Habit Formation

Did you know that forming good habits plays an important part in learning English?

by Louis Alexander

Back in the 70s, the term 'habit formation' was in common use. In those days, 'habit formation' was associated with language drills which were designed to develop good habits in the use of English. Today, anything associated with 'drilling' is seriously out of favour because drills are regarded as mechanical and meaningless. We can try to brush the idea of drilling under the carpet, but the problem of habit formation will not go away without a struggle. The fact remains that there are good and bad language habits and the aim of good pedagogy is to prevent bad habits from ever establishing themselves. If students are not carefully monitored to prevent bad habits, they will be saying things like 'Why he go?' 'What he like?' in no time at all. While broken English like this may still 'communicate', it is hardly the kind of communication which is acceptable to most learners.

The modern dismissal of the idea of habit formation and drilling is naive. Learning a language is a performance skill and to this extent it is like playing a musical instrument. Where musical performance is concerned, no one doubts that you would be mad to tackle a Mozart sonata if you hadn't thoroughly practised scales. Scales are a necessary preparation for the performance of real music. They are 'mechanical' and 'meaningless' but they train musicians to be accurate and competent before they can take on the performance of actual pieces. Scales are to music what drills are to language learning. Take the example of the third person simple present in English. Once the habit of adding 's' to the third person has been acquired (he goes, he likes, he carries, etc.) learners wouldn't dream of the sloppy and incorrect alternative (he go, he like, he carry). Learners want to be correct because they may feel they are being exposed to ridicule if they use wrong forms and therefore sound illiterate.

Direct English does not go in for habit-forming drills on the scale of courses written in the 70s, but there is a fair amount of drill work throughout the course. The purpose of the drilling is to establish accuracy in the learner's use of English. The good habits acquired in this way can then be carried over into the numerous communicative and interactive exercises which are the basis of language practice in the course.

One of the areas which is practised intensively is the question form. Without habit-forming drills, learners are tempted to use the same question forms in English as they use in their own language. They quickly learn that questions-by-inversion (*Like you ice-cream?) are completely unacceptable, but they also learn they can get away with statement-questions (You like ice-cream?). However, proper mastery of the question forms in English requires the use of 'do', 'does' and 'did' (Do you like ice-cream?) and a command of the forms of regular and irregular verbs. Learners are therefore trained to ask two questions at a time as part of their 'habit formation'. If we take a statement like 'I met John yesterday', we can see how this form of drilling works to train learners to ask correct questions:

Prompt: Ask me if I met John yesterday.
Learner: Did you meet John yesterday?
[Not 'You met John yesterday?' Note how the learner is obliged to replace 'met' with 'meet', and is therefore constantly practising the forms of regular and irregular verbs.]
Prompt: Ask me When ...
Learner: When did you meet John?
[This prevents *When you met John?]

With constant practice of this kind, Direct English ensures that the learner is trained to be accurate before embarking on open-ended and unpredictable 'communication'.


© LG & DE Limited 2006


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