From classroom noise to the language of learning

ELTpics, @sandymillin,
Old School Room, Beamish Museum.”
Feb 9, 2012  via Flicker,
Creative Commons Attribution

Over the past few years I’ve noticed that my lower-level students fall into two broad categories: beginners with minimal exposure to English and beginners who have had exposure, but don’t have the study skills or language learning strategies to take input and turn it into intake.  When I use the term input, I am referring to all language to which a learner is exposed, either in or out of class.  Intake, as a term, is a bit more difficult to get a handle on, but here I’m using Kumaravadivelu’s (2006) definition in which intake is a subset of input, “that has been fully or partially processed by learners, and fully or partially assimilated into their developing I[nter] L[anguage system. (p. 28)”

This is all kind of vague, so let me give a concrete example, I have one student, A-kun who attended middle school classes regularly, passed his English exams (although was by no means a stand out student), has a working vocabulary of roughly 300 words and struggles to put together even the most basic sentence when engaging in communicative activities.  I have another student, let’s call her B-chan, who, do to personal issues, was able to attend middle school only sporadically and functions basically at the same level as A-kun.  They are both beginners and both need exposure to basically the same level of English.  But I find that A-kun, regardless of the types of efforts he makes in class, continues to show extremely slow progress when it comes to developing his inter language system.  B-chan shows the kind of sharp gains that is typical of a beginning language student.  Arguably, what I need to do is find out what is hindering A-Kun’s development while continuing to provide opportunities for B-chan to keep studying.  In order to find out what types of learning strategies and study skills A-kun is missing, as well as to help B-chan develop even more comprehensive learning strategies, I’ve come up with the following activities to help me identify students like A-kun and give them the little bit of extra attention they need to become more effective learners:

1. One Word Inference:  Here is an example of a paragraph I’ve used in class:

I lived on a small island near Okinawa for three years.  To go from my own island to the nearest (1番近い) island, I took a small boat with only one sail.  Even though it only had one sail, when the wind was strong, the boat moved very quickly.

Most of the students know all of the words in the paragraph, but they do not know ‘sail’ and might also might not know ‘nearest’.  But I want to keep the activity as focused as possible, so I supply the meaning of ‘nearest.’  I ask the students to read the paragraph and write down what the word ‘sail’ means.  For A-Kun, an unknown is a brick wall in a middle of a text.  He does not pick up the textual clues to infer meaning.  This means that if he doesn’t have a dictionary on hand, the word ‘sail’ is just so many lines on a piece of paper.  Once I know inferring is an issue with A-kun, I can give him a paragraph like the one above twice a week to develop inferring skills.

2. Dictionary race: I give the students a list of 5 sentences, each one containing a high frequency word which I’m pretty sure they do not know.  For example, “My brother was accepted to Tokyo University in April.”  Then I ask them to look up the words in a dictionary and write the sample sentence which most closely resembles the one on their worksheet.  Not all, but many of my students do not know how to use a dictionary.  I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time forcing students who do know how to use a dictionary to sit through a dictionary use lesson.  But in this activity, students who do know how to use a dictionary get exposure to new vocabulary and I can identify the students who need to stay after school for an hour of dictionary use training.

3. Word use report: All my students keep a word list and are required to add 25 high frequency words to the list per week.  But I found that many of my students wrote the words down on the list, studied them and promptly forgot them.  So for the first month or so of class, I started having students keep a tally of the number of times that they came across the words on their list in or out of class during a week.  All they have to do is draw a hash mark next to the word on their list each time they encounter it.  This helps me identify students who haven’t figured out the importance of looking for chances to take note of and reinforce language learned in the classroom.  Students whose word list is littered with hash marks are good to go.  Those who don’t have many (or in some cases any) hash marks get a bit of one-on-on time to practice noticing their developing vocabulary when working with spoken or written texts.

4. Note rewriting time and (very) short tests: if I do a guided discovery activity in class, for example uses of have vs. there is/are, I make sure to give the students a few minutes to rewrite their class notes at the end of the activity.  The next lesson I give a very short test during which time students can use their notes.  I don’t just grade the short test, but compare a student’s answers with their rewritten class notes.  For my students, many of whom have had limited classroom experience, often times they can understand the language point explored in class, but don’t know how to put their knowledge in a form which is useful for later studying.  When I give the test results back, I can go over their answers and their notes and help them notice aspects of the language that they might have understood in class, but failed to write down in their notebook.

5. Free talk using class notes and translation assistance: This is a 10 minute free speaking activity broken down into two sections.  During the activity, students are free to use their lesson notes and each student also has a pad of PostIt Notes.  If they want to say something, but don’t know how, they can write what they want to say in Japanese on the PostIt Note and hand it to me.  I write out a translation in English.  During the first five minutes of the activity, students talk in pairs.  The second five minutes, the students talk as a class.  I write down everything that is said during the class discussion.  During this time I can see if students are trying to use the language that they have been working with in class.  B-chan type students will often use and recycle classroom language.  They also copy their PostIt note translations into their vocabulary notebooks.  A-Kun type students make much less use of their notes and often times hand me PostIt notes with the same phrases two or three times over the course of a week.  When this happens, I can just gently nudge A-Kun to keep the PostIt Notes in his vocabulary notebook and ask him to add the phrases or sentences to his word list.  Over time, A-kun starts to rely more and more on his notes and less and less on me or my co-teacher.

6. Ambiguous Picture activity: this is an activity I got from Penny Ur and Andrew Wright’s Five Minute Activities.  I start by writing up a partial picture of something, say an apple with a bite taken out of it.  Students write down what they think it is in English.  Then I fill in a few more lines of the picture and students once again write down what they think the picture is.  For every step in the picture, they are encouraged to write down one guess.  They are also free to use their dictionaries during this activity.  There are a number of students who will simply not write down a guess unless they are certain what the word is.  This activity helps me identify low risk taking students.  I find students who will not write down a guess are also the students who have a hard time bringing themselves to speak unless they are able to formulate a complete sentence before they talk.  Especially in a class of lower level students, if I have a fair number of low risk takers, I will throw in a few activities to help students practice circumlocutions and augmenting conversation with gestures.

7. 10 loan words: this is an activity to help me gauge if lower-level learner are using their full language resources.  First I have each student think of 10 English loan words in Japanese.  They then form pairs and together, check off any of the words on their lists which they think would be understandable if used as is in an English conversation.  Finally, they consult a dictionary to see which of their guesses were correct.  While there are a number of false friend loan words, or words whose meaning differ significantly in Japanese and English, many of the English loan words can be used in conversation.  This activity not only helps students quickly build up their vocabulary, but also shows them that they know more English than they think they do and provides them with a dash of confidence.

A few years ago I attended a keynote address by Paul Nation in which he identified a teacher’s main jobs.  Teaching language was ranked fifth out of the five things a teacher needed to do, two steps behind, “to train learners in language learning strategies so that they are encouraged to be independent in their learning.”  But to train my students, I often find that I need to start by evaluating if they have the most basic of study skills.  To tell the truth, sometimes, in the middle of a class, I feel like I’m a conductor forever practicing the same one piece of music with my orchestra.  But if that’s how I feel, I imagine it’s probably worse for my students.  For many of them, each class must seem like an hour of tuning up with no chance to truly play a song.  But if I do my job right, if I help students learn how to use a dictionary, take proper class notes, and learn to notice and recycle vocabulary learned in class, then even students like A-Kun can start to develop the skills needed to take the noise of input, and smooth it out enough to become the music of intake.


6 thoughts on “From classroom noise to the language of learning

  1. What a GREAT collection of activities, Kevin. In addition to evaluating where students are, I think it's also a good reminder for teachers about the learning skills and strategies we need to be teaching. Thanks for sharing this. I'll definitely be using these in class 🙂


  2. Thank you Barb for stopping in and leaving a comment. I actually spent an entire year at my school using leveled texts I thought would lead to lots of vocab acquisition before realizing many of my students didn't really know how to use a dictionary. Since then I've tried to be more aware of the fact that not all students have the tools to learn a language in the most effective way. And the longer I teach, the more class time I spend on helping students develop good learning strategies and study habits. But I still find myself stumped as to how to get the right tools in certain students hands/hearts/minds. Thanks for sharing the post on FB and your support of the blog in general.


  3. Brilliant! This is what a TEFL blog post should be like. Spring cleaning of old ideas mixed with refreshing new ideas. Learner autonomy and the development of study skills are also very high on my agenda as a teacher (though I wouldn't push teaching language as far as the 5th place!) and I'll be sure to incorporate some of your ideas into my lessons with lower levels.Leo


  4. Howdy Leo,Thanks for the comment and a dash of inspiration to get blogging again (your last two posts really reminded me what I love about the ELT blogging community). Considering how much of language learning, just by necessity, must take place out of the classroom, helping students develop a sense of autonomy seems like a fundamental part of my job. I know that the best language teachers I have had always seemed to create a space where I could learn to take the next step by myself. But I hear you about teaching language being a bit higher than fifth place. Well, at least it made the top 5. Kevin


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