Well, you’ve got Phil Wade to blame – or thank, I guess, depending on your point of view – for what follows. Phil has been a keen contributor to this blog so far and via Twitter suggested that I detail what I do in my own classrooms – with my own coursebooks! This really follows on from Chia Suan Song’s Teach-Off series and my own series of rants about Dogme. What I’m hoping to do is once a week explore and explain a class that I’ve taught in as much detail as I can manage with the limited time I have available for these things.
I realise I’m an atypical teacher in many ways: I also write coursebooks, and generally (though not exclusively) teach from my own coursebooks. In addition, I generally work from A to Z or 1 to 10 or top left to bottom right (take your pick) when teaching coursebooks – especially my own! I also work in London, teaching (mainly) multilingual classes of adults (which can mean anything from 19 to 80). Having got all of that out of the way, I’ll fill you in on my lovely main class this term.
I’m teaching an Advanced group two mornings a week – Mondays and Wednesdays. Classes run from 09.15 to 12.30 and the students are all doing five mornings a week, with three different teachers. The class have been together for three weeks already – this is the fourth – and will be together for four more weeks. There’s one more intake next Monday, a large Japanese group, and some of them may possibly be joining. Many of the students have been with us since last September, some since January and some only since April. The nationality breakdown is seven Chinese students, a Moroccan, an Iraqi, an Italian, a Taiwanese, a German, an Austrian (born in Romania), a Japanese and a Colombian. Here they all are (apart from two of them, who were absent today!)
So anyway, it’s a General English class and the reasons for the students being here are many and varied. Most of the Chinese lot are government exchange people, and many work in international offices in Chinese universities; we have university students taking a year out to come and study English; people getting ready to do degrees and Master’s; people just here for a few months to brush up their English for possible future use and so on. They’re quite a strong group, with at least half of them probably able to aim for CAE in June, even though none of them are actually planning to take the exam. We’re using OUTCOMES Advanced, and students get a free copy as part of their fees. The class I’m going to detail below was two hours from 9.15 to 11.15 and was followed by a fifteen-minute break and an hour-long progress test, which I won’t bother detailing here as not much happened apart from students doing their progress test!
Today we started a unit called CONFLICT. Why? Well, conflict is in the news all the time; lots of high frequency lexis crops up when discussing it; we’d previously done Unit 5, which was called NIGHT OUT, NIGHT IN and so this unit provided a slightly more serious counter-balance (light and shade, as my editors always told me!) . . . oh, and also because one of my students had had a huge row with her boyfriend the day before and the class really wanted to know more about this particular conflict.
Nah, just kidding! I made that last bit up . . . but if you want Dogme motivations, I can invent them at will. As if that would’ve made my decisions or the topic any more or less valid.
I began, though, as I usually began – with some revision of what I know the teacher yesterday looked at. I like to ensure there’s some kind of thread from one to the next so that, even though the class have different teachers, they can feel a sense of continuity. Also, knowing that you’re going to be (soft) tested keeps them on their toes, encourages them to actually spend time looking through their notes once they get home every day and also creates a sense of progress. I usually get to class early and sit and chat with the early arrivals anyway, but once we had six students (at quarter past nine . . we have a cut-off point of fifteen minutes grace for latecomers. After that, they’re excluded till the break) we started the revision sheet. The first exercise was as follows:
Complete the sentences with the best missing words.
1 It’s a really weird book. I couldn’t really follow the …………………….. .
2 It’s a book about the author’s mum and her …………………….. to overcome alcoholism.
3 The …………………….. in the book is quite minimal, but also very funny and it feels very natural.
4 It’s laugh-out-loud …………………….. in places!
5 The story …………………….. around the lives of ten women.
6 The book …………………….. issues such as domestic violence,. drug abuse and rape.
7 It’s a ……………………..-read book! It’s amazing! You have to try it. Honestly!
8 It’s just a really great book. I can’t …………………….. it enough.
9 It’s a novel, but it’s …………………….. on a true story.
10 It’s …………………….. in the seventeenth century.
11 It’s mainly about the impact of the …………………….. rights in the 60s and 70s.
12 The book …………………….. with themes of loss and longing.
Students spent maybe five or six minutes trying to fill the gaps in themselves, in pairs. There was a fair bit of head scratching and wryly amused comments along the lines of “This is from yesterday?” I monitored, wandering around and seeing how students were doing, saying when things were right or wrong and then rounded up the answers. I elicited by reading out the sentences and stopping at each gap, taking answers from the class as a whole – and then writing the correct answers up on the board.
As I was doing this, I was ‘working the language’ – adding, paraphrasing, explaining, exemplifying. Here’s a taste of the kind of thing I’d say:
(1) Yeah, plot. The plot of the book is the story of the book. It’s the same word for films as well and here . . . (pointing to a sentence I’d written on the board that read: The plot was full of t……… and t……….. . It was really hard to follow) . . . if the plot keeps changing and it’s hard to follow and you don’t understand what’s going on from one minute to to the next (said whilst moving my arms in a snake-like manner!) it’s? Yeah, full of twists and turns (I then wrote this in to the gaps). It’s always twists and turns, never turns and twists.
(2) Anyone? yeah, struggle. And we often talk about someone’s struggle to overcome something, so their struggle to overcome addiction or depression or their struggle to overcome alcoholism. Like their fight to beat this problem.
(3) Yes, the dialogue. How do you pronounce it? Where’s the stress? yes, OK. DI-a-logue. Everyone. Again, Juanita. Good. And it’s the same for films as well – the speaking, the talking is called the DI-a-logue.
(4) It’s laugh-out-loud funny, you know, like when you’re reading something on the tube and you suddenly burst out laughing (a chunk I taught them on Monday, by the way) like this (I acted this) and people look at you like you’re crazy, you know?
(5) The story? Yes, reVOLVed around (circling my hands) the lives of ten women, so they’\re the main focus, the story is basically about them.
(6) Anyone? yes, it tackles these issues. It’s often for controversial topics or issues so maybe the film tackles the issue of mental illness or the book tackles the issues of racism, violence and poverty.
(7) It’s a? Yes, MUST-read book. You now, you MUST rad it. It’s amazing. In the same way, a film can be a MUST-SEE FILM.
(8) And 8? I can’t? recommend it enough. yeah. Where’s the stress? re-co-MEND. Again? OK. Better. So yeah, I really really recommend it. I can’t re-co-MEND it enough.
(9) This one they often use for Hollywood movies. It’s fiction, but it’s? Yeah, BASED on a true story. Sometimes very loosely based on a true story.
At this point, a student asked me to write that up on the board, so I wrote: It’s based on a true story – very loosely based on one anyway!
(10) And if you’re talking about the place or the time when the action in the book – or the film – happens? It’s? Yeah, SET IN. so you know, it’s set in Algeria, in the 1950s. OK?
(11) It’s mainly about the impact of the? Oh, yes, OK. It could be women’s rights. I hadn’t thought of that. or, if you’re talking about the broader fight for equal rights for black people, for women, for gay people? yeah, the civil rights movements. I guess it’s particularly associated with the US in the 60s, but you can still talk about protecting civil rights, and so on.
(12) And 12? Yeah, deal with these themes, so it explores them, talks about them. Can be the same word for films as well, again.
One student asked what loss and longing meant.
I said it’s when you lose someone – or something – the noun is loss, so we say sorry for your loss when someone close to you dies. And longing is like a strong feeling of wanting someone or something.
Next up, we moved onto the second part of the revision sheet, which you can see below. For five minutes or so, students discussed their ideas in pairs and again I went round, helped out, clarified if things were totally wrong.I also got a few gapped sentences up on the board, based on things students were trying to say, which I used during my round-up, as we shall see.
Now discuss these questions with a partner.
– Why might someone be feeling a bit rough?
– When might someone be in bits?
– Where do you go if you want to strut your stuff?
– What happens in a meat market?
– What do you do if you take the mickey out of someone?
– Why might someone hassle you?
– What do you do if you cause a scene in a restaurant?
– What’s the problem if you’re smashed?
– Say three things you could take up.
After a few minutes, I went through the answers with the class. I think of these kinds of questions as questions about language that generate language. Whilst I generally mostly know the answers that’ll come up, there are always some curve balls.I also ask these kinds of questions a lot whilst going through answers tio vocabulary lessons, and students absorb this and often ask ME similar questions in return!
For feeling rough, the class said maybe because you were drunk last night or because you were maybe starting to have a cold. I tried to elicit the words COMING and TO DRINK in the sentences on the board, but got GOING and ALCOHOL, so ended up providing the missing words myself and completing the examples on the board. For IN BITS, students said “When you’re devastated”, to which I responded, OK, but WHEN might you be in bits, WHEN might you be devastated. We then established it was maybe when someone close to you died or if you lost your house and all your possessions. One of my Chinese students, Ryan (it’s his ‘English’ name – his choice, not mine, I hasten to add!) took perverse delight in mentioning this and had a couple of other ideas here as well! For strutting your stuff, some of the Chinese students shouted out ‘on a stage’ and ‘in a ballroom’. I explained that if you’re on a stage, it’s usually because you’re performing, and that a ballroom is more old-fashioned, like maybe if you’re learning to waltz or something. Someone else shouted out ‘a club’ and I asked which part of the club? The bar area? No, the students said, the area where you dance. Which is called? I asked – and elicited dancefloor, which i wrote into the gapped sentence on the board. When I asked what happens in a meat market, there was much laughter and one of my Chinese students said “Buy meat!”. Someone else said “No! Buy a girl.” I said it doesn’t usually imply that you’re BUYING sex. You’re just LOOKING FOR it. Maybe you buy the person a drink or something, but you don’t buy – or even hire (!) – them. I then elicited PULL and PICK UP and wrote these up on the board.With hassle, the students laughed and said their other teacher Glenn hassled them because they hadn’t done their homework! WE also established bosses can hassle you for work, street sellers hassle you or drunk guys hassle women in bars – the common theme being they all want something from you! With smashed, three students asked if it was because you’re tired. I said no, that’s shattered. We then established smashed was when you’re blind drunk, so drunk you can hardly stand up! Finally, with take up, one students said A CHAIR. I asked what he meant and he replied “Like in an interview”. “No, that’s HI. COME IN, HAVE A SEAT. So, anything you can take up, like when you start doing a new hobby?” I got three answers from the class and added them to my example on the board, so by the end of all of this the board looked like this:
This all took maybe the first twenty-five minutes. I now had a full class and we were ready to roll with Unit 6 – Conflict. I led in by saying something like What we’re looking at over the next few days is conflict – interpersonal conflicts, arguments, rows, conflict between nations, conflict resolution, that kind of thing. Today we’re going to be looking at what people do during and after arguments, OK? I asked the class to turn to page 42 and to look at the SPEAKING exercise A. In pairs, they discussed briefly what they thought the words in bold meant:
A Check you understand the words in bold. Then tell a partner which of the things below you sometimes do.
- lose your temper and scream and shout
- storm off and slam the door behind you
- throw things across the room – or at someone
- have a big sulk
- hold a grudge against someone after an argument
- apologise first and try to make up
I went round to see what words were causing most problems and got a few gapped sentences up on the board while I was doing so. After a couple of minutes, I stopped the class and clarified the words. I said something like the following: OK, so maybe you lose your temper – you get angry – and you scream and shot . . . you go mental, go ballistic (we’d had these two expressions the other day). A student shouted out You flip your lid and blow your top (which we’d also had) and I said yes. And if you storm out? Students: You leave quickly. Me: Yes. Quickly and? Student: angrily. I then acted out storming off / storming out of the room and asked students what you do if you slam the door. They acted this and I pointed out on the board that you could also slam the phone down. One of the Chinese students laughed and said this was a very useful expression! After I asked, one student did a great acting out of sulking, complete with bottom lip stuck out and there was much banter about it being just like various students’ wives. I then elicited immature / childish onto the board, having glossed it and given the first two letters of each word. I asked what you do if you hold a grudge and then asked what the opposite was, pointing to the board for support, where the class could see F…….. and f……… . I then elicited forgive and forget. One student said they were good at forgiving, but not forgetting to much laughter. Here’s the board after all of this:
After checking they knew what make up meant, I explained that when I got into arguments, I was prone to lose my temper and flip out a bit. Not so much now, but when I was younger I might also have sometimes punched the wall or the door or something. BUT I never sulked. I always got things out! They then chatted for several minutes about which of these things they did when they had rows. I wandered round and picked up on some things they were trying to say, but couldn’t quite and got more gapped sentences on the board. Here’s what the board looked like after the round-up here:
On reflection, self-contained – which was the first thing a student shouted out – when I was explaining that quite a few students said they never lost their tempers and never really got angry or lost their tempers – wasn’t the best answer and self-controlled would’ve worked better here, but I took that offering and let it go. The second sentence involved retelling a story I’d heard Xiao Xi tell about throwing things at her husband and was greeted with both incredulity and much laughter. The third one – I tried to elicit system, but got heart / body / mind and so just gave it to them – and then managed to get bottle – led into a good five minutes of discussion among the whole class. One student said bottling things up was bad because eventually you explode. O then said “Yes, like the US high school massacres.” One student asked if anything like that ever happened here. There then followed a discussion that took in the Cumbrian killings, Dunblane, recent Chinese kindergarten machete murders, a Japanese high school killing involving a dead boy’s head on a spike outside a school and Anders Brevik. There was much heated debate about whether or not the Norway scenario was the same or not. I said I felt it was different, because he saw it as politically and racially motivated. And we moved on!
Next, students looked at exercise B and discussed how each of these things could lead to arguments.
B Look at the list of things people often argue about in the box below.
With a partner, discuss how each might lead to arguments – and which you think cause the worst.
time spent together
stress and tiredness
They took to this topic with great gusto and it went on for maybe ten minutes. Plenty of personal examples emerged and there was much laughter. I went round listening to different pairs. helping out when they asked how to say particular things or wanted things checked and – as ever – writing things on the board. As things slowly started to wane, and before they started to drag to a half, I stopped and just went through a few things I’d heard, eliciting missing words onto the board to complete gapped sentences.To elicit, I basically retold stories I’d heard, using the students’ names and paraphrasing the stories, glossing the meanings of the missing words and seeing if students knew what I was looking for. This way, I got STEER in steer clear of, EYE TO EYE, want me to (although FIRST I got WANT THAT I, and we discussed the different patterns from Romance languages to English here) and WAGES. I ended up giving up and giving them an allowance and pressurizing. The last sentence you can see below was what a Chinese student, Xuesong, had said happens with her and her husband and this was their way of avoiding arguments about money. Juanita, the Colombian woman, laughed and said it was like giving him pocket money, while Nicolai, the German guy looked distinctly unsettled by such a prospect! Here’s the board after this slot:
I felt we’d done enough on all of this and wanted to move on, so decided to skip exercise C:
C Which of the things above do you argue about most often? Who with? How do the arguments usually end?
I then said they were going to hear two conversations involving conflicts between people and that they should listen to find out what the relationship was, what the conflicts were about and how they ended.
You are going to hear two conversations in which conflicts occur.
A Ω Listen and answer these questions about each conversation.
1 What’s the relationship between the people?
2 What are the conflicts about?
3 What happens in the end?
I played the CD once and put students together in pairs to compare ideas, before eliciting answers.
They’d basically got the whole idea after one listen, though there was some discussion about whether or not the first conversation was flatmates or a mother, father and son. In the end, one student pointed out, in families it’s unlikely a son would borrow money to pay the gas bill and that they sounded too equal to be parents and a kid. I asked if the class wanted the conversations again, but they seemed quite happy to move on.
I pointed them to the NATIVE SPEAKER note which they read:
Native Speaker English
I hasten to add
To clarify or comment on a previous statement, we can use I hasten to add. It can be used either formally or jokingly.
A: No. I do understand I made a mistake.
B: And not for the first time, I hasten to add.
I was absolutely furious about it – not that I’m normally an angry person, I should hasten to add!
And I then gave one more example: my co-author Andrew had been reminiscing to some friends in the pub about an early conference we both did where we had to share a room and had said ONLY A ROOM – NOT A BED, I HASTEN TO ADD! This seemed to garner a few chuckles and we moved on.
I explained that next we were going to be looking at ways of giving negative or private information. The students read the explanation box and then looked through 1-6 in exercise A.
Giving negative / private information
When we give negative or private information, we often use sentence starters that warn the listener about what’s to come
To be frank with you, I’m really not sure there’s a future for you here at all.
A Work in pairs. Imagine the sentence starters below were all used in an office over the space of a week. Complete each one in a humorous or serious way.
1 I don’t mean to be rude, but …………………………………………………………………………………… .
2 To be brutally honest, …………………………………………………………………………………… .
3 With all due respect, …………………………………………………………………………………… .
4 To put it bluntly, …………………………………………………………………………………… .
5 If you want my honest opinion, …………………………………………………………………………………… .
6 Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, …………………………………………………………………………………… .
Some students asked about brutally and I explained that if you’re brutally honest, you’re so honest it might hurt the person you’re talking to, in the same way of putting things bluntly might, and added that if someone is beaten up, it can be a brutal attack – and that you can use a blunt instrument like a hammer or something to attack people. Students then discussed in pairs possible things that might be said in an office using these sentence starters. There were plenty of very very funny ideas, and after a few minutes I rounded up a few. This led to much inter-class banter. Xuesong shouted out I don’t mean to be rude, Ryan, but your shirt is so old-fashioned. Here’s the offending (lilac) shirt:
There was a little ‘cross cultural’ interlude where I joked with Nicolai that even though the stereotype of the Germans here is of a blunt, direct people, all you needed to do was signpost clearly that this was what was coming by saying To put it bluntly and then you could then be as rude as you liked! He joked that we must obviously be a bit thick if we need to told this, but this was fine by him. With the final sentence starter, the gossipy one, another student suggested Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, Ryan is married. When I asked why this needed to be so secret, it was suggested that it was because he had not told his secretary, who was the recipient of this piece of gossip. Nicolai then added Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, I saw Ryan in the street with . . . and said the name of a colleague who’s fairly openly gay. A couple of students sniggered, some rolled their eyes, but most looked bemused and wondered what the comment implied. Time to move swiftly on, I felt, so we skipped exercise B and hit the grammar.
Wish comes up a lot in conflict conversations, particularly I wish you would . . . / I wish you wouldn’t . . . but this exercise includes this within a more general overview and consolidation of the structure. I told the students we’d be doing a bit of work on wish and that they’d heard several examples in the conversations. They were instructed to sort the sentences in exercise A into three groups of two sentences and then told to compare their ideas and explain the differences in form and function.
Grammar I wish
A Divide the sentences below into three groups of two – according to the time the sentences focus on.
1 I just wish you were a bit less selfish, to be honest!
2 I wish I’d never started this conversation.
3 I wish I didn’t have such a short temper!
4 I wish he’d understand that people do have exes!
5 I wish I’d told him what I thought of him earlier, to be honest!
6 I wish you wouldn’t always make fun of me in front of all my friends.
B Compare your ideas with a partner and explain the different uses of wish.
I elicited the answers. There was considerable debate about the answers and we ended up checking the form and function for each one, much like this:
Me: So it’s 1 and 3. When’s it talking about? Now or the past?
Student: The past. past simple.
Me: Yeah, but it’s about now, or generally, always.
Student: So it’s like a second conditional.
Me: Yes, kind of. And what’s the form? I wish plus?
Student: Past simple
Me: OK, and it’s 2 and?
Me: yeah? What do you think the ‘d is in 4?
me: yeah, but then it’d be had understood, not ‘d understand.
student: so 4 is would?
me: yeah, so it’s 2 and 5. Talking about now or the past?
Me: yeah, it’s regrets about things you did – or didn’t do – in the past. And what’s the form? I wish plus?
Student: past perfect.
Me: OK, so 4 and 6 go together. What’s the context in 4? Why would someone say this?
Student: Maybe someone’s boyfriend is angry that she’s still in touch with her ex boyfriends . .
Student: And finds her chatting on facebook!
Me: Are you talking from experience here? (laughter) So anyway, 4 and 6, yeah. I wish he would understand . . . I wish you wouldn’t make fun of me. WE use this one to talk about annoying habits that other people have that we want them to change, but suspect they won’t! It’s always when we’re annoyed with people, this one.
Here’s my fairly poor boardwork that emerged from this. Not wonderfully revealing, but sufficient in the circumstances as the book’s examples carried the weight, really.
Students then tried exercise C, which was a controlled practice of this.
C Complete the sentences below by adding the correct forms of the verbs in the box.
be can have leave sent think
1 I wish I ………………………. longer to stop and talk, but I’m afraid I’m actually in a bit of rush.
2 I wish I ………………………. her that email! It just made everything worse.
3 I wish you ………………………. your things lying around all over the place all the time. It’s so annoying!
4 I just wish I ………………………. turn back time and start again.
5 You always talk such rubbish! I wish you ………………………. sometimes before you open your mouth!
6 It’s the fact that you lied to me that really hurts. I just wish you ………………………. more honest with me!
They tried on their own for a few minutes and then discussed in pairs, talking particularly about any differences. When I rounded up. I elicited the answers, wrote them up and again concept checked everything. Like this:
So . . . number 1? I wish I? yeah, HAD longer – talking about when? OK. Now. Good. And 2? HAD sent or HADN’T, then? OK, HADN’T. So what really happened? Yeah, I sent her the email and it exacerbated the situation, made things worse. And 3? WOULDN’T LEAVE. Right. So you have this annoying habit of always leaving your things lying around all over the place and I wish you wouldn’t do it.
Finally, I told students to look at exercise D, the personalised practice and said they’d be writing their own examples in a minute, but first I’d give a few examples of my own.
D Write down five things you wish using the patterns below. Explain your sentences to a partner.
1 I wish I’d never …………………………………………………….. .
2 I wish I wasn’t …………………………………………………….. .
3 I sometimes wish I could …………………………………………………….. .
4 I wish my …………………….. wouldn’t …………………………………………………….. .
5 I wish my ……………………….. would sometimes ……………………………………………………..
I then told brief anecdotes about how I wish I’d never started smoking, how I wished I could speak more languages and how I wished my wife wouldn’t always nag me about all the things she wishes I would stop doing! I gave students a few minutes to write and went round helping out as best I could. This was hard as there are 13 students each writing five sentences. I then got students up and asked them to find a new partner and explain as much as they could about their regrets. Several key problem areas soon emerged – the perennial confusion between wish and hope (I wish me and my husband wouldn’t get divorced!), the over-extension of would to talk about yourself (I wish I wouldn’t be so fat), tense confusion for different times . . . and just general uncertainty about how to say particular things. I monitored and wrote a load of sentences up[, with the grammar parts missing. I stopped students and re-told various wishes, paraphrasing and using student’s names as I did so. I elicited and double-checked the grammar and we ended up with this:
I pointed out that fact SO is often used in negative wishes – I wish it didn’t get so cold in the winter, I wish I wasn’t so bad with money, etc.
This had now been two hours straight, so we took a break.
After the break I told them it was time for the progress test.
Quick as anything, one student shot back: I wish we didn’t have to do it!
And that, folks, is that. I didn’t quite finish the double-page spread, which was all leading towards a couple of conflict situation role-plays, which one of my colleagues will start off with tomorrow. The homework was more work on WISH and to prepare what they want to say for the role-play, thinking about incorporating as much of the language from today as they can.
Hope this has proved interesting.
It’s nearly killed me writing it.
Looking forward to seeing your comments and questions!
Or testing, in other words!
After my last couple of posts, I have a horrible feeling that I’ve probably painted myself as some loveless, joyless evil testing freak whose students do little else apart from get made to feel inadequate about failing to fully recall all the meaningless nonsense they’re forced to parrot-learn for the endless assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth (I hope!)
For me, when I think – and blog – about testing, it’s far more to do with the endless number of ways we as teachers bring back taught language and check the degree to which it has been retained. This is something I spoke in detail about at IATEFL Brighton 2011, and I thought it worth reproducing the talk in full here, so that folk can get a clearer idea of what kind of (soft) testing I’m suggesting we ought to be doing if we’re really going to help our students learn language better. Here goes . . .
How many of you are familiar with the musical CATS? And how many of you have seen it? OK, how many of you are familiar with the song MEMORY, one of the highlights of the show, apparently? Now . . . how many of you have heard that song more than once? More than twice? More than ten times? Yeah, me too – more than a hundred perhaps, and that’s despite me hating the song and having never seen the show! Final question – how many of you can remember the lyrics?
Me neither. Apart from “Memory / All alone in the moonlight” – and that’s the case for the vast majority of folk, apart from perhaps the odd Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatic here and there. Yet presumably most of us here understand the bulk of the words when we hear them – and we’ve clearly all heard them many, many times!
So what’s going on here? I’m reminded of something one of my Chinese students very perceptively observed a couple of years ago. “Understanding English,” she said “is very easy, but remembering it,” she continued, “is very hard.” And ain’t that the truth!
Hearing – or reading – something and understanding it is obviously a prerequisite for learning to occur, but by the same measure, it’s clearly not enough! For things to move anywhere our long-term memories clearly something else has to occur. What that something else might be seems to have something to do with NOTICING – and then to do with repeat exposure (and repeat re-noticing).
On discovering that my main foreign language is Indonesian, my students often ask me if it was a hard language to learn – to which I reply that learning it fifteen years or so ago was easy, but keeping it fresh in the memory is the killer. It seems to me that we do not place enough stress of memorizing in class – and we do not talk enough about the sheer memory load that studying a foreign language places on the learner, or about what we can do as teachers to ease this burden on our students.
The amount of language a student needs to come to terms with if they are to become even relatively proficient is terrifying. To get close to B2 / C1, you need something like three or four thousand of the most high frequency words as well as a whole slew of other less frequent items as well. With around 15,000 words you should be able to understand around 98% of all texts you encounter – though of course it’s far more complicated than simply knowing the words; you need to know the multiplicity of different ways in which those words interact with other words. An educated native speaker, though, is estimated to have acquired considerable information about the various uses of around 20,000 words by the time they leave college. In classroom terms, most coursebooks have between 12 and 20 units. Let’s say they have an average of 15. That must mean we need to aim for FIFTY new items per unit at the very minimum – and that even if we achieve that target, we’ve still only covered 3000 by the time students enter Advanced!
And really we need to do more than simply REMEMBER the language we meet – we need to internalize it and proceduralise it and make it part of our automatic behaviour. In much the same way as when we drive a car, we’re not really REMEMBERING what to do – we’re simply doing what we’ve trained ourselves to do automatically over many many repetitive encounters with car and road, so with language we need to move it from new and understood to noticed and then to learned and patterned behaviour.
I’m sure all of you will be familiar with the sinking feeling you get when you encounter words or phrases that have a familiar feel to them, but whose meaning seems to have escaped you! As teachers, I believe we have a responsibility to intervene in this process of forgetting. Research seems to suggests that the bulk of any forgetting we do happens soon after any learning session, and after that first major loss any subsequent losses occur more slowly. However, spending time on encouraging memory and getting students to ‘perform’ memorization in class, which is really the main area I’m interested in exploring here, is complicated by the fact that memorization has almost become a dirty word in ELT. Little stress is placed on it during training courses and concepts such as learning things by heart are becoming ever more unfashionable – and this is despite the fact that the ability to remember and access language under the pressures of real-time communication is clearly at the heart of what makes good language learners good!
Where memory IS discussed in ELT circles it is mainly with regard to ways we can encourage students to remember language outside of the classroom – tips about approaches to learning vocabulary studied of the ‘put Post-It notes with new words on different thins in your house’ / ‘Re-write your classroom notes every day in a new vocabulary notebook and re-order the language in a way that best suits you’ variety – and I’m not saying these are not useful things for us to suggest students do. Indeed, in a week or so I may even post up the ten top tips we give our students at University of Westminster to encourage them to take a bit more responsibility when it comes to trying to shoulder the burden of remembering.
Perhaps the other common way we’re encouraged to think about memory is via revision and recycling games that we might begin classes with: the one step back that we take in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of our classes before pushing on with the two steps forward. Again, I’m not saying these activities are wrong either. They’re clearly a central part of teaching and anyone who doesn’t do at least some of these kinds of activities is inadvertently committing what they have previously taught to the dustbins of memory.
However, neither or these areas are really what I want to focus on today as I think they’re at least occasionally discussed within ELT circles. What I want to explore instead is ways of activating memory in class – or, if you prefer, ways of encouraging students to demonstrate – or perform – what they’ve already learned, in non-threatening, fun, motivating, affirming kinds of ways, but also in ways that send the message to students that noticing and remembering is central to what learning a language is all about.
So, the first area I want to look at today is what we do as teachers when we are leading students into – and then rounding up from – speaking tasks that our students do.
Have a look at this SPEAKING practice activity that comes from OUTCOMES Intermediate. It follows on from some work on reported speech and a subsequent presentation of and exploration of the patterns that often follow common reporting verbs – and is designed as a personalised practice of the language just studied.
C Work in pairs. Discuss these questions. When was the last time someone you know:
- offered to do something for you?
- promised to do something?
- insisted on doing something?
- persuaded you to do something?
- told you (not) to do something?
Now spend a couple of minutes thinking about how YOU would set this up if you were in teaching it to one of your Intermediate-level classes.
OK, I’m now going to try something I’ve never done before and which I hope doesn’t come across as arrogant in any way as I’m certainly not suggesting this is the only one in to this exercise – or even that I’d always do it in the exact same way every time I was teaching – but here’s a little clip of me with my class last autumn doing this exact exercise. I just felt that it was slightly odd that we spend so much time discussing classroom practice and yet so rarely actually ever get to see any occurring online (or in conference talks, for that matter), so here we go:
Now I’m guessing many of you also had the idea of not only setting the task up, but of also modeling it – and if you did, then it’s always nice to hear your own ideas validated by someone else; but I think that modeling is actually one of the great unheralded arts of teaching – and also that it lays a central role in activating memory in class.
The model I gave here was based on something one of my Japanese students in the class, Take, had mentioned much earlier on, at the start of the lesson, when students were chatting about their weekends, so there was already some recycling there, as well as some obvious expansion. It seems simple on first inspection, but is actually achieving three or four ends, I think: firstly, it’s giving students a clear idea of exactly what kind of turn you want them to now take when they attempt to relate tales from their own lives – and it’s validating a culture of story-telling and anecdote-sharing within the group. Secondly, and more pertinently for the purposes of this post, it’s exposing them to plenty of useful lexis and grammar, both language that I know they’ll have encountered before, and also language that they might now be more able to use themselves in their own Student Talking Time.
As you get more experienced at doing these things, you use your voice more consciously to draw attention to language, and you become more adept at ensuring the language is not only graded correctly, but also contains plenty you’ve already taught before, thus forcing it back into students’ consciousness, and this is what I’m doing when I’m saying:
He needed to buy a ticket to get into town
He had no idea how to work the machine
The couple behind him asked him if he spoke German
They offered to help him, they offered to buy the ticket for him
It’s a kind of verbal prompt to notice, to pay attention, to remember, to listen, to process.
I’m sure many of you are aware of Stephen Krashen’s acquisition hypothesis, where he puts forward the theory that students need to be fairly consistently be exposed to what he terms i + 1. Well, cunningly, he never really goes into much detail about what the i might involve. I’d like to suggest that this kind of modelling – where you take language just studied and explored and then use it to tell an anecdote of a very similar kind to the one you’re then asking students to tell – might well constitute something approaching this formulation.
So, this is one, perhaps relatively indirect, way of bringing taught language back to students’ minds. As we’ll see, what I’m going to suggest should be done FOLLOWING on from student talking time is a more interactive way of doing something similar.
Again, to lead in to the clip I’d like to show, just think about how you usually round up speaking slots: what you say to end things, what kind of round up you usually conduct, whether or not you use the board, if so – what for, etc.
OK, you’re going to see a brief two-minute round-up that followed on from a speaking students did in response to a little speaking activity from the same unit of OUTCOMES. Students had studied some vocabulary for describing accidents and then had to choose one of four cartoons showing various accidents occurring. They pretended they were one of the people depicted and explained their accidents to each other in pairs. Here’s the round-up that followed:
Now, this way of rounding up by focusing NOT on errors as such, but rather on providing better ways of saying things the students had been trying to say – and on how the conversations may actually develop in terms of responses and follow-up comments not only brings the focus of the classroom back to the teacher and back to language after a speaking slot, but also it’s a chance for students to show what they’ve learned already, and for this learning to be validated by the teacher. With the second piece here, the thing about having stitches and sympathising by saying You poor thing and showing your scar, this is all language I know we’d previously looked at in an earlier class and that students could come up with up here, thus consolidating their knowledge. At the same time, it allowed covert recycling of HAD TO and I KNOW – an important response phrase for my Japanese students who tend to translate I THINK SO directly from Japanese.
The first piece here, the beehive, came directly from something students had been trying to say and so was something I perceived as an immediate need in this context – as opposed to something I’d been consciously planning to teach. In this instance, it wasn’t something students knew, though without asking, I couldn’t have known that of course, but by taking them to the place where it was needed, it’s still satisfying to then be able to provide it for them – whilst also getting to covertly recycle MUST’VE and SOMEHOW – as well as CHASE and STING in my talk around these examples.
Obviously, this kind of language-focused whole-sentence / extracts from conversation round-up doesn’t have to ONLY occur after speaking slots; it can also happen as we’re going through the answers to exercises the students have been working on. The teacher elicits answers from the class and, through the judicious use of questions, both explores and expands upon the language that’s been studied. Here’s a quick example of what I’m talking about, where as a teacher you provide MORE THAN just the answers.
Here’s a short round-up after an exercise where students were practicing language for describing cause and effect in relation to diseases and illnesses – and had been talking about the following:
C Work in pairs. Use the patterns in exercise B to talk about what you think are the causes/results of these medical problems:
asthma migraines diabetes rash malaria
sneezing insomnia stress HIV upset stomach
Again, it’s EXPLICIT revision of things like transmit and run down that had come up earlier in the course, as well as covert revision of the present simple passive and the present perfect continuous.
With this kind of round-up, you basically win on both fronts: either students know the language and feel good about being seen to remember it – and you get to use the democratic, open access process of asking the whole class for language – and using the stronger students to feed the weaker ones, in a kind of Robin Hood style, whilst also giving them whole sentence, fully grammaticalised input that has covert revision purposes as well – or else you create the need for the language and create a feeling of completion by then providing it.
Obviously, to get good at doing this takes time and needs practice. Working out which language to focus on – and being able to choose words which are the only plausible answers – is hard. When I look back at some of my early attempts to do this, I can sadly recall such gems as the following:
I’m lucky, because I’ve got a really ……………. job.
I have quite a lot of ……………., which is great.
so I’m not saying this is easy – and I’m not saying it means students automatically remember everything, but research into how memory works does seem to back up these kinds of approaches.
Research into how we remember things best seems to suggests several things:
– things that are stored together tend to be retrieved together, so the mind tends to automatically ‘chunk’ memories in terms of relationships
– distributed practice – exposure over time interspersed among other items – tends to result in more effective memory retention that massed practice – numerous consecutive exposure to an item
– sentences are easier to learn if the student meets them in a meaningful context, possibly because such contexts require more complex processing and therefore greater engagement with the items in question
– we seem to learn best when there’s not only meaningful engagement, but also a strong personal stake
One thing you might want to try and do, if this kind of reformulation is not something that’s part and parcel of your everyday teaching yet, is CHEAT! The way you do this is BEFORE you get students doing a speaking task in class, you sit at home – or in the staff room – and predict what students might say in response to the task. Actually say – or write – what you imagine might be said. Then select some choice vocabulary – or grammar you want to just briefly go over again – from all of this and SCRIPT your boardwork in advance. You then lead into this by simply saying OK. STOP THERE. THAT WAS GREAT. LET’S LOOK AT HOW TO SAY SOME OF WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY BETTER. I HEARD SOMEONE SAY . . .
So let’s move on to consider another way in which we can encourage the remembering and repetition / performance of chunks and wholes – TEST AND REMEMBER. This is something we’ve tried hard to build into the classroom material we’ve written for both the OUTCOMES series and also for INNOVATIONS, but is, I suppose, something that could be adapted and used with any material, though I think it does work best if you’re asking students to try to recall whole sentences / responses.
Basically, all that happens is students do an exercise in a coursebook that involves maybe matching questions and answers or statements and possible responses . . . or else perhaps the beginning of sentences with the endings or verbs and possible collocations, or matching descriptions of an event or thing or crime, say, to the actual names of the things. The teacher then goes through the answers, working on any language that’s caused any problems, asking questions about it, providing extra examples and maybe writing up some extra boardwork to consolidate all of this. Then, quite simply, give students a minute (or two minutes) to remember the language from the exercise; then put students in pairs – As and Bs – and tell B to close their books. A reads out their sentences, B tries to say the correct responses – and A corrects them if needs be. After a couple of minutes, stop the students and change the pairs round, so this time B is testing and A is trying to remember.
There are several advantages to this kind of activity: firstly, it helps you deal with mixed-level classes in that in every pair, you can always make the stronger student of the two Student B – the one that closes their book FIRST – meaning Student A gets more time / support before they’re out on the spot. It’s also something students can test themselves on at home – and that can easily be recycled the following lesson, either in pairs again or simply with the teacher playing the role of Student A and the whole class shouting out the responses that B said the lesson before. Finally, yet again, it sends subliminal messages to the students that it’s not enough to DO exercises, practise them in class and move on: they have to notice and try to remember the language, and this process can extend over time.
One final thing I often do in class is probably worth mentioning here is re-eliciting texts that students have read – or listened to. It’s often a nice way of rounding off one section of a lesson – or a lesson itself – and is yet another language-focused hassle-free way of allowing students to show you what they can remember. All you do is basically put students in pairs and tell them to compare what they remember about the last text you did in class . . . and then elicit the thing from the whole class, but insisting on correct lexis and grammar, so for instance, in the class you’ve watched extracts from, the class heard a conversation about an accident that happened during a cycling holiday. At the end of the class, I run through the stages already outlined and then start to elicit, targeting things I want to go over again, so for example:
Ss: They went round a corner
T: Yeah, OK. so the accident when they were going round a . . . not a corner, but a ….? A BEND, yeah, and if it’s the kind of bend you can’t see round, it’s a very MMMMM bend – TIGHT BEND. OK, so they were going round a tight bend and then what?
Ss: The guy went from the road and to the bush.
T: OK, yeah. He went OFF the road and INTO some bushes and HURT HIMSELF pretty badly.
This kind of group re-telling essentially attempts to disrupt the students’ interlanguage and bring it face to face with language a step up from there; it removes them from the comfort zone of being able to report things understood in language already learned – and instead pushes them to start to try and take on some of the new language and appropriate it fro their own purposes.
Once you do this kind of thing a fair few times, students start to realize that not only do you want them to pay attention to and try to recall CONTENT, but that you want the language as well . . . and students generally get much better at reflecting upon and then resurrecting this in the classroom, much to everyone’s satisfaction.
One final point to make here about the nature of memory is the fact that research seems to back up the notion that not only can people learn more language from our classes at a faster rate than perhaps more conservative commentators have previously suggested, but that teachers beliefs about how much – and how well – learners are capable of learning also seems to have a fairly sizeable impact upon how well they do. In short, if we believe that our students are capable of doing the kinds of things I’ve been talking about, then they may well become so. If, on the other hand, we don’t, then we may well be damning them with our low expectations.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I’ve long been very ambivalent about blogs and blogging. In an otherwise fairly awful movie I watched out of boredom on a plane last year, Contagion, there was one great line: Blogging? It’s just graffiti with punctuation. And let’s face it, the punctuation is only if you’re lucky!
Blogging has long struck me as being a kind of vanity publishing, and has led – at least in my line of work – not to a democratization of thought and opinion, but rather to a kind of tyranny of the loudest and most prolific. I’ve worried about what kind of lives people who blog regularly have – or are running from; I’ve worried about what kind of life I might end up with if I ever allowed myself to get talked into setting one up; I’ve worried about the fact that the last time I did actually try to do a blog I had no real ideas about what function it was to serve other than as a kind of store cupboard for talks I’d given at conferences; I worried too about the fact that hardly anyone seemed to read it!
As if that wasn’t enough, I worry too about the fact I seldom seem to have time or energy to bother reading many of the blogs of the people out there in the ELT community that I know or have met in various contexts. Finally, I fear that this may all make me ill-suited to setting up and running another of these ego-propagating, time-consuming monsters.
And yet here I am, on a school night, writing this to an imagined audience, daring to dream there might be people out there who give a toss about my thoughts and opinions. What gives, I hear you ask?
Well, if I’m honest, there’s partly a touch of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. There’s the ever-present frustration with the medium of facebook, where I help to run a fairly busy little page which works well within its own limited parameters, but which doesn’t really allow much room to spread out and talk at any great length, and which is geared towards fast turnover of posts and constant status updates. Then there’s the fact that I have been asked – repeatedly – if I have a blog by teachers that I’ve been lucky enough to meet or work with over the years. And finally, there’s something Jimmie Hill said to me many moons ago, and which has stayed with and almost haunted me down the years: every generation of language teachers has a responsibility to write down what it is they do, what they believe in and how they work.
What I hope – and aim – to do here is to post a lengthy post at best weekly, or else simply when the mood and inspiration strike, exploring things that have been on my mind, considering talks or books I’ve encountered – or given. There may occasionally be guest posts, I may sometimes go off on a lengthy rant and I may also sometimes heap praise where I feel that it’s due.
Looking forward to interacting with whoever may be out that curious to see where all this will lead. And if and when my head does look big in this, I’m trusting you all to tell me.