I inverted my lesson on Thursday morning: a fairly straight take on teaching past simple and past continuous with my level 1 group: intermediate if you prefer, so in many sense a revisit of the grammar.
I took PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production) and literally turned it round; I set out the outcomes, nothing more than “ways of talking about the past” and most crucially “you will tell me the rules”. We started with me eliciting time expressions (on Wednesday, last year, at 4am Saturday), which led to a general (and productive) speaking activity: the free practice/production stage. During this I gave feedback on non-tense areas, but made a note on an orange slip of paper of errors made with tenses.
We then moved on to a classic-style controlled practice activity from Headway Intermediate workbook: a bunch of decontextualised sentences where learners had to choose between past simple and past continuous.
I had the learners work alone to complete this but had them work in groups of four to discuss the answers afterwards. They were under strict orders to agree on one answer per table, and if they disagreed with each other, then to explain their reasoning. It’s worth bearing in mind at this point that they had, as yet, not covered the CELTA trinity of meaning, form and pron. (Incidentally am I the only one who thinks separating pronunciation and form in this way is somewhat false?)
So I listened in on the discussions but only stepped in when absolutely necessary: I wanted this to be all about the learners and their reasoning.
Then came the feedback. A very simple task of selecting one table to give the answer and the rest of the class to agree or disagree. Any disagreements were passed back to the class to explain and rationalise, and where this did break down I stepped in with questions to lead to understanding, supporting this with timelines and examples where necessary.
The final stage of the lesson was getting the learners to tell me the rules, again through questioning, and although this caused some useful discussions, I think if I do this again I’ll get the learners to work in pairs to come up with the rules, perhaps each doing one section, with (perhaps) less able learners working on the form (which is usually more straightforward) and the more able to discuss meaning, and highlight any pronunciation issues as we go. Still, the class contributions led to a pretty good breakdown of the past continuous.
To close the lesson I went back to the lesson “outcomes” and we highlighted not only what had been planned, but also what else had arisen on the way (how best to use “when” and “while”) and the odd bit of vocabulary. I also got those learners who had particularly struggled with the language to identify this on their ILP (yes really) and set a goal for the end of term.
So did it work? Yes. The learners could consciously identify the language, and their homework task, to review their writing homework in light of past simple and past continuous should confirm that conscious knowledge. Obviously it will take more conscious practice and review before it becomes embedded: no one, I hope, is stupid enough to think that even a revision lesson is going to lead to the learners being magically able to do it, only that they have demonstrated progress towards being able to do it unconsciously. You can “evidence” away, but the stress on providing evidence of learning in a context like this is essentially misleading.
The other thing that struck me about the lesson was the lack of context. The other golden CELTA rule I broke was not having a context, except for the learners reflecting on their lives at the start. There was no need for more than that: I guess it might have been nice to hang it on a theme (travel and journeys comes to mind, although the lesson was in the middle of a block on biographies) but this particular lesson was none the poorer for lacking a context.
On reflection the only real radical departure from the norm here was the inversion of the practice an the presentation, and I think it definitely needed another chance to do stuff with the language: so it becomes closer to Test Teach Test and task based approaches.