The Importance of Recycling

As EFL teachers and educators we often come across the advice (in EFL literature, in a number of coursebooks, as part of institutional ‘Best Practices’, etc.) that we should recycle what has been taught. Interestingly enough,
the wish for recycling is not solely confined to the teachers themselves, it is a demand which also comes from the learners. So, why is it that everyone is so keyed up about recycling?

At first sight one might think that the fact that both teachers and learners are interested in recycling is a good thing, but when we look behind the scenes, we may find that the reasons for focusing on this are quite different. This may mean that unless recycling is dealt with in a very consistent and integrated manner, it can turn into a meaningless, decontextualised and unproductive exercise.

Your average teenage learner is focused on ‘results', the ‘product'. In the context of the EFL classroom this may limit itself to being able to use a specific language exponent correctly during a test! So, a couple of lessons before a test, learners often beg for some recycling and they are often so motivated that if you gave them a page of present-perfect exercises (which of course, you won't) they would quietly sit-down and do them at the blink of an eye (and may even ask for more)! Yet this isn't good enough for teachers – this is much more like cramming, test revision, than recycling! After all, we do not believe in teaching-to-test.

Teachers have a completely different perspective on the issue of recycling. For one thing, we all agree that learning is not a linear process. Many researchers in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) have drawn our attention to the fact that language learning is “an organic process”(Nunan, p.148) and there are moments in which learners suffer some backsliding or they may progress in leaps and bounds. As Lightbown & Spada write,

“Language learning is not linear in its development. Learners may use a particular form accurately at stage X in their development (suggesting they have learned the form), fail to produce that form correctly at stage Y, and produce it accurately again at stage Z.” (Lightbown & Spada, p.113)

In addition, we also know that what we teach, i.e. the input we provide learners with during a lesson, will not necessarily transform itself into output. As Skehan aptly puts it, “[...] the contemporary view of language development is that learning is constrained by internal processes. Learners do not simply acquire the language to which they are exposed, however carefully that exposure may be orchestrated by the teacher. It is not simply a matter of converting input into output.” (Skehan, p.18)

It is exactly because we as teachers can control what is taught, but we cannot guarantee what is learned, that we may often find it necessary to encourage learners to recycle concepts, structures, lexis, phonology and other bits of language in a continuous and integrated manner rather than in isolated packets and in single, isolated moments.

In terms of education and the EFL classroom, this challenge can be effectively dealt with by the adoption of a spiral process of learning. According to this process, the learner, who is an active participant in the learning process itself, can encounter language in a revised setting a number of times, each time making use of different language tools and resources in order to build upon previously learned knowledge.

In addition, if this process is conducted through pair or group work, learners have a greater chance to reflect on and elaborate new hypothesis about the language itself, since their collaboration means that they are working within their Zones of Proximal Development and, with the guidance of the teacher, they may be ‘pushed forward' and challenged in their learning process, so that they work slightly beyond their current level of linguistic ability (Vygotsky, 1978). This, in fact, is what is going to help learners progress in terms of the language learning process.

Thus, this knowledge-building approach to the learning process, as proposed by the psychologist Jerome Bruner in his book The Process of Education, is mirrored in the manner in which recycling is dealt with in the Connexion series.

Apart from the exercises, which recycle specific points of vocabulary and grammar (which are highlighted in the book by the recycling sign), the language being recycled by learners is presented in an integrated manner, i.e., the ‘old language' is practised in integration with the ‘new language' in a variety of activities and exercises. For example, the Express English boxes are usually used to recycle language previously seen, but they always add new language as well. This can be seen in Unit 3, part C, which focuses on expressions for suggesting and inviting and recycles Let's, but it also adds new alternatives such as, I guess we could... / Do you fancy....

Of course, there is always the Recycling Box itself, in which items that have been met in other books are presented once again. In Unit 1, part A, for example, the use of so do I / so am I is recycled, but the target form is also considered from an alternative perspective. The Recycling Box enables learners to manipulate the ‘same' piece of language in a different learning context and for different purposes, allowing them to form new hypothesis about the language and providing learners with an opportunity to gradually elaborate and consolidate their understanding and use of the ‘new' and ‘old' bits of language.

Whilst the above mentioned examples of recycling in Connexion focus on lesson-by-lesson recycling, the series also provides learners with an opportunity at the end of each unit to bring together, in one  written task, all the elements of language which were dealt with in that unit. The oral discussion needed in preparation for the writing task will allow learners to recycle the language of the whole unit within a new and meaningful context and this will then stimulate learners to make use of all of these bits of language in their written work. In Unit 1, for example, learners have been presented with language for describing people; their likes, dislikes and interests and all of these are recycled in the written task where learners have to write a short description of themselves when they join an online community. The underlying thought behind this approach to the recycling of language is that language learning is a process, composed of a number of different stages and opportunities for learning to take place, and not just a product.

However, if we look at the recycling examples presented so far, they have dealt with vocabulary and grammar. This therefore leads us to consider another important area for recycling, but which is often quite easily forgotten, which is pronunciation. The EFL teacher faces a considerable challenge when it comes to recycling pronunciation and this is something which has to be consistently worked on and built into the language learning process in the classroom. As Lewis and Hill state,

“The cyclical nature of language learning [...] relates to all areas of language learning. A simple and obvious example is pronunciation. There is no guarantee that, once students have produced a sound in the language correctly they will never mispronounce it again; on the contrary, certainty of pronunciation comes only after long practice.” (Lewis & Hill, p.32)

It is for this reason that the Connexion series sometimes highlights specific aspects of pronunciation through focused exercises and activities. Most of the times, however, it provides learners with a continuous, integrated and embedded pronunciation recycling process, enabling them to build upon previously taught features and extend these further. In addition, there may be no explicit recycling of some phonological aspects, such as consonant clusters beginning with /s/, which are difficult for Brazilian learners to master. However, by choosing character names such as “Spencer” and “Stella”, learners are led to notice this feature throughout the material.

It is based on these pedagogic and EFL theories that the Connexion series treats the issue of recycling, which is seen as something which needs to be developed in a consistent and integrated manner. It is by providing learners with a number of opportunities to experiment with and recycle language, through a variety of exercises and activities in the different sections of the material, (in the Students' Book; the Activity Book, which can be done in class or at home; the Resources Pack material; the Multimedia material and the Student's CD-ROM), that the Connexion series ensures that recycling is viewed as a cyclical and pedagogically rewarding process for the language learner.


Valéria França
Valéria França holds a BA in Education (Cambridge University), a Masters in Applied Linguistics (UFF) and the RSA DELTA. She is currently completing her PhD. in Applied Linguistics (UFF). She is presently the Head of the Teacher Training Department in Cultura Inglesa S.A.
 

USEFUL BIBLIOGRAPHY

BRUNER, J. (1960) The Process of Education, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

LEWIS, M. & HILL, J. (1992) Practical Techniques for Language Teaching , LTP: Hove.

NUNAN, D. (1991) Language Teaching Methodology, Phoenix ELT: Hemel Hempstead.

SKEHAN, P. (1996) Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction. In Willis, J. & Willis, D. (Eds.) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, Heinemann: Oxford.

SPADA, N. & LIGHTBOWN, P. (1993) How Languages are Learned, OUP: Oxford.

VYGOTSKY, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society. Harvard UniversityPress: Cambridge, MA.