Tag Archives: noticing

Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing (Part 1)

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

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
  • Narrative
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Form filling
  • Short message
  • Email to a friend
  • Postcard
  • Letter of application
  • Instructions
  • Report
  • Summary
  • Poem
  • Anecdote
  • Magazine article
  • Newsletter
  • Essay

In contrast, IELTS requires much less:

Part 1: Describing data

  • Graphs and charts
  • Process
  • Map

Part 2: Essay

  • Argument
  • Balanced opinion
  • Problem-solution

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

Layout 

Organisation

Grammatical structures

Lexis/formulae

So, looking at the most typical IELTS Task, describing a graph, chart or table, we could say:

Communicative purpose

  • Summarise information  (not to give your opinion about it)

Layout

  • Should use paragraphs
  • About 150 words

Organisation

  • Introduction which rewords the rubric to summarise what is shown.
  • Clear overview
  • Identifying key features- not every little detail
  • Logical grouping of information

Grammatical structures

  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Describing changes over time

Lexis/formulae

  • 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.

Language focus

Students are very often asked to compare and contrast in these tasks, so a good grasp of the kind of language they need to do this is really helpful. ( Incidentally, it’s also really useful for the other IELTS tests, especially Speaking) This can be achieved through work on formulae (e.g. In contrast, we can see that..) , comparative and superlative structures and linkers such as whereas, while, however.

They might also be used to describe changes over time, which also involves comparing and contrasting, but will need more complex use of tenses (not just present simple).

An excellent resource for typical language can be found on Alex Case’s website

Try using model answers for students to find examples of comparing and contrasting (or any other suitable language focus). Then ask them to look back at a Part 1 task they have written and ask them to improve it by adding similar language.

Essentially, this approach involves breaking down the component parts of the IELTS genres and practising them separately, rather than simply writing practice paper after practice paper. Of course, you can then put it all together and do some practice papers as well.

In my next post, I’ll look at some more ideas for developing familiarity with the features of Part 2 type writing tasks.

20 Comments

Filed under IELTS, Writing

The Icing on the Cake- free downloadable lesson

A free downloadable lesson based around another wonderful animated true story from http://www.storycorps.com. The conversation between a mother and daughter looks back on the family’s struggles as poor immigrants to the US, and how the daughter was inspired by her mother’s determination.

The lesson is  suitable from Pre-Intermediate +/A2+, particularly because the animation helps with comprehension. After watching and listening, there is a focus on impersonal pronouns/adverbs (something, anything, everyone.nowhere etc) and a discussion task which brings in more vocabulary to describe qualities we’d like to pass onto our children. Again, this could be adapted to lower and higher levels through the choice of vocabulary.

Download PDF here: ELT Resourceful – The Icing on the Cake

6 Comments

Filed under Differentiation, Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary

Responding to students’ writing

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.

To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:

  • Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
  • Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
  • Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
  • Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
  • Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
  • Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
  • Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?

It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.

Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?

When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.

In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’

Of course, other academics, such as   Ferris (2006)  disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.

Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.

However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.

In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:

  • Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
  • Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
  • Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.

To these I would add:

  • Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
  • If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students,  but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
  • Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
  • Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc,  rather than trying to cover everything.
  • Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
  • Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)

And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.

24 Comments

Filed under Writing

Process writing: mixing it up

2826171411_7e3f840a36

As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.

The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:

1 Brainstorming ideas.

2 Plan the structure of the writing

3 Write first draft

4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)

5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)

I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:

Feedback

Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.

For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.

Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.

Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.

Task repetition

Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.

However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):

Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)

Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.

Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.

And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’

Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.

So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?

Keep it small scale

Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.

Change the staging

You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.

More imaginative brainstorming and planning

Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?

Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.

Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.

Change who gives feedback and how they give it

As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.

Emphasize the audience

Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.

Use technology more

Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.

Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.

And, using a screen capture tool, such as Jing, you could give verbal feedback on their writing rather than writing comments. There is a useful presentation from Russell Stannard on this here.

Add a sense of humour

The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.

Or give learners some real examples of writing from young native speakers. For example http://www.esher.surrey.sch.uk/Default.asp?page=172  and ask them to correct, revise and redraft.

While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.

15 Comments

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

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

From New Total English Intermediate- Pearson 2011

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

However, in practice, there are two recurring problems.

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

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

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

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

– They need to need to use it.

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

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

Contextualisation

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

Other ideas for processing the language

Categorisation

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

Phrase completion

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

Dictation

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

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

Writing dialogues

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

The following two ideas both come from this book:

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

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

Work on pronunciation

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

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

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

Using the ‘useful language’ in a speaking activity

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

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

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

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

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

10 Comments

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

Do something different with the coursebook listening

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

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

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

Listening from the middle

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

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

Pausing and predicting

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

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

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

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

Pausing and focusing on language

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

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

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

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

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

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

[extract taken from New Total English Intermediate]

Focusing on strategies

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

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

16 Comments

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

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.


5 Comments

Filed under IELTS, Speaking, Teaching methodology