Category Archives: Different ways to use a coursebook

To read better, improve your pronunciation?

To read better, improve your pronunciation….

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.

Some suggestions:

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?


 * Robertson, D. A., Gernsbacher, M. A., Guidotti, S. J., Robertson, R. R. W., Irwin, W.,Mock, B. J., et al. (2000). Functional neuroanatomy of the cognitive process of mapping during discourse comprehension.

Psychological Science, 11, 255–260

 

 

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Pronunciation, Teaching methodology

Adapting ELT resources for ESOL

With thanks to @senicko and #eltpics

I was really sorry to miss the recent Twitter chat under #ukesolchat , not least because it’s a pet topic of mine! It looks to have been an interesting discussion, and there were plenty of different views aired. However, I don’t think anyone really made much of a case for using coursebooks, and I think there is often a rather knee-jerk reaction against using them in ESOL contexts. I hasten to say that this wasn’t apparent in this chat, but it is a common perception.

As you may know, a large part of my ‘job’ these days involves writing coursebooks, so I admit to a bias. But my convictions don’t come from this, but from 10 years teaching ESOL in an FE College, and a further three years training ESOL teachers from a wide variety of contexts, at Warwick University.

I would never argue that an ELT coursebook should form the syllabus for an ESOL course. It’s obvious that some of the material will be unsuitable or inappropriate, and many good points on this were made in the twitter discussion I mentioned. A lot of coursebooks (and I’ve written some) are specifically designed to be ‘aspirational’, which means they refer to foreign holidays, the latest technology and so on. There may be culturally inappropriate topics, such as dating or divorce. There will probably be topics about family, childhood or home, which may bring up painful issues for refugees. There may be (who am I kidding, there will be) an assumption that the learners’ literacy skills are at the same level as their listening and speaking skills. There will probably be an emphasis on grammar rather than functions (which is one of the reasons I agree with @SamShep when he says that older coursebooks are often better for ESOL)

So, no, I wouldn’t suggest taking a coursebook and using it willy-nilly (and that goes for any context).

But, …there will also be a lot of activities that will work perfectly well just as they are, and/or that can be adapted. Coursebook writers generally have a lot of experience, and can write materials which work, and which have been through a long process of being written and rewritten after feedback from editors and often focus groups of teachers as well.

Writing all your own materials is very time-consuming, it can lead to a lack of variety, and it isn’t that easy. In my experience, a lot of ESOL teachers (present company probably excepted) have not had much training in either language awareness or materials development (a point also made in the discussion), and they may well struggle to produce materials which are pitched at the right level, deal with language accurately and clearly, and which flow well. I have observed a lot of teachers using a series of unconnected worksheets printed from websites, or authentic articles which are waded through slowly and painfully. Using a coursebook as a basis can be a good way of learning to produce your own materials, as you see how activities can be sequenced effectively. It’s certainly how I learnt.

Specific ideas for adapting ELT materials for ESOL

The first point being, if an activity is really unsuitable, obviously, do something else instead!

But if it has potential..

Reading/listening

  • If your students have low levels of literacy, but better listening skills, then why not read a text aloud to them instead of making them read it?  You should be able to significantly aid understanding through intonation, mime, quick comprehension checks and so on.
  • Differentiate texts by setting different questions (the more closed, the easier), or use them as a dictation and remove more words/chunks for more confident learners.
  • Replace unsuitable texts with something more appropriate, but which covers similar vocabulary/functions. For example a text about dangerous sports which highlights ‘Have you ever?’ could be replaced by you telling the students about something unusual you have done, that is still within their experience. This means you can probably still use the follow-up activities.
  • Use the recordings to work on decoding skills, rather than just comprehension questions.  This can be a stepping stone to work on more challenging authentic listenings and videos.
  • Let students look at the transcript while they’re listening. This can be really helpful in raising awareness of the sound-spelling relationships in English, and it’s something you usually can’t do with authentic material.

Language focus

  • Use the grammar exercises selectively, when students have demonstrated a need for a particular language point to provide practice, rather than feeling you need to work through the grammar syllabus.
  • Make good use of functional language, as this is often far more relevant for ESOL students than it is for the majority of the book’s target users, living in a non-English speaking community.

Speaking/writing

  • Use the communication activities/tasks as the basis for a Language Experience Approach activity, where students work together to create a text about the activity they have carried out. This text can then be used as the basis for future work.
  • ESOL students may be less likely to need academic style essays (though some will of course), but there are usually plenty of practical writing activities. For example, in any PET level  coursebooks, students will learn how to write emails to friends with a variety of functions- apologising, thanking, inviting. And why assume that ESOL students don’t want to write creatively?

So, while recognising all the drawbacks of the ELT coursebook in an ESOL context (or rather different ESOL contexts), can I make a plea not to chuck out the baby with the bath-water?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology

How to activate the ‘Useful Language’ box in your coursebook.

From New Total English Intermediate- Pearson 2011

A common feature in many coursebooks is the ‘Useful Language’ box. This is usually a collection of phrases which the authors consider may be useful for an upcoming speaking activity. A ‘useful language’ box is potentially a great idea because the tendency in speaking activities can be for students to simply stay safe and just use what they already know. Providing this language gives us the opportunity to scaffold their learning and encourage the learners to stretch themselves a bit.

However, in practice, there are two recurring problems.

  1. What do you actually do with the Useful Language box? Just getting students to read through it certainly isn’t enough to get them using the language.
  2. There seems for many students to be a reluctance or inability to use the language straightaway (see this recent conversation on Pearson ELT Community). And if they don’t use it straightaway, what are the chances of them locating and using it at a later date?

I think most people would agree that for students to use new language:

– They need to process the language in some way, work with it, not just be shown it.

– They need to know exactly how to use it in and in what context.

– They need to need to use it.

A good place to start with ‘useful language’ is by having it come out of a recording, rather than just being on the page. With the example above, from New Total English Intermediate, students have been listening to a short presentation, with follow up questions, and, after carrying out other comprehension based tasks, they listen again and tick the phrases they hear being used. They then prepare and give their own mini-presentations.

This approach works in terms of providing context, and it also means that there is a model for pronunciation, which is often very important with functional language (more later). However, there is still, I feel, something missing between identifying the phrases and being expected to use them.

Contextualisation

If the ‘useful language’ came from a recording, students will already have some idea of how they can be used in context. If not, you will, I think, need to provide some. Live listening can be good way of doing this (see my previous post for details). Essentially, you provide the model, ideally recording yourself so that it can be replayed. With the example of useful language given here, you might ask a confident student to give a short presentation on a very familiar and unthreatening topic and warn them that you will ask lots of questions! You can then play the recording back and start to work with the language, as discussed below.

Other ideas for processing the language

Categorisation

Exactly how you do this obviously depends on the language, but, for example, with the language box above, you could ask students to divide the first section into phrases to use when you don’t understand, and phrases to use when you want more information. If the categories aren’t clear-cut, so much the better as this will force students to discuss why they have chosen to put a phrase in that category- and thus create more processing.

Phrase completion

Useful language boxes often have phrases with elllipses (…….), so that students can complete them however they choose. Fine, if they have the faintest idea how to complete them! So, one task could be to give them a context, and ask them to write a completion for each phrase. For example, with this useful language box, you could give a short talk yourself, or use the recording, or use a short video and ask students to prepare questions using the stems. This will also help you to see whether they are able to use them grammatically. As an example, I think many students might struggle with completing ‘What I’d like to know is…’ because of the emphatic structure used.

Dictation

Rather than showing them the useful language box, try closing the book and dictating the phrases. You could add some challenge by mixing up the phrases and asking them to decide where in the box they belong (in this example, in ‘Asking for clarification or more information, or in dealing with difficult questions)

You should make sure that you dictate the phrases in a natural way, as complete phrases, with appropriate intonation, and normal features of connected speech. This will then have the added bonuses of providing a further model of how to say the phrase, and raising awareness of connected speech. For example, some students may well write down ‘What I like to know is..’, rather than ‘What I’d like to know is..’, giving the opportunity to focus on the ’ ‘d’ they didn’t hear.

Writing dialogues

You may have noticed that the activities so far are more focused on writing than speaking, which may seem odd when these phrases are provided for a speaking activity. However, writing can be a good way of bridging the gap between new language and speaking. In ‘How to teach Speaking’, Scott Thornbury points out, ‘Inevitably, because of the constraints placed on mental processing by the demands of real-time speaking, learners tend to rely on a very narrow repertoire of memorized expressions in face-to-face interaction…it may sometimes help to reduce the processing demands on them..one way of slowing down processing is to turn the speaking task into a writing one.’

The following two ideas both come from this book:

–          Paper conversations. Learners have a conversation, but, instead of speaking, they write the conversation on paper. The teacher can then easily monitor and make suggestions for improvement.

–          Rewriting. Students can be given a simple dialogue and asked to rewrite or modify it to use the new language.

Work on pronunciation

As mentioned above, pronunciation is particularly important in using functional-type phrases. They need to be delivered fluently, as a chunk, or they are likely to sound a bit odd and artificial. Intonation is also often extremely important. Think about the phrase, ‘Are you saying…?’  This needs to be delivered with the right intonation, or it could sound pretty aggressive!

So students need a good model- either a recording, or the teacher- and they need to practise drilling the phrases, getting their tongues round the connected speech and using the right intonation.

A fun way of working on intonation is to ‘say’ the phrases using just ‘Mmmm, mmmm’. Students have to guess which phrase you are saying. As they become more confident, they can do this themselves in pairs.

Using the ‘useful language’ in a speaking activity

After time spent processing and preparing, students should be much more likely to use the language in a follow-up speaking activity anyway. However, there are a few ways to encourage this further.

– As described by Antonia Clare in the Pearson ELT discussion I mentioned earlier, you can write phrases on cards and hand out a few to each student. They need to try to put ‘their’ phrases into the conversation as naturally as possible. If the other students feel it wasn’t natural, they could have to take the card back.

– A certain amount of pressure, such as recording the conversation or giving a presentation to the class can encourage students to focus more on using the new language.

– Similarly having an observer in the group, whose job it is to notice when people use the ‘useful language’ can help to focus the mind.

– Depending on the language and the teaching context, students can be asked to go away and ‘notice’ any of the phrases being used in conversation over the next week (on TV, eavesdropping at the bus-stop etc).

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Speaking, Vocabulary

Do something different with the coursebook listening

When teachers talk about ‘doing a listening’, what they usually mean is that they will set the scene, pre-teach as (and if ) necessary, then set some questions before pressing play.

This kind of teaching routine can work very well, and I’ve certainly written plenty of listening sections following that kind of format.

However, in the spirit of John Fanselow, I also believe that it is always a good idea to question such routines, and consider how we could do things differently.

Listening from the middle

In this article (thank you to Frances Eales for drawing it to my attention), John Madden explains how, rather than playing a recording from the beginning, students can benefit from starting in the middle. In real life we often start listening in the middle of a conversation, or when we turn on the radio or TV in the middle of a programme. Starting in the middle helps learners to develop the confidence and skills to deal with this.

Madden starts by discussing times when learners have ‘started in the middle’ in real life and then plays a section from the middle of the recording. Learners tune in as best they can, then discuss with a partner what they understood, and what they think might have been said before they started listening. They can then listen to the entire recording to check their predictions.

Pausing and predicting

Rather than always beginning by asking students to predict the content of a recording, another way of encouraging prediction might be to pause the recording while playing and ask for predictions.

There are several ways I can think of to do this:

1. If the recording is a dialogue, stop the recording after each utterance by person A, and ask students to either say, or write down what they think person B might say. They can then continue listening to check their ideas.

2. Stop the recording about halfway through, and ask students to either continue the conversation they have been listening to, or, if a monologue, to write down what they think the person will say in the rest of the talk.  This could work very well with a well-signposted monologue of the kind found in more academic English

Pausing and focusing on language

These activities would work better after using the comprehension activities in the coursebook, as a way of encouraging students to notice certain aspects of language. For more on this kind of bottom up activity, you might like to read John Field, and my article on Decoding Skills

1. Having previously picked out some useful expressions from the listening, pause the recording halfway through the expression, and ask students try and complete it from memory.

E.g. I had to learn the poem……by heart.

2. Using only a short part of the recording, pause at the end of each sentence or longer phrase, and ask students to write down what they hear. This can work really well for identifying students’ difficulties in decoding connected speech.

3. Pause the recording after referring expressions and ask students to identify what they refer to.

E.g. Albert Einstein is widely considered to be a genius. However, his education did not start off so well (pause-who does his refer to?). He didn’t learn to speak fluently until six or seven and one of his teacher wrote on his school report (pause-who does his refer to?) ‘He will never amount to anything.’, meaning he would never be successful. How wrong he was! (pause- who does he refer to?)

[extract taken from New Total English Intermediate]

Focusing on strategies

Rather than providing a follow-up related to the content of the text, you could carry out a protocol activity. After carrying out your comprehension activity, play the recording again and ask students to write down (in L1 if lower level students), as far as they can remember, what they were thinking at each point of the listening. What exactly did they understand or not understand, what strategies did they use, did they switch off (when and why?). This can then become the basis of a fruitful class discussion about how to listen.

To finish, you might like to watch this short (7 minute) TED talk by Julian Treasure, on How to listen better. It isn’t specifically about ELT listening, but it’s an inspiring reminder of how doing things differently can indeed lead to something exceptional.

[ted id=1200]

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

What’s the point of planning?

Planning has been on my mind a bit recently. Not long ago I had to produce a full lesson plan for the first time in ages (a British Council Inspection). It took almost as long to write as the lesson (a 3 hour lesson) took to teach. If you’re curious, or fancy trying out a lesson from my secondary course book, Real Life, the  plan (Lesson_Plan_RRoberts-10-7-12-Adv) and the materials are here. Real Life Advanced Page 1.1 Real Life Advanced Page 1 Real Life Advanced Page 2 Real Life Advanced Page 3

What’s the point in spending nearly three hours on a lesson plan? Surely, that’s just a colossal waste of time? Well, actually I think there was a point. This was an inspection in which someone who had never seen me or the class before was going to parachute in and make an assessment (it’s another argument whether that’s an effective way to assess learning and teaching). Given the circumstances, I needed to show the inspector not just what was happening in the twenty minutes they were in the class, but that I had an overview of what we were trying to achieve, and that the decisions I had made were based on sound underpinnings. In other words, that I knew what I was doing, and more importantly, why I was doing it.

Now, I should say right now that I am not and never have been in favour of teaching the plan rather than the students. A good plan is simply that- a plan. And plans can and should be changed according to circumstances.  If you planned a surprise party for your partner and no-one else turned up to wait for the guest of honour, would you still jump out from behind that sofa?! On the other hand, if you didn’t plan anything at all for that special birthday, but just decided to go with the flow, you might have a great time, or you might have a very disgruntled partner.

So I nearly always have a plan when I walk into the classroom, though it may well be more of the back of an envelope type than the full plan described.

After twenty years in the classroom, I don’t feel the need to write a full plan, not because I don’t think I need a plan but because most of it is in my head.  Tessa Woodward has a great way of describing this:  Fluent speakers are fluent because they are able to string together chunks of pre-prepared language, providing what Thornbury refers to as ‘islands of reliability’. Woodward makes the point that more experienced teachers also have practised sequences or chunks that they know how to string together to make a lesson. This doesn’t mean that every lesson should be the same, but that we are automatically able to do a lot in the classroom without having to consider each action too carefully. It’s the same as learning to drive. At first you can’t think how you are ever going to manage to slow down, change through the gears, signal and look in the mirror at the same time, but soon it’s second nature.

[Having said that, it isn’t a great idea to get so comfortable with your routines that you aren’t even aware of driving, and neither should we get too comfortable with our teaching routines.]

When I first started teaching I did use to spend a LOT of time planning, and as a CELTA, and DELTA tutor, I would positively encourage teachers to do the same, within reason. It’s going through that process that helps you to start to put these chunks together (CELTA), and pull them apart and consider exactly why you’re doing everything (DELTA).

There was an interesting exchange about planning recently on Tony Gurr’s excellent blog . I’ll let you check it out the debate for yourself, but the quote that stuck for me [i.e. agreed with my point of view 😉 ] came from Brad Patterson, who said:

‘’I have to admit that most of my lesson planning is in my head – don’t think I’ve written one down on paper for 15 years. But the planning I do in my head is still influenced by the planning I had to do on paper in the past. In my head, I can still hear the voice of my dip tutors asking me to think about why I’m planning on doing something, what the students will learn/practice – getting me to focus on objectives (or learning outcomes) rather than just on activities. Hated having to write out lesson plans at the time, but looking back I’m glad I did.’’


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Using live listening to prepare for IELTS speaking

The extended monologue

In the second part of the IELTS test, candidates have to speak for 1-2 minutes on a given topic, having been given 1 minute to prepare. (Incidentally, I have mentioned IELTS in the title, because this is perhaps the best known example, but there are other speaking exams (e.g. Cambridge ESOL Skills for Life L1 and L2 ) where candidates have to carry out similar tasks).

Although Part 2 of IELTS is not actually as tough as Part 3, for many candidates, it is the part they dread the most. However, it is also the part where familiarity with the task and plenty of practice can really make a huge difference. As an IELTS examiner, I sometimes examine native speakers applying to emigrate to Australia, and even these perfectly fluent speakers can struggle with Part 2 if unprepared.

In IELTS the candidate is given a number of points to cover. For example:

Describe a leisure activity which you enjoy doing.

You should say:

–          What the activity is and how you do it

–          When and how often you do it

–          What equipment you need

And explain why you enjoy it.

[example from IELTS Foundation Second Edition]

In order to do well in this part of the exam, students need to:

1 Structure their answer well, so that it is coherent and cohesive.

2 Speak fluently, without too many hesitations.

3 Demonstrate accuracy and range in their language.

Live listening is an excellent technique for both modelling the kind of answer the students should be aiming for, and providing a source for language they can use.

What is live listening?

In a nutshell, live listening means listening to the teacher (or another visitor), in a face to face situation, rather than using a pre-prepared recording. The teacher can be a neglected resource in terms of listening, as teachers try to avoid the dreaded ‘teacher talking time’. However, there is a world of difference between the teacher mumbling away to the class instead of giving clear and concise instructions, and using the teacher as a rich resource for listening.

Listening to the teacher speaking at length offers the benefits of:

–          genuine, real-time communication.

–          all the features of natural spoken English (hesitations, false starts, connected speech etc)

–          facial expressions and gestures

–          the opportunity to offer clarifications

Using live listening to prepare for IELTS Part 2

Using set of prompts like those above, the teacher prepares to talk for 1-2 minutes on the topic. You might want to spend more than the 1 minute that candidates are allowed, but it’s important that you don’t script what you are going to say.

Talk for 1-2 minutes to the students, and, ideally, record what you say. They listen and make notes on what you said about each prompt. Carry out brief feedback. This should help them see how to structure their talk, using the prompts.

Then play the recording (or repeat the task) and encourage students to write down any useful ‘chunks’ of language that they hear, which they think they could use in a similar task.

The reason that native speakers are able to speak so quickly and fluently is because they have a huge store of chunks of language which they are able to pull out and use; they don’t have to create every word from scratch. So it makes sense to encourage learners to develop their own store of ‘chunks’.

Here is a Vocaroo recording of me using  the prompts above to talk about Qi Gong

http://vocaroo.com/i/s0J4pGleT6oB

And here is the language I might encourage the learners to pick out from this recording:

The leisure activity that I’d like to talk about is_______

It’s a kind of __________

It’s all about + ing

It’s quite similar to_________

The main thing about _____ is (that)____

I don’t often get around to it.

You don’t actually need any equipment at all.

Sometimes I find it difficult to motivate myself.

I always feel better after I’ve done it.

Spend a little bit of time checking that students understand the ‘chunks’ and can pronounce them fluently, then put them in pairs and ask them to carry out the same task themselves, using any of the chunks they find useful.

The beauty of this activity is that it requires minimal preparation, but, repeated on a regular basis, with different prompt cards, it can really help learners to develop their ability to structure a short talk and to use natural sounding ‘chunks’ of language.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, IELTS, Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary

Markers, fillers and hedging: not landscape gardening but authentic communication

What differences do you notice between the following two extracts?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the way we live now- we have to change somehow, um, you know. We’re gonna end up with- with no water, with no heating, with- with nothing if we don’t change the way that we all live, so I think the point that he’s making about um homes being smaller um so that we can afford to heat them and to have water for them and, you know, different furniture and things like that is a really great idea.

I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we have to change the way we live now. If we don’t change, we’re going to end up with no water, no heating, with nothing, in fact. So, I think the point he’s making about homes being smaller, so that we can afford to heat them, and have water for them, is a great idea.

The first example comes from a semi authentic recording we made for New Total English Intermediate. The second is a ‘cleaned-up’ version. It’s been cleaned up by trying to simplify the syntax a bit, removing repetition and hesitation and taking out some of the markers and fillers.

The second version is perhaps more representative of a typical scripted dialogue (though things are changing, as we’ll discuss later); the first version is certainly more representative of how people actually speak.

In his article, ‘Lessons from the analysis of chunks‘, Michael McCarthy makes the point that two word chunks such as ‘you know’ ‘I mean’ and ‘kind of’ are actually much more frequent than many very common words such as ‘their’ ‘where’  or ‘friend’.

These high frequency chunks have a central part to play in communication. Some are often referred to as ‘fillers’. They can certainly act as ways of holding the floor while we think what to say next, but many high frequency chunks also have other clear pragmatic uses:

Referring to or checking shared knowledge: you know, you know what I mean.

Clarifying: I mean, like

Hedging (being indirect so as to save the other person face): I think, kind of, I don’t know if, a little bit, quite, actually, sort of

Vagueness: and things like that (see above example), a couple of, something

Everyday speech is full of these kinds of features, so aren’t we doing our students a disservice by presenting them with too sanitized a version of spoken English?

Alex Gilmore, in the article ‘A comparison of textbook and authentic  interactions.’ finds that dialogues in the newer coursebooks (in 2004, when the article was published), ‘are beginning to incorporate more natural discourse features.’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this trend has continued, and, furthermore, there is a recent move towards using more authentic or semi authentic material (such as in New Total English or Speakout).

It is certainly possible to have too much authenticity, and some transcripts of real conversations are pretty much unintelligible, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that including these features in recordings helps learners in processing real life interactions.

Getting students to ‘notice’ markers, fillers and hedging.

Obviously when students are listening to a recording, they are generally focused on picking out the key elements of meaning. However, we can focus on these high frequency chunks as a follow up task.

–          Just as I did at the beginning of the post, you can rewrite part of an authentic transcript in a ‘cleaned up’ way and ask students to find the differences.

–          Alternatively, give out the ‘cleaned up’ transcript and ask students to listen and write down any extra words or phrases they hear.

–          Or, if you can make your own recordings, you could record a semi authentic dialogue, and then a scripted version of the same conversation and ask students what differences they notice.

–          Give out cards with the high frequency chunks on, and ask students to hold them up whenever they hear ‘their’ chunk. (In some discourse the student with ‘you know’ may get quite tired arms..)

Encouraging students to use markers, fillers and hedging.

The first thing to say is that it is probably more important for students to be aware of these chunks than it is for them to be able to use them all.

However, many of these high frequency chunks can be very useful in gaining a little time to think when speaking, while still sounding fluent. Equally, not using hedging or vagueness can make discourse seem very brusque and even a bit aggressive or rude.

Here are some examples of very frequent chunks which I think learners could benefit from being able to use productively:

Well,..

Anyway,..

a bit

you know what I mean

and things like that/and stuff like that

a lot of people

there’s a lot of

I don’t know what/how/if

First, learners need to hear these phrases in context.

Secondly, they will need help with how to pronounce them, as chunks of language, with all the features of connected speech.

And then they will need to see how they could incorporate them into their own language use.

–          A good way of doing this is to get learners to record a short dialogue or monologue, write out a transcript, and then see which of the chunks they either included, or could have included.

–          Or ask learners to repeat a speaking task (with a new partner perhaps), and this time try to incorporate a few more high frequency chunks.

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

Developing meaning-building skills in reading

The default position with regard to exploiting reading texts seems to be comprehension questions. I should start by saying that I am not against comprehension questions as such.  In a previous post,  I looked at a selection of quite traditional tasks and how to write them in such a way that they help guide the learner through the text. As Nuttall (1982) says,

‘The questions that help you to understand are the ones that make you work at the text. They force you to contribute accurately to the process of making sense of it, rather than expecting understanding just to happen.”

However, it is also undeniable that these kinds of tasks are ultimately more about testing than teaching.

Meaning-building is something which happens by interacting with a text, and it is highly personalised. No-one will understand a text in exactly the same way because we all bring our own experience, knowledge, attitudes and so on to everything we read.

As we read, we use our background knowledge, contextual clues and knowledge of the language to build meaning.  It used to be assumed that using contextual information, or information from the co-text (what goes before or after what we are reading) was something that only more confident or capable learners could do. However,  there is some evidence that in fact learners who are struggling to decode a text will also try to use meaning building skills. The difference is that more capable readers will use them to add meaning, less capable or confident readers will use them as a compensatory strategy.

(If you are interested in this last point, have a look at some of the reams of stuff which has been written about Stanovich’s Interactive Compensatory Hypothesis)

Think aloud

One way to find out more about what kinds of interactive processing your learners are doing while reading is to ask them to use a think aloud protocol. This can work very well in small groups. Basically, you get students to read a paragraph, and then discuss with the rest of the group what they think they have understood so far. Tony Lynch, in Communication in the Language Classroom (1996:126), says of this process, ‘My experience is that think aloud tasks make some learners aware of textual clues which other learners in the group have recognised, which would pass unnoticed in individual reading.’

He also suggests following up this task with a round-up where each learner notes something they felt they learnt from the discussion.

Another way of doing this is something called ‘reciprocal teaching’, again mentioned by Tony Lynch. In this version, a different person is chosen to lead the discussion after each paragraph, using four main points:

  • Clarifying any problems
  •  Stating the main idea
  •  Summarizing the content of the paragraph
  • Predicting the likely content of the next paragraph

(Cotterall, S, 1990)

SQ3R

This is a technique which was originally developed for university study, but it works just as well with any slightly longer or more complex text, which needs detailed understanding.

The acronym stands for:

  • Survey: Scan the whole text, looking at any clues in the introduction, titles, layout etc.
  • Question: Decide what questions you would like to be answered by reading the text. Make a note of them.
  • Read: Read the text, trying to answer your questions and note down any other questions that come up.
  • Recite: After each section, stop and see if you can remember the answers to our questions. If not, read through the section again.
  • Review: Once you’ve finished, go back over all the questions and check you still know the answers. Re-read as necessary.

Summarising

This is an old-fashioned technique, but is actually one of the very best ways of seeing whether students have really understood the salient points of a text. Below is an example from New Total English Intermediate Writing Bank (click to enlarge). It uses an adapted authentic text, but you could easily carry out the same kind of processes on any text you choose.

Alternatively, students could be asked to summarise a text for different audiences. For example, to make it suitable for a child, someone from a very different culture and so on. This angle on summarising means that the students have to think about what background knowledge the reader would need to understand the text- which is a good way into thinking about how they themselves use their background knowledge to build meaning.

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

Discovery listening and other ways to read your students’ minds

What do we know about what is actually happening inside a learner’s head while they are listening? It’s a complicated process. Speech comes at the learner in a continuous stream of sounds. They need to be able to identify and discriminate between these sounds, and recognise their stressed and unstressed versions. They also need to be able to recognise where one word stops and another word starts (particularly hard to do in English, with linking, elision and assimilation). They need to understand the meaning conveyed by stress and intonation.

And that’s before we start on understanding the actual meaning of the words being used, and the syntax!

No wonder that students at lower levels, without a wide vocabulary or much familiarity with the features of connected speech are so overwhelmed by all these demands that they simply can’t hold onto the meaning of what they are listening to long enough to piece it all together.

In my last post, hosted on the OUPELTGlobal blog, I wrote about ways to develop these bottom up or decoding skills in listening. In response I had a tweet from Kyle Smith (@ElkySmith ), drawing my attention to a fascinating article by Magnus Wilson, on what Wilson terms Discovery Listening. This got me thinking about ways in which we, as teachers, could find out more about our learners’ listening processes- and of course raise the learners’ awareness at the same time.

Discovery Listening

In Discovery Listening, Wilson builds on an idea by John Field (2000), of using dictogloss to develop students’ awareness of how they are processing language. Field’s technique is to carry out a dictogloss, where students note down all the words they can catch while listening, and then discuss their understanding of the overall meaning with classmates afterwards. The idea was to raise awareness of how they can use guesswork to build meaning. Wilson takes this idea further by getting students to try to reconstruct the text more fully after listening, and then compare their versions carefully with the original. It’s a discovery, or ‘noticing’ activity, because students look specifically at what they failed to hear correctly and classify their problems. For example:

I couldn’t hear what sound it was.

I couldn’t separate the sounds into words.

I heard the words but couldn’t remember their meaning quickly enough.

This word was new to me….

As well as raising awareness, Wilson makes the point that ‘noticing’ these issues is likely to make language, or aspects of connected speech ‘stick’ for the learners. While I wouldn’t  suggest carrying out this kind of micro focus all the time, as an occasional activity, I think it could be very effective.

Protocols

A protocol is a technique used by researchers to try and find out exactly what is going on in someone’s head during a process. Basically, the subject is asked to either talk aloud while they are doing something, explaining their thought processes, or, in stimulated recall protocols, they are reminded of what they were doing, and asked to recall what their thought processes were at the time.

There are lots of examples of protocols being used to discover more about listening in second language acquisition, for example Wu (1998), but I can’t see why this couldn’t be something that teachers could use themselves in the classroom. Obviously we wouldn’t want everyone talking aloud while they listened (!), but after listening to a recording, we could ask students to discuss with a partner which parts they found difficult and why. Or they could listen again with the transcript in front of them, and underline parts that they found difficult to follow, and then discuss why.

Listening log

Another interesting article is Jenny Kemp’s The Listening Log. In it she describes a project carried out at the University of Leicester, on a summer programme, where learners were required to keep a log of at least 5-6 listening experiences they had outside the classroom each week. They were asked to comment on how easy or difficult it was to understand, and what had helped or hindered them (e.g. context, accent). Looking at the examples given, it is evident that this could be a powerful tool for raising awareness and increasing motivation- as well as giving the teacher useful information about each learner’s individual difficulties.

The teacher is a tape-recorder

And finally, a very old (hence the title- should it be the teacher is an Mp3 player?) activity, which is a bit silly and light-hearted, but actually really useful for identifying problem areas.

Simply choose a text- this could be the transcript of something already recorded, or a story, but it needs to be written down, so that it can be reproduced exactly each time. Start to read aloud, as naturally as possible. Learners could be answering questions, or, probably better still for our purposes, trying to write down the text. Whenever the learners want they can shout ‘pause’ ‘rewind’ ‘fast forward’ etc. Of course, you could equally well do this with an actual machine, but believe me, it’s much more entertaining with a teacher doing it. I think students (of all ages), just love being able to bark commands at the teacher!

The serious side of this activity is that you can use it to identify chunks of connected speech that the learners are having difficulty with and then look at the linking, weak forms, assimilation etc with them afterwards.

Please do add any other ideas you have for either raising awareness of, or developing these decoding skills.

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

Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension?

As with reading, a lack of decoding skills can make it very difficult for learners at lower levels to hold enough meaning in their short term memory to effectively use their meaning building skills. This week I’ve written a post on this, with a range of practical ideas, for the OUP ELT Global Blog. Link here.

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