Designing materials 

There’s an assignment on CELTA called authentic materials. Its main purpose is to get trainee teachers thninking about selecting materials and designing tasks to practice language skills, as well as developing their awareness of what language or skills practice could develop from a particular text. Now, I am pretty sure that none of my trainees are currently following my blog (but a big “Hi” to you if you are) so I reckon I can get away with essentially writing about 70% of an assignment for them. And if they are reading and having sneaky “late CELTA stressed and panicky” thoughts about plagiarism, it’s worth noting that you would have to be a complete purblind numpty to make serious, academic use of an unreferenced, informal blog post published on a free platform. Not to mention the small fact that the person who will be marking that assignment also has access to this blog.

So anyway, the text I have chosen is this one from the BBC. It would be for my evening class, and / or perhaps my Thursday morning class, and I’ve chosen it because it’s inherently quite interesting, if nothing else, to think above why people should ever care whether a cake is a biscuit or vice versa. It’s also got an interesting discussion in the second half around meaning and about how we categorise the world and a discussion raising important gender fluidity and transgender issues. This latter, as well as being interesting, is also going to challenge a few preconceptions, raise some eyebrows and very possibly some voices. All for the good, then. 

So the activities then. First up I’d probably take in some realia in the form of Jaffa cakes. Officially, at work, eating in the classroom is banned throughout college (because, apparently, working adults have the same behaviour issues as 16 year olds…) so the idea of an eminently justifiable bit of cake/biscuit scoffing is quite appealing to my polite middle-class rebel alter ego. After eating, or at least tasting and looking at a Jaffa cake, I might get the students to think of words to describe be taste or appearance of said Jaffa cake. I’d maybe also bring in some digestives or Rich Tea, to my mind that most archetypal of biscuits and compare them. Bit of plenary feedback, then to discuss “is it a cake or a biscuit?”

Then I’d ask them to read the text and tell me to answer the same question. Strictly speaking this isn’t what we might call gist reading: that would be much broader as a task (like “is the article about: cakes/biscuits/words” or something. However (and I’m sure there’s a reference somewhere for this) reading for gist is potentially quite hard to do, and actually what I want to do is get the students to have an idea of the shape of the article, so that when they come to the more comprehensive reading task shortly, they will find it a little easier. Gist reading is a skill in and of itself and should be taught distinctly: I know I have historically treated it as the poor cousin of the reading skills family, and I need to address this. 

So anyway, moving on. Next up: checking the answer, which is “legally it’s a cake, but who knows”. I know some students will be frustrated by the lack of clarity to the answer, but that’s sort of the point, and I would mollify them by pointing out the purpose of the task, as outlined above. The checking would take place as part of a standard routine I attempt to develop in this setting: check with your partner/monitor discussions/quick whole group discussion if necessary. 

Then the main reading. It’s a hefty article so I might do one of two things. I could chop it off halfway down, which would lose the interesting discussion around transgender identity. Alternatively, I might keep it whole and have two sets of questions, one for each half. I would then direct the whole group to do the first set, then have the second half (which is, I think, linguistically and cognitively more challenging) with two types of question: a couple of gist-y “what do you think?” type of questions, and some more challenging true/false questions for the stronger students in the class. 

The detailed reading might include scanning (what do these numbers refer to…?) and more intensive reading, like “name two qualities, according to the text, which distinguish cakes from biscuits.”

Again, checking would take the form of peer checking followed by whole group clarification of any answers which caused discussion, and a general reporting back of any interesting questions arising. 

Now, the CELTA activity asks for two possible follow up activities. I’d be tempted to do some vocab work, maybe a matching task to get students to look at how words are used metaphorically (3 columns: match, for example “cap/veneer/sibling” to its traditional meaning and to the meaning in the text). I might get the students to look at humour and tone: “most humans are not topped with chocolate”, “Wittgenstein..partial to a bun”, the use of hyperbole in “the greatest invention since…”, or perhaps the vein of confectionary and baking related vocabulary and analogy (a sweet result, trifling, reheated). 

There might be some grammatical work: it’s a long text but it doesn’t repeatedly use any specific structure repeatedly enough to justify. However I might ask students to find examples of structures they had recently studied, or with which they should already be familiar, as a kind of recap / assessment.

The other obvious follow up is a discussion task: linguistic archetypes, what do words mean, why do we think about transgender identity, and how is language gendered, perhaps. Id maybe get students to talk about their own languages as well. 

And that’s how it’s done. I’m 17 years into this, and I can do it without much thought as to structure of the tasks or the lesson. It’s easy to forget how hard this is for a novice teacher, but also what an achievement it is when they do design something successful. I wouldn’t pass the assignment, mind you. I’d have to go and read books, which would probably be no bad thing in terms of professional development. After all the last time I seriously looked into language teaching and learning research was probably four or five years back. But I don’t know if I would find much has changed in task design: perhaps I’ll go and find out….

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