Sabrina De Vita, an ever-thoughtful teacher from Buenos Aires, Argentina, recently blogged a post titled Heeeeeeeelp!, in which she asked her PLN to add to her awareness about teaching unplugged by explaining how reading and listening skills could be drawn on "dogmeicly".
Sabrina DMed me with a specific request to share some ideas, and I thought it was worthy enough of a dedicated blog post. So this one's for you, Sabrina!
It is true that an unplugged approach naturally tends (or seems) to make the most of speaking and writing skills in particular. But to that I would say nothing is truly spoken that isn't listened to, and likewise nothing is genuinely written if it isn't read by somebody...
So that makes an important starting point for reading and listening, in my mind. What our students (and us, as teachers) are talking and writing about is naturally creating dynamic listening and reading material -- if we make the most of it and ensure there are activities in our class that target, from time to time, what was output so that it becomes input and is harnessed in ways to build genuine listening and reading skills.
The obvious criticism or concern -- yes, I know -- is that, being student generated, and quite possibly "error-prone", this might not be the ideal listening and writing input to use a lot of the time in our classes.
I have mixed feelings about that in a lot of ways, but for now what I would say is that this input makes an ideal foundation for reading and listening material. If we treat it as emergent language, capture it, edit and improve it, then deliver it in a slightly new or adapted form, we can "have our cake and eat it" to some extent -- as in, the learners themselves can be providing our reading and listening content, which we then edit and adapt (possibly with the participation of the class itself) to come up with input that is sufficiently accurate and challenging for the purposes of building receptive skills.
Let me put that all more simply:
- Our learners discuss an issue or give an oral report. We capture that somehow (by recording it or having students write it down), take it away and adapt/improve it, then use that it as either a dialogue or listening passage. We add appropriate listening comprehension questions to build the learners' skills in this area, and/or (in more advanced unplugged classes) make composition of comprehension questions one of the tasks of the learner-authors themselves -- again, with our involvement to make it sufficiently accurate and challenging.
- Our learners have written something. We edit and adapt it to create reading passages or listening passages, ensuring accuracy and sufficient challenge and skill-building as described above.
Obviously (and especially in large classes), we can't have every student's oral or written production become the basis of targeted whole classroom reading and listening activities all the time (though we can of course make any/all of it ongoing reading and listening material as a natural consequence of doing speaking and writing in the classroom). So we can be selective with it in various ways. Some content will feel more relevant to more of the classroom than others, but probably the most effective method is to selectively rotate the turn for different students' work to become the targeted input for receptive skills from one class to the next. This is a good way to create a rhythm for our reading and listening material that incorporates both variety and whole class participation over a series of lessons.
For the listening material generated this way, we might ask students in groups to rehearse the adapted scripts we've made for them, and then deliver it to the class as a performance (either live or pre-recorded). This highlights the blurry rods connecting listening and speaking skills, and makes the most of yet another opportunity to have the learners participating in our classroom.
Are you going to get all huffy at me now because this results in material not delivered by fully proficient speakers (I won't go so far as to say "native speakers", though I'm sure many others will, for a host of reasons)?
Well, you could be delivering it to the class, on your own (if it is a monologue), with a student (perhaps the original author?), or with another teacher at the school. Goodness, with the way PLNs and collaboration are developing on Twitter, I daresay you could even find colleagues on the other side of the world willing to help you record some of these scripts... Again, this can be done live in class or pre-recorded in advance.
But wait -- we're not limited to just the sorts of processes outlined above for generating our reading and listening material dogmeicly. No, not by any means!
We can have learners search about on their own in newspapers or online to find texts that intrinsically interest them, then bring them into class. I described this recently in the My week with Marilyn post, and also described/demonstrated it as part of an overall unplugged approach to integrated skills in my post The learner's notebook as coursebook. We can also direct our learners to a number of video and podcast-style resources on the Internet to create a rich variety of learner-selected listening materials.
The next hurdle that leaps up here, however, is the issue of "level appropriate material"...
Personally, I've generally found that student-selected content tends to gravitate around interest rather than overall accessibility at a linguistic level. In other words, when the students are interested enough in a topic, the level often doesn't play a massive role in whether they're willing to try and engage with it. That said, we don't want to risk a situation whereby our learners jump on material because it looks interesting, only to get smothered by having too many new words or grammatical concepts to learn.
For reading, I've found it possible to re-write texts that learners have chosen so that they are more accessible, even "on the spot" on the whiteboard. It can also be taken away and re-written on paper for a follow-up lesson.
But an even more effective method -- in my opinion -- is to use something like the "live reading" process I described in the recent The live reading lesson followed up with some word swimming and Going, going, gone (in!) posts on this blog. In essence, the live reading approach epitomises "good dogme", in that it emerges from conversation that is negotiated directly with the learners right there in the classroom. And aside from creating ongoing comprehension and interest (even investment), the live reading text provides excellent flexibility for a teacher to generate a rich variety of reading texts that are at, or just slightly beyond, the learners' current reading level.
For level-appropriate listening material, we can adapt our reading texts generated through some of the processes just mentioned so that they become listening passages. But we can also encourage our learners to choose listening material at a variety of levels with high-interest value content and themes from such excellent sites as Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab, Sean Banville's Breaking News English, or the outstanding ESOL Courses site. There is also English Central, which creates a superb blend of listening and speaking practice in application to a range of high interest topics.
Right, so even if we can generate level-appropriate material, or have students find and select materials to bring in, how can we be sure they are actually developing the right sorts of comprehension skills with it?
This, to me, comes down to basic teaching skills, including the ability to recognise opportunities to apply a variety of different reading and listening skills, for example:
- Finding main ideas
- Finding details
- Guessing purpose and audience
- Comparing and contrasting
- Paraphrasing and summarising
- Making inferences
And the list goes on.
Many teachers out there have generally relied on their coursebooks to deliver these sorts of comprehension questions, and usually in a multiple choice format that allows learners to guess the answer even when they are potentially clueless. It is a potent recipe for allowing both teacher and learners to slip into "auto" mode in so many classes...
The aspiring unplugged teacher needs to develop the ability to apply these comprehension checks on the spot (or prepared in the staffroom between lesson days), as opportunities and purposes for using them emerge from a text or recording. They ought also -- in my opinion -- consider the benefits of making such checking and discussion of texts fully oral and open-ended, rather than pre-scripted, written and over-scaffolded with the multiple-choice options to choose from.
In other words, during or following reading and listening passages, just ask students questions as they pop up, and have them attempt to answer orally.
If we're going to test comprehension through written responses, I think they should actually be responses. As in (for example), a summary followed by some personal opinions or questions about the content, which is then shared with classmates, groups, or the whole class.
And once we've sufficiently showcased and applied a range of central reading and listening skills with the learners, they should of course be encouraged to start taking over at least part of this responsibility themselves: students creating skills-based questions for each other, and even for themselves.
So in essence (and admittedly only touching the tip of a potential iceberg on this subject in an over-long blog post), I think the opportunities for unplugged reading and listening material are not only extensive, they are also in many ways much more interesting and motivating than the fare often served up in coursebooks.
Don't let the idea of reading and listening content and skills prevent you from considering the viability of unplugged language teaching in your classroom... They're there, and they're quite powerful.