Welcome to part two of my scrapping the lists journey (intro here, part one here.) My question here is what about ditching lists of phrases if we’re teaching unplugged, dogme style?
Functional phrase lists look tempting if we want a materials-lite lesson – after all a list is less dense than a text. And students want something to take home, don’t they? But myself, I’ve sworn off functions lists, unless they come with context. It goes back to my previous dilemma:
In the past I’ve dished out lists of functional phrases and told my students to use them. But they don’t, or worse, I find myself wincing because they do use them, but inappropriately.
So I’d rather give students worksheets to take home based on what they’ve said – so there’s context built in.
Like a lot of business English teachers, I spend a lot of class time listening to students talking, making notes, and then trying to draw their attention to other ways they might have said things. I used to work with a great teacher called Rick Baldwin who wrote worksheets on the fly, based on what his students were saying. He’d run to the photocopier at the end of class, and then dish them out to the students for homework that he’d review the next day. We were intrigued and got him to run a workshop to show us what he was up to. I thought it was pretty cool. Over the years I’ve modified his ideas, but they still lie at the heart of how I generally work today. (Thank you, Rick)
So the worksheets are based on the students output. Years ago they were largely about pronunciation, grammar and lexis but over time they’ve become peppered with more discourse related questions along the lines of “Can-you-say-what-you-said-better?” and “Here-are-some-ways-I-might-have-said-it”. And a lot gets repeated across classes. For example, my students often use performative verbs more than native speakers, so I’ll often find myself scheduling some explicit teaching about how native speakers use them – just so they know.
There’s an exception to do with pragmaticky things though. If a student says something a bit weird in social terms, or maybe aggressive, or perhaps politically incorrect (remember I’m teaching in ‘merica now, where folks tend to more sensitive to that) I try to jump in. So I’ll interrupt the flow and ask what went on – on the spot.
And sometimes I wish I hadn’t. But if you leave it till later, a weird phenomena can strike – collective class amnesia. It’s hard for everyone to recall. And I can’t blame them for feigning a bad memory. It’s easy to accept your classmates will make grammar or vocabulary errors, but if they say something socially awkward, it could signal a personality problem.
And often it isn’t a personality thing so much as a cultural thing. But it’s interesting because I suspect we could wipe the floor with our students for dropping third person ‘s’s and their classmates wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But challenge someone about breaking a social rule and it gets tricky. Personally, I try to adopt an on-the-spot and factual approach when I challenge, like it’s a cultural information issue – whether it is or isn’t.
I think I may be blessed with a curious non native speaker advantage working in the US. I get the feeling that I’m allowed to talk about the social customs and rules that I see going on around me like I’m a foreigner with my students, and I suspect my students are more forthcoming as a result. For example, I can’t remember many students telling me that they thought Brits were arrogant or standoffish when I was working in the UK, though quite possibly they did. But since I’ve come here, I’ve had some students confiding that they find Americans superficial. I certainly don’t think American’s are superficial but I can see how it might appear that way if you’re not familiar with how different politeness styles operate. And once things are out on the table, I can present my take on things and hopefully we can make better sense of what’s happening to us here. I think this might be a secret advantage that all non-native speaker teachers share that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. Sometimes it’s – wow – priceless.
But there are some dilemmas for Business English teachers here. To learn new language students need to be exposed to new language – which means via listening or reading. I need present context briefly. All ideas welcome. I know I’m still a long way from having all the answers to all this.
You might also want to check out my posts on:
And for more on pragmatics and sociolinguistics, check out my Learning to speak ‘merican blog which explores how meanings get conveyed (or not) in greater depth, along with issues like politeness and directness.