Friday, July 22, 2005

Cassettes in English classrooms - why I dislike them

Fellow Blog Readers: what medium do you like to use to listen to music? Cassettes or CDs? If you don't spend a lot of time driving in your car, you probably answered "CDs". (Unless you are one of those who answered "Records". Or you could be one of those MP3 listening folk. Good for you! But this post is about teaching. Few schools use iPods, and even fewer expect you to mix up the decks. Tapes and CDs are the basic options here, as they can be played on cheap, portable stereos.) 

So how do these media feature in English teaching? 95% of the time, schools choose a textbook for a class. It is extremely unusual to do without a textbook: they provide a framework for the class, and provide lots of activities to test speaking, reading and so on. Schools also choose the accompanying class CD or cassette, which is sold under the same brand name. Why? These media are used for listening activities, because listening is a core skill for language acquisition. From time to time, the students will be asked to answer a few questions from their New Buzzword textbooks which involve a corresponding tapescript from the New Buzzword class cassette. For example, the students are asked to listen to Jack and Jill as they walk up the hill. What do they want to get? (A pail of water.) Do they get it? (No.) Do they walk down? (No, they tumble down.) 

Last year, I taught at one school which used CDs exclusively, and I was content. CDs are light, and they can generally (but not always) be cued to the right spot in seconds. Before class, you fast forward to desired track number x by pressing the fast-forward button x times. The LCD screen tells you where you are. Sorted. Later one, you may need to rewind - since students always need to hear the track again. So one just presses the rewind button once

I guess I was naïve. Working at that school, I got the impression that CDs were the norm - not the exception - as far as teaching English is concerned. But I learned I was wrong when I started doing part-time work at other schools. In Việt Nam, tapes are the norm. That's a shame, as I think CDs are far superior for teaching.

To start with, they are a purely sequential medium. One has to cue the tape to the right spot before the lesson, adding unwanted preparation time. Sometimes, that involves a few minutes of forwarding and rewinding while attempting to find the end of some infinitesimally small section. When it comes to listen to the track again, there's another round of rewinding. Like before, time is wasted while trying to find the exact place to start. My problem with this is not that it is embarrassing; rather, it breaks the flow of the exercise. Step 1: Rewind. Step 2: Play. If not at the right spot, repeat step 1. If I've gone too far, go to step 3: fast-forward. Then do step 2 again. It helps immensely if there is a counter on the machine, but few do.

Another problem with tapes is when I have to skip over sections of the textbook I dislike. I don't dislike them because they are uncool or boring, but that they are useless. Some examples:

  1. Listen and check your answers. This perversion is common in American Headway - the McDonalds of the English textbook world. The students have to answer some questions. Afterwards, the listen to a tapescript to see if they're right. I never do this. Never. You don't know if they're wrong, because the students don't say anything. But worse, the students often don't know if they're wrong either. (After all, their listening skills may not be up to scratch.) I prefer to get the answers from the students themselves. This approach provides more error-checking and more speaking. 
  2. Grammar focus. The idea (from New Interchange, another textbook I've come to dislike) is that the tape explains grammar to you. Fuck that, and fuck that for a sick joke. The students don't get any interaction out of it. I prefer to elicit a whole vocabulary table from the students: "I am, you are, he/she/it is..." Occasionally, write a few mistakes on the board, and act dumb, such as "I have like him". Is this right? (No!) It's more fun, and the activity centres around the students.
  3. Drilling vocabulary. This is another dumb idea from New Interchange. I might play the tape once, but once is enough. Sometimes, I eschew the tapescript altogether, and teach it my own way. Tapes don't give any concept check, such as (say) the difference between a suburb and the countryside.

Another disadvantage of tapes is when it is time to copy the medium. It is cheaper to buy one tape or CD and copy it than purchase 100 tapes or CDs - and most (but not all) schools here are untroubled by intellectual property infringement. Alas, tapes are harder and slower to copy.  Double cassette players copy, but then you have to wait for tape 1 to play while tape 2 records.  There's also the possibility of distortion from repeated recordings. By contrast, a CD burner may take time to set up, but does its job, and is available on many PCs.

Not that CDs don't have their problems. The tracks have to be organized just right. It is no use if you have one track per-page, but then have 3 listening actives on it. In this case, the utility of the CD descends to that of a tape, because you are back to fast-forwarding and rewinding at random. But that's the worst case scenario. In general, CDs dump onto tapes.