Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ’emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics,texts and tasks – the bedrock of any course. In this article, recently published in English Australia Journal (29/1) I give some ideas for using coursebooks, while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and deal with emergent language. The article is based on my 2013 IATEFL talk.
Tag Archives: demand high teaching
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.
Dictionary definitions of monitoring include:
To check the quality or content of something.
To keep track of systematically with a view to collecting information.
To keep close watch over; supervise.
Classroom monitoring can, I think, involve all of these aspects, and doing it well is a key teaching skill. We’ve all seen (or probably been) teachers who either breathe down students’ necks, making them desperately uncomfortable, or who wander off and start doing admin tasks at the back of the room (though the latter might just be monitoring very subtly!)
Monitoring to check the activity
As students start a task, it’s very important to check they know what they’re doing and that they are able to do it. So, although you might want to back off in order to make them feel less self-conscious, you probably need to at least subtly look around and see if people are on-task. Listen in unobtrusively, perhaps while doing those admin tasks, and make sure they’re ok. If one pair or group is uncertain about what to do, go and help them. If more than one pair or group is uncertain, I’d advise against going round and helping them all. It’ll take too long, and waste precious time for those waiting to see you. This is how I failed my O level maths (that, and too much gossiping). Just stop the activity and set it up again. And this time, check your instructions.
This kind of monitoring is simply pragmatic, and about helping things to run smoothly. It’s most important at the beginning of a task, but you can also do this kind of monitoring while a task is in progress to see if a group have finished early, if they need more support or more challenge and so on. Especially if you’re teaching young learners, you can also assess if they are starting to tire of the activity, and if you need to swiftly bring it to a close before all hell breaks loose.
Monitoring to assess language and/or skills
The other main reason for monitoring is to assess the language the students are producing (or their skills). This is vital if you want to be able to use your skills to actually help students develop. If you aren’t listening or paying attention, how can you possibly have any idea what they can do, or what they still need help with? “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, of course, students are still able to listen to each other, and to themselves, but I hope you get my point.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the secret handshakes that Masons are supposed to use to recognise each other? There’s a secret way that trainers who were trained up at International House (IH) can do this too….they crouch. Well, maybe not all of us, but I’ve recognised a few fellow ex-IHers this way. The idea is that by getting down on the students’ level, you’re less obtrusive and threatening. I think there’s something in this, but if students aren’t used to it, it can be a bit discombobulating for them (I knew I’d get to use that word in a blog post one day!)
It also isn’t great if you’re wearing a shortish skirt.
Being unobtrusive is important, however. You could try sitting at a short distance and looking elsewhere while your ears work overtime. If you really want to freak them out, look at one pair while listening to another, and then comment on what the second pair said. In a smallish class, it can also work quite well to sit on a chair in the middle of the room and lean forward. It signals that you’re listening, but isn’t too (literally) in your face. If students are writing, you’ll need to get closer. Try walking behind as these means they don’t have to stop what they’re doing and turn their book round to show you. It also helps to learn to read at strange angles.
Try not to get too involved with a group as this means you can’t tell what’s going on elsewhere. This can easily turn into small group teaching, while the rest of the class feel ignored, get bored, start throwing paper aeroplanes…. This (small group teaching, not throwing paper aeroplanes) might be OK in some circumstances, though. For example, with a longer project-like activity, once you are SURE everyone knows what they’re doing and can work independently.
What should you be listening for?
Obviously this depends on what the students are doing. Here are some suggestions.
Are they using the language you’ve been working on in class? Bear in mind that if they aren’t, it might be because you (or the coursebook writer) hasn’t designed the task very well.
Is the language you plan to focus on already being used naturally? If not, that will provide a ‘gap’ for you to feed language into later- as in task-based learning.
Can you identify a gap, or language they need to do the task more effectively? If so, make a note, teach it at the feedback stage, and then let them do the task again.
Grammar or vocab exercises
Monitoring should tell you which students are finding it easiest, and which are struggling. How many are struggling? (Do you need to deal with this whole class or on an individual basis?)
It’s also a great opportunity to think about who you are going to nominate at the feedback stage. You don’t want to put people on the spot [unless they really deserve it ;)] by asking for answers they don’t know. It can also be a good idea to give a weaker student a boost by nominating them when you know, from monitoring, that they’ve got the answer right.
As well as carrying out feedback on a task, or conducting an ‘error correction slot’ (where you write mistakes you heard on the board, anonymised and ask students to try and correct them), you could write down examples you heard of language which was particularly successful or useful.
Alternatively, you could choose not to feedback at that point, but to note down what you’ve learnt about their needs and plan a future lesson around them.
If they haven’t used the target language they were ‘supposed to be’ practising, you could take some examples of what they did say (which was correct), give praise for it, and then try to elicit other ways of saying it which do use the target language.
Or you could ask students to feedback on other aspects of the task- such as how well they worked together- and give them your own feedback on what you noticed.
If, on the other hand, you’ve just been filling in the register while they did the task, you can’t do any of these things…
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.
In my previous post I gave a brief overview of what I think mindfulness is, and how it can be beneficial for teachers. As I think it can be beneficial for everyone, obviously, there are applications for students as well.
While I do believe that our remit as teachers can be wider than simply teaching language, I don’t think it is the teacher’s role to therapise the students, nor are most teachers in any way trained or prepared for this. That said, most teachers don’t have a problem with encouraging students to develop self-evaluation skills, and mindfulness can be seen as simply an extension of this.
Perhaps the central focus of mindfulness is the focus on the present moment. This doesn’t mean that you somehow aren’t allowed to think about what’s just happened or about to happen, but that you shouldn’t be so caught up in the past or future that you aren’t really ‘here’. So an activity where you describe a memory is absolutely fine; thinking about what you’re going to have for tea tonight while your partner talks to you about their memory, not so much.
Clearly, it is in the interests of learning for students to be fully present in the classroom, so how could this be facilitated?
Start the class right
In my last post, I mentioned the importance of starting the day right. The same principles can be applied to a class. It’s really important to start the class with everyone fully focused. Some ideas for facilitating this, from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness
– For young learners, start with a song or jazz chant or clapping game.
– Take out something really interesting to look at and gradually pull in everyone’s attention
– Read something really interesting aloud
– Start with a riddle or puzzle
– If learners are engaged in discussing something as they come into class, start there.
[And there was another idea involving using a Tibetan bell….but I promised EBEFL that I wouldn’t mention anything like that ;)]
In this excellent post, Kevin Stein writes about keeping a real time journal- a reflective tool where he jots down notes about what is actually happening in the class as it happens. This helps him to make decisions about what to do next- in essence it’s a tool for focusing on the present.
The same kind of activity can work very well for students, and is a good short activity for early finishers. Rather than drifting off, ask them to write a few sentences about what they notice happening in the classroom and/or about what they are feeling. This might give you an insight into the class or the student from a different angle- unless the student wants to keep what they have written private.
Or you could occasionally carry out more extended noticing tasks. For example, the dogme activity, the Sounds of Silence, from Teaching Unplugged, where the class simply listens in silence for one minute to whatever is happening around them (open the windows or door) and then discusses what they heard.
A classic mindfulness activity (originating, I think, with Jon Kabat-Zinn) is to eat a raisin, with complete attention. For example:
Pick up a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand. Look at it. Examine it. Describe the raisin. What does it look like? What color is it? How would you describe the texture? Now, feel the raisin in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like against your skin? Pick it up with your other hand. What does it feel like in your fingers? Is it slimy? Rough? Smooth? Soft? Hard? Squeeze it softly. What do you feel? Smell the raisin. Describe how it smells. Put the raisin in your mouth, but do not eat it. What does it feel like on your tongue? What does the texture feel like now? How does it taste? How does the taste compare to the way it smelled? Move it around in your mouth and notice every aspect of the raisin. Bite the raisin and think about what you taste. Now how does the raisin feel in your mouth? Finish chewing and eat the raisin. How did it taste? Describe the experience of the raisin.
This can work really well in class-students listen, carry out the activity and then write about the experience. Of course, you could do it with any activity- not just eating a raisin!
Any approach, such as Dogme, where the emphasis is on real-time communication between the people in the class, will naturally promote being in the present (even if you’re talking about past experiences). If students are fully involved and engaged, they are present.
In this way, most teachers will, of course, already be promoting mindfulness with their students, and will be in a mindful state themselves whenever they are completely engaged and ‘in the flow’.
However, even in this kind of dialogue, we are not always in the present. Tim Lott puts this very well in a recent Guardian article:
In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.
We talk about ‘teachable moments’, and it is my experience that the more fully engaged people are, the more teachable moments appear. So, conversation with students can, I believe, be taken deeper, and made more memorable, by asking questions which bring students back to now.
- How do you know that is true?
- Can you think of any situations in which that might not be true?
- Is there another way to see that?
This doesn’t mean that you are saying that what they believe isn’t true, by the way, just that you are getting them to think about it again, from a fresh viewpoint.
A central part of awareness is being aware of emotions and feelings. Fiona Mauchline recently wrote a wonderful blog post about getting in touch with emotions as a way of making language more memorable.
We learn language when it becomes ‘salient’ for us, and an emotional response is a big part of that. A lesson on what makes you happy, by @designer lessons, had a profound effect on a class I taught, both emotionally and in terms of the language they seemed to retain.
Similarly, you could have a lesson about what things make people feel angry (bearing in mind the questions under dialogic teaching above).
In mindfulness, however, there is an important distinction between being aware of emotions, and believing that the emotion IS you. Mindfulness works on recognising the emotion, accepting that you’re experiencing it (rather than suppressing it), but seeing it as a passing event, like feeling hot or cold. They’re just sensations in the moment, and will pass.
The element of surprise
You can’t learn if you’re not awake , said Kevn Stein in another blog post you should check out. He was talking about introducing elements of surprise or challenge to wake students up. Mindfulness, far from being a passive kind of drifting off, is all about being awake, really awake.
So, ultimately, anything which (gently) pulls students (and teacher) awake and in touch with what is actually happening right now, is mindfulness. With this in mind, I’d argue that it’s easy to see how mindfulness applies to the classroom, as much as any other part of life.
For Phil Longwell talking about mindfulness on the #ELTchat podcast see http://eltchatpodcast.podomatic.com/
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.
How would you like it if your students:
– Gave longer answers?
– Answered more often?
– Gave more confident answers?
– Weren’t afraid to challenge or add to other students’ answers? – Were willing to discuss and offer alternative answers?
For all these benefits, why not try new and improved ‘Wait Time’TM?
Actually, I doubt any teacher would need a heavy sales technique to be persuaded to ‘buy’ this idea. These are the benefits which Rowe (1974) found to increasing the amount of time teachers wait after asking the class a question. Typically, she found, teachers wait no more than 1.5 seconds after asking a question before they jump in and rephrase it, or even answer it themselves. By waiting at least 3 seconds, she concluded, all the above benefits ensued.
Her research wasn’t in a language classroom, but Nunan (1991) came to similar conclusions, as did Scott Thornbury in 1996.
Of course, the questions asked need to be those which warrant giving the extra time to think. In other words, more open and higher level questions, rather than very closed or display questions. This is important, because when teachers lengthened wait time when asking lower level questions (Riley 1986), student achievement and motivation actually went down. No doubt they just thought the teacher was half asleep!
But, there is also evidence (Swift & Gooding, 1983; Tobin 1986) that when teachers started consciously giving more wait time, their own skills improved. They tend to ask fewer questions, but make them higher quality- asking for more thought and higher level thinking skills.
As well as wait time after asking a question, there have also been found to be benefits in pausing briefly after a student offers an answer. This gives them time to add any further thoughts, or even for another student to add something or contradict.
And why stop there? As Stahl (1990) points out, there are plenty of other moment in the classroom when silence can be golden. He refers to ‘think time’ rather than ‘wait time’, as he feels this better describes the purpose of such times (for both teacher and students) Stahl lists eight categories of periods of silence:
1 Post teacher question wait time (this is discussed above)
2 Within students’ response pause time (not jumping in when a student hesitates- and/or not allowing other students to do so)
3 Post students’ response wait time (allowing a few seconds when a student has finished giving an answer will enable them to add something if they want to, and allow other students the chance to consider what has been said and respond to it.)
4 and 5 Student and teacher pause time (that there should generally be a culture where it is acceptable to stop for a moment and consider what you are going to say)
6 Within teacher presentation pause time (That while a teacher is presenting some information, they stop for a short time, just to let the information sink in and give time for students to absorb it).
7 Student task completion wait time (This seems obvious, but I have a tendency to ask students to work in pairs almost automatically. Here the suggestion is to set a specific amount of time for students to work in silence, individually)
8 Impact pause time (Using a short pause to grab attention; making students wait in anticipation for the next piece of information)
Of course, especially at first, it can feel really uncomfortable to leave any silence in the classroom. In my experience, however, it is worth a bit of initial discomfort to experiment with this idea.
Alternatively (or additionally), rather than simply waiting, you could of course, give students something concrete to do with the wait time:
• Try getting students to write down an answer first. If it’s a closed question, they could write the answer on a miniwhiteboard (or piece of paper) and hold it up when they time has finished. You could then nominate a learner to explain the reasons for their answer.
• Let the students discuss the answer in pairs before nominating a student (or pair) to give their answer to the class.
• Before carrying out a feedback slot on, say, a reading comprehension task, allocate different questions to different students and ask them to spend a little time thinking about why they chose the answer that they did, so that they are ready to explain their reasoning to the class.
At different times in my teaching life, I have been recorded teaching. While it has never failed to be a gruesome experience watching (or even listening to) myself, it has to be said that there is no better way of really examining what is actually happening in your classroom. Why not try it, and see what kind of wait time you are giving and the impact of it when you do give more?
Nunan, D (1991) Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice Hall
Rowe, M.B. (1974). Wait-time and rewards as instructional variables, their influence on language, logic and fate control: Parts I and II. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 11, 81-84 and 291-308.
Stahl, R. J. (1994). Using ‘Think-time’ and ‘Wait-time’ Skilfully in the Classroom. ERIC Abstracts, report number EDO-SO-94-3
Swift, J. N., & Gooding, C. T. (1983). Interaction of wait time feedback and questioning
instruction on middle school science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching,
Thornbury, S (1996) Teachers research teacher talk. ELT J, 50 (4): 279-289.
Tobin, K. (1987) The Role of Wait Time in Higher Cognitive Level Learning. Review of Educational Research, 57 (1), 69-95.