Remembering What You Already Know

I’ve got five more days to whip a structural syllabus (for which the word structural is a terrible misnomer) into something I and the other teachers in my school can actually teach.  I have 17 days to get my presentation on informal writing in a TBL structure ready for my first TBLT conference presentation.  It’s 11:00 PM at night and I am working on 11 hours of sleep for the past 2 days.  And I’m gonna blog.  No time limits.  No goals.  Just a story about how my week went and what I think I might be able to do about it.
On Monday I was working with the new International Course students.  We were doing a very short reading (~200 words) about a truck driver named Raj from Singapore.  I was using a technique I had learned from John Fanselow, a kind of pictographic dictation exercise (a dicto-pict?  A picto-dic?).  Students were instructed to listen to a story and replace each word in the story with one image.  The exercise went pretty well.  Once students had finished the pictograph–which only took about five minutes–they then used their picto-dictation to re-tell the story to their partner.  Unfortunately, all the function words seemed to vanish.  “Raj loves to drive his big truck,” was transformed into, “Raj loves drive big truck.”  And perhaps even more disturbing, all traces of tense fell out of the narrative.  “Raj drove his truck yesterday,” became, “Raj drive his truck yesterday.” 
So I did what most normal teachers would do.  I threw my arms in the air and sent an e-mail to the guy who taught me the activity.  And John was good enough to send me an email back, asking me to just take a minute to reread the principles of our program.  So I did.  And that’s when I noticed this sentence in the middle of the first paragraph, “It is our job to help students realize how much they already know about language.”  I sent John an email back thanking him for his time and worked to put together a lesson which would meet the minimum standards of my job as laid out in the above bolded and italicized sentence.
In the next lesson, I also did a short, 200 word story about a crazy student named Sally who had a seriously deranged anxiety dream (she stopped a truck with her head, if you’re interested).  As usual, I started the class by reading the story and asking the students to write down what percent they had understood.  The average ended up coming in at about 68%.  In my experience, 68% usually means that most of the students are feeling pretty frustrated and wondering why I don’t hand out key vocabulary words like the other teachers in school. 
Before I read the story a second time, I gave the students a worksheet in which every word in the story had been replaced by a dot.  Each line of the page looked something like this (if the spacing get’s all internet crazy, just imagine a straight line of dots, please):
・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・
I asked the students to draw a slash between sense groups, which they would be able to recognize by a short pause in the flow of my speech.  The students had done a number of sense group activities in their first year classes and they had very little trouble with this activity.  Now that they had the story broken down into sense groups, I asked them to listen one more time, only this time I wanted them to write the first letter of the first word above the first dot in each sense group.  That ended up producing something like the following (sorry if there’s any crazy internet spacing issues here):
         M                          W                           S            
        ・ ・ ・ ・  / ・ ・ ・ ・ / ・ ・ ・ ・ /
I repeated the process two more times, asking students to write the first letter of each verb in each sense group and then the first letter of each noun above each sense group.  By the third reading, students had produced something like the following:
         M  T                       W   S    G               S   W         
        ・ ・ ・ ・  / ・ ・ ・ ・ / ・ ・ ・ ・ /
I then gave the students five minutes to form groups and reconstitute the story in it’s entirety.  Basically I had run a variation on a staged dictogloss activity.  After the students had reconstituted the story, I asked them again to write down what percentage of the story they had understood.  The average had now jumped to just under 100%.  The students had been reminded of how much they new about language.  They knew what a sense group was.  They knew how to identify parts of speech.  They knew how to listen for specific sounds and information.  They knew how to put together parts of speech into well formed sentences.  So as a final exercise, I asked the students to try the picto-dictation exercise again.  And this time, during the retelling of the story, words were marked for tense and the magically vanishing function words managed to remain right were they needed to be within each sentence.  
I recently wrote my first guest blog post for Barbara Sakamoto’s “Teaching Village.”  I wrote about using short stories within the language classroom.  I also revised the post for an ELT journal.  I was pretty surprised to find out that my idea of skipping any meaning based exercises when first working with a text was controversial.  I’ve been avoiding comprehension exercises for so long, I’ve forgotten that they are a regular part of many classrooms.  The reason I stopped using them was pretty simple.  If you ask a student, “Who is Bob?” and the students says, “He is the character Timothy’s father,” what does that actually do in the way of language development?  And if a learner doesn’t know who Bob is, does telling the student the answer (or having another student give the correct answer) do anything in the way of language development?  I just couldn’t see any positive outcome when it came to comprehension checks.  But I found that if I had the students work with the language in the story from a few different angles, the meaning of the story would emerge.  But something doesn’t emerge from nothing.  And that’s what I had forgotten during my Monday classes, when I suddenly asked my students to interact with a text through a 100% novel activity.  Not only were they struggling to understanding the meaning of the text, they were also trying to understand the meaning of the activity.  Activities are not an obstacle course.  At their best, they are a way to reveal to students what they already know about language.
I have 5 more days to take an antiquated structural syllabus and turn it into a series of teachable lessons.  I’ve got 17 days to polish up my first TBLT presentation.  But tomorrow and tomorrow and the tomorrow after that I have to go into class and help students remember how much they already know about language.  Writing this blog is one of the ways I can do that, by remembering the things I sometimes forget about teaching.  Like the fact that teaching isn’t about providing answers, but about asking questions.  That once the class bell rings, external deadlines have nothing to do with my students.  And that reflective practices aren’t reflective if I only do them when I feel like I have the luxury of time.     

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