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Multi-Tasking lessons #1 – Dictogloss

I’ve touched upon the (wonderful) dictogloss before in my post about lesson structures for teachers here http://simonrichardsonenglish.com/2015/06/08/lesson-structures-for-teachers/ , but how is this a multi-skilled lesson, and how does it help prepare students for “real life English”?

  1. Lesson Procedure

The class starts, as most do, with a discussion that introduces the topic (“Activate schemata” or “Engage”). The teacher then explains that they are going to read a text, while the students just listen. On the second reading, they can make notes and then try to reconstruct the text using their notes and existing knowledge of grammar, collocation and discourse. They can do this in groups or alone. Once the text has been reconstructed to the limit of the students’ abilities, the teacher can provide a model.

It’s a very simple lesson structure!

2. Variations / Tweaks

Here are a few variations that I’ve used / seen used in classes.

  • Listening for types – students are only allowed to note down specific types of word. These could be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or “grammar words” – this means that they are reconstructing specific areas of language
  • Robot Teacher – the teacher can repeat the text multiple times, but the students dictate speed and repetition by using the instructions “Stop”, “Repeat from X”, “Spell X” and “Repeat Slowly from X” – this weights the exercise more in favour of listening and less in favour of grammar / vocabulary knowledge
  • Lecture – students record the teacher reading the first dictogloss, and then put headphones in and assume control of the recording in order to reconstruct. They can do this alone or in groups. Again, this is more focussed on listening, but is also incorporating skills required to attend and digest lectures – very useful for students intending to study at British universities.

3. Integrated skills / multi-tasking

  • Listening and writing – mainly through note-taking, but if students are reconstructing in groups, they may dictate their own work verbatim to other students. Note-taking as a skill is useful for meetings and lectures, but also directly helps preparation for exam listening (IELTS and FCE, for example).
  • Listening and speaking – if you use the robot teacher variation, students have to be able to give instructions while listening, at the correct point in order to successfully facilitate task completion.
  • Learner Training – if using the “lecture” method

Is this the finest example of a multi-tasking lesson? It’s certainly one of the favourites. I’d like to hear from people who use further variations.

 

Simon

 

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Multi-tasking in a foreign language

Note: Students, if you find this article difficult to understand, read the part about exams!

What is linguistic multi-tasking? When do we encounter it? And how is it tackled in the classroom? In this article, I’ll go through the idea of skills and skills teaching in a bit of detail, and look at the challenges involved as well as the areas in which teachers can aim to develop their students.

Skills

In language teaching, when we talk about “skills”, we are referring to four things: Reading, Speaking, Listening and Writing. We can divide these up in to two categories: receptive (from the word “receive”) and productive (from the word “produce”). These words refer to how we are interacting with language. The two receptive skills are reading and listening, because the language comes to our eyes or ears through text or audio, and the two productive skills are speaking and writing, because we produce the language ourselves, either orally or on paper. As language students, we ideally want to improve all four skills to achieve both receptive and productive fluency.

Challenges

When we try to improve a skill, we face a number of problems. The problems could be systematic – this means that with our productive skills, we might struggle with parts of the skill; pronunciation (speaking), spelling (writing) or vocabulary, grammar or discourse (both). These aren’t the only problems though. We might also find it hard to perform the skill itself. Here are some possible problems:

  • Fluency – it’s difficult to speak without stopping regularly.
  • Expression (circumlocution) – I don’t know a word and I can’t explain it
  • Comprehension – there might be too much text / audio, or it might be too fast or advanced in level.
  • Structure / Coherence – it might be difficult to write in paragraphs, or to organise spoken ideas.
  • Recall – It’s difficult to remember what was said / written about, because I’m not very good at taking notes
  • Inference – I find it difficult to use context to guess meanings of difficult words

There are, of course, many others, and teachers should work on helping students acquire the techniques to improve their skills. However, there is another level to this: if each individual skill is difficult, how on earth are we supposed to perform two skills at the same time?!

Multi-tasking

Here are a few examples of times when you need to multi-task.

  1. Conversation – listening (to the other person or people) and speaking (replying, conversing)
  2. Ordering – reading (a menu) and speaking (talking to the waiting staff)
  3. Lectures – listening (to the lecturer) and writing (taking notes)
  4. Research – reading (the material) and writing (again, taking notes)

It’s fair to say that number 1 is the most common, but what links these scenarios? Notice that they all require you to use one receptive and one productive skill at the same time. Generally, we are OK at this in our own language, and can pick this up in a second with correct training and practice. But what happens to our brains when we try to combine two receptive or two productive skills at the same time? Give it a try. Try writing an email while having a conversation. Try reading a book while listening to the radio.

Was that easy? I’m guessing your answer is “no”. It’s pretty simple – if we listen and read at the same time, there is too much information coming to our brains at the same time. Similarly, if we write and speak at the same time, we put pressure on ourselves to produce twice as much language as we usually would in a particular space of time. Granted, some people can do it, but it isn’t a majority, and the percentage of those who can drops significantly in a second or third language.

The Problem with Exams

So, where are these situations in which we are pushed in to combining two receptive or productive skills together? The answer is that, in general, they don’t exist. This is firstly because communication is about direction; we give and receive. If we need to give or receive twice, we just extend the interaction, rather than doing it all at the same time. It’s also about avoidance. We can usually avoid these situations by having a measure of control over our communicative environments (although this often requires classroom training in a second language). Unfortunately, exams take away this control and put us in strange situations, which aren’t always reproduced in real life. I personally think that those parts of exams are therefore not very useful, but whether I like it or not, they exist. Here’s an example which we come across in Cambridge Exams (FCE, CAE, IELTS):

A listening exam with a multiple choice section. The question and the choices account for a lot of text – too much to remember in a short time.

So, in this situation we are being trapped. We don’t have enough time to read and remember all the information in these questions, so we find ourselves reading while listening to the audio. Unsurprisingly, this is difficult!

An Exam Solution

I’ve had a lot of success with focussing students more on note-taking. Not only is this a real-life task (as mentioned before, lectures and meetings both require this), but it helps prevent this situation. Here’s how:

1) Student reads the questions and focusses on their meanings and keywords. They don’t really look at the multiple choice options for more than a couple of seconds (reading).

2) Student listens and takes notes (listening and writing).

3) After the listening, student matches their notes to the multiple choice options (just reading).

At no point is the student completely engaged in reading and listening at the same time. The student can make notes in English or their mother tongue (depending on preference), and they can use shorthand, abbreviations or spider diagrams – all of which can be taught and practised in class.

In the classroom

It is clear, then, that there is more to teaching skills than perhaps we acknowledge. Yes, it’s all well and good to teach a speaking or a listening lesson, but do we teach them in conjunction with each other as preparation for real-life experiences? I’m not suggesting that this would necessarily work with lower-level learners, but as students approach fluency and competency, they need to be challenged with real-life scenarios. Part of this is recognising and implementing strategies to avoid overload by extending conversations to avoid double-receptive or double-productive situations, or by learning to take notes in exams to minimise a clash of tasks. It is also accepting that receptive and productive skills often run parallel, and then receiving training on how to deal with this fact.

In light of this, I’m going to be publishing some ideas for real-life, “multi-skills” classes. If anyone out there has got any resources / ideas on this, I’d love to see them. In the meantime, watch this space.

 

Simon