I take it back, sort of. The criticisms are still there: the sometimes punitive over emphasis on “real life” for example, where observers and auditors of a particularly narrow mindset may criticise your planning for not linking to learners lives, as if this is the be all and end all; the notion that an ESOL for employment course should only link explicitly to employability skills; and the necessarily fake nature of some pedagogical dialogues. There are still issues with all these things.
However, I did take the decision to go with a few “situational” sessions, but rather than using published materials, my first idea was to start with the crucial vocabulary. To this end, I took a walk down my local high street, taking pictures of a the various shops and services along that street. I live in a completely different area to where my students live and work, but focussed on my area for two main reasons. Firstly, I’m lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you have almost every local shop you could possibly need, and more: a couple of cafes and restaurants, a small supermarket, an old fashioned greengrocer, a barbers with a rotating barber’s pole as the sign, a florist, a butcher, a small DIY shop, a brilliantly useful hardware/homeware shop that sells more or less everything, a couple of takeaways, a superfluity of hairdressers, nail bars and beauty salons, and, of course, a post office. As a range of potential situations and vocabulary, this was simply too rich to pass up. The second reason was far more pragmatic: I teach in a very large town, and the students are scattered across the various suburbs of the town, so the centre of the town is the only really mutual area that is familiar to all the students. I don’t know if you’ve been to a British town centre recently, but this one is stereotypically bland, with little to distinguish it either from other similar town centres (except the surpassing ugliness of one pedestrian precinct), or to distinguish the shop fronts visually from one another. Therefore, to find the same sort of easily identifiable range of shops would have taken something of a trek to find, whereas my own local area was a simple matter of walking home after taking the children to school. So yes, there was a slight stone-built cottagey tweeness to some of the pictures, but they worked as an effective stimulus for vocabulary.
PowerPoint was king on this one. Each photo was loaded into a presentation, which was then used as a stimulus to get the students to name each shop. They worked in groups and wrote down the name on mini whiteboards, which meant I could check the ideas easily, and the students could peer check both word and spelling. After this eliciting stage, I have the students a (black and white – austerity measures!) print out of the presentation, and asked the students to work individually to add the names of the places. This meant that a) they all had a practice in writing and spelling, and b) they all had a record of the key spellings.
On the day, I followed this with a focus on functional language, and I wish I hadn’t. I typed up possible “things people say” for each place, and had the students work in groups to discuss which sentence went with which place. This was with a view to then writing up mini dialogues based on each sentence, and a focus on polite language. In practice, there wasn’t really time to move onto the functional language forms, and I rather wish I had simply revised present simple and adverbs of frequency with them and had the students talk about how often they went to the different places. Instead we finished the matching of utterance to place, and only really had enough time to do a bit of a spelling / vocab recap at the end.
So as a follow up in the subsequent lessons I used a couple of different ideas. I still liked the idea of working with a dialogue, so accessed a couple of rather brilliant listening activity on the EsolNexus website. Some of the students are doing listening as part of their final exam, and really need to work on this. The first was a series of sounds from around the town, which was a nice revisit of some of the vocabulary from the day before, and students had to say where they thought it was, and then justify this using present continuous (“it is a playground. Children are playing.”) which was a nice chance to revisit that language. Then there was a listening based, of course, in a post office. I liked the listening though: it’s fast, for one, and includes a natural switch halfway through from a transactional conversation (sending a parcel) to an interactional one (“its busy in here today…”). It also had some complex bits of language that you might not expect at this level: a pointlessly applied reflexive pronoun, for example, and an unusually placed “anyway”, which provoked some discussion among the more able students in the group, although the biggest challenge, I thought, was the strong London accent, but in fact, the students coped admirably well with all this.
So next up comes the functional language. I’ve cleared a lesson to concentrate on request forms, and hopefully will get to exploit the sentences from the first in this little trio of lessons. I probably should have done this as the second lesson, but I wanted the listening to provide a few more examples of some of the forms we might use in a transactional situation. I think I’ll go back to my sentences from lesson 1 and get the students to highlight which ones are questions, and then eliciti all the ways we can ask for something, before then getting the students to expand the sentences into role plays which they can then share and practice.
So yes, Mrs Khan does indeed go to the post office in my lessons, just not all the time.