Language learning is often thought of in terms of individual lessons. Learners come to class to learn a specific language point, such as a grammatical tense or a lexical set. Of course, language learning is a much more complicated process: it is a cognitive challenge whose particulars, such as a tense, span far more than a single lesson. However, regardless of this fact, teachers still deliver lessons based on specific linguistic topics, like a grammatical tense, which is why so much course material comes from a grammar-based syllabus.
As a consequence, this often results in teachers delivering very language-heavy lessons where the materials, such as the coursebook, are the driving force in the room, rather than the learners’ language. Each learner will be at a different stage of language acquisition, and as a result when they communicate they rely on the version of the language they know. For example: one learner might know the Will-Future in English and can use it to talk about future events, whilst another might have not acquired this yet and will rely on the Present Tense and future adverbials, such as later, next year, in the future. This phenomenon is present in the mind of every language learner and is known as Interlanguage: you can read more about it here.
While it is easier to focus on a learner’s interlanguage in smaller classes, with larger groups it is a much more tedious task. In fact, striking a balance between individual attention and open class plenaries is one of the greatest challenges of a language teacher. One way of finding this balance is by taking note of the language learners produce during communicative activities, such as discussions and tasks: this way everyone completes a single task and the teacher listens in to what language the learners are using to express themselves.
Many Initial Teacher Training programmes, such as the CELTA, encourage trainees to make notes about learner language. Many teachers do this, but the inevitable question still remains: What to do with learner produced language? Here are five suggestions…
Often referred to as Delayed Error Correction, this is when the teacher writes down incorrect utterances produced during a communicative activity. The teacher then puts these on the board at a later stage in the lesson, which might be at the end of the activity or it might be at the end of the lesson. The learners are then asked to identify the mistakes and correct the errors. This is a method for providing language feedback on real mistakes while not interrupting the flow of fluency-based activities.
This takes the same approach as above but instead of boarding the language, the teacher collates them on to a worksheet. This worksheet could be given as homework or used in a subsequent lesson. A good thing about this approach is that the worksheets can be re-used at a later date to test whether the learners have remember or forgotten their mistakes.
After using the above two ideas for a while, teachers start to realise that very often learners can easily identify their own mistakes. In which case, what they will probably need is not language feedback but encouragement to explore and play with the language, which in itself will often produce new errors. So, to this end, board the sentences you have collected and ask the learners to find another way of expressing the same idea but in other words. Encourage them to change the structure of the sentence as much as they want, that way it won’t be a simple exercise of finding synonyms. Take the sentence below as an example from an intermediate class:
Original Language: I don’t like coffee
Explored Language: Coffee isn’t my cup of tea
While helping learners to expore their own language mistakes, teachers often realise that there are chunks of language that they would like their learners to produce but they simply cannot. In a recent advanced level class, several members of the group made the same mistake: Yesterday I discussed about the problem with my parents. This is a class of Spanish speakers, in whose language the verb discutir means to argue. This is a simple case of L1 interference: the English word discuss is so close to the word in their mother tongue, they don’t even consider it might be anything different. So, to combat this but without spoonfeeding them the solution, teachers can board sentences containing the target language but gap out another part of the sentence, so that it is still a language exercise. With the example above, I wrote the following on the whiteboard:
Yesterday I had an argument _________ with my parents
They usually realise what their original mistake is, but sometimes it can be a good idea to point it out and make it clear i.e. discutir is not discuss in English.
How many times have you heard your learners say I think and wished they would say something else? Well, look no further than Language Upgrading. This is a simple notion, yet very effective. You take note of simple and repetitive structures and phases learners regularly repeat and write them on the whiteboard. Then, you get the learners to figure out other ways of saying the same thing. You might get them to do this on their own or in groups. Either way, you will need to have a set of answers up your sleeve just in case they can’t produce anything else.
Language Upgrading doesn’t have to be limited to chunks of language and phrases, it can also be used with entire sentences. For example: you board four simple sentences the learners have produced and ask them to find a more complex or ‘fancier’ way of saying the same thing. This way you push their language beyond the simple repetitive structures they use lesson in lesson out.
Do you use any of these techniques? If you do or if you have, leave a comment below and let us know how it went.