more than one target language. How does the E.A.T. principle work in a course program? Do we just repeat it independently? There is also a necessary build-up to link reflexes of various target language together. For that, the course program must be designed as clogs fitting in together leading to a specific target. If so, you can develop the Automate phase by incorporating elements of other target language previously established. That will be the topic of my next article.