Post by Mike Bilbrough
Planning my classes ahead for a whole term, perhaps even an academic year, had always sounded like a daunting task to me. There was the grammar and lexical points I would be covering, which skills to work on with my students and other curricular whatnot but much of that was dictated by the centre’s study programme anyway. Probably, like many teachers, I felt I wanted to be more in control of my course content and approach, not just be a slave to the class course book. Yet, the end of term’s classes seemed just as distant as next week’s. I could plan a class but failed when attempting to pave a way through my courses consistent with any well-reasoned pedagogical thinking that was my own. A plan that would define me as a teacher rather than the didactic rationale of the course book’s author.
It was later in my career after more experience and research into language acquisition that I finally accomplished this aim. I needed to orientate my language courses to follow techniques based on conceptual approaches rather than every class an isolated occasion. Furthermore, in retrospect, I realise the latter scenario was laborious and potentially energy-draining. It means either falling back on a repertoire of activities done in the past (often already becoming staid) or continually inventing or seeking activities to fill future classes. Relying on a constant stream of inspiration and ideas, which may not always be forthcoming, is something difficult to mould into a long term plan. During my visits to teacher seminars and conferences, I see the workshop spiels on the programme catering to the needs of teachers crying out for those one-off classes: “off-the-shelf, ready-to-go lesson plans for your classes next Monday morning!”
I feel that for me I can now reduce the stress of the perpetual inspiration lust if I adopt a conceptual style of teaching because it means I can plan right through the term knowing what the content will be for a large proportion of the time of each of my classes. To develop a conceptual approach, I needed to mature what I believed was the best way for learners to acquire a language within the classroom conditions and limitations of my students – knowledge gleaned through my own research and student feedback. Personally, I place much faith in finding ways to maximise student exposure of holistic L2. However, I also have to adhere to a grammar and vocabulary curriculum laid down by the centre I work for so I present those language items within holistic language in the form of complete texts such as stories, anecdotes, jokes and other texts suited to the age of my students. However, to present the L2 in that way, I needed to develop didactic techniques which would allow me to maximise language exposure. So here is the conceptual part. This I do through activities that enhance language awareness such as student choral work of reading texts on the board, dictation activities, and a short series of other language input techniques that involve the use of relatively large amounts of meaningful and comprehensible lexis.
The problem here is that raw, unimaginative techniques even though based on sound concepts are not enough, of course. No teacher is going to subject their students to regular, tedious dictations just because they encourage learners to analyse fully developed sentences. Neither should a teacher bore learners with repeated classes of reading out aloud in chorus because of the full-sentence speaking practice it might produce. My planning stage at the beginning of each term involves, then, (besides the compulsory curricular stuff) how I can convert those raw techniques into something engaging and perhaps even fun for my learners. What if a learner gave a dictation to the rest of the class? Would it work if chosen learners gave a dictation in small groups? What if those dictations were different parts of the same story then I mixed the groups and learners completed their stories by telling each other their own part? Could learners read the text of a story aloud projected on the board and call out and correct intentionally inserted errors precisely within the language areas they will later be tested on – and make a team quiz of it? Then they act out the story…
Long-term planning for me is a rewarding one. It involves large doses of creativity, which is enjoyable to develop and work into the concepts in my teaching I have already defined. I repeat the same activities many times with a class as the different material (story, text, etc.) provides the variation required to maintain learner motivation and interest. I do not need to painstakingly find new activities for each class. After an initial brain-storming of ideas at the beginning of the course, I know more or less what I will do in my classes throughout the whole course. By making minor tweaks to the original ideas, the classes remain fresh and very importantly, focused on the concepts I had originally conceived would maximise language acquisition. Of course, by no means am I supposing other teachers share my ideas as to what leads to efficient language acquisition. I have had to reveal some of my own thoughts here so as to give an example of how I am able, through a conceptual approach, to design a course that is coherent with what I believe works best. I feel a conceptual approach to language teaching is a rewarding even a fascinating one allowing me to fully explore effective language acquisition techniques and reduce the tensions brought about by an unplanned course that is subject to the continual uncertainties of tomorrow’s inspiration.
Mike Bilbrough Ph.D.