This week I broke some rules. I taught grammar (whisper it) without setting a clear context first. I didn’t share the learning outcomes. I didn’t root the language in the learners lives and experiences.
But it was a damn good lesson, all the same.
The focus of the lesson was reported speech, and in that respect, it had a very clear aim: learners will be able to write sentences reporting speech using appropriate grammatical structures (AKA “use reported speech” but when writing learning outcomes why use three words when you can use eight? (Joke!)) we also covered a number of spellings, the appropriate use of punctuation when writing direct speech and a few issues around intonation for subordinate clauses.
I should add that the procedure described is pinched partly from a colleague and then expanded slightly, so thank you, anonymous colleague.
The lesson started with a load of random statements in speech bubbles around the room. We discussed what the contexts might be, who might be talking, and so on, then, aft demonstrating how with the whole class, in groups the learners turned the statements into four line dialogues.
Again, beginning with a teacher led demonstration, the learners then took their dialogues and turned them into direct speech. Some of the group particularly enjoyed doing this in a mock-dramatic style (“You can’t do that!” Ben said, in shock”) and there was a clear focus here on the appropriate punctuation, and discussion around intonation. Both of which I recorded on flip chart paper on the wall as an outcome to reflect upon later.
Then carefully eliciting and getting the learners to practice a couple of times, we turned the direct speech dialogue on the board into reported speech, with the first sentence being demonstrated/teacher led, and the other sentences being worked on in groups using miniwhiteboards before sharing as a class.
The learners then went back to their own dialogues and did the same, with lots of peer support and monitoring from me. And then we recorded “use reported speech” as something they had done.
So, would it have been better had I set a context? No. In fact, the learners set their own contexts for the language, which is far more meaningful. We are conditioned by our early training to set and context for the language, which is fine, sometimes, and I could have set contexts here, but I don’t think it would have made the slightest bit of difference, and would, if anything, have restricted the language developed.
Would it have been better to have shared the outcomes? No. Because they would have been trying to use reported speech from the outset, and would have missed all the work on punctuation and intonation. They wouldn’t have been focussing on how to make the changes, about what is different in direct and indirect speech. I did make the purpose of each stage clear, I should add, but the overall aim wasn’t made clear until the end. I did make time for reflection and self assessment of confidence in the language at the end of the lesson, however which is good for me as I have been known to forget this! But definitely my feeling is that sharing of the overall aims in this particular instance would have been detrimental to the scaffolding of the lesson. To use another metaphor: had the learners know where they were going they wouldn’t have been looking properly at the scenery on the way. (In that metaphor, the road, the scenery and the destination are of equal importance.)
And rooting it in the learners lives? Well, reported speech is not what you would call a major functional piece of language for the most part. Indeed, the most obvious day to day uses of it would probably be gossiping, talking about something on TV or when complaining about customer service. But learners can apply their own meaning, their own usefulness to a piece of language, apply it to their own experiences themselves (which is what happened when one learner pointed out the gossiping function of reported speech). And sometimes, you know, the idea of setting language in a personally meaningful context in the learners’ lives is just not appropriate, as you shoehorn a language point into repeated uses where normally it might occur once. Reported speech is rarely used more than once or twice in a conversation or a piece of writing, I’d argue, as we tend to mix it with direct speech and other forms of saying what someone has said, simply because its more interesting. So if the idea of a whole conversation or piece of writing in reported speech is essentially unreal, why not make the whole thing unreal? We can always go back to blending it with other forms later. It was certainly funnier for all of us when one group of learners tried to get the phrase “fifteen green ones and a pink cockatoo” into a dialogue.
In a sense it was an inverse dogme lesson: the contexts emerged from the language, rather than the other way round, but it was no worse for that. For me, the joy of it was that the contexts belonged to the learners, and so, therefore, did the language. It might not rate highly in teacher training terms, it might not have gotten me a good grade, but lots of good learning definitely happened. I knew it, and the learners knew it, which is all that counts.