Tag Archives: Emerging language

‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

This has got to be the most interactive and fun session I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. It was sponsored by Pilgrims and Paolo mentioned that there will be a course on improvisation in EFL run both in July and in August 2016, at Pilgrims, in Canterbury, by Peter Dyer (more info here).

But back to the workshop. There was no ppt. No lecturing or the audience listening with hidden yawns. Instead, there was a lot of practice, and as the title suggests, communication and cooperation in speaking and writing activities.

I came in slightly late, so missed the instructions to the first activity, but the other teacher I was paired up with explained that we had to improvise and pretend we were giving a gift to each other. One person gives the present, without saying what it is. The person receiving it has to accept it, thank for it, and choose what the gift is, i.e. improvise (Paolo is grateful to Peter Dyer, who developed this activity). Then we swapped roles.

Very simple, but very effective at the same time. The whole room seemed very engaged, and I could see it working very well with real students too. It was fun, involved creativity, a bit of acting, and plenty of opportunity for students to practice some functional language.

After the activity, Paolo explained the basic framework that we would also use in the following demos. The underlying pattern looks like this:

  • Yessing, or accepting your partner’s contribution
  • Adding, adding some info in order to let the action/dialogue take place, and go on, for example:
    • Yes and…
  • Paolo pointed out we should avoid contradicting, i.e. patterns such as ‘Yes, but/however’, because it works as a blocking device, and can lead to ‘conversation paralysis’

So the next demo was called ‘One word at a time’ and was adapted from a book by Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation for the Theatre, published in 1981 by Bloomsbury, London. We were put in pairs with a different teacher and had to imagine we were now one person having an internal dialogue. We can only say one word at a time and we can’t contradict our partner. Paolo demoed the activity with a volunteer:



We were then asked to choose a context, and for one reason or another somebody shouted out ‘desert!’, so we ended up having to construct an internal dialogue while being in the middle of a desert… It went kind of like this:

A: We…

B: …are…

A: …looking…

B: …for…

A: …well…

B: …because…

I can’t remember the rest exactly, but it involved finding a gold fish and eating it for dinner – I know, English teachers can have bizarre ideas sometimes.

Again, everyone was very engaged and active. And as with the previous activity, I can see it work really well with students. Lots of room for individual creativity, but at the same time quite demanding linguistically, to be honest. A possible follow up could be to retell the dialogue to a new partner, or even write it down, or record it at home.

The next activity was dynamic storytelling developed by Peter Dyer. One volunteer had to come to the front to start the story by saying a sentence. Again, it was left purely up to us what the context would be, and if I remember right, it was: Once upon a time there was a wolf. Perhaps not terribly imaginative, but it did the trick: starting the story off. The next volunteer would come to the front and say another sentence. But the sentence could be from anywhere in the story: right after the first one, the middle, or the end. The person would stand in a line either close to the first volunteer, or far away, depending on where in the story their sentence would come. And off we went. Again, it was fun, engaging, with lots of language practice. There was a lot of repetition, as you had to remember your sentence and the ones around you to make sure the story would flow. There was definitely plenty of room for peer correction too. As with the previous ones, the creative aspect had us all very much engaged.

In the second part of the workshop we looked at improvisation and creativity for writing activities. Again, they were surprisingly simple, but at the same time very effective and engaging.

Among several that we saw, I will describe the first one, which was group picture activity. It starts with an empty white board. The first volunteer draws the first picture. It can be anything. I think in our case it was a palm tree. The next person adds another picture or element to it, and so on (this activity comes from Sion C., 2000, Creating Conversation in Class, Delta, Peaslake). Once there are quite a few things drawn, Paolo explained that there are several ways in which the pictures could be used as a springboard for writing activities. For example:

  • Write the names of the objects
  • Create a dialogue between the people in the pictures
  • Create an sms (or perhaps in our modern times Whatsapp or FB) chat
  • Write a story connecting the pictures
  • Fill in the empty parts of the board with a story

I imagine this would lend itself nicely to a speaking activity too, either before or instead of the writing phase. I’d imagine the students being quite engaged in the writing, because it’s their story, rather than one imposed by the teacher. A scaffold is developed by the students and for the students, and there is plenty of room for individual creativity.

I would have certainly enjoyed doing these activities in a language class.

My other summaries from TESOL Italy 2015 sessions can be found here:

  1. ELF and TESOL: a change of subject? plenary by Henry Widdowson
  2. Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions. by Chiara Bruzzano

Meu instantâneo 15 [3677412]Paolo Torresan obtained his PhD in Linguistics and Romance Philology at Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. He has carried out research at Complutense University, Autonoma University, in Madrid, and at Lancaster University. He has taught at Rio de Janeiro State University and Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, CA. He is Editor-in-chief for the following journals: Officina.it and Bollettino Itals. Among his books we mention: The Multiple Intelligence Theory and Language Teaching (Perugia 2010). He’s also studied improvisation at the Groundlings school, in LA. You can get in touch with Paolo through his profile on academia.edu here.

Classroom practices: too much or not enough?

logo new #2Listen to and download these podcasts from the iTunes Store here, our Soundcloud channel here or from this section of the blog.

Even experienced teachers can become prisoners of their own teaching habits and beliefs, overusing certain approaches, while completely overlooking others. As a result, in this podcast we talk about things that in our opinion we as teachers should do less often in an EFL classroom, and some things that we think we don’t do enough of and should do much more often. Among other things we look at:

  • grammar based vs lexical syllabus
  • teaching individual words vs teaching chunks
  • responding to students needs vs following the syllabus
  • teacher talking time

We’d love to hear what you think about these issues. What are the things you don’t do enough as a teacher? Are there any things you do too much of? Leave us a comment below the post.

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.

Teaching Lexically

Wednesday was one of those days that made me realise (not for the first time!) why blogging is great, and why I got into it in the first place – read more about it here. I’d just finished breakfast and I still had about 30 minutes to my first class so – as you would these days – I was trying to kill it on FB, when I came across Andrew Walkley’s post ‘Lexical Sets/Topic Vocabulary‘ on the BELTA blog.

In a nutshell – please do read it, it’s well worth it – Andrew points out that teaching lexis in sets (e.g. appearance, education) doesn’t help acquisition. That is, students would learn 10 random words faster than 10 words from a set. An idea proven by research, but not really reflected by course book design, nor by how most of us teach lexis. You can read more about this in this article by Leo Selivan, where he proposes some interesting alternatives to teaching lexis in sets.

Andrew then highlights that course books and teachers “are ruled by the grammatical syllabus”, which means that we have to cover present simple in order to be able to go on to present continuous, past simple, and so on. You know the drill. Otherwise – or so we are let to believe – students won’t grasp it.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/76tVxa
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/76tVxa

As a language learner, I’ve found this idea very restrictive. I would typically learn a new language structure (e.g. tense, chunk, isolated item), because I had the communicative need for it. In other words, I wouldn’t wait until I knew how to form the present simple, before attempting to talk about my past experiences or future plans. ( you can read more about my language learning experience and tips here). Yet, as a teacher, I’ve tended to follow the grammatical syllabus of standard course books.

In other words, the course book, and by extension the teacher, prescribes what the student must learn today, often stopping them from going a step beyond that (we’ll learn ‘the future’ next month, Jose; now focus on the task). Wouldn’t it be better, though – as Andrew points out – if we started to:

teach phrases containing more ‘advanced’ grammar easily to beginners – especially where we make use of translation – which could allow for a wider variety of language earlier on. Yet we become primed to expect certain grammar and words at certain levels which prevents us from seeing how we can help students say more of what they want to say, sooner.

[from the author: please note that all the example sentences below were invented by me or taken from my classes. For the examples Andrew used originally, follow the link to his article]

Andrew then suggests some interesting ideas which can help us achieve this. For example, if the chunk ‘I’m broke’ comes up in the class, we can exploit it by eliciting and working on some probable language connected to the chunk:

  • Why are you broke? Spent money on (clothes)/Haven’t been paid yet/My mate owes me loads/etc.
  • What would you do if you were broke? Get a loan (from the bank)/Borrow money from (a friend)/ Ask (your parents) for a loan/Get a job/etc.
  • How would you feel? Miserable/down in the dumps/suicidal/normal – I’m always broke/etc.

You could elicit the responses to the questions from students and upgrade their language to make it sound more natural. Of course, the language can be graded according to the students’ level, but there’s no reason why the above exchange could not take place even on low levels. It actually should, because it’s based around language that students might be likely to use in this context.

Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA
Photo from: https://flic.kr/p/7J5PTA

Another idea described by Andrew is ‘building on simple grammar’ and structures to form more complex ones using students’ ideas. For example, imagine teaching a beginner class ‘likes and dislikes’:

I                            love                                     reading books
                              like                                     football
                              don’t like                         broccoli
                              hate                                    queuing for a long time

If students only used the above structures, the activity would end up pretty restrictive. However, you could expand it by adding alternative subjects, such as:

My granny                           loves                                     reading books
My son                                   likes                                     football
Aliens                                    don’t like                         broccoli
Messi                                      hates                                    queuing for a long time

If we allow students to use dictionaries, or if we translate for them, we can get them to come up with sentences and language that is communicatively important to them. We might also want to feed in appropriate questions or reactions to the statements, for example:

  • A: I love football! B: Do you?/Really? I don’t/Me too/etc.
  • A: My mom hates football. What about yours? B: She loves it!/She hates it too
  • A: My dad like reading books. B: And what about your mum/brother/cousin?

Admittedly, the above are not 100% natural exchanges, but they resemble much more closely real conversations then students simply making sentences about their likes and dislikes.

Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5ueUT6
Under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/5ueUT6

Finally, why not ask ‘why’ and get the students to give reasons. This might result in some interesting new language we could further explore, but most importantly – it will lead to meaningful and relevant practice. For example:

  • Why do you hate reading? Because it’s boring/I fall asleep every time/I prefer TV.
  • I don’t like my city. It’s not safe. There are many thieves.
  • My mum loves broccoli. She likes all vegetables. She doesn’t like meat.

The important thing that Andrew’s article reminded me of is that there’s no reason why we should restrict our students’ production to what we’ve prescribed for a given class. Actually, two days before I read the article, I was teaching hobbies and free time activities to a beginner level Polish class. When they were discussing what they and their friends or relatives enjoyed doing in their free time, one student asked how to say ‘which’ in Polish. At first I thought she didn’t really need to know it now, and we should continue the activity, but it quickly dawned on me that it was a very natural question word to know. Consider:

  • A: I like reading books.
  • B: Nice. [silence, tries to find the right word and ask something, but gives up]. I like reading books too.
  • A: Nice. [silence – they move on to the next ‘like’]

Of course, asking ‘which books’ is what we’d normally do in this situation. Teaching this question word opened up some very interesting language possibilities. Then we elicited some likely chunks with ‘which’ (Polish, unlike English, is a terrifyingly inflectional language, so the form of ‘which’ will change depending on the gender, case and number) and some likely answers. Then, they had a chance to practise it. The same could have been done with ‘how often’, ‘when’ or ‘why’, e.g.:

  • A: I love going to the cinema. B: Me too! How often do you go?
  • I really like to sleep late when I have the time.

To sum it up, I totally agree with Andrew that there is no reason why we can’t expand on the ‘prescribed’ chunks or grammar, and get even low-level students to say more complex, but at the same time more personally relevant and meaningful sentences. I guess it might have been something I used to do from time to time, but never really paid any conscious attention to. After Andrew’s article, I’ll be more aware of this, and can hopefully make it a more regular part of my teaching repertoire.

This is why Andrew’s article reminded me why blogging is great. The posts you read can often remind you of classroom practices which you’ve forgotten about and give you some great fresh ideas to use in your next class.

While I was wondering about the implications of the article, my 1-1 student arrived and the class started. While we were chatting about what he’d been up to at the weekend, I noticed that he’d written some phrasal verbs in his notebook and translated them into Spanish. It turned out he’d been reading an article and decided to translate some of the new vocabulary. Since I know Spanish, I quickly noticed that some of the translations were not accurate. I explained that words do not live in isolation, but are always connected with others. The first ‘phrasal’ was ‘find out’ and this a photo of what we wrote up on the white board:

collocations white board 2

The student gave a couple more examples that were relevant to him which we discussed and expanded on. We also highlighted some examples that were not correct, but could possibly be correct in Spanish, depending on the translation: e.g. *Columbus found out America.

We did the same with two more phrasal verbs. Notice that I wrote ‘I’ll carry on’ because I think it’s much more likely to occur than ‘I carry on’; despite the fact that we’d never done ‘will’ in class, pointing ahead, ‘to the future’, quickly dispelled any doubts:

white board collocations

By then, the student had realised that, as he put it, learning new words is much more than just translating them. As homework, I asked him to look up language patterns which collocate with the other phrasal verbs he’d written in the notebook. We’ll see next week what he’s come up with.

I definitely feel now that collocations and chunks lie at the core of successful language learning, not grammar. While my teaching had been naturally drifting towards a more lexical approach, it was only when I started teaching Polish when it fully dawned on me how crucial chunks are. As I mentioned above, it is utterly puzzling how we, the Poles, love to decline and conjugate absolutely every single word in Polish: verbs, determiners, relative pronouns, nouns, possessives, you name it! For example, my name’s Marek, but depending what you do with me, my name will get different endings:

  • Marek, come here! – Marku, come here!
  • I had a chat with Marek – I had a chat with Markiem
  • I wrote a letter to Marek – I wrote a letter to Marka
  • I gave it to Marek – I gave it Markowi

This of course means that learning individual words in their base form will not get you very far, i.e. you will be able to produce very little comprehensible output, and you’ll have big problems understanding what people are saying. Of course, you might want to spend the rest of your life trying to memorise all the noun declinations, but I don’t think it would be the most productive activity in the world, let alone communicative. As a result, it’s much more effective to teach students chunks, or even full utterances with variable slots (something which I might write about soon suggesting some practical ideas).

So yes, chunks are great, and so is blogging. Thanks for a very inspiring post, Andrew!

PS On Sunday 8th February, Andrew’s giving a webinar on the topic. You can read more about it here.

For more articles about teaching grammar and vocabulary click here, and for articles on Methods and Principles here. Don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to get the latest posts by email 🙂

Do you understand?

In one of my last posts I discussed different techniques which can be used for clarifying meaning of new language. Here I wanted to talk about the next likely stage, that is checking understanding.

I entitled the post “Do you understand?” because it’s perhaps the most natural, yet the least welcome, way to find out whether your students have understood the explanation or not. And if you’ve done CELTA , then you know that it’s THE persona non grata of language teaching. But I’ll come back to this point later and first start with the more “acceptable” techniques for checking understanding:

  1. CCQs: 

    The teacher asks a question or a series of questions which focus on the underlying meaning of the target language, and check if the student has grasped the concept. Keep the responses short so more students can participate, and less demand is put on their production, e.g. I bumped into a friend yesterday. CCQs: a) Did I meet a friend yesterday? (YES) b) Was it planned? (NO) c) Was it an accident? (YES)

  2. Timelines:

    Very useful when dealing with expressions where the tense is the problematic bit (although can be culturally dependant), e.g. I’ve been teaching for 6 years.

  3. Clines: 

    Useful for any language concepts which can be ranked, e.g. frequency adverbs, modal verbs for probability, degrees of reality/imagination, although it can be tricky to decide on the exact degree (e.g. I love, I’m crazy about, I’m keen on)

  4. Personalisation: 

    Standard CCQs can be followed by something more personal, i.e. a question which uses the target language or one which elicits a response with the target language. For example, for the verb to ban you could ask:

    • Should the government ban smoking in public places?
    • Is banning soft drugs a good idea to prevent their use?
  5. Extension: 

    Students finish a prompt given by the teacher; they’ll only be able to finish if correctly if they understand the concept, e.g. CC although:

    • T: Although it was raining…
    • S1: …we went out.
    • S2: …we went for a walk.
  6. Translation: 

    This is normally frowned upon, especially on initial TEFL courses. However, if you speak students’ L1, it can sometimes be useful to translate in order to dispel any doubts. L1/L2 comparisons can also be a useful tool, raising students’ language awareness of similarities and differences between the two languages. It’s also very quick and relatively unambiguous.

  7. Do you understand?

    Well, technically this question is persona non grata and all CELTA candidates have a really hard time avoiding it. Probably because it’s the most natural thing in the world for god’s sake! Of course, it is not to say that it should be our only concept checking technique. Having said that, if we know that our students usually speak up when they don’t know something, asking do you understand?can:

  • tell us when our previous concept checking has failed and we need to re–clarify
  • save us time by avoiding unnecessary CCQs

Do you use any of the techniques more often than others? Are there any you use which I haven’t put on the list? Would love to hear from you in the comments section.

In the next post I’ll present a few activities in which you’ll be able to try out and practise some of the techniques described above, so stay tuned! 🙂

If you’re teaching lexis soon, check out this post on clarifying meaning and this one on recycling vocabulary.

For now, you might find these sources useful:

Clarifying meaning

In one of the previous posts I presented some practical ways of revising and recycling vocabulary in class. But, of course, before we get to the fun stage of revision games and activities, we need first to get the meaning of the new vocabulary item(s) across. And this is what I wanted to talk about in this post.
The lexis that is taught in class can basically be divided into two categories:

  • planned for (as part of our lesson aims)
  • unplanned for or incidental (spontaneously arising from the in-class discussion)

Whichever the case might be, we need to be able to clarify the meaning of new lexis in a way that ideally is:

  • concise
  • clear
  • unambiguous
  • comprehensible to everybody

It is much easier to do so with lexis that we have planned to teach, because we can prepare the clarification in advance. However, being called on the spot to clarify a word that has just come up unexpectedly can be much more difficult. But it is also something that happens more than once every class, so it is good to have a few tricks up your sleeve which can help you clarify meaning of incidental lexis.
Below is a list of different techniques you can use:

  1. Realia:

    This approach works well with concrete objects that can be found around you. It’s quick and efficient. Leaves little room for ambiguity, but its usefulness is rather limited.

  2. Mime:

    This involves not only gestures but also making sounds and noises. Very useful for certain verbs (e.g. jump). Efficient and quite unambiguous although there are certain country, language or culture specific gestures. A good comic relief when your students are falling asleep.

  3. Definition in English:

    Arguably the one teachers use most often. Useful for practically any lexis and level, but difficult to come up with a simple and clear one off the top of your head. Often can end up being lengthy and using language that is more difficult than the actual target item.

  4. Drawings/Pictures:

    Great if you have artistic inclinations and talents, and comical if you don’t (like me). Can be very efficient and clear, and if you’re good at it, applicable to both concrete and abstract terms. Helps visual learners. If you don’t feel like drawing, you can easily and quickly find appropriate pictures on the Internet.

  5. Synonyms/Antonyms:

    Very quick and useful for words which have clear opposites (e.g. happy vs sad) or synonyms (e.g.brilliant = fantastic). The obvious downside is that there are very few (if any) words which have 100% exact synonyms/antonyms. Although it might be helpful to say that hop is kind of like jump, you’ll have to think how to convey the additional shades of meaning (e.g. consider: look vs stare vs gaze vs glare vs glance)

  6. Students teach each other:

    Often there might be student(s) who know the new word and can explain it to the others. This has the advantage of passing the responsibility for learning to students, putting them in the centre and taking the pressure off you. However, quite often you’ll end up clarifying the explanation given by the student yourself, which is more time-consuming and can potentially be confusing for the learners

  7. Examples/context:

    If the students came across the new word in a reading or listening activity (i.e. in context) get them to deduce the meaning themselves, if need be guiding them accordingly (i.e. through questions which will step by step guide them to the meaning). Alternatively, you can give some examples with the new word and get the students to deduce the meaning from there. Although this is more natural, reflecting how we learn lexis in real life, and thus beneficial for the students, it can be more time-consuming.

  8. Dictionaries:

    I always try to have at least one dictionary per 3 students in the classroom. And nowadays most students will have smart phones. Getting them to look up the word can be very beneficial as using dictionaries is an important skill. It also promotes learner autonomy and equips learners with useful skills they can use outside the class. And it gives you a chance to rest a bit too.

  9. Students ask questions to discover the meaning:

    You give students an example sentence with the new vocabulary item, e.g. Last night I felt quite maudlin. Students ask you questions to find out what the word means (you can decide whether they are yes/no or open questions – obviously, what does it mean is not allowed!), such as: Where were you? Were you sad? This technique can be very engaging and motivating, because it sparks students’ curiosity. I’d say it makes the word quite memorable as well.

  10. Translate:

    I left this one until the end on purpose. I know it’s one of the 7 deadly sins, and many teachers will argue against it. Of course there are clear disadvantages of it which we should bare in mind. But at the same time, if you happen to know the students’ L1, translation can have many advantages in some cases. Take the word “trout” for example. You could go into a detailed explanation and description or even show the students a picture of the fish. But wouldn’t it be easier, faster and more effective just to give the L1 equivalent?

To finish off, I’d like to pose a few discussion question which I hope you will comment on below. And please let me know if you know other effective techniques for clarifying meaning we could add to the list. Looking forward to your comments. Thanks!

  • How often do you use the techniques from above (1 = almost never; 2 = sometimes; 3 = usually (my standard technique)? Why?
  • Are there any approaches you’ve never used? Why?
  • Are some more effective than others?
  • Which of the ones you don’t often use could you try out in your next class?

You might also find this post interesting. I describe 7 practical ways for checking understanding of new language.

Read up on clarifying meaning:

  • Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications
  • Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary (p.81) Pearson Education Limited
  • Nik Peachey “Conveying meaning”