I wonder if, like me, you've ever heard a conversation like this in the staffroom:
'What are you doing this week?'
'Not Unit 5!'
'Who are you teaching?'
'My Upper Intermediates [sigh].'
'They just don’t want to talk.'
Perhaps, like me, you haven’t just heard these conversations – but also taken part in them.
I think they can arise when our classroom practice is defined too closely by external parameters such as coursebook units and even learner levels.
This reduces our own sense of agency1 as teachers, and the degree of agency we feel able to foster in our learners. It can make us feel passive, reducing our motivation. And as we all know from our own days in school, a demotivated teacher can’t motivate a class. If we want active learners, we need to be active teachers.
An opportunity missed
Feeling constrained by coursebooks and levels can also lead us to miss learning opportunities. There’s a powerful example of this in the introduction to Teaching Unplugged2, where part of a lesson in an ELT classroom in Mexico is transcribed. The teacher learns that a student called Jorge has got married over the weekend, but for whatever reason does not pursue this potentially motivating conversation. Instead, the class is directed to the coursebook – and a unit which is, ironically enough, about 'biographies'.
An opportunity taken
In real life, language emerges from communicative need. One person wants to say something; another wants to find out something. This is why information gap activities are a staple of communicative language teaching, but they are often somewhat artificial: the set-up involves a role play, none of the information is real, and Student A doesn’t really need to know what Student B has to tell them.
In our example from Mexico, a real information gap has emerged: only Jorge knows about his own wedding – and it is genuinely motivating for his classmates to find out more. (It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to motivate: real life events, big and small, form the basis of our social interaction outside the class – and can do inside.)
Conversation: allow it, shape it
So, how do we exploit this opportunity? The first step to take is to 'allow' the conversation to happen – by showing that you are interested, by showing that you want to know more. The second is to give it shape, and involve the whole class, by adding a light task element. For example, you can set up a 'paper conversation' by inviting students to work in groups, writing questions on pieces of paper for Jorge to reply to. This allows each group to build a slightly different picture of his wedding which they can turn into a short text and compare. (You can ask the groups to show you the questions before they go to Jorge: check them for form and send them back if they need more work.)
This strikes me as a vibrant classroom dynamic, energising for all concerned: one based not on what a group of learners 'should' be doing in Unit 5 (although there will always be time to return to that later), nor even on what kind of language they 'should' be producing as Upper Intermediates (although what emerges is by definition linked to their level and can always be referred to the syllabus).
Instead, the classroom space is open to the learners' own lives and language, and quickly fills with the words and texts that allow them to negotiate and create meaning together. By being pro-active and responding to an opportunity, we restore our sense of agency as teachers – and we transfer it to the learners, working with them as they co-construct their narratives.
(It’s interesting to note that much of what we do in conventional lesson plans seems designed to control rather than 'allow'. In the week leading up to the British Council workshops I gave in Poland in October, which this article follows, there was some great discussion on Anthony Gaughan's blog, Teacher Training Unplugged. Responding to this, Anthony commented that, while 'some anticipation of potential difficulties is useful and necessary, it's curious ... that no standard lesson plan pro-forma contains sections asking [teachers] to look out for opportunities and leverage points.') 3
Focus on form: mine, refine
In case you’re wondering, there are plenty of opportunities for language work in the course of this activity. Spoken conversation allows us to echo and recast before we draw more explicit attention to form. But one advantage of a paper conversation is that it gives you as the teacher a little more processing time. The texts – both the draft questions and the final narratives – can be 'mined' for a suitable focus on form. They can also be refined, so that they are made not only more accurate but also more fluent or expressive.
I shared the sessions in Poland with Rob Lewis, who led a great workshop in which we explored our evolving 'toolkits' as teachers. Using paper conversations as one of the 'go-to' activities in your toolkit is an excellent way to build up your confidence in dealing with emergent language.
Adding more or stripping back?
We started with two conversations that reflect constrained classroom experience and expectations: the coursebook has become what we 'do' in class; while the learners are more 'Upper Intermediates' than people.
We sometimes try and deal with issues like this by adding: we supplement the coursebook unit with additional material; we set up complex communication activities that can take longer to explain than to complete.
But I wonder if you've ever had the experience of cooking a dish that goes wrong? We may try to fix it by adding more salt, or by adding some extra ingredients, but very often the taste just gets more confused and unsatisfying. I think it can be a bit like that with teaching.
Sometimes it’s best to start again – with fewer ingredients. Simple, fresh food is often best. And the best ingredients for your lesson are often the ones right in front of you: the learners.
- Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta
By Luke Meddings
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