Go light!

feather (4)Everybody would probably agree that material light or material free lessons often turn out to be the best ones. I don’t know why it is so but I suspect that the feeling of not being pressed by the material one has (decided) to cover in the lesson is what makes this type of teaching so fresh and satisfying for both the teacher and the student. Maybe it feels so fresh to me because I don’t teach unplugged on a daily basis, so it’s a nice tweak to my regular teaching techniques. And my students can obviously sense the freshness too.

I’d say that any material – provided it’s in the centre of the teacher’s attention – can be a hindrance rather than an aid. The material lying there on your desk ready to be used diverts your attention from your students – it makes you constantly think of the timing and it often forces you to interrupt your students in the middle of an exciting, fruitful activity – just because you have another fabulous plan (read: material) up your sleeve.

The truth is that you can design a successful lesson in less than a couple of minutes and all you and your students need is paper and pen. This is something I did earlier this week and I’d like to share my little success here on my blog.

Czech students of all ages and levels generally struggle with determiners. Articles are undoubtedly the most notorious linguistic troublemakers belonging to this group. However, I don’t really panic if my students use them incorrectly because I consider this type of error just a cosmetic imperfection, so to speak (with some exceptions, of course).

However, quantifiers, for example, can be more important for the intelligibility of the message and/or they can completely change the meaning of it if used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a few and few is not trivial. Yet, my students keep messing these two up. For some reason, they also struggle with each (of us/person)every (one of us, person) and all (of us/people/of the people). No matter how many exercises and gap fills we have done and how much extra homework I have assigned, they keep making the same errors.

Earlier this week, I suddenly felt desperate about my Ss’ inability to grasp determiners, so before the lesson, I quickly scribbled the following 10 sentences.

  1. Every Czech person should be able to speak some English.
  2. Few people like poetry.
  3. Most Czechs are fat.
  4. Every student should read a few books a year.
  5. Some people in the class are very talented.
  6. It’s better to have no siblings.
  7. All teenagers should get a little pocket money.
  8. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  9. Each of us can achieve anything in life.
  10. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.

I decided to go really light and although I felt the temptation to give students printed copies, I finally did not type the statements. Instead, I divided the class into A students and B students and I dictated the sentences one by one – the A students recorded all the odd number statements and the B students took down the even number statements. This shortened the writing stage, but at the same time, it made the students concentrate much more than if they just had to look at a handout. An A student then got into a pair with a B student and they shared their statements. Their task was to say if they agree or not and why.

I was surprised how lively the discussion got in a matter of seconds and what great ideas Ss kept coming up with. They were discussing commonplace statements, after all, which I had created in only five minutes. I don’t really know why some conversation activities go well and why some topics are totally uninteresting for my students. After so many years of experience, I can never quite estimate in advance whether Ss will like the topic or not.

Nevertheless, I stopped the chatter after about 15 minutes and we went through all the statements together. Each time, I asked one student to express his/her opinion and the others could react briefly. This was also interesting and more useful language as well as new ideas were generated throughout this stage.

Finally, we focused on the determiners a bit. I got Ss to change the determiners to make sentences that would express their real opinion, e.g. It’s better to have a few/many/some siblings. Some/many Czechs are fat.

I should stress that although the activity was originally designed and tailor made for a group of 18-year-old B1/B2 students, and it was supposed to last up to 10 minutes at the most, I also did it with two lower level classes later on, despite the fact that according to the syllabus, we were not supposed to ‘be doing’ determiners. Obviously, the groups came up with different language outputs, made different errors and expressed different ideas, but the activity worked equally well in all groups.

This brings me to a thought that it’s perfectly possible and pretty easy to design meaningful material light activities/lessons which are adaptable, versatile, recyclable and save the teacher a lot of time and energy. And I believe it’s worth putting some effort into such activities.

Reverse!

Yesterday I stumbled upon a blog post by Willy Cardoso, published on the British Council Teaching English blog. In his post, the author argues that learners’ writings are one of the best raw materials any teacher can have. I totally agree with this, but what really resonated with me was the following tip he shares: “Start a new unit from the last page!” 

How come this had never dawned on me before? Such a simple, clever idea… I’d always believed that the pure version of teaching unplugged needs a lot of courage and experience on the teacher’s part. Also, if the teacher’s hands are tied by the administrators’ restrictions and requirements, experimenting becomes much more difficult. Willy Cardoso’s approach, though, looks less daunting and does not violate any of the following key principles of the Dogme teaching

  • Interactivity: the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves.
  • Engagement: students are most engaged by content they have created themselves
  • Dialogic processes: learning is social and dialogic, where knowledge is co-constructed
  • Scaffolded conversations: learning takes place through conversations, where the learner and teacher co-construct the knowledge and skills
  • Emergence: language and grammar emerge from the learning process. This is seen as distinct from the ‘acquisition’ of language.
  • Affordances: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.
  • Voice: the learner’s voice is given recognition along with the learner’s beliefs and knowledge.
  • Empowerment: students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks.
  • Relevance: materials (e.g. texts, audios and videos) should have relevance for the learners
  • Critical use: teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.


Even if you have to follow a syllabus (because your students are required to become familiar with a certain number of specific grammatical structures/vocabulary/topics/whatever), you can use this approach without failing to fulfil the red tape requirements. Even if you and your colleagues are expected to create a syllabus based on the coursebook you use throughout the course, you can teach dogme-ish and still be sure that the administrators won’t find anything wrong with your suspiciously-looking methods. 

Now I’d like to ask myself a question: How can I go about it in my teaching context? I’m looking at the coursebook I use with my pre-intermediate students. Unit 1 covers the following 1) topics: personality, teenage challenges, music, hobbies, 2) language items: present simple vs. present continuous, verb patterns (verb + infinitive/-ing form), 3) functions: exchanging opinions (about hobbies, likes/dislikes), and finally, 4) a writing task: a personal profile. 
So, let’s say that I’ll ask my Ss to write a personal profile first. I’ll see what my Ss already know and what areas they find problematic. Some of the problematic areas will probably overlap with the content of the current unit, so I’ll make sure they will gradually be covered in detail. For instance, it’s likely that I’ll find out that my Ss don’t need to practise present simple because they can use it confidently. Maybe they only struggle with some specific aspects; they, for example, err when making questions and/or they keep forgetting to add an -s with the third person singular verb. So I will focus on this a bit. Based on my experience, Czech learners can form the present continuous, but they tend to overuse it, so I might want to include some extra practice if necessary. In other words, I’ll work on emergent problems plus I’ll feed Ss the language items that pop up along the way. 
The truth is, however, that some language structures will have to be forced on Ss. For example, there is a list of about 30 verbs in Unit 1 whose patterns Ss need to be able to use at some point. It’s unlikely that all those patterns will emerge naturally as we speak about personality traits, hobbies, etc. What could I do then? I could obviously use the texts from the coursebook or I can create my own personal profile and deliberately include all those verbs my Ss need to acquire. The latter approach will undoubtedly be far more natural and relevant, as well as more interactive and dialogic. 
All in all, I’m convinced that this selective approach will give me more time to cover things which are engaging – those things which I feel I have little time for. However, I believe there’s no need to avoid the textbook completely. In the first unit there are nice texts which I know my students love to work on, such as a personality quiz or an article called What does your musical taste say about you? But again, I’ll already know how much time to spend on these sections. I will be able to get rid of the redundant stuff which I now feel obliged to go through, no matter how much of it my Ss actually know already. Having said that, I will finally end up with more time on my hands, which I could use more effectively. 
I think it might be a good idea to apply a cyclic approach here – to start with the last page of the unit, work on the emergent language/problematic areas and then come back to the last page again and get Ss to write an upgraded version of the same written assignment. It might be very interesting to compare both versions and see all the progress Ss have made since the starting point. Now that I think about it, it seems I’m up to a little experiment …