Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/The Series Method: A Comparison

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BROADLY speaking, there are two methods which are used for the teaching of a language: that of the mother and that of the grammarian. The child learns its own or mother tongue from the mother; it learns a foreign tongue from a teacher, whose highest ambition is to be a grammarian. Does the child learn better from the mother or from the grammarian? Without doubt, from the mother, according to the mother method. If this is so, must we use the example of the mother or of the grammarian when we are to begin the teaching of a foreign language? Is there any reason why a foreign tongue should be otherwise taught than the mother tongue? Is it not at least worth the trouble to try the method of the mother, when it is every day demonstrated that pupils who have had five, six, seven years of teaching are unable, on leaving school, so much as to understand when the language they have been studying is used in conversation?

Let us attempt to obtain light on the differences between these two principal methods that exist for teaching a language. What is the mother's method? How does she teach the child to speak? First let us notice that the mother follows the child: she allows him first to show interest in something and' then helps him to express himself. Here we must pause to notice that what most interests the child is not a thing, an object for itself, but the capacity of the thing to do something, the possibilities of the thing for the performance of an action. A young child takes a thing in its hand and waves it, or strikes it against something, or passes it from one hand to the other; when it is older, it asks invariably, "What for?" The mother names the thing to the child, and also the action that may be therewith performed. The child begins to play. Here a specialty of the mother method comes into view. The mother tells the child that she is pleased or displeased with him, that it makes her happy or unhappy when the child does this or that, that she thinks he is a good or a naughty boy, etc.—all of which remarks express her feelings, her thoughts, in contradistinction to the actions which have occasioned these feelings and thoughts; the realm of the mind as opposed to the world of activity. Let us here notice that the speech of every people contains these two classifications of words, the objective and the subjective; and indeed it must be so, since we perform actions and we judge of our actions. By this method the child learns in about a year from the time it begins to speak to express itself about what it does and what it thinks.

Now what is the method of the grammarian? The child learns first the names of things that do not appeal to his consciousness, for they do not start from his point of view, but from that of the maker of a book. He learns lists of words—that is, he learns to know the symbol, and not the thing; he translates. He learns about Cæsar's wars and the book of his father's uncle in what is called an exercise. For both of these subjects he feels no interest, which is to be expected, as they are abstract. He sees no action. Of the great part of language, which may be called the speech of feeling, he also learns only in the abstract. He reads that Cæsar was glad or that his father's uncle was angry, but the happiness and the anger are outside of his consciousness; they have been presented to him by symbols, that is, printed words. By this method the child learns in about four years to read fairly well; as a rule, speaking the language is entirely out of the question. The pupils can not talk of their actions and their feelings, because these are represented to them by symbols, for such are printed words; they have not grasped them as actualities. If on going into a foreign country they are able to understand what is being said, the teacher may consider himself lucky. He has done his utmost with the method he has chosen to employ. He has attained something. It remains true that the mother accomplishes more in a shorter time than the grammarian.

But is it perhaps possible to put the two methods together, and thus to create a method which shall contain the good of both? We must not continue always to act as the mother does, to teach after her method, or our pupils will continue to talk like a child of two years, and be furthermore unable to write at all. How shall we manage to melt the two into one compact, inseparable whole?

Let us imagine a class is to take its first lesson in the foreign tongue. First, what shall be the matter of the lesson; then, how shall it be presented? We shall be careful to choose a subject that can be interesting to the pupil, hence a subject containing activity. It is not necessary that it should be anything astonishing or unusual. Let us consider with the pupils how one opens the classroom door. Let us ask the pupil in his mother tongue how he does it, carefully drawing his attention to the number of actions necessary to the accomplishment of our aim, such as walking, standing still, extending the arm, grasping the knob, etc., together with the resulting actions on the part of the door, opening, swinging, etc. We will then draw his attention to the words of activity, the verbs, and tell him he is going to learn those words in the new language—say German. We will now take the first verb necessary to the accomplishment of our aim, that of walking. We will say, while we walk, such sentences as "This is gehe," "See how I gehe," "My feet move when I gehe," etc. We do the same with each verb, always with its accompanying action. We will take the first four verbs of our subject, repeat them the first time with many explanatory phrases, the second time with fewer, the third and last time we shall simply repeat the verbs "gehe," "stehe still," "strecke aus," "fasse an," always with the actions. By this time the pupils will know these, they having heard each one at least seven times. We can now allow them to recite, we still giving the clew by the production of the appropriate action. Having taught these first four verbs, we are now ready for the full sentence "I walk toward the door," "I stand still by the door," "I reach out my arm," "I take hold of the knob." We can teach the subject "ich" without difficulty, as it remains the same in all the sentences. Let us take the nouns and teach in this manner: "Ich gehe"—pointing—"Thür," then a repetition of "Thür" contained in sentences describing it, with at least three repetitions of the word. Then come the words showing direction and relation. If you say "Ich gehe"—pointing—"Thür," the pupil will know that there is a word lacking, and he will be unsatisfied till he knows it. We now have a sentence, "Ich gehe nach der Thür." We will teach the other sentences in the same way; we will repeat each sentence at least three times in its entirety, and we will allow the pupils to recite. Here it is of interest to show the pupil that the sentence has sprung from the verb, that the verb is the germ of the sentence. Whether we do this with the words "verb," "sentence," "germ," must depend on the capacity of the class. It is not a question of words, but of ideas. Let us present our subject as a living thing. To supply the pupil with an old-fashioned grammar exercise is like inviting him to make a dinner off papier-maché joints and steaks.

All this time we have been considering the part of language which deals with the outside world. It is now time to consider how we shall present the part of language which deals with the inner life. We must make the pupil capable of expressing his states of mind, his thoughts, because these thoughts are interesting to him. There is, broadly speaking, only one situation in class about which his mind is working: his own success or failure to recite. Hence, before each recitation we shall speak a sentence of encouragement or command, such as "Please begin," "I think you are going to do well." After each recitation we shall speak a sentence of praise or blame, such as "Very good," "It might have been better." These, as they can not be expressed by actions, may be translated when necessary into equivalent phrases in the mother tongue. We shall illustrate each phrase by stories, riddles, quotations, whatever you like. The pupil will be interested, and hence will remember. It is not necessary to the acquisition of knowledge that the pupil should be thoroughly bored while trying to learn. After a sufficient number of repetitions of a phrase by the teacher, it will be handed over to the pupils, who will then address to each other phrases of encouragement, command, praise, blame, etc. We have now enabled the pupil to express an action and his thought; the outside and the inside world are his; he needs only to advance as he began. Each lesson proceeds in this wise:


Part I.—Teacher: "We shall learn about opening the door." General subjective phrase, "Pay attention." Explanation of the phrase through stories.

Teaching of verbs.

First subjective phrase before recitation, "Please begin." Explanation through stories.


First subjective phrase after recitation, "Very good." Explanations through stories.

After the teaching of the sentences, the subjective phrases are spoken by the pupils.

It lies in the intelligence of the teacher to recognize the moment for introducing phrases.

The lesson then proceeds to the movements of the door as Part II, and to our leaving the door as Part III. The scheme is the same.

All this is a copy (systematized, of course) of the method employed by the mother. Now, first, can the grammarian be useful to us? Let us remember that to begin with his method is to put the cart before the horse. He must play the second but also an important part. The child learns to speak first, but he also learns to read and to write. We will give the same lesson to the pupil in printed form; he will be asked to read it, and then to copy it or write it from dictation. He will receive the new speech through the sense of hearing; it will then be communicated to the sight, and then to the touch. In this manner a class of twenty girls of about thirteen years had been taught English. After about thirty printed lessons had been mastered with the anecdotes, riddles, etc., which had occupied about half a German school year, they were not only able to read and write without many mistakes, but showed a strong desire to express themselves in the new tongue, and were, indeed, able to do so very satisfactorily, as compared with the results obtained by the grammarian after a seven years' course.

Who first thought of combining the two original methods of language teaching in this way? A Frenchman, named François Gouin. He gave it the name of the "Series Method," because each lesson contains a Series of actions. After the pupil has learned to express himself in regard to his immediate surroundings he continues to learn in series in regard to the lives of animals and of plants, the processes of housekeeping, traveling, trade, etc. It is all presented simply, but each has its own appropriate words and expressions. As soon as the pupil has mastered the rudiments he will also have the subjective matter presented in a series; in one lesson the teacher will be inclined to mirth, in another to (mock) anger, in another to hope, in another to (mock) despair.

The most important result of education being the evolution of the character already present in the child, let us not consider him a little empty jug to be filled with knowledge; rather let us seek to draw out the riches of his character. When he is able to live in a new language, he will be ever broadened, refreshed, and renewed.

This method, resting on a psychological basis, is, with modifications of manner, which it remains the duty of the teacher to recognize, just as good for an adult as for a child. Rules of grammar will be earlier given to the adult, because he will notice correspondences and differences sooner than the child. But no rule will ever be given to a pupil of any age till he himself can appreciate its value, till he is mentally beginning to ask "why?" This questioning state of mind is one highly to be desired, as it is a state of receptivity.


The highest point yet reached by a kite was attained by the leader of a tandem sent up from the Blue Hill Observatory by Messrs. Clayton and Ferguson, August 26th, 12,124 feet above the sea, 277 feet higher than had previously been reached by any kite. The five miles of line weighed seventy-five pounds, and the weight of the whole was one hundred and twelve pounds. With a temperature of 75° and wind velocity thirty-two miles an hour on the ground, the temperature was 38° and the wind velocity thirty-two miles an hour at the highest point reached, while the highest wind velocity recorded was forty miles an hour at 11,000 feet.