The perils of striving for an input-rich class: when more is less!

Two fundamental beliefs I’ve long held about language teaching are that input in the classroom is more important than output – and that language teachers have a responsibility to teach language, which means ensuring the classroom is a language-rich environment, in which new items are explored in a meaningful, interactive, involving and – perhaps above all – useful way. Implicit in this is that we need to be aware of what you might call ‘ambient vocabulary’ – vocabulary which is available to be taught in the material we’re using, but which isn’t the focus of the exercise and which the material doesn’t DEMAND a focus on. Often this ambient vocabulary may be embedded in a grammar exercise, or a model written text students are looking or, or a tapescript, and so on.

Once I’ve become aware of the fact that students have underlined these words, or when I notice them looking the words up whilst processing the larger task at hand, I always try to find time to get an example or two up on the board – whilst students are busy doing whatever it is they’re doing – so that it can be returned to at a later point and clarified and expanded upon. The problem comes with knowing how far to push the examples, and being aware of what aspects of the words are worth bothering with at this juncture – and with this level – and which aren’t. If anything, this is the one main area within which I most frequently retrospectively critique my own teaching: I’ll look back and wonder whether I gave too little, or – as in the instance I’ll go on to describe – too much; and think about how I might’ve handled the word differently (and, as such, how I might handle it better next time it comes up).

Yesterday, I was doing a writing lesson with an Intermediate class, and we were looking at ways of making requests – things like I was wondering if you could possibly . . . ? / Do you think you could . . . ? / Is there any way you could . . . ? / Could you do me a favour and . . . ? We had looked at these sentence stems / starters and were working on four short emails, some more formal and business-related, others less formal and more personal. Students had to read them, add what they felt were the best  missing words to three gaps in each email and consider whether they felt the requests made in each email were reasonable, and whether they’d ask them themselves. One email was as follows:

Hi Zarina,

Just a quick one to ……………….. thanks for the email. I love the photos! is there any ……………….. you could print them out, though, as my printer isn’t very good and I’d ……………….. to frame the photos and put them on my wall?

Michaele

As students were filling the gaps, I noticed a few students underlining frame and decided it was worth focusing on once we’d finished going through the tasks. Students completed the task, compared gapped words in pairs, and discussed how they felt about each request. I then rounded up by eliciting missing words, clarifying why they were the answers, pointing out extra examples such as Just a quick one to say congratulations on passing your exam / Just a quick one to let you know I can’t make tonight and so on. We then discussed the requests before finally rounding up by exploring some of the ambient language.

I explained what frame meant in the context students had encountered it, drew a little picture and pointed to the example in the middle below. I said it could also be a verb and that it’s often used in the passive, as in the example at the bottom. Then, in a moment of wild optimism, I launched into a detailed explanation of the top sentences and tried to convey the idea of the police framing people – and was met with utter bemusement and confusion. Clutching at straws, I tried suggesting that the police needed a face that matched the crime, so they put anyone they could into ‘the frame’ and photographed them and said they were guilty. I was on one of those rolls that are so hard to get off once you’re on them, despite the fact that within thirty seconds of embarking on them you know in your gut that you have to exit stage left pretty pronto!

Here’s the board my poor, baffled weak Intermediate students were left with afterwards.

On reflection after class, it sank in that not only was this clearly a bridge too far, a classic case of more being less from the students’ point of view, but also in a sense a missed opportunity, as other far saner examples could’ve been focused on. Frame is a two-star noun and a one-star verb in the Macmillan dictionary, meaning that as a noun it’s among the 5000 most common words in the language, and as a verb among the most common 7500. Clearly this makes it worth a moment of attention.

However, it’d make most sense to focus on FIRST the word as it’s found in the context it’s encountered it, then maybe the verb – and the fact it’s frequently passive, as above – so I could maybe have added We had it framed in this shop near our house or something similar. It may well have been wise just to stop there, quit while the going was good, but if expansion was worth doing, then parallel meanings less oblique than being framed by the police would’ve worked better. I could’ve pointed to a window frame, mentioned the IKEA bed frames you have to put together yourself, talked about bike frames or choosing the best frames for a pair of glasses. All of these retain a basic and transparent conceptual similarity with the word taught, in a way that other minefields I could also have stumbled into – frame by frame, a shiver shook her small frame, frame a proposal, frame a question – really don’t.

Of course, had there been any super bright students who’d asked if you can also say frame a person, it might’ve been worth dealing with it. As things stood, though, rather than spiraling ever outwards, perhaps drilling deeper and staying closer to home may well have been best practice.

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6 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Hugh. I love this kind of post, with insight into someone’s real classroom experience..it’s like having a chat in the staffroom. And I know EXACTLY what ‘one of the those rolls’ feels like…
    I think you’re absolutely right about drilling deeper rather than spreading wider. It’s often tempting I think to start looking at other meanings/uses because they seem more intrinsically interesting. I have a tendency, which needs watching, to start blethering on about the roots of a word, such as ‘petrified’ the other day- turned to stone. This was actually quite helpful for the Italian student in the class, but I suspect baffling for the majority of Omanis.

    1. Thanks Rachel – and thanks also for the retweet earlier too.
      Every little bit helps, as the evil Tesco’s add would have it.

      In my ideal world, by the way, pretty much all talk by EFL teachers would actually be about the nitty-gritty, about what decisions teachers choose to make on a minute-by-minute basis and what their thinking behind it was. Ultimately, that’s the real meat of what we do and it’s by being conscious of these things that we push on.

      Your PETRIFIED example is a classic of the type described above, and I suspect we’ve all been there.
      With ones like that, always better to give the context and co-text, I think, so to end up with something like:
      You must’ve been really scared.
      > I was. I was absolutely petrified.

      Ever since she was attacked, she’s been petrified of going out at night.

      That way, there’s plenty of subliminal grammar recycling, which can be made more or less explicit, as you like it, and they see how they might actually hear it used, or may wish to use it themselves.

      1. Thanks for the swift response…yes, absolutely, giving them a richer variety of ways to actually use it themselves.

  2. [...] will not always get this work of concentrating and focusing on language right, as this candid and perceptive recent post from Hugh Dellar shows.  His conclusion that “more os sometimes less” is, I think, in line with the [...]

  3. Hi Hugh,

    Thanks for this post. To my mind, posts like this one demonstrate a couple of of the great strengths of blogs. As Rachael said, they provide that “personal insight into someone’s real classroom experience” but also remind us that experience doesn’t mean that you never make ‘mistakes’ – it means that you are better able to respond appropriately when things don’t quite go as you’d like.

    I think this is really important for all of us to remember, but especially so for developing teachers.

    Cheers,
    Kyle.

    1. Thanks Kyle.
      It’s funny you should raise the issue of ‘developing’ teachers needing to be aware of the fact that even more experienced teachers still make ‘mistakes’.
      I’ve been co-running a training courses these last two weeks and one of the things we’re constantly stressing to trainees is that the reason we’re able to see where they’re having problems in a more clear-eyed manner than they might be able to themselves is because we’ve been there ourselves; we’ve walked the same roads, gone down the same dead-ends, made the same wrong turns, and have had to work out how to get to a better place . . . and all of that, along with getting to a place where the bulk of the procedural aspects of teaching is automatized, helps us recognize pitfalls. There is no insight available without first making the ‘mistakes’.
      I guess where I have changed, though, as I suggest in the main post above, is that I’m not constantly experimenting with my teaching in the way I used to.
      I’ve come to a space where I have a set of principles that guide and inform me and allow me to teach from a core of practical beliefs . . . yet despite this, I’m still looking back at what I’ve done and thinking about how things might well have been done better. Yeah.

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