Tony Gurr

How many “hours” does it take to LEARN English, hocam?

In ELT and ELL, Our Universities on 15/05/2011 at 7:55 am

There is a lot of “talk” around Turkey these days about how many hours are “needed” for students to “learn” or “speak” English. In fact, we have even invented new acronyms to help us do this – classroom contact hours are now frequently referred to as GLHs (or “guided learning hours”).

What a queer turn of phrase – when what we really mean is “bums on seats” and ears “pointed at” the teacher!

These discussions have been aided by wider “understanding” of the CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessmentnow, you know the reason for the abbreviation), and its six levels of proficiency from A1 to C2.

Now, not everyone is a “fan” of the CEFR – mostly because it has been skillfully co-opted by ELT marketeers eager to sell their wares by pasting on a EU logo onto whatever they are flogging! However, the CEFR is refreshing change from the “fuzzy labels” of the past – “intermediate” or “upper-intermediate” or even “pre-faculty” (in academic contexts).

I never did really learn what these terms meant anyways!

Furthermore, the CEFR was originally designed to improve levels of “transparency” – always a “fan” of that (as is Julian)!

Gelelim…fasülyenin faydalarına! 

In a way, it is impossible to accurately calculate the hours needed to learn a language - as it depends on factors such as the learner’s language background, the intensity of study and levels of individual engagement, the learner’s age and motivation (even “gender” - yes, girls do generally kick ass in the right environment), and the amount of study and exposure outside the classroom – in addition to the quality of “teaching” (we always forget this one) and how many iTunes downloads a student clocks up each week!

Many ELT teachers, for example, think it’s a total waste of time to even try and run a “time and motion study” on language learning. Afterall, it’s the “quality” rather than the “quantity” of hours that matter…isn’t it?

That having been said many so-called experts (and publishers) “agree” on the following type of broad recommendations:

A1 – 80-100 GLHs

A2 – 180-200 GLHs

B1 – 350-400 GLHs

B2 – 550-600 GLHs

C1 – 750-800 GLHs

C2 – 1000-1200 GLHs

I really have my doubts about the recommended GLHs for level C2 – most higher-level learners do not get to this level based on “classroom GLHs” alone (“talent” is a key factor, as is “extended contact” with native speaker-like “environments”). Also, the “right kind of environment” is important – my wife has been an ELL for 25 years and I do not think she would mind if I said she would probably struggle in a more “academic” environment – she would, however, wipe the floor with most native speakers on matters of a spiritual nature, reconnective healing, and counselling workaholic educators!

But, that’s for another post…

For many “hazırlık centres” or “prep schools” at university level in Turkey the distinction between B2 and C1 is of more interest. This is because, in terms of the CEFR, most Turkish universities have selected a “hazırlık exit requirement” somewhere between B2 and C1. We see this more clearly when we look at IELTS equivalencies for these CERF levels – somewhere between IELTS band 5.0 and 7.0 for those of you more familiar with IELTS.

Most “hazırlık centres” in Turkey are still to define their programmes and progression systems in terms of CERF and TOEFL scores or IELTS bands are the more common form of “currency” when discussing what it takes to “graduate” from hazırlık into “freshman year”.

Top ranking universities in the UK currently all require an IELTS band of 7.0 and other “respectable” universities ask for an IELTS band of 6.5 (with no less than 6.0 in each module) for international students applying to their undergraduate programmes. These universities will also accept a band 5.5 for entry onto their “foundation programmes” – the equivalent to hazırlık.

If you want to “live” in Australia, you have to make sure you have an IELTS band of 7.0 – remember this!

Boğaziçi requires an IELTS band 7.0 while BilkentKoçÖzyeğin and Sabancı all expect a 6.5 for example. METU and Bahçeşehir require a band 6.0 but on Bahçeşehir’s MYO programmes only a band 5.0 is required (an IELTS band of 7.5 is requested from students wishing to study American Literature and Culture at “lisans” or undergraduate level).

I am told (by sources I cannot name) that many other hazırlık centres have similar exit levels “on paper” – but operate in the “greyer areas” of band 5.0 or 5.5 (in practice). I have, by the way, applied for one of those super-injunctions being given out by UK courts these days and I will always insist that this was written by a “guest-blogger” who asked me to do her a favour!

Just so you know… 

The CEFR B2/C1 distinction (as is the IELTS distinction between a band 5.0 and 7.0) is the most important “watershed” for academic study (and, incidentally, the one where most learners hit the wall of linguistic “fossilisation”). The difference between CEFR levels B2 and C1 is significant because it reflects the ability to “cope” with more complex learning and material in an academic context – or not!

Also, the “space” between B2 and C1 is the reason why so many lecturers claim students cannot “speak English” (B2 interactional and transactional abilities are still “limited” – as is the ability to interact with more complex written texts). Freshman lecturers “hear” what their students can produce on “Day One” and are quick to criticise hazırlık “graduates” (and their teachers) – without really understanding the complexities of “speaking”, let alone language learning.

Speaking, as has been the case for years, remains the most “visible” skill and “real” measure of language learning for many – but it is also the one area most hazırlık centres pay least attention to – it’s a sad fact that many a student (and teachers, too) still think that speaking is a “product” of language learning, when in fact it is one of the best “means” of language learning.

Many hazırlık teams are starting to see this “challenge” or rather are being “forced” to deal with it as they begin to feel the impact of the decision to change how the Anadolu High Schools “do business” in 2005-06 (even some of our “top schools”).

Recognition of the importance of such “numbers” is also leading many hazırlık centres to “bump up” the number of contact hours in a given week, create a 3rd “summer break semester” (or 5th “summer school module”) – or even “drop their standards” (in the words of my sources who are also protected by the super-injunction) to allow more students to get a “free pass” into freshman without fully evidencing the levels of language proficiency we know are required on English-medium academic programmes…

We really have to ask ourselves if we are doing these learners any “real favours” by doing thisor whether we are setting them up for “failure” (or at the very least – lower levels of future learning).

Many employers are saying we have been doing this for years…and they have been more than willing to “go on the record” of late!

I actually think (and this is my personal view – backed up by nothing but “experience”) that 900-1000 GLHs is probably the more realistic range required to get to a B2+ level (yani – a 40-week “learning year” at 25-hrs per week within a “hazırlık context”). But, then again – there remains the issue of “quality instruction”…

In fact, this more realistic estimate is the real reason why it is so difficult to get “total or false beginners” through hazırlık in a single year – so few hazırlık centres (esp. at many state universities) have programmes of this intensity in place at present.

BUT…language educators with higher levels of educational and assessment literacy (yani, those who “really” know a fair bit about learning, teaching and assessment in language learning) know that TEACHing does NOT equal LEARNing (esp. in language learning).

They also know that hazırlık is more than just language learning – learners also need to put a great deal more emphasis on personal development, self-study, self-assessment and “personal accountability and discipline” (in addition to classroom-based GLHs) to realise “effective language LEARNing“.

This is especially the case if the “purpose” behind language learning is to follow-up with English-medium undergraduate study.

The real problem is that 25 hours a week of being “trapped in a hazırlık classroom” for so many months is just “too much”  (many teachers would agree with this) – sorry, is not an “effective way” to conduct the business of language LEARNing.

This is especially the case if most of these recommended GLHs are given over to “grammar rules and transformation exercises” or are grounded on teachers “spoon-feeding” students discrete skills worksheetsrather than expert instruction in skills development from teachers, meaningful reflection and self-assessment on the part of learners and timely and focussed feedback from teachers.

Hey, and we haven’t even got to the issue of “section or class size” – come on, can we really create  an effective language learning environment for groups of 25+?

If the opposite was the case, there would be no need for hazırlık centres or prep schools – at all!

The bottom line is we will not get the results we want or those our students really need (we know this from “experience” with many learners in the Turkish education system today), if our “solutions” are drawn from a world view of education driven by an obsession with “teaching”, GLHs and 19th Century assumptions about the “nature of learning”.

If this is how we plan to “fix” language learning in Turkey – our students do not stand a chance, not a chance!

Time to not just “get out of the box” – we need to tear the boxes of many intitutions up and start again!


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  1. HOURS=LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY/FLUENCY/FACILITY

    AN EQUASION THAT HAS NO ANSWER, OF COURSE.

    BUT, LET STUDENTS AND TEACHERS TAKE A CUE FROM STEPHEN KRASHAN’S WONDERFUL REMARKS AT BACHESEHIR LAST SATURDAY. HIS, AND OTHER’S RESEARCH SHOWS THAT A FEW HOURS OF SUSTAINED SILENT READING PER WEEK WILL IMPROVE ALL THE SKILLS, AS WE LEARN FROM READING IMPLICITLY, ACQUIRING THE LANGUAGE IN A NO STRESS, NATURAL WAY.

    SO, THROW THE TEXT BOOKS AWAY, EVERYONE, AND SPEND SOME TIME WITH A HARRY POTTER, A TWILIGHT, A STEINBECK, EVEN A DICKENS–SORRY MY BRITISH FRIENDS– OR, A MAGAZINE OR COMIC BOOK THAT ENGAGES AND INTERESTS YOU, OR, BETTER STILL, AS HE SAID, COMPELS YOU. IT IS WORTH A STACK OF WORKSHEETS.

  2. This was very helpful. I’m writing an article about the amount of listening hours to learn English (or study hours) in due of several companies out there in my country who specilize in fulfilling and signing of contracts to teach English in 6 months (No, immersion – ridiculous, i know!). Thanks.
    And, don’t worry, I’ll definately cite the blog.

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