Companions: an aid, a crutch, a snag?
Here are a few of the comments from the Twitter conversation with Ken Wilson that led to this post. I have written about companions before but thought that this blog post might be useful to a lot of educators who have never seen them, never used them, as well as to many new TEFL teachers in Greece who may be taking it for granted that they are used all over the world.
From the Macmillan Online Dictionary
When we talk about a companion in Greece, the word does not refer to a young lady accompanying a richer or more elderly one on her travels or during her lonely hours , or any of the dictionary definitions above, but to a type of publication containing lists of all the new lexical items in each unit of a main coursebook.
These lists are always accompanied by an explanation in Greek and/or English, notes on pronunciation and the grammar points of the unit. The role of companions, then, seems to be that of a glossary or mini-dictionary plus grammar reference sourcebook.
There is a great variety on the market, so I assume that this must be one of the most lucrative publishing ventures and the quality of the information also varies.
In Greece, this is now a typical accoutrement of any published coursebook. Companions have been around for quite a number of years now and I suspect they follow the good old tradition of a culture used to what in English may be referred to as spark notes but is in fact an answer key (Lyssari) to anything in the school textbooks that requires an answer. Solutions to maths, physics exercise, translations of texts in Latin or Ancient Greek, anything that students should be working out for themselves you can buy the answer key to, so the appearance of Companions comes as no surprise.
What is surprising, is the enthusiasm with which foreign language centres dived into this market head first, making the Companion an essential buy for any coursebook the students have to use.
How have they evolved over time
I think companions must be the descendants of word lists plus translations, definitions, examples that some language schools used to produce for their own students. But then, local publishers must have seen a marker niche and started publishing them. In the early days, when the main producers were local publishers, Companions contained just the word lists for each coursebook unit and the pronunciation of the words either in greek script, or later, in phonemic script.
Local publishers sold thousands upon thousands of copies (some hefty publishing empires have been built on companions), literally riding on the back of British publishers’ sales, more often than not also illegally copying and using the front cover of the coursebook they were accompanying.
There are court cases still pending between interested parties.
Eventually, British publishers caught on and figured that rather than oppose this game and be involved in legal disputes, they might as well give in, produce their own, give them a bit of a polish here and there, add a couple of nice looking activities with visuals, add a little of this and a bit of that… and here we had a whole new generation of companions, now officially produced and sanctioned by UK publishing houses themselves.
How they are commonly used
A typical lesson will begin with “dictation” from the companion. The teacher says the word in Greek and the pupils have to write it in English. The list was assigned to them during the previous lesson (‘learn the words from No 56-102 for dictation’). Then after an exciting 20 minutes correcting exercises and reading aloud, it is time for the new vocabulary which the teacher reads out with the greek translation while students listen/read passively. This may happen either before or after the text has been read aloud by the teacher and/or the students.This is the ‘presentation’ stage.
N.B. I have in fact watched lessons like this one on numerous occasions – not taught by trainees of mine, I hasten to add….so this is no hearsay.
Disadvantages of this approach
- Students are not actively involved in discovering meaning for themselves, therefore, their chances of recall and assimilation are reduced.
- Students are “robbed” of valuable linguistic input in terms of Teacher language, i.e the language of definitions, examples, as well as revised items like synonyms and antonyms.
- Exposure to the written form of the word occurs too early, particularly significant for beginner/ elementary levels where learners have not formed any conscious or subconscious rules about how English words are pronounced. The mismatch, on the other hand, of English spelling against the actual pronunciation of words may result in students sightreading words and mispronouncing them.
- Phonological transcripts of words may be useful to the more advanced students but too heavy a load for the beginning or elementary student who has not yet mastered the alphabetical code of the target language and whose reading skills are not fully developed.
- Teaching vocabulary from lists – as opposed to creating memorable and meaningful associations through the use of visuals, mime, objects, topic areas, or situations – encourages the ‘isolated item approach’ . This again reduces the learners’ chances of attaching new words to existing meaning networks, resulting in poor recall.
- In classrooms where the learning of new vocabulary is limited to memorization of this sort and use activities of various kinds through speaking, listening, writing are not included, the learner may ‘know’ the word, i.e. the meaning, without being able to use it correctly and appropriately.
- Teachers themselves do not develop valuable teaching skills of providing correct and appropriate language samples to their students, realistic and natural contexts in which these items might occur.
- All items are explained and students miss valuable opportunities of learning to guess meaning for themselves, in other words, students move from being teacher-dependent to being companion-dependent now and dictionary-dependent later.
Companions are unique to Greece. In no other country in the world where foreign languages are taught will you find books of this type produced or published, nor do teachers or students ever express a need for them (but this may be changing as certain Greek publishing houses which are now selling worldwide may be promoting them to other countries as well).
Why do Greek foreign language school owners adopt them is perhaps worthy of a short comment.
My own view is that this is due to a widespread lack of trust.
To the very suspicious FL school owner with a mindset set in yesteryear, the students must be protected from lazy or poorly prepared teachers. In another blog post where I mentioned the excessive number of coursebooks used across the levels (my example was about a six-year-old beginner), I mentioned this feeling towards teachers, which also drives school owners to adopt many different coursebooks and supplementary books “to keep the teacher busy”. I have actually had numerous discussions with directors of studies to try and convince them against the use of so many books and especially companions, but they seem to be afraid of their own teachers.
Which leads to another vicious cycle – why not hired trained teachers they trust? But that is an entirely different can of worms which I might open in a later blog post.
Why teachers need companions
Teachers who insist on using them claim they cut down on their preparation and they don’t have to worry about how they should present this vocabulary. They are usually underpaid and overworked teachers and , not unjustifiably, claim that they have to teach so many hours to eke out a meager living that they just don’t have enough time for preparation and the companion to the coursebook can be a lifesaver.
I can sympathize but not necessarily condone this attitude to teacher preparation. It is usually the indifferent teacher who actually will find any excuse to avoid preparation.
Others claim that they have to do this as this is the directive from their school and if they don’t follow this directive, they might as well say goodbye to their job. In these hard times, when jobs are so scarce, it is very difficult to tell anyone off for doing what keeps them in a job. Quite a few don’t see the point of teacher preparation, anyway, this is just another job which many are doing without appropriate qualifications, so why bother?
In this market of ‘why bother’ publishers are having a field day. My ears are already ringing with the enraged comments I am sure I am about to get from my local community.
There is always a flipside to everything and it is also fair to say that all material can be a crutch or a snag or an aid, depending on how we use it. Companions are not necessarily an evil publication in themselves, but the use they are commonly put to makes them a hindrance rather than an aid to learning the foreign language.
My personal view is that in an ideal world companions should not be felt to be necessary. But this is not an ideal world, granted, and there will be teachers, students and parents who feel more secure by having access to this material.
Suggestions for putting Companions to good use
Here is how I see companions used to best effect.
- As reference/revision material for home study.
The first role/ function of companions should be that of reference material only, an aid to home study when revising for a test, when a pupil is absent and needs to study on his/her own material they have ‘missed’.
- As class aids for revision/use/consolidation activities.
Companions can be put to many interesting uses in class activities AFTER vocabulary has been presented by the teacher through various other means (e.g. mime, pictures, demonstration, teaching examples, definitions, etc. ) or has been guessed by the students in the context of a reading/ listening activity through tasks set by the teacher.
The main responsibility for presentation, either through pre-teaching or through word search tasks, however, lies with the teacher and the ‘list reading’ approach should be avoided.
The activities that follow can make active use of the companion as a follow-up to vocabulary presentation through the other means suggested above.
Some Class Activities
1) Categorizing & Copying: Ask the students to search through the word lists for one or more units and copy all the words that fit certain categories:
e.g. FOOD, CLOTHES, ROOMS, FURNITURE, TRAVEL, SPORT
1) Synonyms-Opposites race: Write a list of words already known to the students on the board and ask your class to look through a page of the companion quickly and provide the synonyms or opposites.
2) Categorizing & Copying: Ask the students to search through the word lists for one or more units and copy all the words that fit certain categories:
e.g. FOOD, CLOTHES, ROOMS, FURNITURE, TRAVEL, SPORT
3) Odd-Man-Out sets: After you have played the game Odd-Man-Out a few times, ask your class to prepare some odd-man-out sets in teams so that they play against another team. Put an example like this on the board:
4) Student-made crosswords: Students revising make an easy crossword and check companion for help with definitions or examples.
5) Student-made board games: Students designing a board game to check another group on known vocabulary prepare cards with definitions, gap-fills or synonyms which will be used as question cards by the opposing group during the game.
6) Wordwatching: Students make multiple definitions of known words to trick an opposing team (as in “Call my Bluff”) or write sentences with correct/incorrect uses of a word.
e.g. What is a HABITAT?
a. your clothes?
b. a bad habit?
c. the home of an animal?
d. an exotic bird?
7) Spelling bees: Groups select ‘difficult’ words to use against an opposing team in a spelling bee game.
8) Picture dictionaries: Younger learners use the companion to create a picture dictionary of their own, i.e. they enter the words in topic areas and draw their own pictures, stick magazine pictures, product labels, small objects (e.g. a pin, a dried flower ) or even parts of objects (e.g. a matchbox top) to illustrate their entries.
9) Storytelling competition: The teacher, a student or a group, assign random selection of words to everyone, i.e. the fifth word on every page. These words are studied by pairs/ groups or teams, and each one has to create a story in which these come in naturally. Best story wins!
10) Dialogue improvisation: Each group is assigned 3-4 words from a page which they study and then have to incorporate in an improvised conversation/ role play. The rest of the class has to spot the words, situation and topic.
11) Creative dictation/ improvisation: Each group selects six to eight words which they dictate to another group. This group must then cooperate and make up a little story or conversation in which all these words are used.
12) Word competition: A word is chosen randomly by the teacher. Pupils have to hunt through their companion as quickly as possible and jot down as many words as they can which begin/ end in the same letter.
13) How many words can you make? A long word is chosen and students try to make as many other words as they can out of the letters of this word
e.g. elephant will yield words like:
ant pan net leap halt ale pen neat late
ate peal nap lee hate hat than pat plant etc
14) Word accosiation game: A word is chosen randomly by the teacher or a student. The class in pairs/ groups/ or individually, hunt through the pages of the companion and try to find other words that they associate with this word. The teacher is the final judge in this game where the pupils can create any associations they like but should justify them, and the winner(s) are those who produce the longest list of acceptable associations.
This is just a handful of ideas. I feel sure that creative teachers will soon start developing their own for other types of class activity related to other skills as well, like writing and listening.
Let me note that of course all the activities above can be used without having a companion- naturally!!!
The pages of the coursebook can be used to similar, if not better, effect.
If you have got the impression that I do not like companions, you are right. My trainee teachers have heard quite enough about this and now, Ken has got me worrying everyone else as well!
And if you think I am trying to blame it all on Ken and that I am name-dropping, you are probably right. Of course I have used the twitter image to blame it all on Ken’s persistence and of course I am also trying to get teachers in my circle to engage in Twitter conversations, so mentioning Ken Wilson is, indeed, name dropping (Ken is a very popular presenter in Greece, as he is everywhere else) .
Do you also think that companions are a “scandal” ? Please comment and, Ken, I await your own response with bated breath!
P.S. I have no idea how that smiley came to rest next to one of the items in my activities list and no idea how to get rid of it either!