This year I was lucky enough to snag all of the first year communicative English classes at my high school (or maybe the other teachers just avoided them). But I always run into the same problem with my beginning classes. How can I present basically the same grammar patterns and very similar vocabulary in new and novel ways week after week? I’ve done a series of Dogme lessons over the past two months and left the topic of discussion up to the students. This has gone a long way to providing a sense of “newness” which I think is important for any language class.
But I also think there’s something wrong with continually relying on new language to make a class work. How do we move to fluency practice if we don’t find interesting ways to recycle the content which was used in previous classes? One of my friends likes to use some kind of strange pointer when teaching a class which is full on review. He will carry an apple throughout the class, point to students with the apple, tap the white-board with the apple, and sometimes even toss the apple back and forth with students while engaging them in conversation. Just the apple in the classroom distracts learners enough so they don’t have that “same old same old” feeling. (If you have the time, I hope you might leave some of your making-review-class-fresh-again tips in the comment section or tweet them out at #freshreview.)
After the Dogme lessons, I wanted to do some serious consolidation work, so the other day I walked into my class, passed out pieces of blank paper to the students, and wrote the word, “Hello,” on the board. I waited. A boy in the second row up-talked with a, “Hello?” I nodded and underlined the word hello. Everyone, in unison, said, “Hello,” and we were off.
① How are you?
Then I held up one finger and pointed to Mari-Chan. She actually cocked her head and said, “Two?” Maybe she thought we were going to do some counting exercises. But the boy next to her helped out by whispering, “I’m fine.” So Mary said, “I’m fine.” Which was fine, but not as fine as if she had said how she really felt. Which is what I got from the long string of “sleepy” and “tired” responses that followed. Once everyone seemed in the groove, I pivoted and wrote:
② What’s your favorite movie?
I held up two fingers and pointed to Kusu-Kun, who immediately shot back, “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Which I guess kind of set the tone for the question because after that almost every student answered with a Ghibli flick.
③ Why do you like it?
This time I pointed to Kusu-Kun again and held up two fingers. He said, “Howl’s Moving Castle” again and seemed annoyed that I was asking him the same question twice in a row. Then I held up three fingers. He paused. Started to say something. And then shook his head. So I pointed to Rika-Chan first with two fingers (“Spirited Away”) and then three fingers (“It’s very interesting.”)
We finished running through:
④ What’s your best subject?
⑤ Where do you spend your free time?
⑥ Tell me about your best friend.
before one of the more self-assertive students finally shouted out, “Sensei! Why aren’t you talking?”
I picked up my white-board marker and turned to face the board. I started to write, “I haven’t talked yet during class…” when I noticed something I rarely hear in this class. Nothing. Silence. My back was turned to the class. I was obviously going to be writing for a while, but the students hadn’t started chatting with each other in Japanese. There was only the deep hum of the industrial heaters warming up the room. And in total silence, I finished writing up the instructions, “Why do you think I am not talking today? Please write two reasons.” There’s a list of student’s answers to this question at the bottom of this post. See if you can guess what the students wrote before taking a peek at their answers. And I want to give a big shout out to Y-chan here for asking the question in the first place. I often forget to solicit student feedback to see what the students think is going on in class. And if I didn’t have students who took the time to check-in themselves, I would spend most of class time nodding off on the highway of intuition.
I walked around and peeked at students answers. While peeking, I scrawled “Talk” or “Don’t talk” on the bottom of each student’s paper in thick red marker. Some of them stopped to give me a quizzical look, but that was about all the reaction I got. Then back on the board I wrote “Don’t Talk” next to the six sentences and on the other side of the board I wrote, “Talk.” I drew a nice firm blue arrow from the “don’t talk” to the “talk side” of the board.
Then I dragged Kusu-Kun up to the front of the classroom and positioned him in front of the word “Talk.” I took up my position in front of “Don’t talk.” I held up some fingers. Kusu-Kun answered. Everyone seemed to understand the gist of what was going on. I picked up my kitchen timer and flashed it to the students. I wrote, “3 Minutes,” on the board. I looked at the students and there were some nods. I wrote, “OK, start.” And they did. Half the students walked around flashing finger-questions. Half the students walked around giving verbal answers. While they were practicing I sat and listened. I was just enjoying the fact that the students were so actively engaged before I realized that almost every student speaking was talking in complete sentences. Complete sentences. Complete sentences are the white truffles of my class. I can root around for hours without finding a one. And here they were littered all over the classroom.
Finally, I wrote “EVERYONE TALK for 5 minutes” on the board, held up the kitchen timer and hit the start button. Students, even though they were free to talk, continued to hold up fingers for the questions as they said them. I think these gestures added an element of redundancy which is often missing from classroom speak. And those complete sentences just kept on tumbling out. 5 minutes wasn’t enough time for students to say what they wanted to say. The timer beeped, but the students were talking so loudly, they couldn’t hear it. So I used the extra time to write, “How did it feel when all the students could finally talk during the last 5 minute practice?” on the board. Slowly the students returned to their seats and started composing their answers, some of which are listed at the bottom of this post.
For students to shift from using short term memory to accessing chunks of language from long term memory, they need to practice the language over and over (Ellis, 2001). But in an EFL environment, they’re not going to get that practice outside of the classroom, or at least not very often. Having a wide array of methodologies to draw on is one way we can give our students multiple exposures to the same language without them (or us for that matter) getting bored. When seen in this light, all of the arguments about methodology can seem a little beside the point, especially when dealing with true beginners. The real question is, are the students engaged with the language? Are they using it? Are they invested?
50 minutes of no talking. It was a long 50 minutes for me. Judging by the students’ response, less so for them. When I finally wrote, “See you later,” up on the board as the bell chimed, I felt pretty sure that it had been a useful 50 minutes as well. Because the students reply, “See you later. I gave it my best,” was still ringing off the walls as I walked out the door.
Reasons given by students for why the teacher did not talk in class:
- Talking makes you tired
- You feel sick
- You want us to practice our reading
- You want us to pay more attention
- It’s fun
- You want us to see how much English we understand when reading
- Even without words, you can find a way to say what you want to say
- You are in a bad mood.
- To learn how to read people’s feelings.
What students wrote about how they felt when everyone in the class could finally speak:
- I was happy I could have a normal conversation.
- I felt like speaking is really convenient. I could understand the power of talking.
- I felt so refreshed. It gave me a lot of energy.
- I could answer the questions easily and quickly
- I felt like speaking is really good.
- I felt safe
Ellis, N. C. 2003. ‘Constructions, chunking, and connectionism: The emergence of second language structure’ in C. Doughty and M. H. Long (eds): Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.