A link to my latest post for the British Council Teaching English Blog:
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…
If you found this post useful, why not check out my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, a quick easy reference to all the teaching skills required for CELTA.
[Click the link below the image]
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 recent blog posts I have looked at some different aspects of writing in class. Common to all of them has been the point that good preparation is key to producing a successful piece of writing.
However, there is also a lot to be said for writing completely unprepared; short, fun activities where, instead of thinking and planning carefully, students just get on with it and write. These sorts of activities can be used as a warmer, or slotted into your lesson to change the focus and pace. They encourage students to see writing as fun and help to develop creativity and confidence.
In many cases the activities can also be used as a starting point for longer writing activities, but that’s up to you.
Play students a series of short extracts of classical music, with very different moods. If you don’t have your own collection, a good way of doing this is to use the free samples you can play when deciding whether to purchase a download. Tell students each one is part of the soundtrack to a film, and ask them to write down what they imagine as they listen. Where is the film set, what characters are in the scene, what are they doing..
Similarly, play students a short part of a film (perhaps from YouTube), but only let them listen to it (not see it). Again, ask them to write down what they think is taking place and what the scene looks like. They can then see the original and make comparisons.
With both these activities, students could then go on to use their snippets of writing as the basis for a story or film-script.
Give students a selection of pictures of people. Ask them to choose one each and write a brief description of the person (perhaps as much information as they can put down in 5 minutes). Then put them in pairs and ask them to imagine their two characters meet on a train (or anywhere else you like). They have a further 5-10 minutes to write a conversation between the two. Then take in the pairs of pictures and the dialogues and put them up on the wall, so that the pairs of people are together but the dialogues are separate. Number the dialogues and then ask the students to read them and guess which pair of pictures each dialogue refers to.
Similarly, you could use pictures of places and ask students to write a description, or what happened before and will happen next. There are some great pictures taken from Google Earth at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/20/google-street-view-nine-eyes-in-pictures but BE SELECTIVE before the lesson as you might not want some of the pictures flashing up in class!
Or show students a photo of a friend of yours or a member of your family and ask them to write about who they think the person is, what they think their personality is like, how you met them etc. Then tell them the truth.
Bring in a bag with a selection of unconnected objects. Ask students to pick one out each and either and describe it in as much detail as possible (this is a great mindfulness activity), or put the students into 2s or 3s and ask them to each write a short story which involves all the objects in their group, before comparing their stories for similarities and differences.
Ask students to look around the classroom and choose any object they can see (clock, handbag, board pen). Students then write what from the viewpoint of the object. What can it see? What does it think is happening in the classroom? What else does it see during the day, or at night? What does it do all day? You could also ask students not to mention the name of the object, which then allows them to read each other’s and guess which object is being described.
Give out small 5 slips of paper to each student and ask them to write down words which they have recently learnt and want to recycle on each slip. Then put the slips into a bag and ask each student to pull out 3-5 slips (if any words are the same, one should be put back.) They then have a time-limit, say ten minutes to write a (very) short story, which uses all the words. These stories can then be read aloud (perhaps in small groups) and the others can guess what the 3-5 words were.
Tell students to write a short note to anyone in the class. Once the note is received, students read it and reply. It’s fine if some students are replying to more than one person. You have to be a bit careful about the kind of class you do this with, as you can’t possibly see what’s being written, but it can be a great warm-up for a class.
Reading and writing: Give students 5 minutes to open up the coursebook and read the first text or dialogue they see (it doesn’t matter if they only read part of it). They then have 5 minutes to write about what they read.
Show a picture of a Genie (or dress up if it takes your fancy !) and elicit what a genie does- gives three wishes. Ask students to write down their three wishes, saying why they would choose those things and how their lives would change as a result.
In all these activities, the focus is very much on fluency, rather than accuracy. Just as in a speaking activity, you could, of course, incorporate feedback in a number of ways. You could have a feedback slot at the end, where together you correct some errors you have noticed while monitoring. Or you could use the free writing as a first draft, and take a process approach. Getting students to repeat the writing task later, or on another day, would also be likely to improve accuracy.
However, the main point of these activities is really to have some fun with writing and to get students into feeling happy to just write freely.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The first teacherless task I ever came across was in the first edition of Headway Upper Intermediate. Students were given the scenario of a murder mystery and each given a card with a different piece of information. They had to work together to solve the mystery, without any teacher intervention, obviously using only English.
The activity always went brilliantly and produced a lot of language. It was, of course, a task-based lesson, devised before TBL became a mainstream idea. Later, thanks to Simon Marshall, a long time colleague and friend of Mario Rinvolucri, I discovered that the teacherless task was something Mario was writing about in the late seventies. So, once again, there’s no such thing as a new idea.
What defines a teacherless task, however, is that it is always a problem-solving exercise where the students have to work together in order to solve it.
In Teacherless Tasks (sadly out of print), Rinvolucri specifies three different types of these tasks:
– The students are given a logic puzzle in which the sentences describing the situation are divided up between them. They need to memorise their piece of information, then put the information together in order to solve the puzzle.
– The students are each given a sentence from more than one short anecdote. They need to memorise their sentence then find the others who have the same anecdote as them before finally putting the sentences in order. They then need to prepare to tell the story fluently before being put into new pairs or small groups to share their stories.
– The class is split in two. One half has the scenario of a typical lateral thinking logic puzzle. For example, Romeo and Juliet are found dead on the floor, amidst a small puddle of water and some broken glass. What happened? The other half of the class has a clue each. For example, Romeo and Juliet are quite small. The questioners ask those with clues any questions they like and anyone whose clue helps can answer the question. (Incidentally, if you don’t know this puzzle, the answer is that Romeo and Juliet are goldfish and the cat knocked over their bowl)
I included a teacherless task like this in Premium B1, together with an exercise on ‘managing’ a conversation. See below if you want to try it out. There are j-pegs from the Students’ Book and Teachers’ Book.
The teacherless task can really help to develop interaction between the students in the following ways:
– Each person only has a small part of the information, so everyone has to work together to solve the problem.
– Every piece of information is essential, so everyone has to join in.
– Fitting the information together is a complex process, so the students have to listen to each other much more carefully than they might usually do.
– If students cannot understand each other they are forced to ask for clarification rather than relying on the teacher to ‘interpret’.
– It is highly motivating, providing a genuine reason to communicate.
– You often find that students who have previously been quiet come to the fore, as this task requires different skills, such as logical thinking.
– Solving the puzzle brings a sense of achievement and encourages greater group cohesion- it’s a kind of team building exercise!
The focus is primarily on communication. However, you can start by looking at the kind of interactional language they might need, as in the example from Premium above. You can also note down any errors and carry out some feedback at the end- making sure that you do focus on their achievements as well.
The extended monologue
In the second part of the IELTS test, candidates have to speak for 1-2 minutes on a given topic, having been given 1 minute to prepare. (Incidentally, I have mentioned IELTS in the title, because this is perhaps the best known example, but there are other speaking exams (e.g. Cambridge ESOL Skills for Life L1 and L2 ) where candidates have to carry out similar tasks).
Although Part 2 of IELTS is not actually as tough as Part 3, for many candidates, it is the part they dread the most. However, it is also the part where familiarity with the task and plenty of practice can really make a huge difference. As an IELTS examiner, I sometimes examine native speakers applying to emigrate to Australia, and even these perfectly fluent speakers can struggle with Part 2 if unprepared.
In IELTS the candidate is given a number of points to cover. For example:
Describe a leisure activity which you enjoy doing.
You should say:
– What the activity is and how you do it
– When and how often you do it
– What equipment you need
And explain why you enjoy it.
[example from IELTS Foundation Second Edition]
In order to do well in this part of the exam, students need to:
1 Structure their answer well, so that it is coherent and cohesive.
2 Speak fluently, without too many hesitations.
3 Demonstrate accuracy and range in their language.
Live listening is an excellent technique for both modelling the kind of answer the students should be aiming for, and providing a source for language they can use.
What is live listening?
In a nutshell, live listening means listening to the teacher (or another visitor), in a face to face situation, rather than using a pre-prepared recording. The teacher can be a neglected resource in terms of listening, as teachers try to avoid the dreaded ‘teacher talking time’. However, there is a world of difference between the teacher mumbling away to the class instead of giving clear and concise instructions, and using the teacher as a rich resource for listening.
Listening to the teacher speaking at length offers the benefits of:
– genuine, real-time communication.
– all the features of natural spoken English (hesitations, false starts, connected speech etc)
– facial expressions and gestures
– the opportunity to offer clarifications
Using live listening to prepare for IELTS Part 2
Using set of prompts like those above, the teacher prepares to talk for 1-2 minutes on the topic. You might want to spend more than the 1 minute that candidates are allowed, but it’s important that you don’t script what you are going to say.
Talk for 1-2 minutes to the students, and, ideally, record what you say. They listen and make notes on what you said about each prompt. Carry out brief feedback. This should help them see how to structure their talk, using the prompts.
Then play the recording (or repeat the task) and encourage students to write down any useful ‘chunks’ of language that they hear, which they think they could use in a similar task.
The reason that native speakers are able to speak so quickly and fluently is because they have a huge store of chunks of language which they are able to pull out and use; they don’t have to create every word from scratch. So it makes sense to encourage learners to develop their own store of ‘chunks’.
Here is a Vocaroo recording of me using the prompts above to talk about Qi Gong
And here is the language I might encourage the learners to pick out from this recording:
The leisure activity that I’d like to talk about is_______
It’s a kind of __________
It’s all about + ing
It’s quite similar to_________
The main thing about _____ is (that)____
I don’t often get around to it.
You don’t actually need any equipment at all.
Sometimes I find it difficult to motivate myself.
I always feel better after I’ve done it.
Spend a little bit of time checking that students understand the ‘chunks’ and can pronounce them fluently, then put them in pairs and ask them to carry out the same task themselves, using any of the chunks they find useful.
The beauty of this activity is that it requires minimal preparation, but, repeated on a regular basis, with different prompt cards, it can really help learners to develop their ability to structure a short talk and to use natural sounding ‘chunks’ of language.
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.
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.
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.
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.