A link to my latest post for the British Council Teaching English Blog:
Tag Archives: noticing
Many teachers produce their own materials, either from necessity or to provide something more tailored to the needs of their students. However, writing materials for a whole lesson, which really engage the learners and focus effectively on language, is quite a challenge. Teachers learn through experience, but are rarely given much support or training in this area.
In this session, given at IATEFL 2014, and recorded earlier for the British Council Seminar Series, I looked at a simple recipe or template (based on Hutchinson and Waters 1987) for producing complete lessons, and considered a variety of do’s and don’ts taken from my experience as a professional materials writer. There are plenty of practical examples and tips, as well as mini tasks to try.
Click the picture for the link to the recording (also including an interesting presentation non using corpora in the classroom, by Adam Kilgarriff).
The handout with a summary of the main points, and the links, is available below as a PDF.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video. Selma and Kenny couldn’t be at their grandson’s wedding, so they recorded a toast- and some advice.
Suitable from PreIntermediate/A2+, the lesson starts with some discussion about marriage before students are asked to give their ‘top tips’ for a successful marriage. They then watch the video and compare Selma and Kenny’s advice with their ideas.
The video is quite easy to follow, though the couple do talk over each other at times (there is a transcript). It’s funny and quite touching.
There is then a focus on idioms connected with love and marriage, and then we look at some of the ways Selma and Kenny use imperatives to give advice. Students can then use this language to reformulate their original pieces of advice.
Download lesson plan PDF here: ELT Resourceful – Secrets of a Long and Happy Marriage
Recently listening to Cecilia Lemos’ great talk on recasting as a form of correction, and how she had decided it was not always very effective, I started thinking again about teacher echo.
Recasting is repeating an utterance which is incorrect, in the correct way, hoping that the student will notice it. As a technique, it has its roots in the ‘strong’ communicative approach, and is based on what parents tend to do with young children, as they are learning. However, there is quite a lot of evidence that students rarely do notice recasts. For example, Havranek (1999) recorded 1,700 examples of recasts and found that:
– Half the errors were committed again shortly afterwards
– Less than a third of learners even remembered the correction (and if they did, it didn’t mean that they later produced the language correctly)
– Peers did not notice the correction of others
So, if repeating an incorrect utterance correctly is probably of quite dubious benefit, why would teachers ‘echo’, or repeat correct utterances?
The most common reason given is that it provides learners with another opportunity to be exposed to the language. This comes from the same roots as the notion of recasting, and assumes that learners learn a second language in the same way as children learn their first language. But, as we have seen, learners don’t tend to notice or respond to the teacher’s repetition, even when there’s something salient in it.
The second reason teachers give for echoing is that it helps other students to hear what the first student said, as students are often prone to mumbling. This may certainly be true, but does it encourage the students to speak up and make the effort to communicate with each other? Or, rather, does it give the impression that the only communication which counts has to go through the teacher?
Which brings me to my third point (which, to be fair has never been offered to me as a reason for using echo). Habitual teacher echo massively increases the amount of teacher talking time. Now, I’m not against teacher talking time, per se. Good quality input from teachers is a wonderful resource. However, automatically repeating every utterance like a parrot is not good quality input. It just takes up valuable space and time.
And furthermore, people do not actually communicate in this way in real life, so it gives the impression that the interaction is not real in anyway, that it’s simply a mechanical exercise.
So, in answer to my own question, I would say that teacher echo is very rarely helpful, and that, while it may be a deliberately contentious over-statement, it is quite controlling and greedy. There are also a lot of much better things you could be doing to provide high quality interventions (more on this in a future post).
If you do want to see how much echoing you actually do, it’s really worth recording yourself teaching. This is pretty easy to do unobtrusively with a mobile phone, and may surprise you. It’s also likely to improve the quality of your teaching, as raising awareness is the first step towards making conscious decisions about the kind of interactions you want your class.
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 a previous post, I looked at how a genre approach could help students who need to produce a specific type of writing. IELTS is a perfect example of this, and in this post, and the next one, I want to look in more detail at ideas for helping students to become familiar with the genres required for the IELTS Writing Test.
At first, the IELTS Writing Test (whether as a teacher or student) can seem rather intimidating. Many people are not particularly familiar with the kinds of texts required, and students are penalised for not producing exactly the right kind of text.
However, as a teacher of General English we ask our students to produce many different genres. For example:
- Thank you letter
- Letter of complaint
- Form filling
- Short message
- Email to a friend
- Letter of application
- Magazine article
In contrast, IELTS requires much less:
Part 1: Describing data
- Graphs and charts
Part 2: Essay
- Balanced opinion
In addition, although I have separated out the different kinds of tasks in each part of the Writing Test, they do in fact have a lot in common. Learning what the features are of these different genres is quite manageable and, while it won’t solve problems like not having an opinion on the topic in Part 2, it will go a long way towards helping students produce a decent answer.
The features of a particular genre can be grouped under the following headings:
Content or communicative purpose
So, looking at the most typical IELTS Task, describing a graph, chart or table, we could say:
- Summarise information (not to give your opinion about it)
- Should use paragraphs
- About 150 words
- Introduction which rewords the rubric to summarise what is shown.
- Clear overview
- Identifying key features- not every little detail
- Logical grouping of information
- Comparing and contrasting
- Describing changes over time
- Rise, fall, plummet etc.
Once you’ve identified the key features, you can start to devise activities to work on each of them.
Rewording the rubric
This comes under organisation, so we aren’t starting at the top, but it is the first thing the student needs to be able to do. Students who ‘lift’ phrases from the rubric will be penalised, so it needs to become second nature to paraphrase.
You can start by doing this together on the board, eliciting different words and phrases for the underlined sections. For example:
‘The table below gives information about changes in modes of travel in England between 1985 and 2000’
Don’t forget that you can change the sentence structure too, so ‘changes’ could become ‘how…have changed’. This is particularly useful if students can’t think of a synonym. Once students have got the idea, and a few useful phrases up their sleeves, this can become a regular warmer, with a competition to see how many appropriate paraphrases they can produce in a time limit. E.g.
The table illustrates how methods of transport in England changed between 1985 and 2000.
In this table we can see the changes in how people in England travelled between the years 1985 and 2000.
This table shows changes in modes of transport in England over a 15 year period, from 1985- 2000.
Summarising information/identifying key features
This is probably the biggest challenge of Part 1, and it takes lots of practice. Depending on their educational background, students may not be very used to interpreting graphs and charts, so you need to try and familiarise them with how they work. A good way to do this is to start off by getting students to make their own, based on information about themselves or the class. In this way they will really understand the data, making it easier for them to identify the most important features.
Next, you could try giving students model answers without the graph or table, and ask them to draw it based on the answer. They can then compare it with the original.
There is usually some kind of contrast in these types of questions-e.g. some sales fell while others grew, so train your students to look for similarities and differences, and any particularly striking contrasts.
One way to practise this is to take a kind of jigsaw approach. Divide students into pairs and ask A to look for similarities between the pieces of data and B to look for differences. They can then share information and decide together on the most relevant pieces of information to include.
Giving a clear overview
This is related to identifying key information, but requires students to summarise the main point(s). It is really important that they are able to do this, though it doesn’t really matter if they give the overview at the beginning, as part of the introduction, or at the end, as a conclusion.
Show students a chart of graph with three possible overviews and ask them to decide which one is best, and why. As they become more familiar with this task, they can write their own choice of three and swap with other students to decide on the best overviews.
Using paragraphs/logical grouping
Once students have identified the key features, they need to decide how to group them. There are different ways of doing this, depending on the information. For example, they might choose to organise it from smallest to biggest (though still not describing every little detail), or first look at similarities and then differences.
Again, model answers can be very helpful. Try asking students to decide how they would organise their answer to a question, and then compare their ideas with the model answer.
Students are very often asked to compare and contrast in these tasks, so a good grasp of the kind of language they need to do this is really helpful. ( Incidentally, it’s also really useful for the other IELTS tests, especially Speaking) This can be achieved through work on formulae (e.g. In contrast, we can see that..) , comparative and superlative structures and linkers such as whereas, while, however.
They might also be used to describe changes over time, which also involves comparing and contrasting, but will need more complex use of tenses (not just present simple).
An excellent resource for typical language can be found on Alex Case’s website
Try using model answers for students to find examples of comparing and contrasting (or any other suitable language focus). Then ask them to look back at a Part 1 task they have written and ask them to improve it by adding similar language.
Essentially, this approach involves breaking down the component parts of the IELTS genres and practising them separately, rather than simply writing practice paper after practice paper. Of course, you can then put it all together and do some practice papers as well.
In my next post, I’ll look at some more ideas for developing familiarity with the features of Part 2 type writing tasks.