Apr 152010
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)

3D Bar Graph Meeting by lumaxart.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.

LuMaxArt Graduation Concept by lumaxart.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.

SpectrumG00107_www.lumaxart.com by lumaxart.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:

How about some nice
Scrapping the lists
Some list alternatives 1

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.

 Posted by at 10:57 am

  9 Responses to “Some list alternatives, part 2”

  1. Dear Vicki, what an important issue: Some utterances are so much more difficult to discuss or give feedback on than others. Doing an analysis of the pragmatics in situ – not always easy! I mean, the trouble is that you’re involved in the exchange, especially if you’re the dogme type. I find I have to overcome my own readiness to accept less than ideal pragmatics, moving those errors up the attention totem pole. The way I’ve learned to work around remaining engaged with the students is to do quite a bit of recording, usually very short tasks, so we can separate the discussion of things that are easy to objectify – contents or clearly “language related” (grammar, lexis) issues – which I generally take notes on – from the “other stuff”. The things that are harder to feedback on are things like adding “or?” to the end of the sentence, or introducing (too many) sentences with “It’s more that…”, or emphatic sentences like “I think that not,” followed up with lively opinions.

  2. Vicki,

    I like the idea of making worksheets based on what learners say rather than textbook-generated lists. I’d never really given it much thought. I suppose in an ideal world, I’d have a PC tablet linked wirelessly to a printer. It’d be interesting to generate worksheets on the go and hit ‘print’and have the sheets ready for the end of class.

  3. Hi Vicki,
    I’ve stumbled into the technique of creating “worksheets” or study notes after the fact as well. Although I have the luxury of just teaching one-on-one lessons, so it’s easy to write down some notes and then copy them to a Google Doc that’s shared between us.

    The other thing that I do on my blog when I teach new bits of language is to couple a phrase with a specific situation in which it can be used. That way the learner gets a sense of the context, the level of discourse, & so on.

    One other thought about the problems associated with phrase lists: I think that both teachers and learners have unreasonable expectations for how quickly one should be able to start using a new word or expression. Of course they can’t use a phrase that hasn’t been properly drilled into memory and has been presented without context.

    But being exposed to a phrase will prepare the learner to be able to recognize it when it pops up in other situations. I think of the initial learning as a “hook” that later experiences can be hung on, eventually reaching a critical mass where the learner feels comfortable manipulating the language to her own ends.

    How much you can depend on this “layering” process really depends on how much exposure your students are getting to the language outside of the classroom. If they’re in an immersed environment, it may be more effective to provide a broader list of language and trust to the learners to fill in the gaps of context. If their exposure is more limited, you need to provide more context yourself.

  4. Wow, the best thing about writing a blog is the fantastic comments people write. Anne, Neil and Aaron, welcome, thank you so much and please forgive my slow reply.

    Anne, I forgot about recording, but it’s probably one of the most powerful feedback tools we have. I invested in a little hand held video camera a while back that’s been worth its weight in gold. Flip cameras have come onto the market now too, that are even more affordable and simple to use. Videoing means a delay because I have to bring the camera back home to dump the files and burn them, and there’s more labour involved of course, but students invariably welcome editted highlights when their pictures are attached.

    I recently listened to a friend who was preparing to give a presentation (native speaker – not student) and at the last minute took the camera along to shoot it. She had four experienced presenters giving her feedback – useful stuff that she appreciated – but she reckoned just watching herself again was actually the most help.

    Re: what to feed back on, you’re right to point out that somethings can be much harder than others. You might be interested in Sabrina’s research findings Anne, because if I remember rightly, she uncovered similar points to the one’s you mention among German speakers. (Will any of your stuff be published, Sabrina?)

  5. Yeah, I’d love that wireless set up too, Neil.
    I invariably have a computer in the room where I’m teaching, but the only screen is large and visible to all. It would be distracting if the students saw all the notes I’m writing when they’re talking. The alternative would be to lug my rather heavy personal laptop into class. I think Karenne Sylvester over at http://kalinago.blogspot.com/
    has a very nifty transportable machine and works very much as you describe. Is that right Karenne?

  6. I agree with all your thoughts on context Aaron, and yes, with one-to-one classes, worksheets are really quick to produce. If your handwriting’s good enough (mine gets worse and worse) you don’t even need to produce a copy. And you can make a personal little book out of it. “My life in English by (student’s name)”

    I used to run training sessions on them in teachers workshops and I’d describe what I did and show examples, and I could see folks thinking ‘it’s all very well for you to do this Vicki, but you write a lot of materials.’ Then I used to show them some of Rick’s a well and I think it gave a lot of folks more confidence about giving them a whirl.

    I’ll try to write a blog on them one day with some examples and perhaps we can all pool ideas. I think seeing concrete examples can help teachers get a handle on a variety of tasks they can use in feedback, and I’m always looking for ways to increase the variety too.

  7. […] You might also want to check out my posts on: How about some nice How about some nice Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives 2 […]

  8. […] You might also want to check out my posts on: How about some nice Some list alternatives 1 Some list alternatives 2 […]

  9. […] For some practical ideas on how to do this, see my posts on: Scrapping the lists Some list alternatives 1 Some list alternatives 2 […]

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