Explicit Instruction: Action Research round 1

A few weeks back I mentioned a mini action research project. Using the power of hyperlinks, I won’t have to summarise it in too much detail, but I’m teaching two lessons, one deductively, with an explicit, presented set of grammar rules, and the other inductively, and looking at the lessons to see what worked best. I gave the students a quick test on two grammar points and will do so again after the lessons have finished. The grammar points are both revision, rather than new points, so i know that prior to this they have definitely encountered this before. I’ve chosen reported speech and passive voice for no more complex reason than the learners need to review them, and they both involve manipulating verb tenses, rather than identifying tense and aspect. (Incidentally, grammar fans, who can remember how many tenses there are in English?)

Last night I taught the “deductive” lesson with reported speech as the language point. The deductive input took the form of a very simple PowerPoint presentation, covering three slides. I presented this to the group explicitly: “we are going to talk about reported speech” and then talked through the slides and the rules as interestingly as possible, ensuring that I checked understanding and engagement, and gave students the opportunity to discuss ideas as we went along. The main practice activity was something I’ve used at this level before: a set of cards each with a sentence on, and the sentences were either in direct or in reported speech. In the back they then had to transform the sentence: so if they had George told Gerry he loved him. they had to turn it into direct speech, and if they had “I love you, Gerry,” said George. then they had to transform it to reported speech. The clever bit, if say so myself, was that the cards were divided up so that if pair A had a sentence in direct speech then pair B had the same sentence in reported speech, but ensuring that both groups had a mixture of direct and reported speech. This meant that they could then team up and compare answers. 
It was all very very meta. The was a lot of grammar discussion and analysis, and strikingly not many opportunities to personalise the language. This was partly because we didn’t get onto a freer practice activity, so I think I may have to make sure that this is also true of the passives lesson, and also to ensure that they do get an opportunity to do some sort of freer, more open practice task of both points in a future lesson. Time got out of hand, I think, because they are, for the most part, a fairly academic group who like like discussing and analysing language, and who seem to enjoy this kind of abstract work. Strikingly, there was no real context to any of this, again, something I will minimise with the passives lesson, although I may start that lesson with a reading task. It’s interesting, really, because it’s pretty much drummed in on teacher training courses that you must have a context for your grammar teaching, and yet there was no context here at all. I’d have been slammed by an observer, especially a proper communicative language teaching ESOL observer who would have criticised me for not linking it to learners’ lives, or indeed learners’ anything. 
I’m going to stick my neck out a little, however, and suggest that actually, in this particular lesson, that didn’t appear to matter. Throughout the presentation and the practice activity there was a lot of student engagement. Every time I asked a question at that stage every student had something to say, and I targeted questions to ensure that anyone flagging or who I thought might not be following things was brought into the lesson and challenged. While I was circulating during the practice task I noticed that a large number of students had taken extensive notes, although not all, something which the direct presentation could have facilitated because the students had time to do it, rather than thinking about it. 
Would it have been more effective with some sort of context? Possibly, although it was a recap of a wide range of reported structures so a context to cover all of those would have been a challenge to shoehorn in. Certainly the humdrum “real life” type context so beloved of the ESOL in FE community would have been nigh on impossible. However, I think that this is a whole other action research project, although with impending exams, will probably have to wait until next year. (But if I wrote it up as an article, I know that I would call it “Mrs Khan goes to the doctor: Context and setting in ESOL”)
So, high levels of student engagement, a practice activity successfully completed, and lots of notes. It was also kind of fun to indulge my inner lecturer. I sometimes do it on teacher training courses, which is bad of me, really. However, I quite enjoyed talking to and telling people stuff, and making sure that they understood what I was rattling on about. I think I made a decent fist of it too, as well as providing some good listening practice. I made sure that there were lots of opportunities for students to discuss ideas together, to question the students in their understanding. It didn’t, surprisingly, perhaps, feel wrong. I don’t think I’d do it a lot, but we will have to wait and see. 
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