This is my fourth opportunity to revisit my practice with John in the mentoring role. A great teacher as he is, he knows how to guide us through something and when to let us think for ourselves. He never gives us ready answers but ideas to experiment with. Playfulness is the key word in his training and we learn by doing and reflecting on what we do.
Now, in order to prepare for this course John asked us to write down two activities I have regularly used to teach grammar and vocabulary.
When teachers search for a course to take they are keen to know the goals of the course and what will be done in each session. But I am not able to state the goals of the course nor what will be done in each session because I have not met any of you much less know what you do in your classes or what you hope to change in your classes as a result of participating in my class.
To transform our teaching we need to first understand what we’re actually doing in our classrooms. Before the first class I would like each participant to write down two activities you have regularly used in teaching grammar and vocabulary. (John’s message about the course)
I could say that in the last couple of years my approach to work with language changed a lot. Because of that I’m only contemplating here what comes to mind as being the backbone of my practice lately:
- Learners should have time to understand things by themselves.
- Learners should be able to use the language first and work toward understanding their mistakes/errors with guidance or on their own if they can.
- Learners should practice with models that are meaningful to them.
Do I teach grammar first? I rarely do it nowadays. Even the coursebooks I work with introduce texts (written or spoken) as pretext to teach grammar and vocabulary. However, CBs are very explicit and controlled to what kind of grammar and vocabulary learners ought to use during the lesson whereas when I’m not working with a CB, students respond/react to the texts (writter or spoken) by using English they know or want to know in speaking or writing activities.
The texts are triggers and the aim is to understand the message. Then, when learners do are not able to understand it, we work together to check what the problem was that prevented him/her to understand it. Was it vocabulary or grammar? or something else? I noticed that usually that the problem is learners difficult to put the message together on their own especially if they are poor readers. So it is a matter of not knowing the language or bits of it, but also read it fluently.
If it is vocabulary, learners are encouraged to use dictionaries (bilinguals for lower level learners and monolinguals for higher level learners if they can’t guess from context). Sometimes, it happens to discuss the meaning and give examples according to the student’s need of word knowledge, this can happen in L1 (lower levels) or L2 (higher level learners). If possible, a drawing is also used to illustrate the meaning. Sometimes I also use L1 translation if appropriated.
- Learners work out the message by themselves or using a dictionary;
- Learners ask me to clarify the meaning of a passage and we often do it through a discussion, examples and drawings.
- When suitable, I or another student provides the L1 word.
Images and audiovisual can also be used to support learners in understanding the message.
The way I deal with learners needs and errors is not a very conventional one here. I do not prepare grammar lessons for them, but I create tasks/situations where they will use language they known. Then, we work on language correction and discuss usage. Sometimes we do this on the board and sometimes I use a delayed approach by giving feedback and explanations in their notebooks. With pre-intermediate level learners upwards this seems to be a great way to work, but when it comes to lower level learners it shows that it becomes very frustrating for them to produce something when they are short of words. Therefore, they need models which are interesting and engaging. Games and stories have been a great way to expand vocabulary as well as helping them thinking of language patterns.
In either case, grammar is worked within a context where learners can naturally engage with the text/task, be it using their own words or language provided through a model.
Activity used with 14-years-old as part of the story-based material.
a) Imagine you are walking in a dark empty street and you hear someone shouting, what would you do?
a) I would continue walking.
b) I would shout to the person from the street.
c) I would try to find the person.
Lower level has options to react to the text while higher level can answer and express also their reasons.
Or a drilling-like activity:
Activity used with 11-year-old kids yesterday:
a) Draw a picture of someone in your family.
b) Think of the following information about the person:
Name, age, nationality, city where they live, job, appearance (eyes and hair color), likes and dislikes.
I provided them with models on the board when reviewing what we had seen on previous lessons through video stories instead of talking about grammar. Most what we did with the videos below was with learning vocabulary and understanding the video message. The activity above is to work on writing and speaking by personalizing the information.
Next to the picture, they only wrote the information and on the back we worked on meaning and form. To register how to say it, we wrote on the back of the drawing the sentences. Then, we looked at the words and elicit the sentences to talk about the person without looking at the back.