An earlier post looked at learner language and ways it can be used most effectively in-class as a learning tool. However, for a teacher to use Learner Language as a tool for Language Input, the learners actually need to produce some language. The underlying prerequisite to emergent language is that learners be put in a Communicative Situation, so that they can produce language.
However, getting learners to talk at length about a topic while giving them free reign over what language they choose to use to express themselves is perhaps easier said than done. Not all topics engage all learners, and the ones which do are all often too sensitive or cause divisions, such as politics or religion.
That said, there is one topic which learners are usually willing to talk about at length: the weekend. From the previous post you have 5 ideas for what to do with learner language, so this post will look at a simple classroom activity to get learners communicating and producing some language for you to later feed back on.
How does it work?
Draw on the whiteboard three sets of circles to represent a set of traffic lights. The learners need to know which circles represent which colours, so if you have the right board markers you could colour them in or alternatively write R or red in the first, Y or yellow in the second, and G or green in the third.
The learners need to know that for this activity, green is positive, yellow is mediocre, and red is negative. Here, positive, mediocre and negative refer to the events or emotions from the weekend which were good, so-so or bad.
Tell the learners you are going to tell them about your weekend. Ask them, as they listen to you, to listen out for what was good, what was so-so, and what was bad about your weekend. This not only gives them a reason to listen but will also clearly model how the task is done.
Once you’ve finished talking, ask them to tell their partners what was good, mediocre and bad about your weekend. Once they’ve done that, bring the class back together and check they understood your weekend more or less well.
What do the learners do?
Now it’s their turn! They get to tell their partner what was good, not so good and bad about their weekend. There are a couple things which you, as the teacher and organizer of the activity, will have to consider here:
- Do your learners need time to prepare? Are they of the level where they can dive in and talk about the activity or would that be disastrous?
If your learners are at an intermediate level or above, I would recommend just going straight into the activity with no preparation time. The main reason for this is because this is more reflective of how they would use language in real life – we don’t have any preparation time beyond a second or two of thinking and a few fillers here and there. What’s more, by going straight into it, the learners will have to call on the linguistic resources which they currently have to hand, which means all of the language which is already automated in their interlanguage and all of the language which is still not quite mastered will display itself. That could be very insightful for both the teacher and the learner.
- Is this a one-off warmer activity to the whole lesson or is this the major task of a speaking skills lesson?
Getting the learners to do this once a week at the start of the first lesson of the week might be a nice little way to get their language learning juices flowing. However, if you want to really exploit the activity for all its linguistic value, then they need to spend a significant chunk of the lesson speaking, and not just 3 or 4 minutes. The best way to achieve this is by getting them to change partners every time they have finished the activity. This way they get the opportunity to do the activity several times, speak to several different people, and hopefully improve their performance in the activity each time.
- At what point do you feedback on the language produced?
There are two possible stages where you can give feedback on the language produced. The first is at the end of the task: the learners finish and then you board good language, errors or mistakes, and some language they could have used but didn’t. You can check out this post for more ideas of what to do with learner language.
The other stage is after they have completed the task at least once, possibly twice. You then bring the class back together and you feedback on errors and provide them with some useful language, such as vocabulary, phrases and structures. You then set them the task again, with a different partner, and this time they have the chance to perform the task again while (hopefully) improving their performance based on the feedback you have just given them. In fact, this cycle of task-feedback-task can be completed several times during the lesson if there are enough learners and areas to feedback on.
What does the teacher do?
The whole time the learners are talking, your job is to monitor. Monitoring in this case means not just checking the learners are on task but actually listening in to what they are saying. As you listen, you should be noting down the following:
- Examples of correct language use
Note here the use of the word correct and not good: learners often produce language correctly but receive no feedback on whether what they produced was correct or not. If teachers give any feedback on language that wasn’t a mistake, it is usually on language which is remarkably good or outstanding, but we should be giving feedback on good language use as well. Here you can read more about Positive Reinforcement in Language Learning.
- Examples of language errors
Forgetting the small slips of the tongue, note down a couple examples of where language has simply been produced incorrectly, such as poor tense choice, inappropriate lexis and examples of L1 interference.
- Examples of missing language
Learners often lack a word, phrase or linguistic structure which would make their sentence perfect. As teachers, we can help by identifying these missing pieces, noting them down and then giving them to the learners afterwards.
I hope this task proves to be fruitful in your lesson. If you do try it out, let us know what the results were like. Hopefully it will lead to lots of learner language and lots of language feedback.
Just to note, this idea was inspired by the activity Lightning Talks on page 37 of Luke Medding’s and Scott Thornbury’s book Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching.