A free downloadable lesson based around another wonderful animated true story from 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.
A free downloadable lesson based around a video of British chef, Jamie Oliver, demonstrating exactly what does go into cheap chicken nuggets to a group of American children. It’s pretty revolting, but the children reckon it’s ‘awesome’..and there’s a surprise at the end.
The lesson is at two levels, Lower Intermediate (A2+) and Upper Intermediate (B2+). Both versions introduce a set of vocabulary for talking about junk food, and both have a variety of discussion tasks and questions. The lower level version also introduces some functional language for giving opinions and agreeing and disagreeing, while the higher level version looks at how to use contrast markers, although, even though, despite etc.
A free downloadable lesson about Heidemarie Schwermer, who lives without using money. Suitable from Upper Intermediate (B2) upwards, the lesson uses an authentic newspaper article, and focuses on reading, vocabulary and discussion. Note that the video below, which is in German, with English subtitles, is a lead-in, with the main focus on the authentic reading text to follow.
After the lead-in, students work on vocabulary from the authentic text, related to money and different roles in life. They then look in detail at the reading text before being invited to consider their opinions about Heidemarie’s lifestyle, and the bigger question of whether society is too materialistic and whether (and how) it should change.
With a reading text about a real-life Secret Millionaire, who wanted to give something back, this lesson introduces a range of idioms to talk about wealth and poverty and gets students thinking about the gap between rich and poor, the responsibilities of those who are better off, and what it means to have someone who believes in you. There is a focus on strategies for skim reading and the lesson finishes with a writing activity where students write to someone who made a difference in their lives.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 aWASTE lot passing muscatel which warms each in his sour shea
003. And so it was aWASTE crying over spilled milk.” “I think this is where we c
004. “Because the merchant thought it was aWASTE of light to have both eyes open; why not save the ligh
005. is not capable of doing this, then it is aWASTE of money to install it, no matter what attractive indu
006. “As it was such aWASTE of time, you presumably won’t want to come,”
007. because it would be aWASTE of public money to put him on probation. No wonder he
008. misunderstood is always aWASTE of time. Until our Moscow experience, I had not consid
009. which inevitably leads to aWASTE of nursing resources. The Auditor General’s criticism
010. “That’s silly!” “That’s aWASTE, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The pictures show my great grandfather, who was a teacher of English as Foreign Language in Geneva at the turn of the last century, and one of the ELT Books he wrote (this is a second edition in 1901). So you see, teaching and writing ELT materials must be genetic!
The book is a collection of stories in English, which he used to teach. In the foreword he writes (in French):
The author uses this book as follows: he reads the stories phrase by phrase, the pupils translate without seeing the book. Afterwards, they read the stories and tell them in English. For the next lesson the students study and tell the stories; the teacher tells them in French. If you want to make the students’ task easier, you can question them. When you attack the longer passages in the stories, let them translate for themselves before you give them the exact translation.
Note, however, that the stories should not be studied in depth before the lesson. It is enough to go over the vocabulary. This method gives students confidence in their own abilities, gives them the facility to understand and to speak, and teaches them a lot of words, idioms and phrases in an enjoyable way.
It’s interesting to see an example of the (in)famous Grammar Translation method, but what really caught my eye was the emphasis on vocabulary, rather than grammar, and the idea that reading leads to learning ‘a lot of words, phrases and idioms in an enjoyable way.’
Just lately I have been doing some reading on the subject of extensive reading (ER), inspired by seeing Philip Prowse at the Brasshouse Conference the other week, and also Jez Uden’s great presentation on the British Council seminar series.
There seems to be a lot of evidence that ER does help with developing all aspects of language, including speaking. Perhaps the most research has been done into how ER can help to develop vocabulary. Most people would agree that we learn vocabulary through being repeatedly exposed to it in meaningful contexts, and it is difficult (and probably uninspiring) for lessons or coursebooks to recycle vocabulary 10-20 times. If we read extensively, however, we will be exposed to frequent items many times.
There is also evidence to suggest (Pigada and Schmitt 2006) that being exposed to lexis in this way also helps learners to acquire more about a word or phrase than just its meaning (i.e. exactly how it is used, its grammar and its spelling).
Michael Hoey talks about ‘lexical priming’, the idea that learners store lexical items in the context in which they have encountered them, so that with repeated exposure we are confident about using them in frequently used chunks. (Leo Selivan has a great post on this here)
However, there is also evidence that (unsurprisingly when you think about it) learners need to do an awful lot of reading in order to meet most words and phrases enough times to acquire them.
One solution is simplified readers, with their limited number of words. These can also be more motivating, as it is suggested that anything above 10% of unknown words will be demotivating for a reader. (Of course, it also depends if the readers are intrinsically interesting).
Another solution is what is known as ‘narrow reading’. The idea here is that rather than reading widely, learners read narrowly- around the same topic. In this way they will keep coming across the same lexical items. In How to Teach Vocabulary, Scott Thornbury suggests one way of doing this by asking learners to follow a particular news story on different websites, or over a period of time. They can then report back to other class members on the news story they chose (thus using the vocabulary).
However, there is still the issue of whether students will necessarily ‘notice’ the vocabulary, even with repeated exposure. As Huljstin says:
‘Incidental acquisition-through-reading is a slow and error-prone process with small vocabulary gains (Laufer, 2005; Nation, 2001; Read, 2004; Brown, Waring & Donkaewbua, 2008). Readers do not always notice unfamiliar words when reading a text. If they do, guessing the meaning is not always possible. Moreover, many people possess poor inferencing skills..’
It seems to me that, while we probably don’t want students reading word by word with dictionaries in hand, there is probably a benefit in having some intentional vocabulary learning as well as incidental learning. There is certainly some evidence that a combination of the two leads to the greatest gain in vocabulary acquisition.
So perhaps we could ask learners to carry out some of the following follow up activities after reading, rather than asking comprehension questions- or for the dreaded book report?
Ask students to choose a number of words and phrases from what they have read which they think are related to the topic. They could then work with these in different ways (categorising according to part of speech, or by meaning, using them to write or speak about the topic etc)
Ask students to select a number of lexical items they didn’t know but think they might find useful. Then ask them to look them up in a good learner dictionary and find out how frequent they are, and based on that choose 6-7 to consciously learn.
Ask students to note down any new words that they noticed were repeated a number of times in the text. They can then decide if they think these words were repeated because they related to the topic, or if they are in fact high frequency words.
If learners have been reading the same text, you could go through it and select some common collocational phrases (such as those listed on Leo Selivan’s blog) and give them the beginning of each phrase to complete. They could either check their ideas in the text itself (obviously with a page or line reference), or use an online corpus tool like Netspeak.
Essentially these are all ways of making language noticeable or salient to learners, which should go hand in hand with all the benefits of simply reading, or as one of my favourite acronyms for extensive reading has it- DEAR (drop everything and read).
Pre-teaching vocabulary is something that many of us were taught to do on our CELTAs or other pre-service course. I hold my hand up to having trained other teachers to do it- and to having, as a result, sat through an excruciating 20 minutes plus while trainee teachers laboriously explained word after word until the students had lost the will to live, never mind the will to read the text.
Another argument against pre-teaching is that it doesn’t train students for real-life encounters with language; that we’re spoon feeding them rather than teaching them the skills to deal with unknown words.
I am sure this is true, and I would certainly not recommend pre-teaching as a way of explaining all the words in a text that students are unlikely to know. However, done sparingly, I think it can have some value both in terms of practicality (making sure they can actually do the task you set, and that you don’t have twenty people all asking the same question, one after another) and in terms of helping to raise interest and motivation.
The questions you need to ask yourself are, I think:
– Do the students actually need to know this word/phrase to do the task?
– Could they guess it from context?
– Can this word or phrase be used productively within this lesson?
Selecting what vocabulary to pre-teach
1. Look at what vocabulary the students will need to know to do the task you set, rather than what they probably won’t know in the text.
2. Look at vocabulary which is directly related to the topic of the text, so that it can be used to activate schema.
To illustrate what I mean, here is a scan of three pages from IELTS Foundation 2nd edition Macmillan 2012, with a set of activities around a reading text. Looking at the tasks set on the third page, there are certain words which the students will need to know to carry out these tasks. I would suggest:
current reluctant short term effects essential reduce prevent tend to encourage efficient
congestion charge higher parking charges public transport pay per mile
The first set of words could be looked at, as necessary, when the teacher is setting the tasks. Many of them are very typical of IELTS questions and so might well be already known. If not, a matching activity with synonyms might work well with these words, especially with synonyms in the text (most IELTS questions will use a synonym rather than the words in the text itself)
The second set of words however are all linked to the topic, so provide scope to act as a lead in to the text as well as a pre-teaching activity. If you look at the first page of the extract, you can see that these and other related words from the text are given to students to categorise into traffic problems and possible solutions. The students then use the words in a personalised way, to talk about problems in their city before reading the text and comparing with their ideas and opinions.
One of the major problems with pre-teaching vocabulary is dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected words, with no context. Choosing words which relate to the topic of the text is a good way round this issue, and the words can also be used productively.
Ideas for pre-teaching vocabulary
1 Categorising is often a good approach, as it should get the learners to engage with the meaning of the words. If the words aren’t related in terms of meaning you could always get them to categorise into ‘words I know’, ‘words I am not sure about ‘and ‘words I don’t know’. Done in pairs, this should lead to peer teaching and you can monitor and then help with any still causing difficulties.
2 Connecting words: ask students to choose two or more words and phrases from those you want to pre-teach and write a sentence using them. This will only really work if the words are at least half known though.
3 Predicting: Ask students to make predictions about the text using the words given. Depending on the words and the students this could range from guessing the topic, to guessing the attitude of the writer, to guessing the answers to the questions they are going to answer.
4 Using the context of the text: Pull out some sentences which contain the words you want to pre-teach and put them up on the board with gaps. Get the students to decide which words go in which gaps.
5 If appropriate, matching the vocabulary you want to pre-teach with pictures. Relatively easy these days, pictures are a great way of providing the context which would otherwise be missing.
If you do decide to pre-teach (and there are, as we have seen, arguments against it), make sure that the words and phrases are useful and contextualised and that the time spent pre-teaching is worth it for what the students will get out of the process.
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