Nobody Expects Dimples

This week I taught two lessons which reminded me of the richness that letting the students lead on the content can create. The first lesson was on Tuesday night – a Level 1/Level 2 group on the theme, broadly, of “life stages”. It was meant as a build up to a listening activity based around this recording from the BBC’s excellent Listening project, but took on a bit of a life of its own.

The activity was a variation on the game of consequences. At the top of the page I had printed “Be born”. Students worked in pairs and added the next thing that thought would happen. They then passed it to the next pair along who added another idea, and so on. I mixed things up a little, taking a lead from a chapter in 52 by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings and every now and again asked the students to put something bad as the next event.

Some of the language generated was fairly predictable: go to school, get a job, retire, etc. But once the class warmed up to the task, the list almost became small, occasionally tragic biographies: have a breakdown, have an affair, get expelled, drop out, recover, get kicked out, bring up children, and, my personal favourite, have a mid-life crisis prompted by a pair of students talking about men of a certain age. The students were trying to express an idea, lacked the necessary language to do so, and my job was simply to fill that gap.

Something similar occurred with another class, this time Entry 1. Like the life stages task, this was intended as a precursor to something else, but also grew beyond the bounds of the planned activity.This time, students were brainstorming / researching in dictionaries vocabulary to do with physical appearance. Each group had a sheet of A3 paper – one group used this to brainstorm words to do with hair, one with body, one with face and one with skin. I was a little nervous about the last one, what with the potential for racist overtones, but in fact this provoked arguably the most useful chunks of language: greasy skin, oily skindry skin, and sensitive skin. The face list also took me by surprise – one student pointed at her cheeks –

“What are these?”

“Cheeks.”

“No.” Irritated by her stupid teacher. “These.”

I looked more carefully, a little nervous about staring, and the penny dropped:

Dimples!

In both cases, the new vocabulary arose from the students needing specific sets of language to express a concept. The task gave a setting for the vocabulary, and linked it all together, but ultimately the words were the students’ own words. It would never have occurred to me to teach words like sensitive skin or dimples despite the students in question having both – sensitive skin in particular is useful for a student who is resident in the UK. Having a breakdown, an affair or a mid-life crisis is unlikely to make it into most teacher-selected syllabuses, but nevertheless arose because the students had a need to talk about them. And again, these are not unusual or unlikely phrases – you could find them in most newspapers, magazines or online with a fairly high degree of frequency. Both groups, took great delight in exploring the new language, playing with it, using it.  “I read about a man in Poland, he had a mid life crisis and…” “Can you have just one dimples?” “Do you know good [indicates rubbing cream into skin] for sensitive skin?” 

There is an element of luck to this, for sure: with another group on another day we might have just the expected language. This isn’t some form of “best practice” that can be packaged up and rolled out at a training event. There is an element of skill as well. This wasn’t dogme, unplugged teaching per se: the activities limited the range of emergent language into a reasonably predictable collection of terms. We weren’t about to start talking about finding a job or how to make chapati, after all. A little control, a little setting of boundaries, if judged carefully, can make for a surprisingly productive lesson. You need to judge, as well, if the language is going down a dead end, explain well, and, arguably most importantly of all, capture what has come out. In this case I had the A3 sheets, and the lists of vocabulary (many of which were copied or photographed). For the level 1 group we had key terms on the interactive whiteboard which I have turned into PDF handouts and sent out. I’m in the habit of recording new words and concepts on a regular whiteboard next to the interactive one, then taking a photo with my phone. The A3 sheets were photographed, uploaded to google drive, and on display on the interactive whiteboard in slightly less than a minute, with virtually no impact on the flow of the lesson. The emergent language was captured and shared. 

The language was practised as well. For the level 1 group I closed with a speaking task – asking have you ever..? in pairs using the consequences sheet. For the Entry 1 group, one  I had the photos on the board, I elicited the relevant structures (“I have got…” and “I am…”) and had the students tell each other about themselves before reporting back to the whole class using “he’s/she’s got” and “he/she is…”. I also think I missed an opportunity or two: the level 1 class could have written short fictional biographies, for example. The entry 1 class will be following it up properly: putting the descriptive language together with the work we did last week on daily routines, and creating a profile of an individual based on photographs and other images. 

There is, I think, always a place for teacher led decisions on language content in some lessons, and students like to have a little direction. They are, after all, not stupid, and can smell an unplanned, undirected lesson a mile away. But you can create an activity and the conditions for language to emerge within the lesson, while still giving the lesson a sense of structure and purpose. Sometimes, as well, specific forms are unlikely to ever simply “emerge” in this way, so a bit of teacher-led is necessary: while we are under pressure to get students to pass exams and achieve external curriculum aims, then there has to be a fair portion of teacher selected content. 

But there is still a lot of freedom there, of course, which means there is plenty of room for dimples. 

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