The ELT blogosphere is a grand thing in so many ways.
I rediscovered this for the upteenth time recently when two topics sort of coalesced, these being the interview I did with Tara Benwell about Ideas and Creativity (and, in particular, the notion that good creative ideas never really vanish and return to you when the current is in the right place) and Jeremy Harmer's recent post about CLIL.
Together, these posts reminded me of a special technique I experimented with at some length with multiple groups of learners in a CLIL program almost ten years ago. As I mentioned in the comments for Jeremy's post, one of the things I found in a content-based program for children was that reading, listening, vocabulary and fluency skills really flourished, whereas overt grammar awareness and accuracy appeared to fall a bit by the wayside. This didn't bother me all that much as the teacher, but in the context I was in it was a huge issue -- given that the learners were subject to all sorts of school tests that really emphasised grammar ability.
I didn't want to sit on my hands over the issue -- our students clearly needed more grammatical accuracy. But I also didn't want to impale out content-based program with hours of dry, boring, textbook-based grammar practice. I was also madly creative and experimental at the time...
What I came up with was a supplementary approach called Wizard English.
This was basically a series of levels and worksheets that featured grammar work, but with some definite twists and a couple of things quite out of the box (at the time). The most daring thing about it, I suppose, was that the approach featured almost no grammar rules or overt explanations at all.
I came up with a series of activity/task types based on notions of "magic" and casting spells, and a level system whereby a new task type was progressively added as the learners progressed. It ended up looking something like this:
Level 0 started with two of the easier task-types (A and B). Level 1 repeated them (with new content of course) and added a third (C). And so the system progressed.
Here is a quick snapshot of what some of the worksheets in the system looked like:
As I mentioned, the task-types were built around playful notions of "magic", with each type having its own special logo and a whacky wizard professor "host" (Harry Potter was oh so in at the time, let me tell you!).
These task-types (some of them shown above) were:
Vocabulary identification or spelling
B. Potions (I):
Choose correct missing word in sentence
C. Potions (II):
Find incorrect word in the sentence
D. Potions (III):
Unscramble sentences into correct sequence
Reading passage plus comprehension questions
F. Transfiguration (I):
Change one part of sentences to create new function
G. Transfiguration (II):
Change two parts of sentences to create two new functions
Write a story or text
Memorise 5-10 sentences and write them out precisely from memory
Create 10 quiz questions for classmates to try
Create a series of magical spells for a spell book
Gather together for a wizard’s party to orally share/perform spells from the compilation stage.
Basically, to go on to the next stage in the level (and next worksheet), the process was simple:
No moving on/going up until you get every question on the worksheet correct.
Hints, yes. Overt help or explanations, no.
Until your answers are all correct, take it home and try again. Once they're all correct (no matter how many tries it takes), you can go on to the next worksheet in the level, and once all the tasks for that level are complete, you can go up to the next level (where a new task-type would be lopped on to the existing ones).
The worksheets weren't decontextualised (all the questions on a paper referred to a specific scene or situation which in turn threaded on -- storyline fashion -- from the previous tasks in the same level).
Despite what might sound like draconian measures/approach based on the explanation above, my learners in grades 1-5 absolutely loved this system.
They couldn't get enough of it. The novel approach and presentation seemed to fuse with the challenge involved. There was, I guess, something of a game and tournament feel to it all. They all just went for it, their enthusiasm never flagging. They wanted to take this stuff home to try five days a week, week after week.
I can't say they got really good at giving detailed explanations and analyses concerning explicit grammar rules. What I can say is that they got ferociously good at guessing and choosing correct forms and patterns based on instinct (which was precisely my goal with these materials and approach).
I can also say that they were really interested and engaged with it, which (even if we like to poke and prod at the notion of "grammar for the sake of it") I've always felt is the holy grail of any learning process.
AND they were quite happy to do it all for homework!
Kids wanting more English homework... who would've thought it?
But that also meant I still had plenty of class time to concentrate on the fun content-based program, which was another thing I'd hoped to achieve.
Unfortunately, it turned out that a lot of the illustrations I used for these materials (which I sourced from our school's main computer) had been scanned from a series by OUP and clipped into files to use for other materials the school wanted to produce.
I didn't feel too guilty (I hadn't attempted to sell or disseminate the material, and our learners were buying the books in that series anyway), but as soon as I realised I had worksheets with images lifted from a major publisher's series, I dumped the whole initative. Too much work to go back and fix it all (and without the visual context, many of the worksheets would have become unacceptably decontextualised).
"I'll go back and give the idea another shot later, using legally-sourced pics," I thought.
Ten years later, thanks to an interview with Tara and a post on CLIL from Jeremy Harmer, I'm actually considering giving the idea a second round of thought and experimentation...
What do you make of the "Wizard English" concept?