You can’t learn if you’re not awake

Summer vacation is about three weeks away.  My students are starting to feel that tug of freedom.  I can see it in the way they glance out the window more often lately, the way they bounce into the classroom, more energetically, but a few seconds later each day.  And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little less focused myself.  But I feel these last few weeks before the break are crucial.  If the students just sort of fade off into vacation, it will be that much harder for them to bring themselves to do their summer assignments.  And what little English they are exposed to and take note of now, will certainly get baked out of them as they play around at Universal Studios Japan in the August sun.   
So I’ve been using a few new activities in both my listening and reading classes lately.  These activities aren’t novel or even that much different from what we’ve been doing for most of the year.  In fact, I think a big shift in class structure right now would give the kids just the excuse they are looking for to mentally cut out early for vacation.  So here are a few of the small changes I’m trying out to keep the students engaged during reading exercises: 
Instead of handing out a plain text to students, I’ve been making use of a mirror font so the text reads the way it would if held up to a mirror (sorry if that was the most superfluous explanation ever).  The first time I passed out a mirror-fonted text, a few students shouted out things like, “I can’t read this!”, “This is impossible!”, and “This isn’t even English.”  But after I read the passage out loud while students read along, their brains adjusted and they were able to read it on their own.  Still, by playing with the semantic visual patterning, students had to work a little harder and it made the actual task (a summary activity) a little more challenging.  All in all, there was a precipitous drop in window gazing. 
I’ve written about it before, but I’m not at all convinced about the benefits of comprehension check questions.  So I’m always trying out activities which I think might get students interacting with a text and also let’s me gauge their comprehension of the text as well.  Lately I’ve tried replacing key words in every few sentences of a text with words that clearly don’t fit.  So a story about a pilot might end up having the word ‘flying’ replaced with ‘dancing’.   One of the reasons I like this activity is that it can work with both bottom-up and top-down skills.  Students can scan the passage from beginning to end and then look for words that don’t seem to fit within their mental model of how the entire text should read.  But they can also come at it from the sentence level, for example by looking for mismatches between verbs and direct objects.  And even better, this activity can be done in small groups as well, which can help provide the scaffolding needed for the lower level students to better comprehend the text.  Of course this activity requires a lot of typing on the part of the teacher if they are using a course book.   But I find that the to ability occasionally slip in a truly bizarre substitute, such as “child” for “chicken”, “bubbly” for “dangerous”, or the  name of the school principle for a minor character will usually get a few laughs and makes it worth the effort. 
Instead of changing words in the text, you can also insert extra words.  Not only is it another way to make reading a little more challenging, but during the first few read-throughs, if students can identify a majority of the unnecessary words it serves as a pretty fair barometer that the level of the text is appropriate for the students.  And if students are able to provide a simple reason in either their L1 or the L2 as to why the word doesn’t belong, it’s a fair bet that they had a pretty high level of comprehension around what they read.
Last Thursday I walked into class and all of the windows were wide open.   A warm wind was blowing into the room.  One of the third year students had his head on the desk in front of him.  He was asleep, a half eaten lunch box in front of him and chopsticks still held loosely in his right hand.  I felt a little pang of jealousy.  You know, I’m sure there’s all kinds of ways to keep students awake in class.  But for me, I find that raising the difficulty of routine activities, adding a small twist to basic tasks, is often enough.  And the fact that these obstacles result in a higher level of awareness and a greater depth of processing might also lead to a host of other benefits such as greater vocabulary acquisition and higher chance of reordering of interlanguage.  But maybe that’s claiming a bit too much.  After all, at this point, it’s really just about making sure that the students are there, conscious in the class with me.  And I’m willing to bet you an ice-cold lemonade that if the that sleeping third year student had been trying to eat with his left hand instead of his right, he would have been wide awake when I walked into class the other day.
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7 thoughts on “You can’t learn if you’re not awake

  1. These sound really good ideas for focusing on bottom up skills- and I think you're right that it would be top down as well as students consider if the substituted word fits in with their schema. It reminds me of something I used to do with my kids, where I would read to them and substitute the odd word with something silly for them to correct me.I suspect there may well be even more mileage in investigating how early literacy is taught and thinking how to apply to ELT. Phonics anyone?!

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  2. Hey Rachel,You know I was trying to figure out if the replacement activity came from somewhere when I was writing up this blog post, because when I started using it in class, it seemed so darned familiar, but I couldn't pin down where I had run into it before. But that was it! I used to do it with my daughter when reading to her at night. I was worried she wasn't able to follow the stories in English and I was trying to check her understanding with a few nonsense words here and there. And I think you might be very right about early literacy teaching and its usefulness for ELT. Gonna get on that.Kevin

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  3. Ohhhh, very scary stuff. Just checked out some early literacy materials. Turns out the activities I'm running in my listening classes lately, the activities which I was planning to put into my next blog post, are very similar to some of the stuff recommended by CELL (Center for Early Literacy Learning). Gonna keep digging. Looks very promising.

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  4. Hello Clive and thanks for the excellent advice. Just getting the students up and moving once in a while during classes will definitely cut down on the sleeping. And extra oxygen…I think we can all use a little extra oxygen for our brains at times.Thank you for stopping in and hope you visit again.Kevin

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