A while back I saw a pretty impressive video on youtube and since then the images from it keep filling my head. It begins with a camera shot from space showing earth as a distant object and then gradually moves closer and closer, zooming in on the world, the continent of Europe, the UK, London and then, eventually streets, houses and finally people become visible. Once it’s zoomed in as far as it can go, it slowly zooms back out again until the world is once more just a distant blob.
It struck me later that the analogy of the camera zooming in and zooming out, can be usefully related to the processes involved in the learning of a foreign language. We need moments where we see the language as a whole, without worrying too much about language form. But we also need to stop sometimes and examine the pieces which make up the whole. We need to both zoom in, and to zoom out on language.
If our lens is always thinking globally and looking at the bigger picture, the intricate detail of how the language works; the new vocabulary, the verb endings, the article system, the features of pronunciation, and the spellings, may pass us by. Similarly if we’re always looking in close up mode, we’ll fail to see the wood for the trees, and we’ll miss out on the role of language as a tool for communication; as a medium for understanding the people we connect to.
In my online sessions with children in Gaza (using a video-conferencing tool which is conveniently called Zoom ! ) I tend to do more zooming out because my feeling is that they have plenty of zooming in activities in their regular English classes. But particularly with older kids I also think it’s important that I do things which help them focus on detail sometimes.
The two videos below are from the same session with quite a large group in a library in Gaza city. The first one is very much a zooming in type of activity. The children first try to guess what is in my fridge and we write down the words and go through them. Then some of them come up to the front and talk about what might be in their own fridges at home.
In this second video I’m telling the same class a story. English is being used extensively and more naturally. I’m using some of the vocabulary that had come up in the ‘fridge activity’ but there’s no pressure for anyone to use the words that I use or even to understand them, since the teacher in the room, at least in the beginning, is translating what I’m saying into Arabic.
I think that trying to keep an appropriate balance between zooming in and zooming out is something that is always in the back of my mind as a teacher. It’s not easy to get it right, and I’m not sure that I ever really do! How much of each process is needed will depend of course on the needs and interests of each group that we work with, and on our own particular teaching style. So what about in your classes? Are you more inclined to zoom in, or zoom out ?