My latest lesson plan for the British Council Teaching English site looks at the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual, and a few myths, hoping to encourage students to value the languages they speak.
The lesson begins with a few statements about bilingualism. The students decide if these are true or false and then read a text to check their ideas. Having discussed the topic of the text, the students move on to look at impersonal report structures. These are very common in essays, articles and more academic-type writing, and it is useful for students at this level to be aware of them and to be able to produce them accurately.
After some practice with these structures, the lesson ends with a more light-hearted and personalised practice activity.
To raise awareness of the benefits of speaking more than one language
To enable students to recognise and use impersonal report structures
To provide students with practice in making predictions and reading to confirm them
Adults or older teenagers with CEF level B2 and above
The lesson and student worksheet (3 pages) can be downloaded here.
Another lesson plan designed for the British Council Teaching English site, this lesson, aimed at higher level learners (C1+) explores what it is like to be left handed – the advantages, the disadvantages and the prejudices left-handed people may face.
The lesson begins with an optional video, and then leads into a reading text in the style of an online article. Students carry out two exam-style tasks – matching summaries to paragraphs and identifying if statements about the text are true or false.
After some discussion of the content of the text, students focus on grammar showcased in the article – relative clauses, reduced relative clauses and present participle clauses. This should review what students already know and add a little more to their understanding of the area.
If time, students can then go on to write about another group who often experience prejudice, using relative clauses where appropriate.
Raise awareness of the issues related to being left-handed, and consider prejudice in general
Develop the skills of reading for gist (multiple matching) and specific info (true/false)
Encourage students to justify/back up their answers to true/false questions.
Review defining and non-defining relative clauses and look at reduced relative clauses and clauses using present participles instead of a relative clause.
Develop listening skills though an optional video lead-in
Develop writing skills and practice using relative clauses accurately and appropriately thought an optional writing activity.
In a previous post I took a look at some ideas for using a genre approach to help students with IELTS writing, Task 1. In this post, I’d like to look at some ideas for Task 2, the essay. This is obviously equally applicable to anyone with students who need to write semi-academic opinion essays.
Taking a genre approach means looking at the key features of a particular genre, and helping to raise students’ awareness of these features, and thus their ability to reproduce them.
Useful headings to consider are:
Content or communicative purpose- Layout- Organisation- Grammatical structures- Lexis/formulae
Broadly speaking, all the tasks in IELTS Part 2 have the same communicative purpose- to express your opinions on a topic of general interest. The layout will also be the same, with an introduction, paragraphs for each key idea and a conclusion.
However, the organisation will vary depending on the specific type of question. It’s really worth familiarising your students with the different types of question and how to approach them.
There are essentially three different types of questions in IELTS
1 Presenting your argument: Often phrased ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’
2 Balanced argument: Often phrased ‘Some people think…Others think…Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’ Or ‘Discuss the advantages and disadvantages….and give your own opinion’
3 Problem/cause and solution: Phrasing varies, but could be ‘What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measure could be taken to solve them?’
Each of these should probably be organised slightly differently. In the first type, I’d suggest a good way of organising it could be:
State your opinion
A paragraph for each main point you want to make.
For the second type, you need to be less upfront about your opinion, so:
Arguments in favour
Arguments against (or vice versa)
And for problem/solution:
Conclusion: summary of the situation and your opinion.
Students need to be very confident about these different types and how to organise them so, rather than writing lots of essays, at least to start with, I’d suggest looking at lots of questions (and model answers).
Some possible activities once students are familiar with the three main types:
1. Look at IELTS questions (there are lots of past questions, or close facsimiles, online) and decide if they are type 1,2 or 3.
2. Take an IELTS question that is a particular type and ask students to rewrite it to make it another type.
3. Give students a model answer, and ask them to guess what the original question was.
4. Give out a model answer and get students to identify the different sections.
5. Cut up a model answer and get students to put the paragraphs in the right order (obviously this works on discourse skills as well)
6. Rewrite a model answer so that there is no paragraphing and ask them to divide it into paragraphs.
7. Rewrite a model answer so that the organisation doesn’t flow anymore, and ask students to identify the problem with it.
8. Ask students to pick out the key idea in each paragraph of a model answer.
In some of these activities we started to look at the internal organisation of the paragraphs by getting students to pick out the key idea. One way of helping students to organise a paragraph is by looking at topic sentences. These are a bit of a blunt tool, because in reality, it isn’t always as simple as any rules we can give them. However, while it may be oversimplified, the recipe of topic sentence, supporting ideas and examples isn’t a bad start for many students.
You can practice this by:
Getting students to identify the topic sentence, sporting ideas and examples in a model answer.
Giving them the topic sentences for each paragraph and asking them to add supporting ideas and examples.
Removing the topic sentences from a model answer, and asking them to write what they think they were from looking at the further ideas and examples.
As with the post on IELTS Task 1, it’s worth putting in some specific practice on writing a good introduction. Careful analysis of the question will help, as we’ve seen, with organising the essay, but it should also help students to know how to start their essay.
Let’s take an example from IELTS Foundation. A good place to start is always by getting students to underline the key words:
‘People will never be willing to make the dramatic lifestyle changes needed to control climate change. For this reason, governments must force people to do so.’
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
A good introduction should explain what they understand by the question, and might give a little background information. So identifying the key words will help with pulling out what the main idea is.
Then you could ask students to choose the best introduction from a selection. Here are the choices from IELTS Foundation:
1 I think that it is very important that we should all look after our planet. After all, it is the only one we have. There are lots of small actions that we can all take such as switching off computers and televisions, rather than leaving them on standby or walking short distances rather than going in the car.
2 Nowadays, most people are aware of the threat of climate change and are willing to make small changes to the way they live. However, for the majority of people this does not include such things as giving up their car or giving up flying abroad.
3 Governments must force people to make changes or the problem of climate change will never be solved. If necessary, people who continue to pollute the planet should be sent to prison.
[The answer is 2, because it simply summarises the background situation, and students could then go on to discuss if and whether people should be forced to do these things]
Variations on this activity could include:
1 Giving a question and asking students to just write an introduction as a warmer or change of pace activity.
2 Asking students to compare these introductions in small groups and choose the best one, or make changes together to improve what they have written.
Most students seem to feel that the best way to prepare for IELTS writing is to write lots and lots of essays. However, very often there is no significant improvement from one essay to the next. Students also get very caught up in the accuracy of the language being used, when there are still some serious structural defects. Language is very important as well, and I think there’s another post in that, but getting the structure right can also make a huge difference.
A free downloadable lesson about why smiling, even when we don’t feel much like it, can actually make us happier. The lesson starts with a short video, demonstrating the impact of smiling on the ‘miserable’ people of Edinburgh. After some brief discussion, the students go on to read a text about the various scientific findings about the emotional impact of smiling. The text and task would be suitable for students preparing for IELTS, especially at a lower level, but is suitable for a General English class as well. Finally, the lesson looks at a lexical set of idioms to describe emotions, and the students are asked to discuss how different situations might make them feel.
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
Email to a friend
Letter of application
In contrast, IELTS requires much less:
Part 1: Describing data
Graphs and charts
Part 2: Essay
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.
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).
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.
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?
In a recent IELTS exam, I had to assess someone who lived locally, with a British passport. I’m not sure if she could have been called a native speaker, but I’m pretty sure that most people meeting her would have made that assumption. She had a local accent, and her language was pretty fluent. It was also mostly accurate. However, what was missing was complexity.
There was a lot of repetition, using the same simple phrases again and again. She tended to use mostly present tenses and simple linkers, such as and, but and because. Overall there was a tendency to avoid more complex sentence structures. She produced language confidently and with ease, didn’t make many mistakes, but still couldn’t be said, I thought, to be producing a ‘full range of structures’ or to be using vocabulary ‘with full flexibility and precision ’.
If we focus solely on achieving communication, some students will stay stuck at a certain level of complexity. Therefore we also need to provide opportunities for students to focus on form.
In his article, Accuracy, fluency and complexity (2000), Scott Thornbury looks at the traditional PPP (presentation-practice-production) model and makes the point that complexity was supposed to be targeted in the first presentation stage. Students have their attention drawn to a particular language point, and then get the opportunity to use it.
Thornbury says that there is ‘a growing belief that restructuring is more likely to occur during practice activities.’ Instinctively, this feels right to me. I think those ‘aha’ moments definitely tend to occur more when students are actually doing something with the language. However, I also like the way that Jack C Richards puts it in Moving Beyond the Plateau:
‘For learners’ linguistic systems to take on new and more complex linguistic items, the restructuring, or reorganization, of mental representations is required, as well as opportunities to practice these new forms (the output hypothesis). Ways of increasing the opportunities for restructuring to take place can occur at three different stages during an activity: prior to the activity, during the activity, or after completing an activity.’
So, what can we do at each of these stages to help learners restructure and complexify language?
Prior to the activity
While I think that students have to be interacting with language in some way in order to restructure, I don’t think that they necessarily always have to be using it themselves. What about:
Sometimes seen as a weird and unnecessary hoop that trainers make you jump through on the CELTA, to be abandoned as soon as possible afterwards, concept checking can actually often be a source of those ‘aha’ moments.
A concept question tries to pin down the main concept behind a piece of language and check it. So, for example, ‘used to’. The dictionary definition (Macmillan Advanced) is ‘Used for saying what was true or what happened regularly in the past, especially when you want to emphasize that this is not true or does not happen now.’ So, the concept questions for ‘I used to enjoy gardening’ could be..
– Did you enjoy gardening once or regularly?- regularly
– Do you still enjoy gardening now? – No
[Traditionally they are used in the first part of a PPP lesson, but you can, of course, use concept questions at any stage of the lesson, not just the beginning]
Giving a model
Before students carry out a speaking task, it can be helpful for them to listen to more competent speakers (whether you or a recording) carrying out the same or a similar task. You can then draw attention to some useful language they can add to their store. You could ask them to listen and pick out specific items, or they could choose for themselves. There are plenty of ways of getting students to ‘notice’ language (see this post on noticing in reading )
Research shows that planning time will tend to increase the complexity of language used. It may give students time to dredge up language that they do know, but that isn’t yet in their easy to reach store of language. Or they may learn from each other in the planning process, or you can feed in language they could use.
During an activity
Some years ago I was teaching a class in Brazil, using Headway Upper Intermediate. There was an article about holiday disasters, which included a story about an overbooked flight. According to the story, passengers had had to run around the plane and the first ones to get round got the seats. I decided to set up a role-play around an overbooked flight. The idea was for students to come up with a good story as to why they had to get a seat, and persuade the cabin crew. Instead, the students set up a bank of chairs and started running!
The point being, if achieving the task becomes too important, language will fly out of the window (especially with teenagers).
We need to find a balance between base-line communicating (with whatever means possible) and being too focused on form, so that we are not genuinely communicating at all.
Introducing an element of performance can help with this. If students know that they will have to make a short presentation on their discussion, for example, this can help to focus them more on the actual language they are using. Similarly, recording the discussion for later review, can also help to keep some focus on form, without taking away the genuine need to communicate.
We also know that repeating a task usually results in a higher level of complexity, as students become more confident with the material. Obviously we need to find ways of providing an opportunity to repeat the task in a way which makes some communicative sense- e.g. having a different audience the second time.
After an activity
This can be the very best time to focus on form, as it means that the task can’t have been compromised by too much emphasis on the language used.
Using a model
Instead of listening to a model before carrying out a task, students could listen to a model after they have done the task and notice any language that was similar to what they used, or that they could have used but didn’t. This can be particularly motivating as an interim stage before students are asked to repeat the task.
Self-noticing and reformulation
If the speech has been recorded, students can be asked to transcribe a short section of their speech (1-2 minutes). They can make any changes they wish before handing it in to the teacher. This in itself will be a valuable awareness-raising activity.
Step two, however, is for the teacher to then reformulate what each student has written, as appropriate. The student can then compare their version with the teachers’ version, providing another noticing opportunity.
If you have a large class, you could do this with 1 or 2 anonymous examples (different people each time), and look at them with the whole class.
If students are all tending to make the same kind of errors (such as problems with articles), you could note down a range of examples and give them to the students to both correct and agree on the rules.
Traditional practice activities
In the PPP model, these come before ‘production’, but there is no reason why these can’t come at the end of the lesson, after the speaking, as a way of helping to consolidate language which may or may not have been used during the speaking task.
You can, of course, note down errors and examples of good language (to develop complexity, not just accuracy) while the task is taking place and carry out a feedback slot at the end of the class where you put these on the board and elicit corrections.
Alternatively, you could develop some peer feedback tools. Someone in the group can take the role of listening and making notes, or you could record the discussions (quite easy in these days of mobile phones). Students can then look for examples of particular language forms or particular speech acts (such as ways of encouraging others to continue). Because this is potentially quite exposing for group members, it is generally better to focus on finding good examples, rather than finding mistakes.
I strongly believe that if all we do is provide learners with opportunities to communicate, we are doing them a disservice. Our job has to be to help them to communicate more effectively, which, I would argue, involves a focus on form, at whatever stage(s) of the lesson that might be.
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.
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
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.
How successful were you in noticing? Whatever we are doing, we don’t tend to notice everything- and we can miss some quite important elements!
We tend to notice things which are either frequent or salient. So, when I first went to live in Portual, I quickly noticed the word ‘puxe’, which was written on a lot of doors. It was something I saw frequently. It was also salient, or meaningful for me because the pronunciation is ‘push’..but it means ‘pull’!
Schmidt, who first coined the term ‘noticing’(I think), carried out a study of his own language learning in Brazil (where they use ’empurre’ rather than ‘puxe’ btw). He concluded that he was more likely to actually use language himself when his attention had been drawn to it in some way.
Or as Scott Thornbury puts it:
‘1. Learners must attend to linguistic features of the input that they are exposed to, without which input cannot become ‘intake’.
2. Learners must ‘notice the gap’, i.e. make comparisons between the current state of their developing linguistic system, as realised in their output, and the target language system, available as input.’
A reading text is full of language that we can draw students’ attention to in this way, and thus, hopefully, help them in the process of acquiring this language into their ‘store’.
Before we can start to focus on language though, it is important to focus on the actual text as a whole (see previous blog posts), and then we have to consider which aspects of language to focus on or we risk not seeing the wood for the trees (or the monkey for the basketball players).
Activities which help students to ‘notice’ vocabulary
Many texts will have a clear topic, so this is a good place to start (especially if the topic is one which is relevant to students’ needs and interests- and if it isn’t why are you using it? 😉 ). You can simply ask the students to find words and phrases in the text connected with the topic of X, or ask them to categorise the words and phrases they find into subsections of the topic (example here from IELTS Foundation 2nd ed-click to enlarge).
You can help to expand students’ vocabulary by asking them to find synonyms of words you give them, in the text. This is particularly useful for those taking exams, where questions are usually paraphrased.
You can help students to see how texts are put together by asking them to find lexical links and chains in the text (example here from IELTS Foundation 2nd ed-click to enlarge)
Students can also develop their awareness of chunks and collocation by asking them to find chunks of words that go together, or asking them to search the text to find what collocates with a list of words from the text which you have given them.
Activities which help students to notice grammar or discourse
The most obvious task is to ask students to look at the examples of the language focus in the text and use them to complete rules about its use. Or they could try writing their own rules and then comparing them with a grammar reference.
An alternative is to remove those examples (or parts of them) and get students to complete the text, comparing their versions with the original. This is something which works very well for articles and for discourse markers.
Or you could give students another version of the text with deliberate errors, and ask them to find a ccertain numbers of mistakes and correct them- before, again, checking against the original.
Try a dictogloss (read a short section aloud, which contains the language you are focusing on) and ask students to write down as much as they can before reconstructing the text together. This works well for structures which are very frequent, such as reference links or articles.
Having thus drawn the students’ attention to language, I believe that it is important to give them some opportunity to use the language. Opinion varies as to whether practising the language per se helps students to acquire it, but at the very least it is another opportunity to notice it, which does seem to help with acquisition.
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