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Ahead of the Coursebook
Besides grammar and language structure practice, coursebooks provide skill work. Both of these are aspects that form a necessary part of language learning. However, the amount of functional language learning and skill development provided by coursebooks is limited both in variety and range.
When we think of skills in the English language classroom, it is the reading and listening exercises to introduce grammar for receptive skills and speaking and writing tasks to practice grammar for productive skills. A reading exercise might include a prediction task, a gist reading task and detailed reading task. This is usually followed by exercises to notice and practice a specific grammar point taken from the reading. A listening exercise might include a discussion task to share ideas and set context, prediction using images, and a detailed listening task, instructing learners to listen for specific answers. In addition, receptive skills practice is limited to one or two exercises, rather than a series of exercises for the development of a skill. They are also limited to the most basic skills like prediction and detailed listening and reading. Learners therefore miss out on opportunities to practice specific skills and develop them in a structured manner, as well as opportunities to work on skills less common in coursebooks like making inferences, guessing meaning from context, reading for research purposes, notetaking and summarizing information. Similarly, with listening and speaking, students do not get much practice on recognizing connected speech features and chunks of language in speech, often because a lot of the conversation is slow, graded and robotic. As a teacher, I was unable to notice that students were not really developing their listening until I had them listen to a TV show to answer questions and saw how much they struggled.
A. Include authentic material
Authentic learning should be a key part of every English language lesson because it is a vital part of understanding and using language correctly. Graded texts and audios are useful for some skill practice, but in being graded they lose their practical value. Texts in coursebooks are concentrated with chosen grammar points and production tasks instruct students to use those grammar points. Learners have little opportunity to extend their existing language and experiment with a wider range of structures. There is a wide range of authentic material that can be used in the classroom. YouTube channels like Ted- Ed and Vox are a great resource for higher level learners. I have used videos from BBC Earth as well, as the topic of animals comes up quite a bit in many coursebooks. Spoken word poetry and readings of short poems are also available on YouTube. These are all very natural uses of the English language and if the language is too dense, the tasks can be graded and kept simple. Also, students can be made to focus on specific parts of the video, using background and contextual knowledge to help them comprehend better. Reading material that teachers can use should include things students read in their every-day lives. So, while newspaper articles and academic text is useful, skill development especially for teenagers and kids would be more engaging if authentic material was social media posts, gossip articles from magazines, WhatsApp messages, etc. Social media posts might lead to a study of modern internet language and understanding acronyms, audience and purpose when tweeting, or sentence structure features like ellipsis.
B. Plan lessons for skill development
When I first started teaching, I would have students practice listening and reading following exercises in the coursebook. As a result, students would spend a few minutes in each lesson developing the most common skills of prediction, and gist and detailed reading. As my experience as a teacher grew, I learned that there is much more to practice with receptive skills that I had not noticed when reading and listening in English myself. When I began experimenting with lessons I developed just for teaching a specific skill, I found that I was able to determine what students struggled with and then work on those in the same manner as we commonly do with grammar lessons. It is very useful to go into the classroom with an aim to develop a specific skill and a task to assess if students have developed it or not. Ideally, I have students do an exercise using a skill, reflect on what was challenging about it, practice the skills and then assess themselves in a final task and reflect on how they found the task in the end.
For example, in a lesson on inference, I would ask students to read a text (preferably from a simple novel) and answer questions, for which the details are not directly stated in the text. The rest of the lesson would be:
a. Students reflect on how they knew the answers. i.e. Did they make assumptions? Were there clues in the text they used to decide on the answers? Did they use background knowledge to answer questions? This enables students to think about the cognitive process of making inferences.
b. Students do various activities to practice inferencing. Riddles are a good way to do this as it gets students to apply existing knowledge and textual clues to answer questions. Another activity I have done is asking students to infer what would be in my room from things I tell them about myself. For example, if I say, ‘I love to read and be surrounded by books’, students might infer that I have a bookshelf in my room. One of my students inferred that I might have a small sofa and table or a cushioned corner where I might sit with a cup of coffee (knowing that I love coffee from a chat we had had in a previous lesson) and read.
c. After practice, students will read another text and answer questions again, followed by a reflection on how challenging they found it, and why they may have missed some of the answers (maybe because they weren’t paying enough attention to some of the clues in the text).
Similar lessons can be designed by the teacher for students to practice and develop specific receptive and productive skills. The key is understanding the skill and how it contributes to success in reading, listening, speaking or writing, as well as having the end goal of the lesson in mind. Once that is established, planning the lesson won’t be too time consuming or challenging for the teacher.