Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ‘emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics,texts and tasks – the bedrock of any course. In this article, recently published in English Australia Journal (29/1) I give some ideas for using coursebooks, while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and deal with emergent language. The article is based on my 2013 IATEFL talk.
Category Archives: Different ways to use a coursebook
The inspiration for the recent #eltchat on lesson planning came largely from @michaelegriffin’s post 29 statements about lesson plans. It seems that people have strong views about lesson planning, with some advocating a pure ‘jungle path’ approach (to use Jim Scrivener’s term) and others seeing benefits in planning, though not necessarily in following a plan rigidly.
The chat (05/06/13) started with two main questions posed by @shaunwilden: Is planning the same as preparedness and do we need to plan at all?
Is planning the same as preparedness?
This thread was referring to a recent talk by Underhill and Maley at IATEFL
The summary of the talk: Teacher training has tended to focus on technical preparation, yet teachers often find themselves unprepared for the human unpredictability of real lessons. This workshop aims to open up discussion on the moment-by-moment improvisation which is at the heart of teaching, and to suggest ways of developing ‘preparedness’ for the unpredictable.
@teflerinha suggested that both preparation and preparedness were important, and @efl101 wondered if planning became preparedness with experience, and similarly @josayers commented that ‘planning some lessons moves us towards being more prepared for all lessons.’
Is planning something newer teachers need to do more than experienced teachers?
There was certainly something of a consensus that newer teachers needed to spend longer planning. For example @ OUPELTGlobal ‘When I was starting my career planning helped. With experience, I needed less planning.’
However, several people also felt that getting trainee teachers to plan in detail could be counter-productive. @harrisonmike commented ‘over planning can make you less prepared ‘it isn’t going as I planned PANIC’’ and that it was a problem that ‘minute by minute planning is indoctrinated in ITT.’ @Shaunwilden agreed that ‘training courses make teachers overplan to be honest ‘ and that ‘overplanning makes one less prepared and less flexible.’
On the other hand, @teflerinha pointed out that ‘planning in ITT serves a different function than planning in real life.’ ‘planning makes you think things through.’ And @shaunwilden added ‘It’s a way of showing a trainee can analyse language, has taken on board input etc.’ And @teflerinha again ‘To get teachers/trainees to think about why they are planning each stage and how it relates to the whole- and for observers to see that thinking.’
Many people felt it was a process novice teachers had to go through. For example, @OUPELTGlobal said ‘Yes, have to admit that all the planning I did helped in later years, but it didn’t feel great at the time.’ And @pjgallantry ‘you’ve got to know the ‘rules’ of a lesson, before you can bend/break them – hence why Lesson planning is important for new Ts..’
There was also a brief discussion about the value of scripting instructions. It was agreed that this can easily be taken too far (@efl101 had seen 5 hour lesson plan completely scripted), but that it could be useful for inexperienced teachers with lower levels (@harrisonmike)
@hartle said, as a very experienced teacher, ‘My plans maybe 5 lines, but still there, as a basis.’
Does writing a plan mean you have to follow it?
@jo_cummins: said ‘I always make a lesson plan. I don’t always follow it. I often don’t even look at it.’ This seemed to be an important point, that it might be the process of writing the lesson plan that was important, rather than having it as a crutch in the lesson, which might well end up going in a very different direction, in response to the students.
@shaunwilden gave an example of how aims and objectives might change, ‘e.g.you started thinking you were going to introduce language, and then on planning realise it’s more review.’
@OUPELTGlobal asked ‘@OUPELTGlobal: Does planning inhibit sts from “interrupting” the teacher? going off the plan?’
And @jo_sayers made the point that ‘predicting actual learning is much harder than we think and we are often wildly optimistic.’
@teflerinha responded ‘Totally agree, but still useful to have an idea what we’d like to achieve, and then be flexible..’
@pjgallantry added ‘you always have to factor in ‘Factor X’ into a LP – anything from Ss being unhappy over st to teacher having a screaming headache’
@TeacherAlan1 raised an important point, asking ‘Is anyone required to show their lesson plans to admin? Or require your teachers to show them to you? This might easily influence how much teachers feel they have to follow their plans.
But @michaelegriffin made the point ‘My current thought is that lesson plans only get in the way if we let them. Ss don’t feel blocked unless T blocks.’
Can students tell (or do they care) if you have a lesson plan?
@colm_smyth ‘I guess students can tell by structure of teacher’s board work, teacher’s composure and activity transition’
@michaelegriffin ‘I think teachers sense if a teacher is prepared and that may be based on having a lesson plan’
@rliberni ‘Do ss know when things are unplanned (as opposed to unstructured)? I think they probably do’
What about planning a series of lessons?
@teflerinha commented ‘What I really DON’T like is planning a series of lessons in advance, or using last year’s because can’t respond 2 what happens’
@oupeltglobal replied ‘I agree with that. Teacher should react to the students they have – different sts & different plans’
And @cioccas ‘Can’t plan far in advance when you’re constantly changing to meet changing needs in the class.’
Post lesson planning
@efl101 asked ‘how often do you analyse/review plan after lesson 2 compare what actually happened and why and what u can learn etc?
@shaunwilden answered: ‘I did in my first few years as a teacher but then sort of fell out of the habit of noting it down’ and @hartle ‘when I 1st started teaching I did a lot. Now, I analyse what happens in class more, interactions between stds, successes.’
@efl101 responded ‘same but think it would be interesting to see if there are patterns etc. but time often prevents proper reflection’
And a great point to conclude from @mstrep: ‘Good planning makes a good teacher. Ability to improvise and adaptability make a great one’.
Other useful links
@pjgallantry shared a great visual representation of all the factors which contribute to teacher’s input, students’ input and output.
He also referred to The Secret DOS ‘s excellent recent post on lesson planning, The map is not the territory, which I won’t summarise here, but which is well worth reading.
@muranava referred us to this post by Willy Cardoso
Another relevant post is Steve Brown’s A case for anti-planning.
Dale Coulter’s post on lesson skeletons and retrospective planning
Scott Thornbury and other luminaries on the IDTI blog on How important is lesson planning?
And (if I may) my post ‘What’s the point of planning?’
Finally, @michaelegriffin gave us this link to Tessa Woodward’s book on planning lessons and courses, which he says ‘I did not enjoyed this book the first 3 times I looked at it but now love it’
Brainshark presentation of my IATEFL13 talk: Of course! Using a coursebook AND dealing with emergent language
Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ‘emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics, texts and tasks- the bedrock of any course.
In this 20 minute presentation, I look at some ideas for using coursebooks (or any other off the shelf material) while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and engage with emergent language.
When students fail to understand something they read or hear, this often isn’t because they don’t understand the words being used. In fact, it may be because of the words that aren’t being used.
In both speaking and writing there is a tendency to either leave out words we think are unnecessary (ellipsis) or to use another single word in place of a longer phrase (substitution). This can cause considerable confusion for learners, especially when listening, as there is no chance to go back and try and work out the meaning.
It’s also something that teachers, as proficient speakers of English, often overlook. Not least because we find it complicated to explain, even though we may easily understand what the speaker or writer is trying to say.
There are generally considered to be two different kinds of ellipsis, situational and textual.
Situational ellipsis is, unsurprisingly, where the situation or context makes the missing element clear. It’s informal and mostly used in conversation.
For example, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ can easily become ‘Tea?’ if you are waving a mug at someone, or even just sitting in the kitchen.
Textual ellipsis has more grammatical ‘rules’, and can be found in both speech and writing. It could be defined as when we omit something that has already been mentioned (so doesn’t need to be repeated), or when what is missing is clearly recoverable from the text.
E.g. I went to the bakers to get some wholemeal rolls and (I went) to the butchers for lamb chops.
Textual ellipsis is probably most commonly found in the second clause after ‘and’ or ‘but’
Reduced relative clauses and reduced adverbial clauses are also often considered to be examples of ellipsis. With these, the missing words haven’t necessarily been mentioned, but they are clearly recoverable.
E.g. The dark-haired girl (who is) standing over there just smiled at you.
When (you are) teaching ellipsis, you need to find good examples.
The easiest way to think about substitution is to consider it as a form of ellipsis. Something is missing, but instead of just leaving it out, we substitute it with another word, usually ‘so’, ‘one(s)’, ‘do(es)’, ‘did’. [Some people have a wider definition of substitution and include things I’d put under the heading of reference]
E.g. Replacing a noun (phrase):
What kind of cupcake would you like? A chocolate one, please.
E.g. Replacing a verb phrase:
I didn’t like the film, but everyone else did (liked the film)
Note that we use substitution for verbs in the simple present or simple past. For other tenses or modals, we use ellipsis.
I don’t want to go running but I really should (go running).
Have you ever been to Paris? Yes, I have (been to Paris)
How to teach ellipsis and substitution
As with a lot of things, the first step is to raise awareness of its existence. This is something which is often dealt with in ‘advanced’ level materials. This is fair enough in terms of getting students to produce natural sounding language but this shouldn’t be the first time students have ever thought about the concept. It needs to be something that students are aware of right from the beginning.
First of all, don’t routinely ask students to produce ‘full answers’.
‘Where do you live?’ ‘I live in Brixton.’
This may neatly practice present simple, but it sounds distinctly odd. Encourage ‘short answers’ and show students how much can be achieved with the right intonation. (See ‘Tea?’ above).
At low levels, it’s worth doing some activities to focus on short answers. (E.g. Yes, I do, No, I can’t.)
For example, you could use mini whiteboards and ask students questions which require short answers. They have to write the answer which is true for them and hold it up. The advantages of mini whiteboards include the fact that that they have more processing time, they have to think individually about the correct short answer, and you can see exactly who is producing an appropriate short answer.
Alternatively, you could do this in a circle with a beanbag- the person catching the bean bag has to answer, using a short answer.
A lot of fun can be had with really pared down dialogues. Perhaps the most famous example is ‘The train to Oxford.’ As you can probably tell by the reference to smoking and the slightly cheesy storyline, this is a golden oldie. Originally written by Scott Thornbury as a piece of teacher training material:
A: Um cigarette
B: Yes you
A: Um that’s right student
B: Nurse you
A: A year er married
A: Really me too
A: One you
A: Erm dinner
B: Ah busy tomorrow
B: OK where
A: Um Browns
A: Fine Oh Oxford
This, and texts like this, are usually used to work on intonation, and they’re great for that. But ‘The Train to Oxford’ is also stuffed with examples of situational ellipsis and we can focus on this by getting students to first build up the dialogue into fuller expressions. This will, of course, also help with meaning, and thus intonation, when they go back to the pared down version.
Any authentic or even semi authentic recording is also likely to be a good source of examples of ellipsis. Take a look at this extract from my latest downloadable lesson plan, Q & A, (which also has a focus on ellipsis by the way)
J: Have you ever lied to me?
S: I probably have , but I try not to  even if sometimes the questions you ask me make me uncomfortable.
In any listening based lesson, after some work on comprehension, you can pull out an extract like this and get students to complete what’s missing. Slightly harder is to ask students to find places in a text where something has been ‘taken out’ or substituted.
Alternatively, why not reverse it, and ask students to try to cut down texts? You could add an element of competition by asking students to reduce the text to as few words as possible, while still retaining the same meaning.
Ellipsis and substitution also tend to come up as testable items in Use of English type exam papers. We often see multiple choice questions such as:
Susie doesn’t like coffee but I _____.
I can’t play the piano but Jim _____.
Show students some examples of these (and give them some straightforward practice). Then ask them to write their own versions. These can be personalised, about themselves or classmates, or simply as silly as possible.
Once you start using some of these activities, you, and hopefully your students, will notice ellipsis and substitution everywhere!
In recent blog posts I have looked at some different aspects of writing in class. Common to all of them has been the point that good preparation is key to producing a successful piece of writing.
However, there is also a lot to be said for writing completely unprepared; short, fun activities where, instead of thinking and planning carefully, students just get on with it and write. These sorts of activities can be used as a warmer, or slotted into your lesson to change the focus and pace. They encourage students to see writing as fun and help to develop creativity and confidence.
In many cases the activities can also be used as a starting point for longer writing activities, but that’s up to you.
Play students a series of short extracts of classical music, with very different moods. If you don’t have your own collection, a good way of doing this is to use the free samples you can play when deciding whether to purchase a download. Tell students each one is part of the soundtrack to a film, and ask them to write down what they imagine as they listen. Where is the film set, what characters are in the scene, what are they doing..
Similarly, play students a short part of a film (perhaps from YouTube), but only let them listen to it (not see it). Again, ask them to write down what they think is taking place and what the scene looks like. They can then see the original and make comparisons.
With both these activities, students could then go on to use their snippets of writing as the basis for a story or film-script.
Give students a selection of pictures of people. Ask them to choose one each and write a brief description of the person (perhaps as much information as they can put down in 5 minutes). Then put them in pairs and ask them to imagine their two characters meet on a train (or anywhere else you like). They have a further 5-10 minutes to write a conversation between the two. Then take in the pairs of pictures and the dialogues and put them up on the wall, so that the pairs of people are together but the dialogues are separate. Number the dialogues and then ask the students to read them and guess which pair of pictures each dialogue refers to.
Similarly, you could use pictures of places and ask students to write a description, or what happened before and will happen next. There are some great pictures taken from Google Earth at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/20/google-street-view-nine-eyes-in-pictures but BE SELECTIVE before the lesson as you might not want some of the pictures flashing up in class!
Or show students a photo of a friend of yours or a member of your family and ask them to write about who they think the person is, what they think their personality is like, how you met them etc. Then tell them the truth.
Bring in a bag with a selection of unconnected objects. Ask students to pick one out each and either and describe it in as much detail as possible (this is a great mindfulness activity), or put the students into 2s or 3s and ask them to each write a short story which involves all the objects in their group, before comparing their stories for similarities and differences.
Ask students to look around the classroom and choose any object they can see (clock, handbag, board pen). Students then write what from the viewpoint of the object. What can it see? What does it think is happening in the classroom? What else does it see during the day, or at night? What does it do all day? You could also ask students not to mention the name of the object, which then allows them to read each other’s and guess which object is being described.
Give out small 5 slips of paper to each student and ask them to write down words which they have recently learnt and want to recycle on each slip. Then put the slips into a bag and ask each student to pull out 3-5 slips (if any words are the same, one should be put back.) They then have a time-limit, say ten minutes to write a (very) short story, which uses all the words. These stories can then be read aloud (perhaps in small groups) and the others can guess what the 3-5 words were.
Tell students to write a short note to anyone in the class. Once the note is received, students read it and reply. It’s fine if some students are replying to more than one person. You have to be a bit careful about the kind of class you do this with, as you can’t possibly see what’s being written, but it can be a great warm-up for a class.
Reading and writing: Give students 5 minutes to open up the coursebook and read the first text or dialogue they see (it doesn’t matter if they only read part of it). They then have 5 minutes to write about what they read.
Show a picture of a Genie (or dress up if it takes your fancy !) and elicit what a genie does- gives three wishes. Ask students to write down their three wishes, saying why they would choose those things and how their lives would change as a result.
In all these activities, the focus is very much on fluency, rather than accuracy. Just as in a speaking activity, you could, of course, incorporate feedback in a number of ways. You could have a feedback slot at the end, where together you correct some errors you have noticed while monitoring. Or you could use the free writing as a first draft, and take a process approach. Getting students to repeat the writing task later, or on another day, would also be likely to improve accuracy.
However, the main point of these activities is really to have some fun with writing and to get students into feeling happy to just write freely.
To start this summary of the ELTChat on Learner-generated content, which took place at 12pm on 16th January 2013, I’d like to include this extended quote from a seminal article by Adrian Underhill, writing in the late 80s. @theteacherjames found the link, and commented that it had been a huge early influence on him.
‘Most teachers invite students to write stories and dialogues. Well, why not take their creations one step further and use them as the basis for all the types of elaboration, consolidation and practice which at the moment is done using the coursebook material? Instead of processing material written by someone else they can create their own material based on what they want to say and what they are able to say.
This yields two over lapping phases. Creation, which roughly corresponds to what the author usually does, and Exploitation, which roughly corresponds to the things we usually do with a coursebook.
So, If we want a dialogue we write it,
If we want a text we write one,
If we want a picture we draw one,
If we want a tape we make one,
If we want questions we write them,
If we want an exercise we construct one,
If we want to work with vocabulary we put ourselves in the position of needing it,
If we want a dictation we write one, or choose it from the reader,
If we want a role play we improvise it, or else we plan and write the parts.
If we want answers, we turn to resource books, especially the monolingual learners’ dictionary,
And if we need published text or tape material, then we find it.
We take this raw material and negotiate its correctness, we hone it and refine it, practise it, record it, tell it, act it out, draw it, summarise it, extend it, transform it, improvise it, and so on. In all of this there is a workshop atmosphere. with our own everyday life events and interests as the source material.’
Working towards a definition
The chat began by sharing how we might define learner/student generated/created content (settling on the terminology was a challenge in itself!)
@teflerinha For me, LGC is about getting learners to do as much of the work as possible (not in a lazy way)
@AlexandraKouk: also involves creativity and choice of topics, content etc. To which @Marisa_C commented So ss choose topic and content? @theteacherjames responded I suppose we could use almost anything from the students with some creativity. @AlexandraKouk replied they can vote for topics, of course, or decide what kind of materials format they’d prefer.
@efl101 Isn’t student generated content anything sts do, say, write etc.?
@pjgallantry LGC can range from sentence -level and upwards to full-blown modules – depends on lesson focus.
There was some discussion about how far the term could be stretched:
@Marisa_C For example – would showing a S’s written work and generating some language awareness work fit the bill ? or not?
@efl101 Isn’t student generated content anything sts do, say, write etc.?
@Florentina_T Anything that the student can contribute to the class as a _person_ rather than a unidimensional learner ?
@majorieRosenbe I have created worksheets based on the mistakes that come up on tests. Does that count?
And there seemed to be some crossover with other concepts such as learner- centredness:
@OUPELTGlobal There’s something about SGC that places the student in the role of the teacher – ? I think SGC brings the learning back to the student, using the language they are learning to communicate about them to others
@AlexandraKouk replied , the roles are not so clearly delineated: everybody teaches and learns at the same time
@yitza_Sarwono also saw similarities with the Montessori context in which she teaches.
@Marisa_C also pointed out the crossover with TBL.
Benefits and drawbacks
It was generally agreed that LGC has many benefits for learners, and teachers:
@shaunwilden So benefits include motivation, learning from each other….anything else?
@teflerinha Less preparation time?!
@Florentina_T All students know something that the T and other Ss can learn (from). Sharing in the L2 builds ownership and fluency
@AlexandraKouk Developing creativity and critical thinking skills?
@yitza_Sarwono Giving learners confidence and voice?
@OUPELTGlobal Agreat benefit for me is that sts pay more attention to the language they use as they are communicating to friends
@theteacherjames One of the benefits of LGC is that it gives an extended life to the material that students will be possibly producing anyway
@teflerinha Lessons in FE context in UK (where I teach now) are usually 3 hours- so at least element of LGC very helpful
However, there were some downsides too:
@shaunwilden A teacher needs to be at the top of their game to handle LGC, don’t they?..you don’t know where you might end up.
@teflerinha If students don’t produce much, then you don’t have much to work with #lessonplandownpan
@debzi_f have to be careful with sgc that other students don’t just focus on negatives of peers though
@jankenb2 wondered if some schools might not like SGC, though @efl101 responded would hope most schools would not object to sts creating things?
@efl101, OUPELTGlobal and @Marisa_C agreed that LGC might work well as something to add onto a core cyllabus rather the necessarily providing the syllabus.
@shaunwilden wondered Are all sts happy to work with LGC isnt there an expectation of the teacher leading and telling them what to do? But @teflerinha felt it’s about the content rather than the methodology isn’t it? And @theteacherjames commented The teacher will still be telling them what to do: Produce material and then do something else with it.
Towards the end of the chat, the topic shifted towards feedback, but as this is a possible topic for next week, I won’t include it here.
Examples of Learner Generated Content Activities
The Language Experience Approach is one example of how to create and exploit learner-generated content.
@Marisa_C When I taught advanced ss in the past i used to get them to write stuff/ projects for lower levels – can done with other levels too @yitza_sarwono I usually get them to do booklet of selected topic in a month’s time
@michaelegriffin I love bringing something out the next week/class- @teflerinha Yes, shows you’ve paid attention to what they’re producing.- @michaelegriffin Exactly…and I think it tends to have a carry over for next time because Ss know that things will be re-used… And related is using something from loooong ago….and hopefully Ss can see clear progress
@kevchanwow I like to take the funniest sentence, deepest sentence, etc of the week and put them on handout for the class.
@majorie_rosenbe We created cooperative crosswords on vocab for other classes to solve. Great exercise and practice.
@teflerinha Before students read a text, give them the comprehension questions and as them to write their own text using the questions as a guide. They can then read each others’ texts and answer the questions, before they start on the original text. Finally they can make comparisons between their texts and the original.
@kevchanwow When I have Ss summarise texts, one step in the process is generating questions for each other which I then use as comp check questions
OUPELTGlobal I have my students make wordsearch puzzles for a reading text. Then, give it to a friend to solve – student reading text 2x
@majorie_rosenbe Just gave HW to write 6 questions for others on material coming on test, then played snakes and ladders with the questions.
@theteacherjames Quick example (1:1 Bus Eng): St gives presentation, recorded, watch the video back & analyse their own performance. Self feedback
@Marisa_C On an English for Teachers course we used Pecha Kuchas – each presenter responsible for Qs to audience while listening @Majorie_Rosenbe added We are holding session on how to use Pecha Kucha in classroom at BESIG PCE in Liverpool at IATEFL.
@jankenb2 If you have access to a course page ask Ss for Youtube to preview a wk prior. Assign selected to Ss pair to generate novel lang exp. Also suggested Giving ss a rubric for a writing task, e.g. ”write an invite to a party include time, place, location & welcome note” and asking them to write 3 answers: a good one, a satisfactory one, and one that needs more work.
Links and Further Reading
There are three main books that I know of with specifically learner-generated ideas, though of course Teaching Unplugged is along very similar lines.
Lessons from the Learner: Shelagh Dellar- Longman
Learner-based teaching- Campbell and Kryszewska- OUP
The Minimax Teacher- Jon Naunton-DELTA Publishing
All three of these are written in the ‘recipe book’ format, and are useful additions to a teacher’s library.
A link to an article by @ddeubal on student created content was offered by @michaelegriffin
Also a link to the ESL Learners Output Library, a forum for sharing work ESL students produce. http://www.esllol.org/
@AlexandraKouk suggested this article which looks at LGC taking webtools into account http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/learner-generated-content-or-the-best-way-to-learn-is-to-teach/
As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.
The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:
1 Brainstorming ideas.
2 Plan the structure of the writing
3 Write first draft
4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)
5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)
I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:
Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.
For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.
Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.
Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.
Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.
However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):
Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)
Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.
Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.
And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’
Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.
So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?
Keep it small scale
Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.
Change the staging
You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.
More imaginative brainstorming and planning
Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?
Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.
Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.
Change who gives feedback and how they give it
As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.
Emphasize the audience
Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.
Use technology more
Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.
Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.
Add a sense of humour
The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.
Or give learners some real examples of writing from young native speakers. For example http://www.esher.surrey.sch.uk/Default.asp?page=172 and ask them to correct, revise and redraft.
While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.
As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.
However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.
This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:
1 Reading and analysing a model
2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table
3 Freer or guided writing (such as using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)
4 Free writing of a parallel text.
In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.
Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate. In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.
‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.
‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.
At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.
1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.
2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)
There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.
3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.
4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.
5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.
Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:
1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.
2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.
3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.
4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language
5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?
I am very far from being a fluent Polish speaker. In fact, after four years of hard study and living in the country, I was still probably only about B2 level. However, if you happened to hear me chatting to a taxi driver in Polish, you’d probably conclude I was pretty fluent.
I was very good indeed at the basic chitchat of where are you from, how long have you been in Poland, what do you think about Poland and so on. And the reason I became so fluent (in this context)? ….I caught a lot of taxis.
In other words, I had plenty of opportunity for task repetition. In language learning terms, task repetition is a term most often related to task-based learning. Perhaps one of the key articles about this is Martin Bygate’s Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners. In this article, Bygate suggests several benefits to getting learners to repeat a task:
- More fluency in terms of pausing and speed (less need to plan as we speak)
- Fewer false starts and self corrections
- Fewer errors
These reasons seem fairly self-evident, and you could say exactly the same things about drilling a dialogue. However, while I also think there are benefits in simply repeating or drilling, task repetition is about more than this. Bygate suggests that once the speaker is more familiar with the content, this frees them up to not simply make fewer errors or speak more quickly, but to actually pay more attention to how they formulate their meaning.
In this article, Bygate demonstrated (admittedly with a small sample), that repeating a simple speaking task (in this case describing a film), without any input or feedback, still led to the learner producing more appropriate and more complex language. They improved in terms of accuracy, repertoire and fluency.
Since then, further research has confirmed that task repetition does indeed have a positive effect on complexity and fluency, though some feel that learners may also need feedback on the first task (instinctively, I would tend to agree with this).
So, how can we start to build in more task repetition without boring students? The first thing to say, perhaps, is that I think the idea that repeating a task is boring, may well be a projection from the teacher. If a student is really engaged in a task, and struggling (in a good way) with getting meaning across, it won’t be boring, but satisfying. See this article for a piece of research which set out to prove this.
In repeating speaking activities, I would suggest:
- Play about with giving feedback in between repetitions. Sometimes you could give immediate feedback, with examples you have noted while monitoring. Sometimes you could make notes then use these notes to plan a short teaching session in another lesson, before a task is repeated. Sometimes the feedback could be self-evaluation (especially if students are able to record themselves) or peer feedback.
- Try repeating the task at different time intervals (immediately, next lesson, next week, next month) and see what difference it makes. Again, recording both versions can be very helpful so that students themselves can be helped to notice improvements.
- Change the audience for the task. This could just be telling the story again to a new partner (which makes it more genuinely communicative), or it could be moving from 1-2-1 to speaking to a larger group, or from speaking to a live group to recording the talk (using Vocaroo or just a mobile phone).
- Change the task slightly. Choose a new task which has enough parallels in terms of structure and likely language for students to benefit from repetition, but enough difference to keep up the interest. For example, asking students to retell a narrative from the point of view of a different person involved in the story (same events, different perspective)
And, of course, task repetition does not always have to be about speaking. All the above points could equally well apply to writing. We have more time available to process when writing, so combining writing and speaking can work very well too. First students tell and then they write- or vice versa.
And it can even apply to receptive skills work. See this post, for example, on repeated reading.
Please feel free to add other task repetition ideas- I’m sure the possibilities are endless.
This statement jumped out at me recently, from an excellent post by Robin Walker on Pronunciation for YLs. He was reporting from a talk by Catherine Walter at IATEFL 2008, and reading this (perhaps surprising) statement sent me off to find her original research.
In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Walter questions the idea that the skill of reading is something which needs to be taught to second language learners. She argues that successful L1 readers already possess the cognitive skills needed to build a mental structure or representation, which is, in fact, what we mean by ‘comprehension.’ According to Walter, comprehension isn’t actually a linguistic skill, so it’s fruitless to talk about transferring it from L1 to L2.
So why are some learners competent at reading in L1, but struggle with reading in L2? Obviously, lack of linguistic knowledge plays a part. Fascinatingly, though, Walter cites a study (Robertson et al 2000)* which used MRI scanning to show that sentence comprehension and comprehension of a text as a whole take place on different sides of the brain.
Walter doesn’t mention this, but, of course, there has been a lot of speculation about left brain and right brain thinking. Interestingly, sentence level comprehension, or decoding, used the left frontal lobe (associated with analytical, logical processing) and text comprehension uses the right frontal lobe (associated with intuition).
So a learner may have effective (non-linguistic) comprehension skills, and even be able to decode L2 sentences, but still struggle. Why?
According to Walter, it may be to do with how we use our working memories. Part of the working memory is something called the phonological loop:
‘a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub- vocalisation.’ (Walter 2008)
In other words, as we listen, we automatically ‘record’ the last two seconds of what we hear in the memory, like a little Dictaphone. It’s why we can repeat back what we have just heard, even if we weren’t really listening properly to the speaker.
There is also evidence that we do exactly the same thing as we read- that we also sub-vocalise and record the sound of what we are reading. We don’t see it, we hear it. At least, this is true for those of us with L1s that are alphabetic (there is some evidence that learners with non-alphabetic L1s, may use more visual representations).
However, if our phonological representations of what we have just read are unreliable, we may find it difficult to associate these sounds with meanings, and thus find it difficult to keep meaning in our short term memory. This, in turn, will make it harder for us to carry out meaning building processes on the text as a whole.
Walter’s research in this paper concludes that unless learners are also poor at comprehension in L1, we would be better off teaching them to improve how they ‘mentally represent spoken language’ than teaching comprehension skills.
As much exposure as possible to the spoken language- so lots of listening and watching videos in English.
Listening while reading - hearing the spoken version while reading a text. This could mean using sub-titles, or following a transcript while listening, or listening to an audio version of a written text while reading. I would suggest that these don’t have to be instead of our usual listening or reading activities (I’m not quite ready to throw out more traditional reading and listening procedures), but as a follow up.
And finally, explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs work , and focus on word stress and on how words change in the stream of speech . This kind of work will help learners to develop a more reliable repertoire of L2 sounds, which, Walter suggests, could also help them to hold what they are reading more efficiently in their short term memory, which in turn will greatly help with building up the meaning of the text.
And even if this isn’t the case, it will certainly help with developing fluency in speaking and confidence in listening, so what have we got to lose?