Tag Archives: emergent grammar

Using a genre approach for writing

Real Life Adv Pearson (1)Real Life Adv -Pearson (2)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?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, IELTS, Planning, Teaching methodology, Writing

Mindfulness for students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)

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 ;)]

Awareness

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!

Dialogic teaching

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.

Emotional response

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/

If you’re interested in mindfulness, check out my new website, www.life-resourceful.com


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Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy,repertoire and fluency

I am very far from being a fluent Polish speaker. In fact, after four years of hard study and living in the country, I was still probably only about B2 level. However, if you happened to hear me chatting to a taxi driver in Polish, you’d probably conclude I was pretty fluent.

I was very good indeed at the basic chitchat of where are you from, how long have you been in Poland, what do you think about Poland and so on. And the reason I became so fluent (in this context)? ….I caught a lot of taxis.

In other words, I had plenty of opportunity for task repetition. In language learning terms, task repetition is a term most often related to task-based learning. Perhaps one of the key articles about this is Martin Bygate’s Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners. In this article, Bygate suggests several benefits to getting learners to repeat a task:

  •  More fluency in terms of pausing and speed (less need to plan as we speak)
  • Fewer false starts and self corrections
  • Fewer errors

These reasons seem fairly self-evident, and you could say exactly the same things about drilling a dialogue. However, while I also think there are benefits in simply repeating or drilling, task repetition is about more than this. Bygate suggests that once the speaker is more familiar with the content, this frees them up to not simply make fewer errors or speak more quickly, but to actually pay more attention to how they formulate their meaning.

In this article, Bygate demonstrated (admittedly with a small sample), that repeating a simple speaking task (in this case describing a film), without any input or feedback, still led to the learner producing more appropriate and more complex language. They improved in terms of accuracy, repertoire and fluency.

Since then, further research has confirmed that task repetition does indeed have a positive effect on complexity and fluency, though some feel that learners may also need feedback on the first task (instinctively, I would tend to agree with this).

So, how can we start to build in more task repetition without boring students? The first thing to say, perhaps, is that I think the idea that repeating a task is boring, may well be a projection from the teacher. If a student is really engaged in a task, and struggling (in a good way) with getting meaning across, it won’t be boring, but satisfying. See this article  for a piece of research which set out to prove this.

In repeating speaking activities, I would suggest:

–      Play about with giving feedback in between repetitions. Sometimes you could give immediate feedback, with examples you have noted while monitoring. Sometimes you could make notes then use these notes to plan a short teaching session in another lesson, before a task is repeated. Sometimes the feedback could be self-evaluation (especially if students are able to record themselves) or peer feedback.

–      Try repeating the task at different time intervals (immediately, next lesson, next week, next month) and see what difference it makes. Again, recording both versions can be very helpful so that students themselves can be helped to notice improvements.

–      Change the audience for the task. This could just be telling the story again to a new partner (which makes it more genuinely communicative), or it could be moving from 1-2-1 to speaking to a larger group, or from speaking to a live group to recording the talk (using Vocaroo or just a mobile phone).

–      Change the task slightly. Choose a new task which has enough parallels in terms of structure and likely language for students to benefit from repetition, but enough difference to keep up the interest. For example, asking students to retell a narrative from the point of view of a different person involved in the story (same events, different perspective)

And, of course, task repetition does not always have to be about speaking. All the above points could equally well apply to writing. We have more time available to process when writing, so combining writing and speaking can work very well too. First students tell and then they write- or vice versa.

And it can even apply to receptive skills work. See this post, for example, on repeated reading.

Please feel free to add other task repetition ideas- I’m sure the possibilities are endless.


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

Some user-friendly concordance ideas

Although corpora are now widely used in putting together ELT Dictionaries, and increasingly used in writing ELT materials, it is still rare, I think, for corpora, and especially for concordances to be used much in the ELT classroom.

Firstly, I think many teachers are not quite sure what they are. To clarify, a corpus (plural corpora) is a collection of texts (for written corpora) or recordings of speech (for spoken corpora). A vast amount of language is gathered, and when sorted by a computer, this can provide a lot of data about how language is actually used, which words naturally collocate and so on.

A concordance gives you all or some of the examples of how a particular word or phrase has been used in that corpora. For example:

Top of Form

001. and win a Mediterranean holiday!”  WASTE of time!” Dad had said. “No one ever wins those things
002.  as they sit around a WASTE lot passing muscatel which warms each in his sour shea
003.  And so it was a WASTE crying over spilled milk.” “I think this is where we c
004. “Because the merchant thought it was a WASTE of light to have both eyes open; why not save the ligh
005.  is not capable of doing this, then it is a WASTE of money to install it, no matter what attractive indu
006. “As it was such a WASTE of time, you presumably won’t want to come,”
007.  because it would be a WASTE of public money to put him on probation. No wonder he
008.  misunderstood is always a WASTE of time. Until our Moscow experience, I had not consid
009.  which inevitably leads to a WASTE of nursing resources. The Auditor General’s criticism
010.  “That’s silly!” “That’s a WASTE, sure it is, dad?” “Both. But the people had done it t

[I used the concordancer at conc.lextutor.ca]

While there are lots of ways in which we can easily use corpora, mostly through webtools, you only have to look at the sample concordance above to see why concordances aren’t used much in class. They just look so dense, unattractive and overwhelming. The sample extracts are also often rather baffling, and can be very offputting.

But you should also note that even in the first 10 examples I selected (there were 72), there is a lot of useful information. We can see that we often use ‘waste’ with ‘time ‘and ‘money’; that we most often say ‘a’ waste of.., that we can use it as an adjective  in ‘a waste lot’.

Most people agree that students learn by being exposed to language, including extensive reading. Using a concordance is a way of giving that exposure in a more concentrated form, so that students can see how words are woven together.

I should say at this point that I am by no means an expert in concordancing; indeed I am probably as confused  (or more confused) as the next person by the whole techy side of it. It is also, it seems to me, disproportionately difficult to find free corpora online. But I do think it’s a shame not to try and use this undoubtedly good resource, and just wanted to share a few ideas.

The sites I have used are the Corpus of  Contemporary American English , and http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/. Both these sites can do far more things than I am able to explain, so if anyone wants to take up the baton and guide us through the complexities, we’d all, I’m sure, be grateful.

In the meantime, here are a few fairly simple ideas I have used in the classroom. They all use the basic KWIC (keyword in context) concordance, though there are lots of other ways of sorting the information.

Pre-teaching vocabulary

Before reading a text in class, you can select a small number of words to pre-teach (see here for a post on pre-teaching vocabulary) and, rather than asking students to use dictionaries, give a concordance of each word to a different group, (or ask them to feed the word into an online concordancer). They should look at the examples and try to work out a definition- which they can then check in a dictionary. If students are likely to be put off my the more obscure examples, you can just pre-select some examples that are relatively straightforward.

Groups can then feedback to each other, explaining the words.

You may ask why not simply check in a dictionary in the first place- but there is evidence to suggest that students will gain a greater understanding of how to use a word, and be more likely to remember it, if they have seen it in several contexts.

Raising awareness of collocations

A very simple activity is to produce a concordance with a word (such as waste), which has strong collocates, and then remove the keyword, asking students to guess what the missing word is.

For example, can you do this one?* (I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English):

Many of them were ______ workers, you know support staff, people who cleaned, cooked.

Employment? – All ______ jobs, answered Claire. ‘dishwasher, building janitor…’

..he does _______ tasks vaguely tied to insurance.

If they do find a job, it’s ________ labour.

Clarifying easily confused words/eliciting grammar rules.

Sometimes words have quite similar meanings, but are used slightly differently. For example, ‘say’ and ‘tell’. Looking at two concordances, one for each word, can really help to clarify how these words are used differently. You can then ask students to try to explain the differences they have noticed.

This can also work well for some grammar rules, such as the use of some and any, or too and enough.

Error correction

Once students are confident about using online concordancers, you can underline any errors in their written work; the kind where we just have to say ‘We just don’t say it like that in English.’, and ask them to look up the keyword and see how it would be phrased in English, using the examples.

Useful and/or informative sites about using corpora and concordances

http://leoxicon.blogspot.co.uk/p/essential-lexical-tools.html – a useful list of corpus based web tools (and the rest of the site is worth checking out to if you’re interested in vocabulary learning and teaching)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf46lOnMCfs&feature=related An hour long talk by Randi Reppen on Using Corpora in the Language Classroom. I have the book (also recommended), so haven’t watched the whole thing, but I suspect it is very much worth watching.

http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/using-online-corpus-tools-to-check-intuitions/ A blog post on using online corpus tools (and again, check out the rest of the blog too)

  * menial

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Filed under Vocabulary

Developing complexity through a focus on form

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:

Concept checking

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 )

Planning time

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.

Performance

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.

Repetition

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.

Consciousness-raising tasks

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.

Feedback

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.


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Filed under IELTS, Speaking, Teaching methodology

Ideas for taking an ’emergent’ approach to using a coursebook

Most coursebooks have an essentially structural syllabus. Each unit has a handful of language points, what Scott Thornbury refers to as ‘Grammar McNuggets’, and the assumption is that these points will be presented, practised and learnt.

As a coursebook writer, I understand why the syllabus is presented in this way. Most teachers, institutions, parents, students like to have a sense of the way ahead as a series of steps. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this so long as:

–       We remember that what we are teaching is not necessarily what the student is learning.

–       We aim to teach the students rather than the material.

I believe that the material in a coursebook should be seen as a resource, pure and simple. It can and should be used and abused to best meet the needs of the class.

There are certain key elements we need to provide students to give them the opportunity to develop.

Input or language in context (this needs to be motivating and relevant)

Opportunity to ‘notice’ language

Clarification/consciousness raising- whether after noticing or after using (feedback)

Opportunity to use language (this also needs to be motivating and relevant and ideally personalised)

If all these elements aren’t in the coursebook (and they might be), there is no reason why we can’t adapt it to provide them.

‘Noticing’

Many coursebooks do now ask students to notice the language in a text. There are two possible problems with this. Firstly, the text may have been specially written to include these examples, and not in a very natural way. Secondly, if the text is authentic, there may only be a couple of examples.

One way of dealing with this (and it could be used for any text you want to use, not just coursebook texts) is to also use a concordance. For example, there is a text in a coursebook I’m familiar with which has some examples of the different meanings of the word ‘like’ (as a verb and as a preposition). Students are asked to find examples and decide on the meaning. This could then be extended by looking at a concordance (or a simplified version at lower levels) and deciding on the meaning of these examples before returning to the personalised practice in the coursebook. In this example, students write each other questions using both meanings and then answer each other’s questions before going on to write about a place they like and what it’s like.

‘Interlanguage’

Another example from a well known coursebook has a short text. Students are asked to underline all the examples of articles and then find examples of the rules given. An alternative might be to do the text as a dictogloss. The teacher reads the text aloud, at fairly normal speed (not slowly) and the students try to write down what they can. They then work together to recreate the text. Inevitably, if articles are a problem area, they will miss some out or use the wrong ones. They can then compare their version with the original and identify the gap in their own interlanguage.

Alternatively, or even as a follow up task, students could translate the text into their L1 and then, a few days or a week later, try to translate it back. Again, this will highlight any individual difficulties.

Task repetition

Another way to get students to ‘notice the gap’ using a coursebook activity works well with a more traditional kind of activity where students listen to a dialogue which exemplifies a particular language point.

Fans of emergent grammar might avoid these kinds of recordings like the plague, but it can work well in a kind of task based approach. This way, you begin by getting the students to improvise a similar kind of dialogue (obviously this works best if the topic is something they might actually want to talk about). You could even record these conversations if you have the technology. Then you listen to the coursebook dialogue and encourage students to notice any language in there that they could have used. Incidentally, this might not be the language the coursebook writers intended. Finally, the students carry out the dialogue again, perhaps this time with a different partner. If you have recorded the first version, you could record this too, and students could then listen to the recordings at home and note any improvements in the second version.

Task repetition has been shown to have a very positive effect on what Thornbury refers to as ‘grammaring’

I am very far from believing that everyone should be using published materials all the time. However, always starting from scratch can be very labour intensive and, I believe, requires a good deal of experience and understanding. Why not use everything that’s available, just tweaking and adapting as you go?

Incidentally, there are some fabulous ideas, perfectly applicable to published materials, in Grammar and Uncovering Grammar, both by Scott Thornbury.

Here are a few links I have found since writing the post, related to using a coursebook in a more unplugged style.

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