Monthly Archives: March 2012

Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading- and, if so, how?

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Pre-teaching vocabulary is something that many of us were taught to do on our CELTAs or other pre-service course. I hold my hand up to having trained other teachers to do it- and to having, as a result, sat through an excruciating 20 minutes plus while trainee teachers laboriously explained word after word until the students had lost the will to live, never mind the will to read the text.

Another argument against pre-teaching is that it doesn’t train students for real-life encounters with language; that we’re spoon feeding them rather than teaching them the skills to deal with unknown words.

I am sure this is true, and I would certainly not recommend pre-teaching as a way of explaining all the words in a text that students are unlikely to know. However, done sparingly, I think it can have some value both in terms of practicality (making sure they can actually do the task you set, and that you don’t have twenty people all asking the same question, one after another) and in terms of helping to raise interest and motivation.

The questions you need to ask yourself are, I think:

-          Do the students actually need to know this word/phrase to do the task?

-          Could they guess it from context?

-          Can this word or phrase be used productively within this lesson?

Selecting what vocabulary to pre-teach

1. Look at what vocabulary the students will need to know to do the task you set, rather than what they probably won’t know in the text.

2. Look at vocabulary which is directly related to the topic of the text, so that it can be used to activate schema.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a scan of three pages from IELTS Foundation 2nd edition Macmillan 2012, with a set of activities around a reading text. Looking at the tasks set on the third page, there are certain words which the students will need to know to carry out these tasks. I would suggest:

current    reluctant    short term effects   essential   reduce   prevent   tend to  encourage   efficient

congestion charge  higher parking charges  public transport  pay per mile

The first set of words could be looked at, as necessary, when the teacher is setting the tasks. Many of them are very typical of IELTS questions and so might well be already known. If not, a matching activity with synonyms might work well with these words, especially with synonyms in the text (most IELTS questions will use a synonym rather than the words in the text itself)

The second set of words however are all linked to the topic, so provide scope to act as a lead in to the text as well as a pre-teaching activity. If you look at the first page of the extract, you can see that these and other related words from the text are given to students to categorise into traffic problems and possible solutions. The students then use the words in a personalised way, to talk about problems in their city before reading the text and comparing with their ideas and opinions.

One of the major problems with pre-teaching vocabulary is dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected words, with no context. Choosing words which relate to the topic of the text is a good way round this issue, and the words can also be used productively.

Ideas for pre-teaching vocabulary

1 Categorising is often a good approach, as it should get the learners to engage with the meaning of the words. If the words aren’t related in terms of meaning you could always get them to categorise into ‘words I know’, ‘words I am not sure about ‘and ‘words I don’t know’. Done in pairs, this should lead to peer teaching and you can monitor and then help with any still causing difficulties.

2 Connecting words: ask students to choose two or more words and phrases  from those you want to pre-teach and write a sentence using them. This will only really work if the words are at least half known though.

3 Predicting: Ask students to make predictions about the text using the words given. Depending on the words and the students this could range from guessing the topic, to guessing the attitude of the writer, to guessing the answers to the questions they are going to answer.

4 Using the context of the text: Pull out some sentences which contain the words you want to pre-teach and put them up on the board with gaps. Get the students to decide which words go in which gaps.

5 If appropriate, matching the vocabulary you want to pre-teach with pictures. Relatively easy these days, pictures are a great way of providing the context which would otherwise be missing.

If you do decide to pre-teach (and there are, as we have seen, arguments against it), make sure that the words and phrases are useful and contextualised and that the time spent pre-teaching is worth it for what the students will get out of the process.

Please see the previous post on selecting authentic reading materials if this is an area which interests you, or the next one on reading tasks.  I’ll be adding another post on exploiting reading materials next week. If you want to receive the next post by email, the button is on the right.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic reading materials

Tips on selecting effective authentic reading materials

Many teachers like to use authentic materials in class, and they can obviously be a wonderful source of language. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to offer some thoughts and tips on how you might go about selecting and exploiting these materials, to maximise their benefit to students.

Nunan (1988) defines authentic materials as those ‘which have been produced for purposes other than to teach language’, so that might mean emails, blogs, statistics, timetables, advertisements, instructions, labels, menus etc as well as articles from newspapers and magazines.

Relevance and interest

Have you ever done any research into the literacy practices  of your students? In other words, what they actually read (and write) in their daily lives, in their first language as well as in English. Ask students to keep a note of everything they read, including cereal packets etc, for a couple of days. You may be surprised, and it will probably give you some new ideas of where to look for material.

Similarly, the more you can find out about the kinds of topics your students are interested in, the more successful your texts are likely to be. Obviously, if the students are preparing for an exam, you will also need materials and topics which reflect the exam they are taking.

Cultural appropriateness

This is a HUGE area, but I think there are three main points:

  1. Being careful about materials which may offend political, social or religious mores. If you know the context you are teaching in, this should be fairly easy to avoid. Or, if you are confident about your class, you may be able to touch on subjects which published material would have to avoid. I once taught a fabulous class about dangerous sports, which was fabulous not because of anything I did, but because one of the students suddenly started telling us all about the time he played Russian Roulette. Everyone was, unsurprisingly, fascinated and completely involved in communicating with one another.
  2. Being careful about materials which your students simply can’t relate to. This is a criticism aimed, not unfairly, at a lot of published ELT materials. ESOL learners in Birmingham are unlikely to want to read about skiing holidays, for example. However, just because something is outside the students’ experience, does not necessarily mean that it is uninteresting. It’s a judgement call.
  3. Consider visual literacy as well. The way the text is laid out may cause confusion. This is particularly an issue for students with low levels of literacy in their first language, but can also cause problems if the norms aren’t transferable.

For example, look at this leaflet:

The bullet points in the top right hand corner are used to give reasons why you should join- but this is only implied through the visual convention and might well not be obvious to a student.

The speech marks on the left indicate that what is inside them is a quote- but you need to know what the speech marks mean.

The asterisk in the bottom left-hand corner indicates some ‘small print’ information (in itself another convention!)

Students need to know a lot about the conventions of this type of text to be able to make sense of it. Other examples would be speech bubbles which always go from left to right, italics to indicate direct speech and bold or capitals to indicate that something is particularly important.

Linguistic and cognitive demands of the text                                                                                                    

To a certain extent, the question isn’t so much about how difficult the text is, but about what you expect learners to do with it (the task). However, realistically, if a text is syntactically very complex and contains a great deal of unknown vocabulary, it is unlikely to be very motivating!

As teachers, we generally have a good sense of the ‘level’ of a text. However, if you aren’t sure, you could try running it through a programme which will assess the difficulty of the vocabulary, such as  the Oxford 3000 profiler. According to this tool, if 100% of the words in your text are in the Oxford 3000, it is at a low intermediate level, if 90-95%, it’s upper intermediate and 70-90%, it’s advanced. This obviously won’t help with assessing the complexity of the syntax though, or other factors such as the level of background knowledge or maturity required.

Another factor is how clearly the text is organised. This can be a real headache with newspaper texts, which often have very short paragraphs, not necessarily linked clearly to the surrounding text. I remember an activity in the first edition of Headway Intermediate where the students had to order the paragraphs of a newspaper article. It was virtually impossible, because the links weren’t clear enough- and because the students weren’t made aware that the first paragraph of a newspaper article usually sums up the whole story.

It is also worth thinking about whether you want to use the text as a model for writing and, if so, whether, for example, a newspaper article is a type of discourse that students might actually want or need to write in real life (unless they are budding journalists of course)

Practical considerations

  • Length (if it’s too long, you could edit it, but would need to be very careful about removing some of the features which make the text authentic or making it difficult to follow the links which make it cohesive)
  • Font size and style (may be too small or difficult for learners not yet familiar with different ways of reproducing the Roman alphabet)

In my next post, I’ll look at some ideas for exploiting texts once you’ve found them. If you want to get the next post automatically, just hit the ‘Follow blog via email’ button on the right.


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Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials

Listen up and take notice:using (semi) authentic listening resources productively

More and more authentic (or semi authentic) listening texts are appearing in published materials. In this session we will look at the reasons for this and at how these materials can be exploited fully to provide not just more realistic listening practice but also a rich resource for developing learners’ own language and speaking skills.

This post is the substance of my presentation at IATEFL Glasgow on 20/3/12, title and abstract above. It can be read without reference to the slides, but the slides can be found on the Glasgow Online website at:

http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2012/sessions/2012-03-20/listen-and-take-notice-using-semi-authentic-listening-resources-productively

What makes a listening text authentic? The difference between a listening text which has been scripted and a piece of authentic dialogue is very obvious once it has been transcribed. In real life speech is full of :

  • Repetition
  • False starts, rephrasing and clarification
  • Hesitation and fillers
  • Simpler sentences or even ‘ ungrammatical’  language
  • Paralinguistic features
  • Backchannelling
  • Ellipsis

If the only practice we give our students is with material that does not have these features, how can we really be preparing them to listen in the real world?

On the other hand, fully authentic material, material which was never intended to be used for learning purposes, may be a little too authentic.

In their book,  Conversation: from description to pedagogy, Scott Thornbury and  Diana Slade make the following observation:

‘Conversations are notoriously hard to capture on tape and even harder to listen to. In the interests of intelligibility…speakers should be recorded talking about a topic without being told exactly what to say in advance.  This way there is more likelihood of capturing naturally occurring features of conversation such as hesitations, fillers, false starts, overlaps etc.’

This is what is known as a semi authentic listening. I recently wrote the new edition of Total English Intermediate. This book, and the other levels in the series, contain at least one and often two of these semi authentic recordings per unit, using a variety of native speakers and non native speakers.

When we listened to the recordings, we discovered that, as well as providing good listening practice, the scripts were also full of examples of natural English use, which learners could learn from.

But how to get them to notice and use this language, or these features? One simple, but very useful framework comes from Thornbury and Slade. They argue that there are three key things we need to be giving our learners:

Exposure, Instruction and Practice

Exposure, or giving opportunities to hear language being used, is the one we tend to be quite good at (though I would argue that we need a lot more. Many coursebooks only have one ‘listening’ per unit.)

It is however, not really enough. Learners will either fail to notice salient points, or take a very very long time to notice them.

So we also need instruction- or occasions when their attention is drawn to these salient points of language.

And, of course, we also need practice. Instinctively, we all know that to learn any practical skills- and that’s what language is- requires practice.

So,  let’s take an example of an unscripted anecdote about a childhood memory.  This appears in Unit 10 of New Total English Intermediate, but you could use any recording which follows the structure of a narrative or anecdote.

The aim is to help students become aware of the discourse structure of an anecdote, following Labov’s Standard Western Narrative:

Abstract Announces that a story is about to start (optional)
Orientation Provides background information
Complication Introduces a problem or a turning point into the main sequence of events
Evaluation Show the speaker’s attitude to the events (may be spread throughout the story)
Resolution What finally happened
Coda Returns listeners to the present (optional)

Obviously the way this is phrased is quite complex, but it can easily be simplified for students. An awareness of this discourse structure is extremely useful because we use it all the time. In job interviews for example, when you’re giving an example of a success you had, when you’re giving an excuse and so on.

So, learners are  exposed to the discourse structure by being asked to put the main events in order as well as any other comprehension tasks. Next they are instructed in the sequence of narratives and finally they tell their own similar anecdote or story, practising the structure.

Alternatively, they could retell the story from the point of view of a different protagonist. This might be useful in an ESOL context, for example, where talking about childhood memories might be inappropriate.

But exposure, instruction, practice isn’t the only way the triangle can work. Alternatively, we could have:

Instruction-Exposure-Practice

 Let’s look at an example which focuses on vocabulary this time. The recording I used featured two short monologues in which people talked about problems in the cities where they lived (Madrid and Edinburgh). A lot of useful vocabulary came out of these recordings, for example;

building work, construction, drilling, exhaust fumes, heatwave, roads being blocked,  horns honking rush hour, terribly cold, tower blocks.

We started by asking the students to categorise these words and phrases into Noise, Types of buildings, Weather, Pollution and Congestion. This was the instruction part of the triangle.

Next the students listened to the monologues and made notes in each category. In this way they were exposed to the language in context. Finally, they carried out a parallel task describing their own town or city.

Thirdly, the triangle could, of course, also be practice-exposure-instruction (and then maybe more practice)

This works well with a recording in which students listen to mote proficient speakers carrying out the same task as themselves, a technique from task-based learning. In my example, learners are asked to use a leaflet to plan a day trip to London.

To follow the practice- exposure-instruction triangle, learners could be asked to first carry out the task themselves. That’s the practice. Then they could listen to the recording, which is of two native speakers and one very proficient non native speaker doing the same task and find out what they decide to do. That’s the exposure.

Finally, they can look at the transcript and underline the language the speakers use to make suggestions and respond to ideas. And that’s the instruction.

While I wouldn’t suggest looking at the transcripts while listening for the first time, they can be a very useful resource. Sound disappears, the transcript captures it so that students can look again and notice the features of natural spoken English.

In this case, what they will find is a good number of useful adjacency pairs for making and responding to suggestions. E.g.

‘Are you guys Ok with paying for that?’ ‘Yes,  I think so’

Incidentally, I noticed a lot of use of the phrase ‘you guys’, despite the fact that all three speakers were female. Probably not something I’d ever have thought of writing in a scripted dialogue.

Transcripts can also be a wonderful resource for developing pronunciation and fluency through automaticity.

I’m using this term as Scott Thornbury uses it, to mean memorising chunks of language that can then be pulled whole out of your store. He talks about creative automaticity. These exercises are not creative in themselves, but will lead to the learners using the language, or having it available to use (as we aren’t mandating it), in a creative way as they carry out the final task themselves.

Firstly, select just a small part of the recording, perhaps some phrases that you expect the learners may want to use themselves in the parallel task, ask the learners to listen again and mark the stressed syllables on the transcript. Ask them what happens to the unstressed syllables- they are weakened or reduced, and use the recording as a model for drilling.

Alternatively, students could read aloud at the same time as listening, trying to make their speed and intonation as close as possible to what they hear. This is a very old fashioned technique, and I wouldn’t advise overdoing it, but actually it can really help with being able to deliver chunks in a confident and fluent manner.

And finally, students can read the dialogue aloud to each other. I would suggest, however, that to make this a bit more fun, as well as more testing, you set the activity up so that they can look at the dialogue, but only when they are NOT speaking or listening. When they speak or listen, they have to look at their partner. This means that they have to memorise the chunk, in a similar way to a running dictation.

While I obviously hope that you’ll take a look at the material in New Total English, all of the ideas could be used with any authentic or semi authentic recording- and there are more and more available.

Useful reading

Conversation: from description to pedagogy- Scott Thornbury and Diana Slade- CUP

Listening Myths: applying second language research to classroom teaching- Steven Brown-Michigan ELT- 2011

How to Teach Listening- JJ Wilson- Pearson

Listening in the Language Classroom- John Field- CUP

Teaching and Researching: Listening- Michael Rost- Longman

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos

Inane, repetitive and illadvised? Is the ELT coursebook doomed and outmoded, or does it still have something to offer?

Inane-repetitive-and-ill-advised-Is-the-ELT-coursebook-outmoded-or-does-it-still-have-something-to-o-883693503

This is a version of a talk I gave at Swansea University in March 2012. It’s about 25 minutes, plus time to read some of the slides, so get a cup of coffee first!

Some of the questions I try to answer:

  • How is the methodology behind a coursebook decided on?
  • Are we now in an era of ‘textbook defined practice’?
  • Should we be using coursebooks at all, and if so how should we be using them?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology

#ELTChat summary on Multiple Intelligences 07/03/12

This is a summary of the first ELT Chat on Wednesday 7th March 2012 about Multiple Intelligences.
#ELTChat takes place on Twitter every Wednesday at 12pm and 9pm BST www.eltchat.com
Shaun Wilden kicked off by giving us a link to the Wikipedia page on Multiple Intelligences. The link is below, but basically, it’s a theory proposed by Howard Gardner in the 1980s, which says that rather than there being just one kind of intelligence, there are different kinds of intelligence:
• Spatial
• Linguistic
• Logical-mathematical
• Bodily-kinesthetic
• Musical
• Interpersonal
• Intrapersonal
• Naturalistic
• Existential
(The last two were added at a later date)
The first part of the discussion mostly centred around whether MI theory had now been discredited, to what extent people believed in it and to what extent it was practised.
The overall view seemed to be that people were little sceptical about the scientific basis, but agreed that it was important to recognise that people learn in different ways, and to provide a variety of activities:

@louisealix68: think it’s good as T to know we all learn diff.(I’m visual) in order 2 help kids with learning strats best 2 them
@rliberni: yes agreed I think the idea of varying activities etc is imp and MI would help to highlight that
@breathyvowel: Yup but for me the varying comes first, and the relevance to MI is more or less incidental

@esolcourses also suggested that it might be impractical or unnecessary to devote too much time to individual differences when students actually had a lot in common. And other people suggested some drawbacks to focusing on MI:

@OUPELTGlobal: I think tchers should be careful of labelling their sts – different sts can use
different ints at different times.
@michaelegriffin: Just sort of the cultiness of MI puts me off. I am with @Marisa_C about
much of it just being sensible
@kevchanwow: agree that a wide range of activities is necessary to keep students involved. But does MI offer the right framework?

Several people felt that, irrespective of whether the science actually stood up, there was a benefit in discussing multiple intelligences with students so that they would be aware of different ways of learning and able to ‘play to their strengths’ (@OUPELTGlobal)

@kevchanwow: MI as a means for students to discuss how they learn. An exercise in empathy and to realize that there are many ways to learn and that it is OK to be (learn) different
@samshep: we cn be interested in how ss learn w/out labelling them. Also shd encourage thm to try diff things & expand capabilities
@kevchanwow recognizing what brings our students joy and how where they excel is key for rapport. But does MI help us do that?

There was also seen to be a benefit in teachers at least considering MI, so that they would not assume that all learners learnt the same way (or the same way the teachers did)

It was questioned whether MIs needed to be formally assessed, but @Marisa_C suggested a possible test for anyone who wanted to do so, the Barsch Learning Styles Inventory, available online. @worldteacher also provided a short MI quiz (see below)
@ louisealix68 mentioned Thomas Armstrong (link below) as a good place to go for more information on MI.

People started to discuss other systems of learning styles:
@samshep surely multiple intelligences is just learning styles dressed in different clothes w same pitfalls and questions.
@shaunwilden: @samshep I agree and there are far too many learning styles models out there, can get very confusing :-)
@teflerinha asked whether people felt that multisensory learning (link below), which has some crossover with MI, was particularly suitable for YLs. It was generally agreed that it was, though the point was made by @worldteacher that it could also apply to adults.
@louisealix68 raised the question of whether males had different learning styles to females. @breathyvowel commented: I definitely find that the atmosphere changes with gender balance, so perhaps unconsciously yes and @teflerinha commented: Thnk gender cn affct way class interacts. Once had all male CELTA & all activities finished superfast.

A little later there was also discussion of naturalist and existential intelligences and how these might be accommodated. @teflerinha made the point that existential or spiritual intelligence was becoming a big thing in coaching and business training(essentially about connecting with your inner wisdom and with others) and @leoselivan suggested that naturalist intelligence lent itself well to categorising and ordering tasks.

@cherrymp commented that perhaps Emotional Intelligence was more important to cultivate than MI (“the ability to identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups”.)

@Marisa_C asked for examples of MI based activities which had been used successfully:
@teflerinha: Extended project type work tends to be good for MI I think as there are a variety of tasks
@louisealix68: e.g. use running dictation for kinsaesthetic. Dictogloss = linguistic/math
@esolcourses: Online drag and drop picture quizzes on my website 4 spacial intel. – work well as ind. or group activities. http://t.co/DwwK3BTV
@louisealix68: learn vocab=rote (music); organise alphabetically – math; read/cover = ling
@rliberni: used to do dictation in teams with paper up on wall 1st grp to complete with all correct won
@teflerinha: And giving ss the opportunity to work alone as well as in pairs or groups- for intrapersonal learners
@michaelegriffin: Drawin’, movin’, clappin’ actin’, connectin’, solvin’ (puzzles),
@OUPELTGlobal : Asking sts whon learn visually to find their own images for texts, adds to their understanding/learning of the text

There was a questions from @SueAnnan as to whether MI meant more planning. Some comments:
@leoselivan: no but it does require thinking on your feet sometimes. I think if a T is aware u
don’t need to spend MORE time planning
@teflerinha: Not so much a lot of prep as bearing it in mind when choosing activity types I
think
@shaunwilden: No cos it is everyday teaching anyway :-)
@OUPELTGlobal: I don’t think so. Once I was aware of them, and my sts too, we sort of
helped each other. Awareness is very important!
But @SueAnnan made the point that, while she agreed to an extent, she had seen ss turned off by non traditional activities. @michaelegriffin agreed, ‘I think that is a very good point and quite common… Like “why are we drawing in English class???!?!” “Give me verbs!”’
@SophiaKhan4suggested that it was ‘sometimes hard to go out of your own comfort zone when choosing activities tho’ and @NikkiFortova agreed ‘@SophiaKhan4 so so true, but if we don;t go out of our comfort zone from time to time, we don’ t learn @shaunWilden said that ‘thats only natural isn’t it, if we have a class we need to cater to all which might mean some are happy when others aren’t.’

Perhaps a good conclusion would be @shiftparadigm’s comment,’ In practice, might a good place to start be recognizing and accommodating a student’s strengths?’

List of useful links (please let me know if any don’t work)

Link to Wikipedia page on MI http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences (@ShaunWilden)
Link to Thomas Armstrong’s webpage http://www.thomasarmstrong.com/multiple_intelligences.php
Link to Barsch Learning styles inventory http://t.co/2W7ckOep (@Marisa_C)
Link to MI Quiz http://t.co/zqOgEMKN (@worldteacher)
Link to Howard Gardner’s book on Googlebooks http://t.co/0TagR8U6 (@Marisa_C)
Link to info on multisensory learning (VAK) http://tlp.excellencegateway.org.uk/tlp/pedagogy/assets/documents/qs_multi_sensory_learning.pdf (@teflerinha)
Link to VARK learning styles http://t.co/ct36VJSi @rliberni)
Link to Bonnie Tsai, interesting speaker on MI http://t.co/ly1oLHQb (louisealix68)
Whole set of links on MI http://cybraryman.com/multipleintel.html (@cybraryman1)
Googlebooks link to Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom http://t.co/oBKyBZlc (@marisa_C)
Link to page on Multiple Intelligences http://t.co/AcfXd99B (@cherrymp)
Link to Multiple Intelligences lesson plans http://t.co/CKyTfbx7 (@cherrymp)
Link to a whole list of learning styles resources, diigo by @carldowse http://www.diigo.com/list/carldowse/learning-styles (@SueAnnan)
Link to article on Integrating MI in ESL/EFL classrooms http://t.co/vrtkdLon (@worldteacher)
Link to MI lesson plan http://t.co/ae3xEz66 (@shaunWilden)
Link to Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences and Education http://t.co/tpleDJxb (@cherrymp)
Link to an interactive version of Blooms Taxonomy, revised for 21st Century http://t.co/q2IApHij (@nikkiFortova)

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Filed under Differentiation, ELT Chat summaries

Ideas for taking an ‘emergent’ approach to using a coursebook

Most coursebooks have an essentially structural syllabus. Each unit has a handful of language points, what Scott Thornbury refers to as ‘Grammar McNuggets’, and the assumption is that these points will be presented, practised and learnt.

As a coursebook writer, I understand why the syllabus is presented in this way. Most teachers, institutions, parents, students like to have a sense of the way ahead as a series of steps. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this so long as:

-       We remember that what we are teaching is not necessarily what the student is learning.

-       We aim to teach the students rather than the material.

I believe that the material in a coursebook should be seen as a resource, pure and simple. It can and should be used and abused to best meet the needs of the class.

There are certain key elements we need to provide students to give them the opportunity to develop.

Input or language in context (this needs to be motivating and relevant)

Opportunity to ‘notice’ language

Clarification/consciousness raising- whether after noticing or after using (feedback)

Opportunity to use language (this also needs to be motivating and relevant and ideally personalised)

If all these elements aren’t in the coursebook (and they might be), there is no reason why we can’t adapt it to provide them.

‘Noticing’

Many coursebooks do now ask students to notice the language in a text. There are two possible problems with this. Firstly, the text may have been specially written to include these examples, and not in a very natural way. Secondly, if the text is authentic, there may only be a couple of examples.

One way of dealing with this (and it could be used for any text you want to use, not just coursebook texts) is to also use a concordance. For example, there is a text in a coursebook I’m familiar with which has some examples of the different meanings of the word ‘like’ (as a verb and as a preposition). Students are asked to find examples and decide on the meaning. This could then be extended by looking at a concordance (or a simplified version at lower levels) and deciding on the meaning of these examples before returning to the personalised practice in the coursebook. In this example, students write each other questions using both meanings and then answer each other’s questions before going on to write about a place they like and what it’s like.

‘Interlanguage’

Another example from a well known coursebook has a short text. Students are asked to underline all the examples of articles and then find examples of the rules given. An alternative might be to do the text as a dictogloss. The teacher reads the text aloud, at fairly normal speed (not slowly) and the students try to write down what they can. They then work together to recreate the text. Inevitably, if articles are a problem area, they will miss some out or use the wrong ones. They can then compare their version with the original and identify the gap in their own interlanguage.

Alternatively, or even as a follow up task, students could translate the text into their L1 and then, a few days or a week later, try to translate it back. Again, this will highlight any individual difficulties.

Task repetition

Another way to get students to ‘notice the gap’ using a coursebook activity works well with a more traditional kind of activity where students listen to a dialogue which exemplifies a particular language point.

Fans of emergent grammar might avoid these kinds of recordings like the plague, but it can work well in a kind of task based approach. This way, you begin by getting the students to improvise a similar kind of dialogue (obviously this works best if the topic is something they might actually want to talk about). You could even record these conversations if you have the technology. Then you listen to the coursebook dialogue and encourage students to notice any language in there that they could have used. Incidentally, this might not be the language the coursebook writers intended. Finally, the students carry out the dialogue again, perhaps this time with a different partner. If you have recorded the first version, you could record this too, and students could then listen to the recordings at home and note any improvements in the second version.

Task repetition has been shown to have a very positive effect on what Thornbury refers to as ‘grammaring’

I am very far from believing that everyone should be using published materials all the time. However, always starting from scratch can be very labour intensive and, I believe, requires a good deal of experience and understanding. Why not use everything that’s available, just tweaking and adapting as you go?

Incidentally, there are some fabulous ideas, perfectly applicable to published materials, in Grammar and Uncovering Grammar, both by Scott Thornbury.

Here are a few links I have found since writing the post, related to using a coursebook in a more unplugged style.

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