A sample selection of "English Tree" worksheets I've been experimenting on with beginner level adult learners of English...
Have you ever noticed how often "newbie" teachers end up with the "newbie" learners in so many ELT contexts? It has always fascinated me how more established and experienced teachers in some institutions use their leverage to stick to intermediate and higher level classes, leaving the very low levels and beginners to the newest teachers to arrive.
I've been (and am going) through that in my current teaching context, where -- as the "newest" teacher on the block -- I teach some pure beginners and nothing above level 4 in an 8-level system (except for an ESP class).
Personally, it's been great for me. It's been a very long time since I taught beginners of any age, and this has been a sort of rebirth process for me as an ELTer. We often talk about different kinds of teaching methods and materials, but less often about which methods or materials are more or less appropriate for different stages of English language learner.
Anyone who has been following this blog at all would know that two things in particular are currently driving my interest in ELT: unplugged language teaching and innovative materials design.
I've often seen it mentioned that unplugged teaching (or 'Dogme') is generally more effective at middle or higher levels. This appears to be logical when you look at two of the three essential pillars of Dogme: effective learning is conversation driven, and language development is emergent in nature.
Right: so how do you do unplugged gigs with learners who can't really have much at all in the way of conversations, and there is bugger all emerging, because -- well, there's no language "in there" yet, is there???
My experiences with beginners over the past couple of months don't really support those assumptions. Even the rawest of beginners are capable of conversations (though not the sort we generally presume or envisage), and even a couple of tiny pieces of straw can end up leading to a sort of emergent haystack.
And that other "law" of Dogme (materials-light) actually fits beginners admirably well. Most materials don't work all that well with my beginners, because they can't bloody read them yet! In the past, what I thought were beginners were generally speaking literate false-beginners. What I have now are a lot of learners with no formal education in their L1 much less in an L2. When your learners can't read anything at all, in any language, you get a brand new awareness about what "beginner" can encompass...
So these issues, alongside the oft-quoted line that "beginners really benefit from having a coursebook approach" and then my own recent experiences with beginners who can't read much at all yet, have really had me pondering of late.
First of all, I've been thinking a lot about initial speaking and listening skills. If our beginners can read a bit, apparently a coursebook approach will be good for them in terms of getting some basic communicative skills happening. And if they can't read yet, then it is a good time to start, right? I mean, the sooner they can read a bit, the sooner they can comprehend those coursebook pages and use the outstanding, well-researched, tried and true content and examples there to start improving their basic speaking and listening. Right?
My recent experiments with unplugged teaching with beginners has shown that the absence of printed material has resulted in other things happening during classroom time.
Heads are up. Ears are open. Eyes are peeled for contextual clues happening in recast language and supporting physical gestures and the general environment itself to help the learners understand what the hell is going on in this new multiverse of a foreign language.
The lack of a coursebook and printed lesson approach is helping, not hindering, these learners get a basic grip on hearing the language and using all sorts of cues to understand it. They are learning to guess, and learning to use anything from very simple words -- or even just nods or shrugs or waves of the hand -- to respond and participate.
I can't help but think that, in the past, when I was using printed materials with beginners, I may very well have been inadvertently depriving these starters of some of the most essential strategies when it comes to handling a foreign language. Eyes, ears, guesses and gestures.
Not PP:PP:PP (Printed Presentation: Printed Practice: Printed Production)...
I'm not writing off coursebooks here (starting to sound like a tired "necessary" apology here), but I am suggesting that the assumption beginners in particular do better because of them is potentially misguided.
In any case, I am also interested in what I can do in the way of printed materials to facilitate good beginner level classes in terms of providing a good follow up to lessons. Things the learners can take away and refer to, and use the memory of speaking and listening in the classroom to help them start reading and benefitting from printed notes (in their own time).
I've developed a very basic unplugged approach (amongst others) to my beginner level classes that works predominantly with drawing on simple themes and associated items of lexis the beginners have already taken up (however simple, limited, partial or flawed), adding to them, then developing simple (purely oral/aural supplemented with plenty of non-verbal support elements) discussions around them directly dependent on the learners' actual lives, using the whiteboard as a reference point to keep us on track and "record" what and where and how we're going.
Hey, it's hard work at the start. No promises of miracle methods from this part of town, I can assure you!
Patience is required (spades of it, from both teacher and learners). A sense of humour is essential. The ability to pause and provide those extra 3-4 seconds before prompting for a response (and balancing on that high wire between guessing that the learner doesn't understand and needs help or is almost there all on his/her own) is crucial. Encouraging and acknowledging (not to mention correctly interpreting) non-verbal responses is important. Creating a supportive but natural mix of yes/no and information questions with deliberate use of intonation really helps. Beginning with slightly difficult and complex utterances and then attaching a smooth flow of natural-sounding easier/simpler recasts (with liberal use of physical examples and body language) to make the incomprehensible beast become a more approachable tame animal is both a sublime teaching skill and (in my opinion) an all-important method of helping the learners begin to cope with new and potentially complex oral/aural language.
But I have found that it works marvellously well, especially as relationships form and a certain kind of classroom atmosphere emerges.
The theme/words part at the start is relatively easy. It's also often readily accessible to the learners and creates realistic boundaries for the teacher as the lesson emerges.
For example, give the learners the idea of family, shopping, food, school, or even weekend, and it's pretty easy to get a small flow of simple words happening. The words they don't know, they can sometimes show you. Sometimes they can't say a word, but will recognise it and confirm it for you if you say it. Some words become like a spark that sets off a small fireworks display in a sort of lexical set (for example, someone mentions "toma-o" -- which we discover means "tomato", and the next thing you know you have half a whiteboard full of fruit terms).
All of these words get written up on the whiteboard (sometimes with simple illustrations) in a sort of brainstorm mind-map display, emanating out from that central word/theme we decided to go with at the start.
But that's all the writing we'll be doing until the very end of the lesson.
With our word tree established, it's time to get talking...
Who likes tomatoes, then?
Do you buy them at the supermarket or the market?
Is that all you buy? No other fruits?
So just fruit, then?
Who went to the supermarket this week, then?
This week? Monday, Tuesday...
With the family, or just by yourself?
Yep, in my family, we do the supermarket shopping every Tuesday. Do you? Another day?
So which of these foods did we have for breakfast...? Lunch? Dinner? Snack?
Looking over that brief representative sample, it all looks deceptively simple. So much more is happening before, around, and after all of those (what I like to think of as) semi-events in ongoing communicative exchanges.
The first priority is just finding ways to understand what is going on.
The second is to have individual students find ways to understand and respond in some meaningful way.
The third (which -- in the early stages -- is often not achieved) is to reach a stage where students themselves can do more of the questioning.
The fourth is for independent exchanges amongst students, using whatever resources they can draw on to understand and make themselves understood.
Once we've pretty much exhausted a theme and the allocated words (and this is yet another good judgment call on the part of teachers: when do we know students have had enough to (a) have learned effectively and (b) not started to succumb to boredom or confusion?), time for some basic review, and then as a kind of wrap-up, I as the teacher select some simple sentences that have emerged (or could emerge) from the discussion. They could be Q&A style, or basic sentences where a single key information element (usually a noun) can be exchanged for a variety of other items. They only ever represent a small percentage of the language that has actually been used during the lesson, but they are deemed to be the more high percentage and/or comprehensible and/or useful ones.
All of those other words and sentences and questions stay in the general mash that represents our class's ongoing exposure to comprehensible spoken input. Or perhaps I should say: input that will hopefully become more comprehensible and familiar in time?
Students copy out these sentences, and we do some controlled practice with them.
Students go home with a sort of thematic word-tree, and beneath it a small range of sentences that represent a (hopefully) useful sample of what we've covered, sentences that have been practiced in a controlled manner, sentences it might be worth spending some time at home reading aloud and practising.
Those sentences also become fodder for a quick review at the start of the next class, and from one or more of them, we find a new seed to become a new theme for the next application of a similar lesson process.
We could, of course, just do this all in the students' notebooks (and we usually do).
But I've also started doing this in pre-prepared materials format, to create some flavour and some formatted guidance.
Funnily enough, I've found the learners take to the approach more enthusiastically when I provide prepared sheets like this one:
This colour version is what I use in PDF format on the IWB which the whole class can see (the learners use a grayscale photocopied version). The pictures really do help to get things started, and as a teacher I find I do benefit from having most of the space mapped out in a format that is identical to what learners have on paper in front of them.
And I must confess, I find that this approach and this material works so much better than the beginning units I see in so many beginner level coursebooks.
The material is a result of their own initial words, then the words that emerge from those beginning efforts, and then the communicative language that flows on from there. And it really is a basic map, an outline, for a large amount of communication that they concentrate for the most part on understanding and working within.
Another way of putting it: the learners' words and communicative language are not a result of the material. It's the other way around.
And now for a humble apology as I reach the end of this post and look back over it... I'm not really sure what I was trying to say or whether I was trying to prove anything at all. I guess, in hindsight, if there were any major points to be made, they weren't expressed succinctly or approached in a progressive or logical way. For that I extend my apologies!
I'm just trying stuff out. And learning heaps. And thinking.
And then blathering about it on my blog!