“You wouldn’t let it lie!” A Guilty Confession, Part 2

Earlier I blogged about using a text on childhood obesity from the ESOL Skills for Life materials without modifying the activity too much. As you might have guessed, I couldn’t just leave it alone. Partly the guilt, and partly because, well, I just couldn’t. It niggled me and annoyed me, and the feeling of short-changing the learners, of closing down options, and a fear of being unimaginative on my part, meant that I had to change it.

The reality of the lesson, after a night’s sleep and a bit of inspiration courtesy of Teaching Unplugged, was that I switched the reading-writing lesson pattern upside down. Instead of starting with the model text, then going through the writing process, we brainstormed our ideas for the text using the questions at the beginning. The brainstorming was an incredibly interesting process: some great ideas and language arose, not least because the class includes two Spanish basketball players (yes, really) with a good working knowledge of health and fitness, and for whom learning language for exercise and health was very relevant. The joy of this kind of task is that you set up a gap between what the learners are able to express, and what they want to say, and collaboratively you and the learners fill that gap with the language. In fact there was a lot of peer teaching: in this context I try not to explain but get learners to use dictionaries, or simply to explain to each other. For me, teacher explanation of grammar and vocabulary is very much the last resort: not bad, per se, but less good than learners making their own connections about the language.

I then asked the learners not to read the text: in fact at the time of writing they have yet to see the text. Instead, we briefly reviewed the nature of the text (a report: formal language, intro-body-conclusion, etc.) and asked them to draft the first version of the text. In class. Writing in class is not popular for some teachers and learners and as a result it tends to get sidelined into “write it for homework”. However, we spend significant time focussing on language production in the form of speaking in class, so why not spend time focussing on writing in class? (I suspect it’s some sort of guilt on the part of the teacher because they feel they should be “doing” something.)

This process took a fair bit of time, what with questions and problems, a couple of mini-teaches around collocations, plus an opportunity for me to sit with some of the learners and carry out some formal tutorial review of their ILPs (yes, I did just say that). When you give over control of the content and the structure of the lesson to the learners, and the language they are using and developing, rather than sticking to the learning outcomes you have imposed on the learners, lessons have a habit of not sticking to the timeframe. Sometimes they go more quickly, where the learners whizz through things much more quickly and animatedly than you might have expected, or, as in this lesson, the learning expands beyond the space available, and the ideas for one lesson spill into the next.

So the follow up lesson (to be taught by someone covering the class next week, alas) is as follows.

I will mark the drafts, as they stand, with guidance and ideas. The class will then look at the original text, and do the (quite nice) activity attached to it on using discourse markers. They will also do a short general error correction activity, peer correcting significant errors from each others’ work. I usually do this by selecting one or two examples of errors from each learner which are either common to the whole group, interesting, or just significant for that learner, then typing them out, carefully anonymised if necessary, and getting the learners to identify the errors in each sentence. The learners will finally look at rewriting the text with the appropriate errors corrected, but also with a focus on using the various discourse markers.

So my natural approach to teaching won out in the end. I actually couldn’t just teach the lesson from the published resources as they stood. I have to admit, that would have been fine: we would have covered the language, produced a report, end of. But this would also have meant closing down an awful lot of learning opportunities, and so leading to a lot more learning. It was the learners who came up with

The usual question to ask when you are reviewing a lesson is to say “If I did it again, would I do it differently?” In this case, the answer, certainly when reviewing the general structure of the lesson, is no. I might handle it differently with my other Level One group, who are a very different, and much larger group of individuals: rely more on smaller group work, rather than whole class interactions. But the lesson was better for not blindly following the materials, but rather making principled, thought through decisions about maximising learning opportunities in the classroom, about making the lesson properly learner led, about making the most of the best classroom resource you ever have: the learners.

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